Battling Pandemics: Future of Higher Education


The unsuspecting invisible exterminator – Novel Corona Virus (COVID – 19) has severely impacted landscape and the entire ecosystem of Higher Education in India.

Most nations all over the world had to abruptly halt functioning of higher education institutions to contain the spread of the pandemic, especially at a time when they were about to complete the last minute rigmarole of teaching, assessments, enrollments, research activities and preparation of new academic calendar. This affected millions of existing learners and the new ones who had plans to pursue higher studies in the next academic year. Lock Down 2.0 further complicated the matter in India, even though institutions are trying their best to mitigate the impact of the lockdown by adopting remote learning tools. The lens with which they need to prepare strategies for the future will essentially hover around the following five areas:

  1. Remote learning will become an integral part of curriculum: We live in a world which is constantly changing and the need to perpetually remain connected with students has become vital. Traditional pedagogical tools have already started decelerating the timely adoption of skills necessary to keep pace with the changing demands of our world. As many institutions were compelled to make use of remote learning due to lock down, they have realized its importance to reach out, and provide curriculums that are flexible, can be accessed anywhere and have no time constraint. As a result, this necessity to rely on MOOCs learning options will have to be enhanced in the days to come, and will become an integral part of curriculum offered by the teaching fraternity.
  2. Use of AI for pedagogical advantages: Artificial intelligence (AI) has a major influence on education as it has the potential to empower members of faculty and learners alike. It can even impact competitiveness of educational institutions. Founder of EdTech unicorn Squirrel says that “Using AI, in three hours they understand students better than the three years spent by the best teachers”. Such is the power of AI in education.

    Professor Ashok Goel of Georgia Tech is well known for the use of Artificial Intelligence to respond to queries raised by students’ in his online Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence (KBAI) class. Known as Jill Watson, Professor Goel’s AI Teaching Assistant was based on the technology developed at IBM’s Watson platform. Goel developed Jill to handle the large number of posts from his students with doubts for a course in Computer Science for Master of Science. Not just engineering colleges, AI Business Schools will also become a reality all over the world and revolutionize the entire ecosystem of such institutions. Higher education institutions will soon have to be curious and open to adoption of AI, be ready for its impact and ability to alter the entire pedagogy.

  3. Experiential learning through VR: Closing the employability gap is one of the big tasks of Deloitte and for them skills such as communication, creativity, leadership, and critical thinking will become more important than ever. Further, students attend classes now not just for knowledge, but experience too. As education remains the main edifice for a thriving world, experiential learning has become crucial for effective transfer of knowledge. Virtual & Augmented Reality (VR & AR) technology for deep and immersive learning will naturally become the next step for higher education institutions too. One of the first uses of VR in higher education is using the technology to improve students’ soft skills. VR is a great tool for training these skills, as a large percentage of people have speech anxiety – practicing in VR provides a safe environment that allows you to desensitize from a real-life audience. HE institutions will have to work in this direction to stay ahead of the curve.
  4. Virtual processes: Admission processes, teaching mode, internships and final placements will change in days to come. While admission teams will embrace online outreach to prospective candidates, MOOCs will democratize higher education, and make traditional orientation programmes redundant. Similarly, time and space will no longer be the constraints for internships which are an integral component of holistic learning in higher education institutions. WFH (Work from Home) format of internship will dramatically increase the capacity for an organization to support internships, they will also have all the advantages for flexibility and creativity. Virtual internships will extremely diversify and create immense opportunities for innovative solutions in social media and content writing.
  5. Democratization of accessibility: Viruses will keep coming back in the future with different strands and it would always take some time before an effective vaccination is discovered. Mankind has survived these pandemics in the past and will continue to survive in the future too. However, they will always lead us to move closer to study from home. A clear trend will emerge when Chinese students wouldn’t like to go to the US for higher education and Indian students stay back in India to pursue further studies. Higher education institutions will now have to invest heavily in creating digital infrastructure which help them to democratize education, and improve its accessibility.

COVID-19 has created disruptions in the world, and one day we will triumph over the deadly disease. It gives an opportunity for global leaders of higher education to pause a while with resilience, hope and compassion and lead the transition from a different perspective as the future will remain uncertain even if the COVID-19 has been successfully dealt with and completely dissipated. These are unprecedented times and need a different perspective to deal with pandemics, or for that matter any type of ecological disruptions in the future.