The world is changing at a fast pace. We live in a transformative age. There are fundamental shifts in how we live, work, play and of course, how we learn. The nature, role and status of universities and the contours of education system are in various phases of metamorphosis right now. An educational consultant has projected four scenarios for the future of university in the next decade:

– Champion University, streamlining operations by transforming service delivery and administration in traditional degree programs

– Commercial University, repositioning by drawing closer to industry to collaborate in teaching and research as students favour degree programs that offer work-integrated learning.

– Disruptor University, expanding into markets and services and competing against a range of new local and global educational service providers, as continuous learners and their preferences for on-demand micro-certificates dominate and technology disrupts the workplace.

– Virtual University, restructuring into networks that share digital platforms and integration of university with vocational institutes prioritizing training and employability outcomes as humans beginto be replaced by machines

National Educational Policy (NEP) 2020 envisages a new and forward looking vision for India’s higher education system, turning colleges into autonomous degree awarding and board governed higher education institutes instead of being affiliated to a university as followed now. Flexibility in combination of subjects for students, transforming the regulatory system of higher education, emphasis on integration with vocational education, use of technology and integration of online and digital education, setting up campus by foreign university and affordable quality education for all amongst others.

Higher institutions of learning are in throes of a new education order. Due to systemic changes, students can be enrolled irrespective of their location – in campus or off-campus. Offer of online degree will create a new generation of students without any physical contact or interaction among themselves or with their faculty. Even pedagogy in the institutions will be of diverse permutation. The Pandemic has necessitated online and digital classes even for those who had enrolledto attend classes in the campus. Academic life in the campus has gone for a toss. Students may return to the campus after a long spell, but students will never be the same as they were before. There will be less or no exposure to the real world outside. Everything is viewed through the prism of digital world. There is absence of learning on the ground. Impact on the mind of students learning virtually is quite stressful. Perspective of life based on the new method of learning will add different dimensions to it. Value system and ethics to be learnt from the institutions and fellow students or groups are going to be things of the past.

Spirit of camaraderie and fellow-feeling infused in the campus life are on the wane. Though virtual education creates opportunities for students to have greater global engagement and increased participation in the class, it is devoid of human contact. It might behoove us to consider how virtual capabilities might give greater ability to shape students’ learning experiences wherever they find themselves in the world.

Challenges of virtual education in a digitally divided country could be many, including lack of facilities hindering the reliability of e-learning; lack of policies, strategies, plans, and monitoring; control to ensure cross-departmental and multi-stakeholder participation; lack of knowledge of the use of e-learning materials and services provided; relevancy and participatory content development and providing services across all geographical regions. Whatever may be the problem, change is inevitable irrespective of circumstances and lack of preparedness on our part to accept the same. The wise King Solomon stated, “There is a time for everything for every activity under the heavens…” (Eccl. 3:1). Daniel praised the God of heaven and said, “He changes times and seasons…” (Daniel 2:21). The new order brings forth problems for the students and teaching community. While coping with new situation in the face of multiple obstacles in learning, succeeding in academia, fierce competitiveness and insecurity of future due to economic recession drive students to the brink. Stress is built up in them and they lose sight of the bigger picture of life.

In the present eventualities, believing students and graduates have a greater role to play. Their commitment to the Lord and mission of reaching out college and university students throws greater challenges as students at large are left in the great dilemma. The question is not where students are now but to focus on where they would be in the future. It is our responsibility to lead them to the great Creator who promises “a future and a hope” for everyone.

University mission in the present scenario of reaching out to students via a virtual world should take into its ambit multidimensional factors prevailing at present and evolving in the future. It may not be necessary to fully dispense with personal evangelism, face-to-face meeting for prayer and Bible study. Age old methods may continue as much as possible. After all, physical interaction facilitates personal touch and has a great impact in spiritual realms. But a different strategy for bringing good news to the burgeoning population of virtual students is warranted. Obviously virtual technique is necessary to touch millions of virtual world wandering students. It is important to create digital platforms at central, regional and local levels or centrally integrated platform with access for all. Platform may be used to conduct evangelistic Bible study, prayers for the needs of all, interaction in the form of meetings, seminars and workshops. Short discussion and presentation on topics with relevance to students’ world may be arranged from time to time. This will give wider reach and coverage to the student community across the nation. Follow-up will be easy as contact numbers as ported to the meeting are recorded. Local leaders may be entrusted with the job of conduct of interactive sessions and follow-up. It provides greater opportunities for reaching out many at one go. Digital platforms like Google Meet, Zoom meeting and WhatsApp video and audio meeting as available may be utilized or repurposed for fulfilling our goals. A dedicated website exclusively for online students or students studying for online degree may be created. Contents with good presentation of the gospel, Bible stories, and Bible study lessons, testimony of students and graduates and contextual topics may be developed and be incorporated in the website with facility for asking questions and feedback. A helpline with national and regional toll free numbers for students may be thought of for extending counseling which is the need of the hour. Social media may be employed to a large extent by the evangelical unions and graduates fellowship for helping out students and graduates in need. The same is also very helpful in local areas to execute all activities of evangelism, fellowship and missions apart from mobilizing resources.

It is time to make difference. Current approach calls for innovation though our call for mission remains unchanged. St. Paul begs us to walk worthy of the calling with which we are called (Eph 4:1). In the first century, apostles seized the opportunity as and when new door of evangelism opened to them. Some of us as digital missionaries have already started adapting to new ways of reaching students through virtual world. It is an opportunity for all to rise to the occasion and stay relevant to the university mission at ‘such time as this’. It is time to harvest not only in real world but also in virtual world. It may be difficult to tread on unchartered path. But we should be ready in season and out of season to proclaim the message (2 Tim. 4:2), “And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Gal. 6:9)

Ref: 1. “Can universities of today lead learning for tomorrow “EY pages 2-3; 2. NEP2020, MHRD pages 33, 56-58

Dr. Nanda Dulal works as Group Director in an organisation and lives with his wife Geetanjali in Bangalore.

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