Monterrey Tec’s radical revamp to teach competencies

We live in the fast lane. To keep up with the pace, you need what some have dubbed ‘21st-century skills’ and, in educational jargon, competency-based models.

These are broad skills and abilities that will last a lifetime, such as learning skills to process and communicate information; literacy skills such as information, media and technology literacy; and life skills such as adaptability, leadership, initiative, efficiency and social skills. And, most of all, ‘learning to learn skills’.

Traditional generic competencies such as language, mathematics, science, technology and civics are still essential to a well-rounded education, as are a vocational orientation and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit. Students are expecting to get all this from higher education.

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A few universities in Latin America have taken on the challenge “to adapt to a world with new problems and students with different needs”, according to Salvador Alva, former president of the Tecnológico de Monterrey, or Tec for short.

Tec is located in northeastern Mexico, about 150 miles (241km) from the United States border. It is no coincidence that Tec is located in Monterrey, considered the industrial capital of Mexico.

New experiential model

Alva is a former president of PepsiCo Latin America and his vision for education for the 21st century is “to develop leaders with an entrepreneurial spirit, and a social purpose, who are internationally competitive. It’s not about educating the next wave of professionals that will serve Mexican companies. It’s about a new experiential model for educating leaders that will support our communities and our broader society.”

Tec was founded in 1943 by a group of businessmen concerned about a shortage of engineers and middle managers. Since then, it has kept a strong bond with the business community. Today, close to 90% of its 510-strong board of trustees are leading Mexican business people.

Tec has 26 campuses in 20 Mexican states, 64,000 students and 7,396 faculty. A 2018 study by QS University Rankings Intelligence Unit highlighted that 41% of Tec alumni have started a business, generating 2.8 million jobs and an economic value of US$223 billion, that is, about a fifth of Mexico’s annual GDP.

Tec is the only school outside the US to be listed in the Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top Schools for Entrepreneurship Studies 2020 (No 8).

In 2014, Tec started a modernisation process to achieve educational transformation. Alva believed that either Tec changed or it would become obsolete: “It’s not about whether we wanted to change but how fast we would change.”

It all started with seeking the views of 5,000 stakeholders, among them students, faculty, employers and board members. It turned out that students wanted greater connection with the real world and more flexibility; employers wanted graduates with more multi-disciplinary abilities and specialisation.

The revamping of Tec also took a leaf from top world universities such as Singapore University of Technology and Design, Technion Israel Institute of Technology for its strong connection to business and different approach to research, and the University of Melbourne, Australia, for its flexible degree-earning system.

The new model, referred to as Tec21, started to be implemented in 2018. However, the transition to the full Tec21 design will take several years.

Creating ‘socially conscious’ leaders

Its aim is to form leaders for the 21st century that are not only excellent professionals but also socially conscious using ‘competency-based education’, which is based on cutting-edge technologies and personal competencies such as challenge-based learning, flexibility, leadership skills, attitudes and values. Learning is interactive, flexible and result-oriented.

Organisationally, the Tec became a single academic institution, ‘Un solo Tec’, with presence in 26 different cities and a centralised budget and procurements. Individual faculties or ‘National Schools’ have been given greater influence than the Tec’s 26 campuses, reflecting the change of focus toward student priorities. As for professors, their salaries have been increased to about 30% to 56% above those of an average higher institution in Mexico.

To increase productivity, technology was introduced and priority was given to increasing faculty members (it now has about 7,400 of them).

David Garza, Tec’s new executive president, describes the process of devising the new Tec21 model: “It was completely different from the curriculum updates we did every five years because we were changing how we educated students. It would be multidisciplinary, incorporate real-world problems and collaborate with external partners – and it would require faculty members to play different roles.”

To inspire faculty members to make the changes required, Garza brought in experts in marketing and consciousness and organisational psychologists, established 10 key performance indicators and developed mechanisms to measure how well they were living up to the behaviours required for the new five organisational values.

Seven cross-cutting competencies were integrated into the curriculum of all the professions. These are self-awareness and self-management, innovative entrepreneurship, social intelligence, ethical commitment, reasoning for complexity, communications and digital transformation.

Flexibility is provided by learning modules that can last five, 10 or 15 weeks. They include theoretical classes, laboratory experience, workshops and seminars.

Every five weeks (for the first five semesters) there is a ‘Tech Week’, an intensive experience in which all students participate in an immersive activity, selected by them, which promotes multidisciplinary learning and strengthens competencies.

In the sixth and seventh semesters, when students are specialising, the ‘Tec Week’ becomes a ‘Tec Semester’ which provides a more in-depth learning experience.

At this stage, students may also opt for a semester abroad; the Tec has international exchanges with more than 500 universities on five continents.

Preparing students for life

Traditional extra-curricular activities that provide personal and professional growth experiences are also provided. Alva explains their importance: “When we asked students and alumni, ‘What is the role of the university? Is it to educate you for a career or for life?’ the resounding response was to ‘prepare you for life’.”

Many also mentioned extra-curricular activities as essential for forming well-rounded students. Their views led to changes: some former extra-curricular activities became part of the curriculum through what is known as the ‘living campus’. They include social, cultural and leadership activities such as building a house for a low-income community, sports, robotics and hackathons.

With its 26 campuses across the country, Tec has developed ways of integrating them all in an efficient and cost-effective way. For example, if there is insufficient demand for a given discipline in a campus to hire a professor, interested students from different campuses are connected via Zoom. The ‘Hologram Professor’ allows students from all the campuses to see a full body image of the professor projected onto a screen in the classroom.

Tec wants to be highly connected with the market, with society and, especially, with its 300,000 alumni. For the latter purpose, it has a platform for engagement and connection with alumni who can volunteer to teach a class and mentor students as well as take specific courses.

Tec’s curriculum includes the cultivation of entrepreneurial competencies as it wants “entrepreneurship to become as second nature as doing maths”. Through Tec’s own Institute of Entrepreneurship Eugenio Garza Laguera, students are provided with entrepreneurial competencies such as identification of opportunities, crafting solutions, dealing with uncertainty and building resilience.

To bring theory to reality, students from all disciplines are required to create a company. Their projects have to be truly innovative, have a conscious social purpose, promote ethical behaviour, take care of the environment, give knowledge and promote prosperity.

To give students more time to explore career options, Tec introduced a concept called ‘Pathways’, which it adapted from the University of Melbourne. The new structure enables students to select courses from across multiple disciplines. This gives them a dynamic and flexible experience and allows them to explore different areas and to customise their professions. After graduating, they can opt for additional specialisation.

Mauricio Crespo, a freshman, said: “With Tec21 we get to taste a little bit of everything and at the end of the day we can really be sure that we are choosing the career we want. I think it is something that is very positive.”

Reformulating the role of professor

As David Garza and his team were developing Tec21, they were inspired by a famous ancient Chinese quote by Xun Kuang, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

It led them to reformulate the role of the university professor from lecturer to a more active role, which required a professor to change habits and team up with colleagues from other disciplines. An added incentive for change would come from high-profile international professors Tec is intent on attracting.

The new role of the professor is to provide diverse, active learning experiences in a natural environment, capturing the attention and cultivating the interest of the student. This chimes with the Tec’s profile for a professor: he or she needs to be connected and interested in students, be inspirational and admired by students and colleagues, must have intellectual vitality and constantly renew knowledge in their speciality area.

Faculty members must continually innovate pedagogical strategies and adapt to the profiles of students in order to facilitate learning, motivation, involvement and creativity, all of this while effectively incorporating technology.

Professors are divided into five categories: lecturers who design and impart technical and practical content needed to resolve a challenge; challenge designers who design plans and document challenges throughout student formation; advisors who accompany, advise and provide follow-up for students in the process of resolving a challenge; evaluators who design, organise and implement different processes for evaluating learning, leading to certification of the competencies acquired; and mentors who orient, advise and accompany students in their careers.

To diversify the student experience, the Business School introduced a programme called ‘Leadership Voices’. The programme brings leaders such as CEOs, business people and entrepreneurs from large companies into the classroom to co-teach with Tec professors over four or six sessions.

Tec21 needed to carry teachers along. Being a very disperse university with all its campuses, Tec launched a ‘National Faculty Meeting’ in 2015 to align and manage change. The intention was to connect teachers from the same discipline so that they could develop national projects together.

“The signals are very clear – we have to transform our educational model … but, without the active engagement from teachers, it would be worthless,” said Román Martínez, vice-rector of educational transformation.

To convince sceptical teachers, pilots were organised and faculty then presented their successful experiences to their colleagues. The first pilot ran 1,600 projects concurrently. A week-long pilot called ‘i Week’ (‘I’ stands for innovation) and later scaled up to ‘i Semestre’, required the entire institution to mobilise at the same time. All regular academic activity was suspended as students picked from a variety of challenges that were implemented in partnership with outside companies, NGOs and governments.

Tec designed working groups and workshops with 250 professors from all schools and published guiding documents on the challenge-based learning methodology, competency development and evaluation.

Planning the new curriculum and developing content for the first semester was, according to Martínez, the most difficult part of the process “… because we had to dissuade professors from defending their special interests in their study” that were not relevant to the new model.

“If we had not given ourselves a long-time horizon of five years, perhaps we would have encountered greater resistance,” Martínez added.

About two years into the Tec21 design, faculty members started to ask for additional support. David Garza led the task of developing the Tec21-ready faculty and set up Centers for Faculty Development and Innovation.

National Faculty meeting, i Week, i Semestre and leveraging professors so that they, themselves, became agents were essential to change the teachers’ mindsets. Four months into full implementation, the leadership team estimated that about 80% of faculty had bought in.

Challenge-based learning

The pedagogical approach introduced is challenge-based learning. It actively involves students in solving real-world problems that outside organisations called ‘Development Partners’ are experiencing. A partner can be a company, an NGO, a research institution or a government institution.

Tec has formal arrangements with more than 1,000 organisations, including Amazon, Heineken, IBM, Nestlé, Siemens and Unilever. At Tec, they maintain that these arrangements create employment for students and that the demands and needs of the companies are addressed more easily by Tec graduates, creating a virtuous cycle.

Students are well supported. They have academic advisors, who guide them in relation to the curriculum; student success mentors who provide academic guidance as well as helping with all aspects of career and life; and peer mentors, advanced semester students who can help newcomers to adapt during their first year.

The success of Tec’s new educational model is proven by the fact that, in the first year of implementation (2019), 800 more students were admitted than the year before. Tec expects to limit its growth to 2,000 additional students, reaching about 60,000 students and keeping those numbers relatively stable while focusing on student selectivity to attract top talent.

To keep attracting the best students, it expects to become more selective and will add a new screening criterion. Tec is already sought after by students of excellence: Alva estimates that “about 35% of its students are of Harvard calibre”.

Tec’s tuition fees are considered high in Mexico: in 2018 the lowest-priced undergraduate tuition cost about MXN92,000 (about US$4,400) while the most expensive cost about MXN118,100 per semester.

Tec21’s educational offer is more resource-intensive, so Tec had to hire more faculty members with higher credentials. Despite the extra spending, tuition increases were contained to an average of about 6% between 2018 and 2019. To finance the higher operating costs, it raised more revenues by decreasing the drop-out rates, generating efficiencies and savings, increasing productivity, automating in certain areas and capitalising on its high demand.

Part of Tec’s financial strategy is to continue to attract international students who find its educational offer and the return on investment attractive. The Tec’s administration hopes its new educational model will make it even more attractive to international students which they expect to be 20% of the total in the next 10 years.

Higher enrolment due to the implementation of Tec21 has increased gross revenue for the university segment (US$750 million in 2018) by 7% between 2017 and 2018. The schools with the highest growth in 2018 were social sciences, medicine and engineering.

As there are no federal student loans and those offered by commercial banks are limited, Tec established its own student loan programme. In 2018, about 45% of undergraduates and 63% of graduate students received some form of financial aid. For every dollar of general scholarships, about 40% are loans. Additionally, Tec sponsors the innovative Leaders for Tomorrow programme, which offers full scholarships and, in many cases also living expenses, to 200 low-income students annually from each enrolment class.

Tec’s educational reform has not been easy to implement but there is a lot of excitement about how it has heightened the ability for Tec de Monterrey to form emerging leaders for a complex and uncertain world. For David Garza, “Tec is an institution that has dared to change its mindset in attitudes, behaviour, vision and decisions. By fundamentally changing its educational strategy and positioning students at the centre of everything Tec does, it is preparing its students to tackle some of the greatest human problems.”

In the next 10 years, Tec will continue to be in constant change. Alva believes that Tec will need to adapt continuously to protect the future, to develop people and to have the correct talent.

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