‘Magic happens’ when problem-solving teams, partnerships align

COVID-19 has sparked progress in problem-solving by pulling teams – multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral – as well as global, continental and regional partnerships together in an aligned and powerful way. “This is where magic happens,” says Dr Steven Hanson, associate provost at Michigan State University. He hopes the approach will be applied to critical global problems that existed pre-COVID-19 and will continue afterwards.

Meanwhile, accelerating technological and pedagogical innovations in higher education will enhance what universities do on the other side of the coronavirus. The positives among the negatives.

Hanson, who is also dean of international studies and programmes at MSU, was speaking on 13 May in the second of a six-part dialogue series hosted by the Alliance for African Partnership or AAP, a consortium of 11 universities in Africa and MSU. University World News – Africa is one of the dialogue partners.

Hanson, an expert in agricultural economics, oversees more than 20 international offices and programmes at MSU, guiding research and activities aimed at impacting positively on critical global issues, especially in the areas of food, health, the environment and education.

MSU’s global partnerships began 60 years ago when the university’s president Dr John Hannah committed to using knowledge and technologies created in partnership with others around the world to solve problems, Hanson told “Dialogue #2: Global and Continental Partnerships and Collaboration in Higher Education Post COVID-19”.

Engagements and partnerships across Africa have “helped to shape and inform our approach” to finding global solutions. This approach is three-pronged, bringing together thematic knowledge, regional expertise and global partnerships. “If we can bring those three things together, that’s when we create global innovations and solutions with lasting impact.”

In this spirit, Hanson continued, five years ago MSU began to work with African university leaders to establish what became the Alliance for African Partnership, an initiative that recognises the capacity and strengths of Africa-based institutions and creates African-led partnerships to help solve Africa’s pressing problems. Its goal is to create positive impacts beyond universities, on policy as well as implementation on the ground.

Partnerships, teams and platforms

Hanson outlined six pressing global problems: rural-to-urban migration; food deserts; poor quality water; climate change and infectious diseases, and their disproportionate impacts on poor and under-represented groups; growing income inequality; and unemployment, with attendant challenges to provide young people with skills needed to access or create jobs.

First, he pointed out, these were major problems before COVID-19 and are going to continue to be afterwards. Secondly, “these problems look the same no matter where we are. The context may be different but these are global problems.”

Universities must continue to tackle these problems through various partnership approaches. Hanson focused on three: partnerships (global, continental and regional); teams (multiple disciplines and multiple sectors); and problem-based platforms.

Regarding partnerships, there is a question of balance between local and global.

Global partnerships are important because major problems look similar everywhere. “Problems are often globally connected and, most importantly, the best ideas and innovations don’t know borders. We need to take solutions wherever we find them around the world.”

However, partnerships that are local or regional or South-South are also vital because there is always a local context to problems – and solutions have to be implemented locally.

Regarding teams, Hanson said: “Multi-disciplinary teams are critically important and universities bring a powerful ability to target multi-disciplines collectively on the complex problems we face. Nobody else can bring that ability.”

“But most of the large impacts come from multi-sectoral teams.” He explained that universities are good at innovating, prototyping and measuring impacts, “but the private sector is much better at implementation and much better at scaling.”

Hanson’s point on platforms is that partnerships and teams often work better alongside each other than together. “When we pull partnerships and teams in an aligned way towards problems, that’s where the magic happens – where we create real impact.”

COVID-19 is a good example. It is pulling teams (multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral) and partnerships (global, continental and regional) together in an aligned and powerful way, on shared platforms.

“My hope is that when we come out the other side of COVID-19, we bring this problem-orientated whole approach to the other problems we will continue to face post-COVID.”

Accelerated transformation

Post-COVID-19, Hanson forecasts that there will be “accelerated transformation and something I’m calling the COVID leap”. There are both push and pull factors at work.

Factors that push change encompass impacts on the way people gather, travel and so on. Push factors will largely be related to human safety or the economic impacts of COVID-19.

Pull factors include the rapid adoption of technologies, going virtual and what can be seen as higher education’s version of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will accelerate. “We’re experimenting like crazy, we’re innovating,” said Hanson.

He gave what MSU is doing as an example: “We’re developing virtual communities, virtual cross-cultural experiences, and getting better information flows to students and their parents. There are innovations in online teaching, such as virtual reality labs, so you can sit at your desk and turn a dial in a lab halfway across the world and get instant data feedback.

“All of these are happening literally overnight at an accelerated pace. We’re not going to replace in-person experiences but we will be able to enhance what we do when we come out the other side of COVID.”

Changed student mobility

There will also be acceleration in innovation relating to educational pathways. MSU hosts 60,000 international students a year. Typically the students spend four to five years at the university.

“It’s great for MSU, it’s great for the students. But it is often expensive and it is pulling the best students from their home institutions… and sometimes they don’t find their way back home,” Hanson told the dialogue.

Before COVID-19, MSU was piloting dual-degree programmes such as one being developed with a partner that is scheduled to launch this year. A common curriculum for the first two years of a degree is being developed, and can be taken at either of the universities.

The third year is online, with cohorts of students from both institutions, during which students may also have an internship experience at home or anywhere in the world. The fourth year is an immersion experience, with a pathway into graduate school or back into employment in the home country.

“I think we’re going to see a real acceleration of hybrid experiences,” Hanson concluded. “None of this is going to be smooth – it is going to highlight diversity, equity and inclusion issues around things like infrastructure and access.”

But he is hopeful that new policies and practices will unfold and that, as with advances in problem-solving, dialogue between universities will help navigate a way forward as institutions learn from each other.