Review space norms for universities

Tags: Op-ed
Review space norms for universities
Bloomberg
THE IT ZONE: In this 2003 file photo, students gather on campus of the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. Today, digital interactive classroom becomes the heart of the entire teaching and learning process
World over, the size and shape of universities is undergoing a big miniaturisation process. Only recently, Professor Marti Subrahmanyam, Charles E Merrill Professor of Finance, Economics and International Business in the Stern School of Business at New York University, made a comment on the recent trends of better doing Indian businessmen to jump up a band wagon process of “building” the universities. He said, “They first talk about land. Indeed they are obsessed by land — which is not required in large quantities”. It is a fact that real estate developers and political leaders, who use their political and muscle power to acquire land, are big landholders and they enter the “education business” with much ease. They don’t have academic and organisational expertise, which they hire, but use their “floating financial resources” to create palace-buildings to achieve two things, satisfying the needs of authorities like AICTE, MCI and other professional councils and to create a brand.

Now, in the 21st century, few things have changed. First, technology is a change maker for learning processes. Secondly, the good old concept of huge physical structures that were the symbols of identity of a university in 70s and 80s are no more benchmarks of a good university. Rather, students are already technology-savvy vibrant creatures and they look for an “anytime, anyplace” learning environment. Moreover, today space is a very specious commodity and with enhanced crunch of land availability, universities would have to look at new norms for effective, efficient and cost-controlled use of available space. The new designs for university campuses may have to look for vertical multi-storey building structures. Every element of space — academic, library and information support, non-academic, support services, residence and environment have to be relooked critically for meeting the pressures of “mass education” that would be a reality by 2020.

Modern digital technologies such as computers, telecommunications and networks have increased vastly; our capacity to know and to do things, and to communicate and collaborate with others. They allow us to transmit information quickly and widely, linking distant places and diverse areas of endeavour in productive new ways. They allow us to form and sustain communities for work, play, and learning in ways unimaginable just a decade ago. Hence the academic practices in all areas of higher education are radically transforming all over the world.

Today’s standard lecture, as a knowledge delivery model, is a legacy of our pre-digital past. We already have decades of research behind us which says that as far as learning goes, having one person stand up in front of lots of people and talking non-stop is about as ineffective as it gets. Many western universities introduced so called “smart” classrooms to the teaching process, as well as tablet PCs, digital textbooks and online virtual courses through distance learning. Classes also use “smart boards”: interactive electronic blackboards where students and professors can post and work on assignments online. All students primarily use digital textbooks by renowned world-class authors, published by leading publishing houses. Student services are based on electronic communication. Grading is done by entering grades into the system, and classes use software that scans for “cheating”, guaranteeing a fair evaluation method. As a result, students are now able to acquire new academic knowledge more quickly and with greater ease. The digitised education process ensures students greater mobility in the learning process and enables them to invest their creative energy in initiating academic and professional projects that contribute towards their professional development.

The laboratory and workshop experiences for which huge structures were created could now be simulated in a virtual mode allowing students to have “real life” experience on PCs. Today, smart digital interactive classroom in true sense becomes the heart of the entire teaching, learning, understanding and experience giving process. Space efficiency in building design and utilisation of space in modern learning environment are the aspects even the developed nations are seriously looking in to. Serving the parking needs of large campuses has been one of the biggest challenges for providing parking spaces in today’s two wheeler-driven student communities. In western world, it is space for parking of cars and they are using multi-space technology solution to address these issues that have become a symbol of modern students. The consumption of electricity, oil and water are the most difficult aspects that universities never bothered till now, but with enormous availability crunch on these natural resources, the universities have to plan their campuses for efficient and optimal use of such natural resources. In a typical college or university facility, lighting, ventilation, and cooling are the largest consumers of electricity; as a result, these areas are the best targets for energy savings. By implementing economical energy efficiency measures, many colleges and universities have the potential to cut their energy bills by 30 per cent or more.

The message that emerges from all these transformations that are happening world over, is that the role of universities as well as the process of delivery of education is changing. Moreover, in India, when availability of land has become a constraint both in cost and growth of education, it is necessary that the Authorities like UGC, AICTE, MCI and others to have new norms for higher education institutions both for land and space.

arun.nigavekar@mydigitalfc.com

(The writer is former chairman of UGC, former vice-chancellor of University of Pune and founder director of NAAC)

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