Melchor Sánchez and the challenges facing Latin American universities, in an interview for the Observatory

I think that the word ‘innovation has become so commonplace that we use it as though it were something that should permeate absolutely everything we do.
— Melchor Sánchez.

Melchor Sánchez, Coordinator of Educational Development and Curriculum Innovation at UNAM, spoke with the Observatory about the challenges facing Latin American universities and the future of education.

Read the full transcript:

Observatory: What are the main factors that curb innovation at universities?

Sánchez: I believe that one of the main factors is the lack of awareness of just how extensive the concept of innovation is. I think that the word "innovation" has become so commonplace that we use it as though it were something that should permeate absolutely everything we do. So, yes, we do need to put it in its proper dimension. I think that precisely this lack of the structure, let's call it ontological, of the concept of innovation that implies how its search terms can be categorized, makes it somewhat complex.

There are few formal research projects, some from Spain, others from North America and one that we are doing right now at the university (UNAM), that endeavor to facilitate access to what innovation really is. One of the challenges we face is the trivialization of the term in everyday life and that everything is seen as commonplace, just like the question of ''taking something to its logical conclusion'', and so on.

We need to define it realistically with concrete examples. A worthwhile approach would be to offer concrete examples that are not related to technology, to try to avoid this conflation of concepts in which the word "innovation" necessarily involves technology, when perhaps changes in behavior or in soft skills could be even more important. There’s also the lack of recognition. Well, more than the lack of recognition, it’s the complicated environments of our institutions, where if someone is highly innovative, belonging to that very small percentage of people who think "outside the box" all day long, who don’t fit in because they don’t like to follow the rules in formal organizations, that show the need to foster an appropriate environment for these people, instead of excluding them or labelling them as difficult. True innovators comprise just a very small percentage of the population.

Observatory: What role do teachers play in the future of education?

Sánchez: It’s a chameleonic, changing role. There are many models in each profession for what a teacher has to do, from behaving in terms of emotional intelligence, emotional support, following students as if they were, which in fact they are, continuations of their being and sharing an identity with them. Teacher training needs to focus increasingly on a variety of concepts, not just innovation, but, for example, creativity, motivation and things like that.

I believe that professors should view teaching as an area of study that can be improved and that also has its own “science”. However, we tend to use many of the old ways and traditions: if I teach as I was taught or evaluate as I was evaluated. As I claimed, we should definitely take advantage of the extremely abundant scientific evidence published in the world on this topic.

Observatory: What do universities in Latin America need to invest in to address the challenge of automation and the future of education?

Sánchez: I think they should invest in whatever will be most useful for what they have to do. I have seen in our countries that international companies tend to underestimate our knowledge on the subject and want to use the typical marketing strategies that have worked for them. Unfortunately, acquisitions, where there is a substantial difference between public and private institutions, are subject to a series of rules and regulations - Mexico’s Federal Public Administration, for example. Sometimes relatively simple things become a bureaucratic ordeal that slows down the acquisition of resources, driving an attitude of, "you know what, I'm not going to buy that kind of stuff".

Unfortunately, we have relatively few players, precisely because of the enormous economic value of major companies, whose current strategy, as the president of the TEC commented yesterday, is to buy all the companies they come across, giving them extraordinary power. Avoiding conflicts of interest is difficult and, I repeat, in acquisitions in Mexico there is sometimes a series of intermediaries that produce niches of corruption, which complicates things. I recommend that universities should acquire the technology that is indispensable to achieve their mission, which means being realistic and basing this acquisition on the educational requirements of their curricula, not just because it is very new and very attractive. This is what tends to happen with simulation, when they buy simulators that cost millions and then, since there was no educational planning, they are just left to gather dust or are underused or used wrongly.

Observatory: In your opinion, what will higher education be like in 2049?

Sánchez: I hope it will be more democratic, in the sense of being more accessible to everyone. In the past, studying a course at Stanford, Harvard or Yale was unthinkable and now MOOCs have completely transformed the situation and, although they have not been fully accepted by many skeptics, I think they will continue to improve and mature until all human knowledge is available to us in a very accessible way. This implies that everyone will be able to reflect on their areas of opportunity (deficiencies, in other words) and address what they need for what they do, committing to lifelong learning.