Podcast Transcript: Higher Education in Latin America: Lessons from an Innovative University in Mexico

Minerva Project
March 13, 2023

Inside Voices is an event series organized by Minerva Project that features candid conversations with education leaders who are transforming education, whether building new programs and institutions or radically changing existing ones. The conversations center around the journey of transformation, showcasing the often bumpy process that includes both triumphs and challenges.

In this episode, moderated by Sharan Chandradath Singh, Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at Minerva Project, panelists Fernando Valenzuela, Founding Partner at Global Impact EdTech Alliance, and Jorge Diaz Cuervo, Rector of the Universidad de la Libertad, share their perspective on innovation in Latin American higher education and their journey to create a new university in Mexico from the ground up.

The conversation has been abridged for length. You can listen to the full recording here.

Sharan Singh: Fernando, I'm going to go to you first with a context setting question. Can you give us a brief overview of the higher education sector in Latin America right now? What is the current situation and what challenges and pressures is the sector in Latin America dealing with right now?

Fernando Valenzuela: Let me start by saying that Latin America is really living through probably the biggest crisis in history in education. There is a very recent study from The Economist that states that Latin America is one of the regions that has the largest share of students that cannot read or understand what they're reading in the world. With that we are finding many students from high school, lacking the foundational knowledge needed to college level or university level. So that is a big, big issue going on in the region.

Let me situate a little bit in Mexico right now. So Mexico has an average access to higher education of about 37-38 percent of the population, but if you compare that to other countries, the more developed countries, you're going to see countries that have 60, 70, 80% of access in the population. You're going to see over 3,500 higher ed institutions only in Mexico. So there is a complex environment. There are a number of challenges that call for radical decisions. To really embrace innovation, education has to change from becoming a finite game, to becoming a more of an infinitive game, where you learn for a number of years.

SS: Well, that's a perfect segue into part B of my question to you, Fernando, which is, with the very specific challenges and the pressure that's been put on the system, from friction is born innovation. Where is innovation happening in Latin America right now? And is it happening specifically within higher education and traditional universities, or outside of that environment?

FV: So I would say there are a number of forces happening. So you have all of the strength of the MOOCs that already changed this idea of having a lot of information, a lot of data, millions of students, and it will surprise you to see the level of market share that the MOOCs have from Latin America. You see millions of Latin American students trying to reskill, upskill, find knowledge that they wouldn’t typically find in the universities. On the other end of the spectrum, you're going to have the bootcamps. You're going to  have models that are growing, and are developing employability skills in 3 months, in 6 months. Very intensive – looking for programming capabilities, digital media capabilities, and are connecting with the work that the universities are probably missing.

So what happens is that the universities are required to take the best from the MOOCs, the best from the bootcamps, and develop in the middle some sort of collaboration. I always say that the innovation is not going to come from technology, but it's going to come from different collaboration models: a more radical set of connections between traditional universities and a new ecosystem. It's about hybrid learning, more flexibility, more digital integration, new products, short courses, industry collaboration, and new partnerships.

SS: So, Jorge, you have described Universidad de la Libertad as a disruptor of the traditional model, that you’re breaking the mold. You're creating this university in a very different way. You're employing partnership and collaboration deeply in setting up this institution. Can you give a brief overview of the concept of the new university, and how it's different from existing institutions?

Jorge Diaz Cuervo: We believe that students today are victims of an obsolete educational system that resists change. So if a learning environment is wonderful, it's motivating, or it's supposed to be invigorating, why do students want to finish as soon as possible? So we believe something must be wrong with that system. New generations know that they are wasting their time, and they are demanding something different. We believe that “memorize to repeat” is useless. That linear accumulation of information is also useless. Instead, we believe that developing skills to be a good observer, to understand changing environments, and to act when opportunities arise, is what works nowadays. So we have developed with our partners an intense and demanding educational model based on the development of skills and abilities: to think systematically and connect ideas with creativity in contexts that are permanently evolving.

SS:  Could you briefly describe what specifically the university is delivering, what makes those programs distinctive and unique, because I know the structure of the programs is quite different from what you would see in a traditional university.

JDC: Sure. So let me point out three elements that make us different.

First of all, flexibility. In our program, each student defines its path, and its rhythm. If you want to take off one year to start up your own business, or to study abroad, or to have a job experience, there's no punishment. In addition to our BA program in innovation and business, students will receive digital badges in blockchain technology for courses, sequences, and diplomas. So you don't have to wait four years to get your certification, to go out and find a job, you're going to be receiving digital badges or insignias that can show the world that you are learning something, that you have certain abilities throughout the world. And if you get your BA diploma, fine. If not, if that's not what you need, that's okay with us.

Second, is high-impact experiential learning. As you know, we're part of Grupo Salinas, one of the biggest and most important economic conglomerates in Mexico City. So we want this to be a real dual program. So we want to offer real job experiences, structure, and align to our taxonomy and learning objectives, so that courses will be accredited while working. And also our course leads, facilitators, mentors, and speakers, a very high percentage are going to come from the talented experience of Grupo Salinas' top executives.  

A third characteristic of our program is what we call a “phygital” delivery of our educational products. We are in the final stage of building our campus, designed by Rosan Bosch. She's a very renowned architect specialized in designing educational spaces. So our campus has, for example, six different learning spaces to discover, to encounter, to change, for creation, for tutoring, and for concentration. But we will also be working with a digital platform, Forum from Minerva, which allows us to have a mix of virtual experiences, in-person experiences, and in-person plus virtual experiences. And this all goes through an assessment process, within the Forum platform, that ensures us that the learning objectives and the pedagogy is correctly put forward.

SS: Fernando, what were the core principles, or the best practices, that you and your colleagues followed when you were coming up with the conceptualization of this new university?

FV: We went into the Institute for the Future to design futures, we talked to over 40 of the leaders that are creating pieces of these disruptive new voices of higher education. So our aim was to provoke a reflection, propose new thinking processes, around some established ideas, but some original ones. We identified these references, practices, these new technologies. And we basically came up with a few conclusions.

For instance, if you look at education today, there are still a number of institutions that try to teach you how to do things. There are also a number of institutions that are trying to teach you what to do. And today we believe that we need to teach people “why.” And the “why” is very, very relevant. So we started from that. The idea was that we could design something that has a physical space, but with intention. If you're going to move yourself to a physical space after COVID, you cannot go into a “classroom.”

The idea is that you're going to find a place where you're going to flow in your learning. If you look at education today, you find elements which are very frustrating. When you don't do well in education, you tend to leave, instead of trying it again. And when you do well, you say “I'm done, I already achieved my diploma.” So what happens if we bring concepts where, when you fail, it’s because you need to get more skills or to get connected with someone else. So this idea of, you don't learn only from a teacher, you have other mentors, you have people that are practitioners. The idea is that when you are failing to learn, you realize that you need additional skills, you need to collaborate, you need to find other people, and when you win, when you're doing good, that means that you can aim higher.  

SS: So one of the big questions I had is when you went through that process in the early stages of conceptualization, how did you prioritize and select what you would focus on?

FV: That was one of the key decisions, why we decided that Minerva had the right mix between pedagogy and technology – by the way you designed the active learning processes, the experiential learning processes, connecting the taxonomy of the skills that you wanted to build with the right technology. This is why we looked at the University as an ecosystem. We have to connect from the outside – bring it in. But we're not creating a replica of Minerva or a replica of other Rosan Bosch projects or Universidad Marroquin in Guatemala, we are creating a very unique identity.

And that is what is going to make any university different. We're going to have different layers. You cannot lose what makes you different. And the decision that we had to make was, where do we start? How do we make this a legitimate organization? Because what happens is, the traditional segment in education would probably come and say, yeah, a new university. We've been here for 200 years, and why would students do something different? Well, because we're meaningful for the future. This is a serious institution, backed by science, backed by technology, but just created under different assumptions that are more modern and more realistic to what the world needs today.

SS: There is so much opportunity in the ability to innovate right now in higher education, and you have the benefit, as we had at Minerva University many years ago, of a blank slate to be able to build from scratch. So Jorge, tell us a bit about what have been your main challenges in bringing something that is very bold and ambitious in concept, to life.

JDC: Let me just give you one example of the challenges you have to deal with. For example, accreditation with our local authorities, with our Ministry of Education. Of course, translating a disruptive and innovative educational program for government officials, with no motivation to change their point of view, and to do it in a short period of time, was a challenge. I mean, this translation of something completely new, completely bold, completely disruptive. And these officials who are used to doing the same over and over again, and in a very traditional way, was quite a challenge.

Another challenge that we are facing, for example, and we're working on it, it's not really solved yet, is creating this “phygital” experience. We're talking of taking the best of both worlds – of the digital world and of the in-person world – and turning that into immersive learning experiences. Taking out the best of what the digital instruments offer, but also understanding the importance of in-person work and networking, and working physically with people on campus, is quite a challenge.

SS: I imagine that everyone who is in the traditional system has experienced the tension between having ideas to push bold innovation, and meeting the firm wall that is regulatory requirements, restrictions, and accreditation. How, with such a distinctive approach, are you navigating the complexities of getting these programs accredited, and also in such a short time?

JDC: You have to be very creative to go through these hurdles, these official accreditation processes. For example, we decided to have an LMS called Neo in the middle between Forum and the Mexican authorities. Why? Because they have worked with Neo. So it was easier for them to give us the accreditation if we use Neo as our LMS. So what we are doing is, we're translating Forum into Neo and Neo to our accreditors. So you have to be very creative, and find the way to do that.

SS: So you created a bridge, a virtual bridge, as a way to circumvent the lengthy process, to find a way to translate the uniqueness of what you are doing into a language that they understood. I'd like to ask you both, Fernando and Jorge, two wrap up questions. So Fernando, with you first. How do you think that Libertad will provoke systemic change in Mexican higher ed, and really in Latin American higher education?

FV: It has been a challenge, and if you look at the opportunity that we had – this is the legacy of someone that has decided to disrupt major industries in Mexico – the telecommunication industry, the banking industry, the retail industry, the entertainment industry. So if we are able to say, this can be the first demonstration that education can be truly disruptive, and can be truly changed, without losing the background of what you're trying to learn and why you're learning. This whole idea that the universities need to stay the way they are, because they've always worked – we're going to have to change that.

This level of design and this level of discussion is not happening anymore in the traditional universities, because they just follow the rules. I don't know of any government in the world that is designed to innovate. So innovation is always going to be in the forefront, and regulation is always going to be in the back. So what we're trying to do is create the first seed of something that is truly disruptive, but truly relevant for the students. And we're aiming for these millions of students where the system is failing them. And I think this is what's going to create a systemic change.

Also, this is not a model that is going to sit for a year being exactly the same. It's going to continuously evolve. And those small differences are not happening in traditional education, because they typically will not evolve with this type of speed.

SS: Jorge, I'm going to ask you the same question. You are the person who's driving the very large bus. How do you envisage this project and this institution, driving systemic change at the national and regional level?

JDC: Well, I think that if we succeed in terms of showing that there are new ways to teach and there are new ways to learn, there can be learning processes that can be shaped with freedom and liberty by each student, instead of imposing just one path or the “right path.” If we can show that a free learning environment, where we treat our students as individuals who want to explore in their own way, in their own interests, and that creates value for them and for society, I think we will be pulling the rest of the educational system to change. I know it's difficult, institutions have been there for decades, centuries in some cases. They are used to doing things in a certain way, and people involved in the process are not very eager to change the way they do it. So it's also a cultural change in terms of how we understand the learning process, and, like Fernando, said, we don't want four-year learning processes. We want lifelong learning processes, and at Universidad de la Libertad, we try to say it often, you can come and go for the rest of your life. We are not interested in having you tied to our chairs and desks for four years and never seeing you again.  We want to offer you a space where you can learn throughout your whole life, different experiences, real world experiences, academic experiences, digital experiences, networking experiences that can really help you be a good observer of your context, contexts that are always changing, environments that are always changing. But if we give you the skills to think systematically, to have complex thinking, arithmetic thinking. If we help you learn how to communicate efficiently, how to negotiate, how to solve problems, then you will be successful in any field you want to develop throughout your life. So if we can show that this is possible, then we might help conservative or traditional institutions to try to move this way too.

SS: Gentlemen, thank you so much for these insights. It's been quite eye opening and engaging.

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