Back in 2004, while I was working on developing content for the Florida Virtual School, I used to wonder that the place I was going to do my masters from, would be the perfect amalgamation of a virtual school and a physical university. Back then, for online classes, our text materials would come through a box full of physical books and a mail full of website links. Interaction was primarily through a “Blackboard” message board where you would say ‘ Hi John’ to start a conversation with your course administrator.
Four or five years later, this entire process was replaced by e-learning systems. Now, you had virtual teachers in interactive classrooms and flash based simulations, guiding you through modules starting from factory shop-floor management to complex clinical trials. One of the vibes that permeated the thinking among leading elearning companies was that this method of education was all set to replace the normal physical classroom based training.
We have come a long way since then. Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), an experiment that was started off by Khan Academy and then took off with Coursera and Edx have now made online certified learning one of the easiest things to pursue. You log onto your course, jump across classrooms, navigate digital hallways to mix with your peers and at the end walk out with a flying certificate.
But even in the world of MOOCs, the universities are still thriving as the proverbial centers of learning. So, the idea that online learning was all set to replace classroom education has not really happened. Instead a hybrid model has taken over – blended learning. This is a mix of online and offline learning, where you attend your class, get taught by a teacher (a physical one with all requisite human emotions and not a virtual one who looked like your kindergarten teacher) and all the examinations are conducted online.
The idea of a Digital University somehow managed to put to rest the debates surrounding the replacement of physical with virtual universities. A Digital University is where you attend classes like any other, take notes while the lectures are on and come back to your dorm room as usual. Only, a lot of your interactions with the university happen in the virtual world.
A comprehensive University Management System (UMS) runs a Digital University, where the entire administrative life-cycle from admissions to results are managed virtually from computer terminals. The entire university staff is connected via a massive social network, fees are paid online and receipts are delivered right to the mailbox of the student. The examinations are managed through a Learning Management System which hosts virtual content that the students can access and go through and then sit for assessments. Textbooks and notes are distributed through an e-book distribution system that is made available to the students right in the beginning of a semester.
The interest in building up. The concept of Digital Universities in India has now permeated both the academia and the corporate. One of the classic cases has been a corporate house called Manipal Digital Systems which is working closely with the academia on digital transformation of universities. One of its pioneering efforts has been to work with Manipal University to create an e-book distribution system that is being made available to all medical students in MBBS courses through university laptops, the day they come to college. Manipal Digital believes that the opportunity for building expansive Digital Universities is huge in India. The right model for a Digital University is perhaps a mix, where even though the center of learning is at the university campus itself, the access to learning is spread across a much bigger geography, so that a larger number of students can get quality education, where notes are passed on through apps, lectures are recorded and presented beyond the classroom and the entire process of sitting for examinations can be made virtual so that it is easy to manage.
With the Digital India initiative, we can see some marked changes in the way universities visualize themselves five years down the line. It is only a matter of time, before Digital Universities become a reality for every university in India.