Monday, September 23, 2019

The University of the Future

By on April 4, 2019

Former Gov. Rosselló: Education must be recognized as a basic human right

Editor’s note: The following originally appeared in the April 4-10, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Free college for all qualified students. Courses accessible anytime, anywhere. Programs and degrees available from the best universities on Earth. Is this a utopia?

Until recently, education as a life-long fundamental human right (from preschool to post-graduate) was only a noble aspiration. And the typical questions surrounding this ideal would always come up: How would it be implemented? Would there be enough resources available? What structure could make it possible?

Today, we have the answer: technology.

Considering Puerto Rico’s recent history with natural disasters and an unprecedented fiscal challenge, our universities are focused on present-day affairs, and are naturally inclined to return to how things used to be; to go back to a reality that no longer exists. As colleges recognize the urgency and need to face current issues—such as the feasibility of maintaining and/or increasing current levels of enrollment, the costs for students, the availability and access to courses, among other concerns—they also need to analyze their present situation. However, at the same time, they are obligated to trace a new, ambitious pathway to what will be the university of tomorrow.

It is no longer enough to rebuild and re-establish the same institutions. We need to imagine the future, rethink it, and aspire to something greater.

And this must all take place within the framework of the globalized world in which we live, immersed in exponential innovations in science and technology, in new discoveries about our understanding of the universe and human nature itself. We are experimenting with fantastic systemic transformations in every economic and social sector: in essential utilities such as power and water, in transportation and housing, in health and functional longevity, in artificial intelligence and robotics, to which we can add the disappearance of traditional jobs and an increase in available leisure time, among other socioeconomic areas.

These drastic transformations are warning us that the university of tomorrow will have to be radically different than it is today, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The education we know today as preschool, elementary and high school, and more importantly, higher education, will have to transform from the ground up and evolve at today’s exponential speeds.

According to Dr. Michelle Weise, a renowned researcher and expert in disruptive changes in higher education, the education we are offering today, in a linear fashion, with two, four or six years of learning at the beginning of a career, does not work for a turbulent job marketplace, where the average worker will be working more years, and will be changing careers several times throughout their productive life. Dr. Weise emphasizes that higher education needs to offer students numerous learning alternatives, with continuous easy access in and out of the educational system, as the student-worker evolves in his or her professional trajectory.

If higher-learning institutions have the responsibility to educate, train and develop the maximum potential of the professionals who will be leading a globalized world, mired in dizzying socioeconomic changes, then, how should the university evolve over the next decade? Let’s imagine what our universities would be like in the next 10 years.

I submit that the University of 2029 must recognize education as a basic human right, and should provide it for life, from birth until death, not parceled out and limited by time. It should offer universal access to all qualified individuals, and should be free for everyone, thus eliminating the accessibility obstacle. It should also recognize the student (regardless of age or grade level) as the center of action, allowing them to study whenever it is most convenient, anytime, anywhere.

So, again, we must ask: Is this a utopia?

The truth is that we already have the technological wherewithal to start steering our universities toward the future. The key is technology. Educational portals such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity, in addition to countless well-established universities, are already offering thousands of courses, programs and even full degrees completely online. Students study online, at their own pace and within the established parameters of the course or grade, and they can get their diploma or certificate without necessarily having to step into a classroom or campus.

Our government can become a platform for our students to access education by using a technological model like the one used by companies such as Uber (the world’s largest transportation provider, without owning a single vehicle) or Airbnb (world’s largest lodging provider, without owning a single piece of real estate). This educational platform can become the link between our students and the most advanced academic offerings around the world.

Why not start this inevitable transformation on our island today? I propose not only that we can, but that we need to do it—urgently.

The future starts today.

–Dr. Pedro Rosselló served as governor of Puerto Rico (1993-2001). He has a master’s degree in public health, a doctorate in medicine and a second doctorate in education. He is a lecturer and scholar at Universidad Ana G. Méndez, Gurabo Campus.

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