02 Oct 2017 19:36 IST

Universities of the future: technology isn’t the only story

Social impact centres can help universities co-create and find solutions to difficult local problems

A healthy debate continues to rage on the future of higher education. With 3.7 billion people now online , technology and online learning are viewed as the most obvious disruptive factors to the existing university model. Certainly, technology trends such as the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs), tech-enabled adaptive learning systems, and ‘micro-credentials’ will drive fundamental change in higher education, but the story isn’t just about technology. It will also be about purpose learning, social impact centres, community partnerships and spaces for problem-solving outside the classroom, that will become key tenets to the university of the future.

When the students of Stanford d.school came together to imagine a ‘future University’ as part of the Stanford2025 project, they identified ‘purpose learning’ as a key theme. Purpose learning envisions a future where students would declare “missions”, not just majors. Having a mission, coupled with a discipline, would give students the opportunity to pursue meaning and impact through their studies and projects. “I’m a biology major” would be replaced by “I’m learning Human Biology to eliminate world hunger.” Or perhaps “I’m learning Computer Science and Political Science to provide alternatives to citizens engaging with their governments.”

To support purpose learning, the students at Stanford envisage that faculty and students will jointly tackle global challenges through immersion in social impact centres in universities all over the the world.

Supporting ‘purpose learning’

This idea is actually not so far away. You will already find social impact centres in many of the world’s top universities. Sometimes, they are known by a variety of names — a centre for social impact, a programme on social entrepreneurship, or a social innovation initiative. Yet, regardless of the name or structure, such university-based social impact centres have great potential to help students approach complex problems outside the classroom. They can also help universities apply their resources more effectively in addressing society’s biggest challenges.

In India, university students need not travel across the world to work on difficult social and environmental challenges; they can start in communities where they live. With well-designed community partnerships, social impact centres can help universities co-create and find solutions to difficult local problems.

Universities have much to offer local communities in:

~ framing local problems to communities in a global context

~ building the problem-solving capacity of community leaders

~ connecting the students with local, resource-strapped social organisations

Further, this collaboration is a mutually-beneficial proposal. Universities can benefit through:

~ improved social science research by closing the gap between theory and practice. Academic researchers can better test their theories with strong partnerships and data collection with community leaders on the ground.

~ improved student satisfaction and outcomes in leadership and skill development. With better community partnerships, university students can get out of the classroom more and apply their learnings. In the local community, they will develop practical, problem-solving and civic leadership skills.

To realise these opportunities, though, university incentives need to be revised. It starts by encouraging more direct academic inquiry into unsolved problems in local communities. The quality of academic research should not be solely determined by other academics in narrow and specialised disciplines.

While measuring the societal impact of research can be difficult, progress can only happen with better academia-community engagement. Another opportunity is through well-designed global collaborations. Here students and faculty can access the best ideas from around the world and make use of them to address local problems alongside community partners. Universities from other countries have much to learn from India and the best ideas can also be shared through such global collaborations.

Pioneering Universities

Launched in 2008, AshokaU has been helping universities “become global drivers of social change by transforming the educational experience into a world-changing experience”. To date, 45 universities have received the Changemaker Campus designation. The designation recognises universities that collectively work to make social innovation and community change-making the new norm in higher education.

Universities in Africa and South Asia, with the world’s largest youth populations, have much at stake in this future. They also have the invaluable opportunity to not be bogged down by static legacy structures, and can design new universities to meet 21st century challenges. If done well, universities can help these countries capitalise on their demographic dividends and build fast-growing, prosperous economies. However, done poorly, they risk becoming stagnant or increasingly irrelevant institutions in the future.

Technology is creating a more decentralised, networked, and open world. Universities will need to adapt to these changes. But this is not just about technology updates or adopting the latest education technology; universities that become more inclusive and engaged in both global and local problem-solving will thrive. It will be these Universities that will play a leading role in driving economic and societal progress and prosperity in the years to come.