University talent in 25 years’ time

Juan Luis Martínez. Rector. IE University

12 April 2011

New technologies and blurred borders have brought about a metamorphosis of the university sector into a more open, flexible and actionable model.

The institution of university is shaped by changes that happen gradually over a long period of time. Decades can seemingly pass in an instant for an institution that is hundreds of years old and which has an inherently long-term outlook. This means that predicting what a university might actually look like in 25 years’ time is easy in that its physical appearance is foreseeable, but also difficult when its capacity for renewal and adaptation to a changing environment is uncertain.

Traditionally university has been a place where pupils come to be educated by an academic, who had the authority to convey society´s educational requirements as he saw fit. This same academic played a key role in establishing educational processes, designing programmes and degree courses, evaluating acquired skills and determining when a student was mature enough to graduate. It was almost as if the student were an incidental guest within a system which, in theory, was designed for him. Some universities, in an attempt to address this situation, have adopted the view that the student is their real client and as such should play a more or less central, almost radical, role in designing the service he receives. The democratisation (popularisation I would almost say) of university studies has further supported this view, to the point of pandering to whims and fancies. A demanding student body, that doesn´t actually know what it is demanding or why it is demanding it, has started to question the metaphoric doctor-patient relationship which lies at the root of the teacher-student relationship.

The university of the future has to change this perspective and not confuse supply and demand. Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves that it is society in the form of various institutions (businesses, governmental bodies, the market) that demands the university “product”. Society needs well-educated professionals. The university places them on the labor market once they have undergone a learning process that develops their potential in line with the skills and competencies they will need for the job they want. It will, therefore, be a university that is open and focused on employability. Business organizations won´t be used solely as a source of funds to support research and a testing ground to put classroom-acquired theory into practice. They will also prove a source of inspiration in designing curricula and in developing new undergraduate and postgraduate courses. They will propose new profiles and career itineraries adapted to meet actual market demand. Undergraduate studies will focus on a few basic subjects, while postgraduate students will conduct more in-depth studies in specific fields.

Some people believe that lectures are the best way to impart knowledge and develop skills. Nowadays, however, young people tend to rely on visual stimuli to develop their learning skills. The lecture based on past experience and historical fact as reason enough for expounding models, concepts and theories has been left behind by mindsets weaned on internet, which overrides geographical distances, and where data are not stored chronologically or physically, but rather according to their usefulness in creating points of convergence, nexuses where something new emerges that broadens the dimensions of real learning.

A new way of understanding education is born which is synchronous rather than temporal. Rather than drawing its relevance and legitimacy from cultural proximity, its role is that of a social agent for realities which are physically distant but virtually connected. If we examine how young people and teenagers spend time and how they interact, how they satisfy their need for entertainment and search for information, how they socialize, and we compare this with what happens in the classroom, with textbooks, with the methodology used by the teacher in class, we will notice a significant difference.

Traditional teaching methods were consistent with a form of socialising: reading, playing with friends from the same environment, looking up information using sources which were always accessible. The management and perception of time, for example, were consistent with each other; there was no split between the two realities. The classroom was an extension of life itself - one reality could recognise the other one. Now, however, virtual platforms have replaced the neighbourhood as a place to socialise. Messages cost money, they are restricted, there is a limited amount of space to receive and transmit information. This forces us to rethink our teaching methods, carve out knowledge and keep what is absolutely vital. The limitations of the various platforms with regard to the number of characters per message requires us to distil our ideas and be concise about what we wish to transmit. Speed, immediacy, ‘the instantaneous’ as a way to beat all things time-bound; information which is distilled after passing through the filter, which serves to sift and funnel what we truly have in common, which may be less than we think, but also more important.

The risk posed by this exercise designed to bridge the gap between the means and the end result is that knowledge is watered down. By summarising so much we can lose sight of the essence. A lot of information is not synonymous with quality information. In a world in which inflated data have created a wall of information which makes it difficult to relate to or to know where to start, we need to decide what real education is all about. When what we knew about certain realities fitted into a book, no matter how thick it was, it was always limited by size constraints - the requirement had to be focused on knowledge, usage and control. When the sources of this knowledge were concentrated, the challenge faced by the university lecturer was that of making them accessible. Today, however, information is almost incomprehensible and dispersed. The skills required of teachers are essentially different to those of yesteryear.
They have to teach students to think. They have to teach students how to do research, and they have to foster intellectual rigour so that the student takes charge of his own development.

Hence universities now need a new kind of faculty, and will have to change the way they evaluate professors’ contributions and skills. They will also need different promotion and governance systems. If universities need a new approach because the students have changed, whoever takes this on has to adapt also. Spanish universities have sometimes been accused of endogamy. Regardless of whether this is true or not, the fact is that in the future education has to either open up completely or die. You cannot take this diverse reality on board from a static, closed standpoint. A university faculty needs to have the same type of social experience as the students it intends to educate. If the student body is increasingly international and dynamic, with a growing focus on culture, the teacher must have some sort of equivalent background. It is no longer a question of how a university department works but rather how the global arena does. Interconnectivity, interaction, a focus on employability, diversity and flexibility will be key features of the learning process. Universities now have to center their efforts on developing the skills needed to gauge what information is required, where to find it, how to get it, and all this before, and, more importantly, while it is being gathered.

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