GLOBAL: Higher education's changing needs

If a symbol of the rapidity of change in higher education was needed, few could beat the sight of Luca Paderni of Google sitting on the same panel as the heads of the universities of Frankfurt, Guido Carli and Monterrey, at the conference Reinventing Higher Education held in Segovia, Spain.

Paderni is Head of Education Initiatives for Europe, Middle East and Africa at Google and while he freely admits he is not a specialist in higher education, he knows that developments in digital technology are impacting directly upon it.

"The base of innovation has completely reversed because of the internet," he argued. "Innovation no longer comes from the guy in the white coat."

Paderni argued that the 'consumerisation of digital services' was increasing very fast. Ten years ago innovation would take place in a company or an educational institution but now employees often had better tools at home.

Paderni has been working closely with universities in France and the UK. His experience has shown the staff "accept that this change has taken place intellectually but struggle to accept it within their organisation".

In this new environment "kids are the digital natives" and "we are the digital immigrants", so young people's skills needed to be drawn on if the educational experience of all was to be improved. Students are regular users of chat and video chat, for example, but they also use this method of communication as a study or work tool.

Another example was the practice of some students questioning, adding links or commenting on lecture notes placed online.

"Our business clients expect students to have these skills when they are hired," he said, "so they can work remotely with colleagues in Hong Kong when they are based in London."

Paderni provocatively compared lecture notes with music CDs. "Ten years ago everybody was happy with CDs but now you can pick and choose digital music on the internet. Performance has now become the important factor.

"It is not just about publishing lecture notes online - this is a trivial point; the issue is: 'If I publish in this way what will be the impact on my institution?'"

One participant asked: "What steps do you recommend we should take in universities?"

Paderni responded that with more access to information people were more ready and willing to contribute than ever before, and that this resource should be drawn upon.

"Universities need to be more open. The 20,000 worldwide Google staff team have access to information about all the projects that the organisation is developing, for example, because innovation can come from anywhere," he said.

Carlos Cruz Limón, Pro Rector of Development at Monterrey University, raised some radically different issues facing higher education institutions in Mexico.

Monterrey has more than 100,000 students in 33 campus sites all over the country and while staff want their students to compete all over the world, they also want them to be ethical.

"Mexico has big problems," Limón explained, "and we cannot wait until we have another Hugo Chavez as president before we do something."

One initiative therefore was to send academics to learn ethics abroad so they could, in turn, train students.

"We don't yet know how we are going to measure the students' implementation of ethical practice," he said, "but this is the kind of student we want."

To reduce the social gap between rich and poor, Monterrey has established 2,000 community learning centres across the country, allowing a woman who makes fantastic-tasting tortillas, for example, to market her product successfully in the US.

"People told us our work with the poor would damage our brand but it has not," Limón said. "Our aim is to help our country become more secure."

He argued that in the digital age "lecturers need to move from being actors to directors". One way of doing this was to identify 'digital faculty members' and then provide them with incentives to redesign their course using new technologies.

"It is slow at first but eventually others adopt the new methods when they see that they are working," he said.

On funding cuts, Limón had a final innovative suggestion. "We organise a lottery which provides us with $35 million of additional funding each year. And if any of you are interested in hearing more I have some tickets here available for you."