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Hacking universities

Spanish journalist Borja Negrete of El Mundo emailed me some questions for his article about the role hackers could play in university education (pdf in Spanish).

This is an issue that affects me directly due to my role as senior advisor of innovation and digital transformation in IE Business School, as well as dealing with these issues within my own company.

Here are the questions and answers used in the article:

Q. Do you think universities have stagnated?

A. Universities have the same hierarchies and management control systems they had decades ago, and those systems were poor then. Most universities maintain loyalty to the “publish or die” system, which has been shown to generate perverse incentives that lead researchers to lie, simulate data, or work on completely irrelevant topics. This approach generates a perverse incentive that leads the teacher to focus on increasing the number of publications at all costs to obtain tenure, which once obtained becomes a disincentive for continued improvement. It is a completely teacher-centric model, completely lacking in customer focus, because it considers the student raw material that is integrated into a manufacturing process. Instead of giving priority to what the real goal should be: delivering high-quality education, universities focus on the teacher achieving a series of objectives to secure their position.

Q. What do you think universities need to change to modernize and adapt to the information society?

A. Universities have to adapt to the environment they live in. Today, that means carrying out digital transformation to maximize the performance of the educational process. This means modifying communication procedures with users and external entities, adapting internal communication and management processes, and finally, incorporating platform-based models that exploit the data generated by the two previous processes. This would allow students to work individually, carry out processes that optimize student performance, and at the same time improve the environment for teachers. Education has to become a data-driven process in which we analyze students individually and maximize their skills and fit into the work environment. Instead, universities are bureaucratic monoliths that have no real focus on excellence or learning.

Q. How could hacker ethics be applied to universities? And what about the philosophy of free software?

A. An educational process has to respond to principles of openness and sharing: all knowledge must be open and accessed freely, because it has to be continually built upon. Each course has to build on what the previous one left, instead of focusing on learning from memory things that we can access with a mouse click. The knowledge generated in a university has to flow continuously, serving as a platform for students, companies and teachers to constantly collaborate on projects that maximize learning. In addition, it must integrate internal elements — teachers with appropriate research training and discipline that provide structure — with external factors that bring fresh air, contact with the outside and anything that prevents isolation.

Q. Has this democratization of content that we see on the internet extended to the classroom?

A. The university model is still built around the idea of ​​closed knowledge, knowledge that is stored in books and libraries. Today, there should be virtually no books in libraries and instead systems that allow them to be accessed when they are needed, with students and teachers encouraged toward more productive electronic reading disciplines. For universities to still rely on paper and notes when modern companies are increasingly paperless shows us that universities, instead of leading, are falling behind. The only paper in universities should be in the washroom.

Q. Are hackers the way to bring about social change?

A. Hackers often represent a culture of adaptation to the environment that typically take advantage of these elements in a faster, brighter, functionality-centric and vocation-rewriting approach. So they have a lot to contribute. A hacker is someone who cannot accept a closed door and feels the need to open it, and that need to inquire is inherent in the educational process. We are at our most innovative when we undergo a good educational process.

Q. Are students headed toward becoming prosumers (content producers and not just consumers)?

A. A good university is characterized by good admission processes and a certain selectivity, which ensures that the students that are accepted have the appropriate characteristics to graduate. From that point of view, if our students are good, what leads us to despise their ability to contribute ideas and content? Why restrict students to the role of raw material, instead of seeking their full integration in the process? Every day, students have access to information that makes the “teacher with unlimited knowledge” model redundant … Students are likely to know more or be better informed than the teacher at a given time, and we need to accommodate that possibility to generate an environment that maximizes learning.

Q. Should resilience be taught?

A. Resilience is a fundamental skill required in all fast-changing environments. To adapt to change, we have to teach students that everything flows, nothing stands still, and that includes understanding that learning is susceptible to change, to evolving according to new discoveries or advances. We have to teach students to rethink everything at all times, to adapt to change, to rethink each situation according to the environment they find themselves in. That is resilience, and I am not clear that it has to be taught as such, it simply has to be a consequence of the way we teach.

Q. How would you define a hacker/teacher?

A. A teacher has to be a supernode, an element capable of catalyzing the educational process, enabling the student to contribute directly, based on systems that maximize the interaction (the flipped classroom), combining classroom teaching with virtual delivery, oriented toward problem solving and projects, as well as a holistic vision starting from a strong base of humanities and complemented by access to the most up-to-date knowledge. Teachers should challenge students to provide answers they are not yet able to provide, and that should be seen as completely normal.

Q. Does using tablets and digital whiteboards in the classroom help with the modernization of learning?

A. Reducing paper should be an end in itself, because paper is a three-thousand year-old technology that tends to fossilize information rather than help it flow. But from there to seeing modernization as filling the classroom with all sorts of devices is something else. It makes no sense to spend money on tools if they are not used correctly. Right now, it makes much more sense to integrate the smartphone into education.

Q. Should academic programs be customizable, perhaps along the lines of a menu?

A. There are already startups, such as source{d} capable of using the characteristics of a developer from code repositories like Github and others and applying machine learning and artificial intelligence to get the best possible fit between a developer and where it is required. If a company is able to do that with data obtained from external repositories, imagine what a university could do if it maximized the data generated by students during an educational process lasting for several years? Imagine what we could learn about them that would help them in their future careers. Instead, what do we do? Most of the time, nothing. At best, a chat with the career department that simply a shop window for job offers. Really, there is so much to do…

(En español, aquí)