Innovation and technology for the pandemic and the future

Embracing new technologies. Flipped and adaptive learning. New concepts and strategies. More cooperation and listening. These were some key take-aways from a debate on innovation and technology at the triennial conference of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP).

“We should pay attention to all forms of innovation, and support collaboration among universities,” said Dr Bernardo Gonzalez-Arechiga, president of the large Universidad del Valle de Mexico.

Most of the world’s universities – and most of Mexico’s 5,000 institutions – do not have the capacity to conduct independent innovation processes or to finance them, said Gonzalez-Arechiga, whose massive university has 100,000 students.

“Large and powerful universities are able to make technological choices and devise strategies for innovation. We should not forget that they have certain responsibilities to create and to strengthen the education system as a whole. Collaboration is important,” he said. There must be innovation to facilitate the adoption of technology, and support for universities that are not wealthy.

This article is part of a series on Recovery and Transformation with Innovation and Inclusion by University World News in partnership with the International Association of University Presidents. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

University leaders from the United States, Finland, Turkey, Spain and Mexico spoke at one of two sessions on “Innovation/Technology during the Pandemic and Post-Pandemic” during the IAUP event that attracted 430 higher education leaders and some 80 experts from more than 40 countries and five continents.

Other focus issues included accreditation and quality assurance, internationalisation, inclusion, fundraising and institutional development, and leadership and governance.

The XIX IAUP Triennial Conference was titled “Innovation and Inclusion: Key priorities for higher education in a post pandemic world” and was held virtually from 29 to 31 July 2021. It was hosted in Mexico by Dr Fernando León García, president of CETYS University and of the IAUP.

Other take-aways

Dr Marja-Liisa Tenhunen, former president of Centria University of Applied Sciences and PIMSA Distinguished Chair at CETYS University Finland, called for all universities to update their strategies and do stronger collaboration locally, globally – and especially inside the university, bringing together staff and students “to see the world after the pandemic”.

Dr Tomas Morales, president of California State University, San Bernardino, in the United States, agreed: “I think it's important to listen to our stakeholders. To listen to our students, to listen to our faculty and our staff, to engage them in the development of innovative approaches to the delivery of instruction, student services and student life.”

For Dr Muhammed Sahin, president of MEF University in Turkey, the key take-away was “flipped, adaptive, digital and active learning”, the sub-title of a book, The New University Model, that he co-authored in in 2019. It is one of several books on cutting-edge learning that involve his university.

Nothing short of a radical rethink was suggested by Dr Francisco Jose Mora Mas, former president of Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain. “We need a new mindset – among students, faculty and staff – embracing technology and embracing a new concept of campus.” Students will demand nothing less, he told the conference.

Overall, these presidents were of the view that innovation and technology are crucial goals and means to tackle problems during disruptive times, and are essential if higher education is to continue delivering on its missions of high quality teaching and learning, research and community outreach.

However, the goals will not be achieved and the means not effectively deployed unless universities rethink and restrategise, involve all stakeholders and redouble efforts to collaborate with each other. People remain at the centre.

Institutional experiences

The university leaders described how their institutions and countries responded with innovation and technology to the disruptions of the pandemic, which aside from generating imperatives to shut down physical campuses and collaborate on COVID-related research, also intensified pre-existing trends such as the growing involvement of edtech players in higher education and the move to more blended learning, and exacerbated problems, most notably inequalities.

Dr Jesus Lau, the session moderator and IMPSA Distinguished Chair at CETYS University in Mexico, was struck by how different the universities’ experiences were while working on the same challenge, the pandemic. He asked for recommendations regarding innovations and problems during the pandemic and their implications for the post-pandemic era (if there is one).

California State University, San Bernardino’s Tomas Morales highlighted staff development, connectivity and quality learning outcomes. The professional development of academics and other staff was crucial to be able to make changes and the efficient and quality delivery of learning and services.

“Students should be able to conduct business transactions with the university remotely. Faculty should be able to teach remotely. We have outfitted most of our 280 classrooms, where faculty can lecture in-person but students can view the lecture from homes or dormitory rooms. Faculty development is critical.”

Earlier, Morales had recounted how his university – which caters for mostly minority and low-income students – distributed more than 1,100 laptops to students who needed one, as well as hotspots to provide broadband internet connectivity and free software. “Many of our students decided to come to the campus and access Wi-Fi from their vehicles in parking lots.” Virtual labs were created, and professional development opportunities provided to more than 600 academics.

“We must also continue to develop the kind of connectivity that ensures everyone has equal access. Thirdly, we must ensure that we're able to assess learning outcomes – particularly learning outcomes that are delivered remotely,” he told the conference.

According to Marja-Liisa Tenhunen from Finland, which is small on population but highly advanced, digitisation and artificial intelligence were major platforms during the pandemic and will continue to be. These platforms are also key to supporting the thousands of business and innovation ideas swirling amid Finland’s highly educated populace.

Also important is how innovation is done. Multi-disciplinarity and diversity are key. “In Finland, we believe that if several kinds of people are working together from different fields, not only technology or business and they should be younger and older, that is the best platform for innovation.”

With technologies and AI rapidly changing the world of work and making many traditional jobs redundant and creating new jobs, Tenhunen said she worried about this question: “Is the university ready to educate people who will be able to handle the technologies of the future and be part of these jobs?”

Strong student influence

Spain’s Dr Francisco Jose Mora Mas reflected on how the pandemic has created a new framework for the missions and activities of universities. “We should take advantage of it because if we don't change, our students will do it for us for sure. They will move to universities with new approaches to teaching and learning.”

Students today know the value of face-to-face and online learning, and view both positively. “They want the best of both of methodologies,” he said. Students also want extra value from higher education. “They will push campuses for extra activities.”

The pandemic had seen the biggest network of research collaboration in history. Open science has grown as part of this radical collaboration, said Mora Mas. Another example of collaboration is in changing communication, now primarily done online – and done much more.

A third and profound dimension affected by COVID-19 has been physical infrastructure. “Our campuses will be different in future. We have new needs. Our students, if they come to campus, don't want only the classroom, they want a space of collaboration, more activities and projects,” he said. “Our campus must also be sustainable, in all buildings. Inefficiencies are not tolerated now.”

Further, leaders of universities no longer have an option but to implement new policies in teaching and learning and research, in infrastructure and people management. “External pressure will grow. Our way of running universities must be coherent with our speeches. And we must have a relevant university.”

The importance of pedagogy and people

Turkey’s Muhammed Sahin founded the private MEF University around five years ago, based on flipped learning – an instructional, blended learning strategy that works to increase student engagement by encouraging course reading at home and live problem-solving during lectures.

Before that Sahin was president of Istanbul Technical University, a traditional institution established in 1773 that today has 30,000 students. “Now I have only 3,500 students and just more than 200 academic staff,” he said.

Before making the decision to launch a new university, Sahin held one meeting with professors and one with students: 90% of the professors rejected flipped learning while 90% of students accepted it. He went with the student view. Today, almost 90% of students are satisfied with the flipped learning and almost the same proportion would recommend it to other students, he said.

MEF has also developed a high level of digitisation and edtech, and among other things incorporates MOOCs as elective courses and recognises short and micro-credits. “We believe that we are a global leader in flipped learning.”

He argued that pedagogy is more important than technology. “For the future, I think active learning is the key. If the instructors do not use active learning techniques, the technology is useless.” Universities should incorporate high quality MOOCs into academic programmes, he added.

Introducing adaptive learning will be increasingly important in future. It uses algorithms and AI to interact with and respond to the unique needs of every student, delivering customised resources and learning activities that address learner needs and optimise the individual learning experience, rather than providing a one-size-fits-all learning experience.

To illustrate the scale of innovation happening in the education space, Sahin drew on the growth of unicorn companies, privately held start-up companies valued at more than US$1 billion, of which there are around 700 globally. “Over the past 10 years there were 13 unicorn companies in education. Over the last year, nine more unicorn companies were established. This will be expanding in future.”

Mexico’s Gonzalez-Arechiga agreed on the value of collective distance learning tools, which are becoming increasingly powerful, as well as the importance of how they are used for active learning. Rather than getting packaged information, it is important to facilitate innovation among academics and students, through collaboration and events such as competitions and hackathons for innovation.

“I agree that adaptive learning is particularly significant, especially for students who may not have had the strong foundation in previous levels of education that they currently enjoy in Finland and other countries. You want to catch up. We want to provide students with intelligent tools using AI to conquer skills levels.”

A third key area, said Gonzalez-Arechiga, was simulations. “There has been enormous development of simulators in health sciences, in physical sciences, in chemistry, in business and economics and many other areas. Those are my three choices for critical technologies for the years to come.”