Category : erai

The death of the amphitheater

amphiAsserting that it could be replaced by videos distributed via the Web seems to have condemned lecturing from the chair together with the amphitheater. Being pushed in the forefront by the MOOC movement, videos would close all lecture halls, students would become active in their learning. In short it would revolutionize teaching and send the traditional university in the dungeon. Moreover, it would make big savings by recovering these spaces and allowing one single teacher, the best one if possible, to teach worldwide via the Internet. A dream for those considering the university as any capitalist enterprise: investment and productivity gain!

Yet it is not so simple. Is the amphitheater really dead, watching videos will really replace it? And more generally can technology solve all the troubles of teaching and learning in the 21st century?

It is fashionable to illustrate conferences with images of the old times, showing students asleep in front of a distinguished professor delivering his course from the pulpit, meaning that “nothing has changed “. I could not resist illustrating this blog with a very well known picture. Look at it carefully. The teacher is reading his notes, not caring at all about his students. Some sleep, some read another book – today they would watch their tablets and computers.

My experience is much more nuanced. I was lucky, as a student and as a teacher in Science, to work in small amphitheaters; however I recognize that, even in the presence of a few dozen people, a one-way discourse may be rather boring. The university of Oxford, also, which has an exceptional tradition of providing to each student a personal tutor, who follows him/her continuously, see amphitheaters being deserted. This phenomenon is widespread in all Western countries.

Does this mean that courses delivered from the chair in the amphitheater are obsolete and should vanish?

Curiously some students resist: when we set up, in 2007 in my university, live broadcast lectures so that the students whom we could not accommodate in one theater only, could follow their courses from home, the rumor ran that we would suppress the lecture and deliver only videos. The Dean had to come down in the amphitheater to overturn this rumor. Yet this teaching was quite grotesque: the capacity of the hall is limited to 500 students and we enrolled more than 2000 in that course so that we had to establish a rotation of groups so that everyone could attend periodically some of the lectures. Students were worried about the disappearance of the face-to-face time and the amphitheater was always packed, when, at the same time, a thousand of those from the other groups, followed from a distance, mostly in real time! The same attitude was noted at EPFL, in Lausanne, a pioneer in Europe in the use of MOOCs. They have suppress a number of parallel courses in the first year of study and many students gather in their beautiful Rolex center, to watch the videos of their courses instead of the past amphitheater presentation. However some do not appreciate this new way of delivering knowledge. EPFL officials are not convinced that they will never suppress all first year amphitheaters.

So the good old amphitheater is not dead. Imaginative teachers have sought ways to make it more lively and students more active. Among the most innovative ideas, the use of clickers individual boxes or smartphones. The course is divided into short sequences of about 15 minutes and, in between, the teacher asks questions and makes the participants vote with their device. Responses are anonymous, so no risk of feeling ridiculous in front of their comrades; it’s fun because the questions are short, simple in appearance and it regularly breaks the rhythm. The pedagogy becomes active. One may build interactive scenarios where students must work together with their neighbors, then confirm or change their previous vote and invent many other activities. Students engage in a real active thinking: this shows that flipped pedagogy can be used in the traditional amphitheater. For those objecting that not all students possess smartphones and that providing clickers is expensive, there is a cheaper way: students can vote by showing one of four different colored circles printed on a piece of paper. An app, on an Android smartphone allows the teacher to count the votes photographing the audience.

Does this mean that video is unnecessary, at least for students on campus? Absolutely not! Our experience, shared by many colleagues, is that recording a course improves the quality of learning. Students no longer frantically take notes. They know that if their notes are incomplete, they can always come back later to the video. They listen better and the teachers earn a lot of freedom because he can afford additional illustrations, knowing that all students can pick them up in online videos.

Confrontation of ideas in face-to-face exchanges remains an important dimension in education. Technology is a big opportunity to transform the pedagogy but does not improve teaching and learning by itself. What is important is how it is used. The same applies to the old approach and I strongly believe that they have go together in the future.

We have so much in common!

indexA long time since my last post! June was a time of traveling, not only EUNIS congress but also many others in my own country as well as in Europe. Then vacation time!

Dundee was a wonderful conference well organized, wonderful time and full of friendship. I love EUNIS congresses and I did not miss one since the first one in Düsseldorf in 1995. They are so many things, which, in my opinion, make EUNIS congresses a fruitful event.

The first reason is the quality of the presentations. In the early age of EUNIS the main objective was to discover what was going on in each country and most presentations were about the state of the art in the different European countries. It took some years to go a step further. To achieve the quality of these last years congresses and the variety of the subjects a few additional years were needed and I am proud to say that today EUNIS congresses are a major event in Europe. It is certainly one of the best place to have a broad view, in one location only, of the most advanced features about all aspects of IT in Higher Education in Europe. There are many excellent events all around but often with a narrower scope. EUNIS congress is unique in Europe!

A second reason is the size of the attendance. The largest attendance was 450 about, the smallest one 250. It is rather sensitive to facts such as the complexity to come to the location and the price of the travel. However these last years EUNIS did not suffer too much from the restriction in the travel budget experienced in most European universities. EUNIS is the right size: small enough to meet and exchange with all the people, large enough to attract good papers but not so many, so that we do not need to multiply the number of parallel tracks. Already these last years I had to make difficult choices among exciting presentations running in parallel. Congresses were 10 or more parallel tracks are running in parallel are a nightmare: how to make a good choice, what will I be missing?

The last and most important reason is the friendship: it is so warm to meet again people and to continue a chat from the last year, learning more about new ideas, continuing projects and everyday life since the last encounter. Organizing the congress inside a university building adds a lot to this atmosphere. We are in a real place with real people and I am always curious to see other universities from the inside. I do not wish that our meetings becoming so large so that we should move to impersonal congress centers. We would lose this atmosphere. EUNIS congresses are a place to meet people and must remain so.

However I have some regrets. Most people attend international conferences, such as EUNIS and national congresses only. Very few go to local meetings beyond their frontiers in other countries in Europe. We eventually look the other side of the Atlantic but that is all. There is certainly much to learn from MIT or Harvard but it is difficult to implement their ideas in view of the difference of budget, a real unbridgeable chasm! One of the main reasons is that most communications, at national level, are delivered in the native languages, which is fully normal because it is natural and allows much more people to express themselves. Europe is made of many countries with many languages and we must preserve this richness. However it would be a good idea, for some meetings, to organize some “international sessions” with papers delivered in English, so that European partners could attend. At the same time it would be a good training opportunity for our young people, who might be afraid to speak English in international congresses. Thus my demand to you is to suggest to the organizers of some meetings, in your own country, to establish such sessions. This suggestion is also true for our English native colleagues.

Attending a national congress in another country will give you another insight of what is going on in this country. You will meet a number of people who seldom attend international congresses, too shy to expose their work to an international audience. Moreover the tendency is to discuss broadly problems and solutions and not only to show the edge of the work being done. I was invited this year to meetings in UK and Finland and it was very rewarding to listen about every day difficulties and to discover how they were solved. It was the same for the meetings I attended in France and I thought it would be worthwhile for an international audience to listen to these modest people who do a wonderful job in their own corner.

Thus take the opportunity to discuss this suggestion with your colleagues at the next EUNIS event that you will attend. Use EUNIS media to publicize your events, the big ones like the modest ones. Remember that, we at EUNIS, we want to build the bridge among people in Europe. Organize sessions in English in your own country and invite your pairs.

It will take time to attract people but it is worthwhile to be patient. We have so much in common!



CHEITA Complexity Index

The Coalition of Higher Education Information Technology Associations (CHEITA) comprises representatives from associations throughout the world that promote the use of information technology in higher education. CHEITA was established in 2011 to share best practice across member associations and, by extension, the individual institutions that make up those associations. EUNIS has taken an active part of this group.

As a subset of CHEITA the CHEITA Benchmarking Working Group was created to explore the viability of benchmarking IT in higher education on a global scale and identify a way to undertake such an initiative. The result of those efforts was the development of the CHEITA Global Complexity Index described in a paper that was published this summer

Digital Transformation in Higher Education – The game is on

Like most industries, the higher education sector has been exploiting information technology in different ways for years. While we have seen a number of interesting changes, such as the increased use of learning management systems and the broader application of computing facilities in many research disciplines, the impact of information technology has still been very limited. Education and research are following their traditional approaches even when using technical tools. The entire community and its institutions are very similar to what they have been for centuries.

But we can see changes arising. There is a new generation of students and academics with entirely new expectations when it comes to the use of ICT. In addition, there are other external factors that boost the change. Financial pressure is one of them: ICT provides cheaper ways to deal with administrative tasks as well as educational activities. Globalization is another factor: modern communications technologies and the availability of high-quality mobile devices allow both teaching and research work to be conducted with fewer dependencies on time and location.

There are already visible signs of change. Some companies and institutions are trying to break the established business models in the higher education industry. For example, there are already a number of institutions offering on-line degrees covering a broad range of subjects. Some high-end institutions set the price tag for their on-line programs at the same level with their on-campus degrees but, increasingly, institutions tend to charge significantly less for an on-line degree compared to its traditional equivalent.

What are the options for an institution to address this change? There are at least three directions to look at:

  • Externally visible changes such as on-line degree programs,
  • Changes in internal operations to exploit new technology, and
  • Changes affecting directly the core of higher education: teaching, learning and research.

External activities

New technology is increasingly visible in the external image of higher education institutions. Typically, the on-line presence of institutions is being extended beyond simple home pages. This may include, for example, student recruitment through social media, offering degree programs with partial or full on-line participation possibilities, and an increased use of on-line tools in creating the student experience.

So far, the most visible external activity has been the creation of Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs). They have been around a few years now and they have set a new standard for on-line teaching. We have seen both commercial initiatives and non-profit initiatives, including an increasing number of national approaches, such as the France Université Numérique (FUN). So far, however, higher education institutions have not changed their way of working, and MOOCs seem still to be a digression from their main stream activities. But there are signs that the picture may change especially in the US. Yves Epelboin has been investigating this topic recently in his EUNIS blog.

Business transformation has already started in domains that are close to the higher education business. For example, on-line language learning is increasing rapidly with the proliferation of different approaches ranging from communities of millions of members (e.g. the Livemocha community claims to have over 16 million members) to highly successful individuals that have collected thousands of followers, such as the Français Authentique community ( While these examples are not a direct threat to higher education institutions, they offer an interesting preview to the possibilities created by modern technology.

Internal actions

While internal activities are not directly visible to the outside world, they are typically needed to enable changes that will eventually bring in the benefits of the digital era for teaching, learning and research. For example, existing administrative processes can often be automated or turned into self-service activities that users can access through the web. In particular, the use of mobile phones has rapidly increased on all areas of life, and the same will probably take place in universities. This will bring a lot of benefits for both the end users and the service organization.

There is also a need to increase the support for integration. This typically requires an infrastructure that glues IT applications together in the background. While the gluing itself is not visible to the end users, they will benefit from the integration indirectly as the applications will be able to use each other’s data and functionality. Also, integration between IT systems is a prerequisite for advanced automation.

An important area of internal actions is also the development of new capabilities for coping with change. In the past, IT projects took months and years to implement but, today, this is no longer acceptable. As the use of digital tools is directly visible in the daily life of end users, they want to have the IT project results at their disposal as soon as possible, and a delay of weeks or months would be a disaster in many cases. Consequently, the organization must learn to provide quick solutions and this often means changes in the way projects are carried out.

There may also be a need to change the IT organization and the governance model to support more user-focused and agile way of working. In many cases, this means a tighter integration of the IT unit with the rest of the organization. This may be challenging due to the traditional technical background of the IT staff, but it is the only way to reach the required level of co-operation.

Changes in teaching, learning and research

Digital transformation is also directly affecting the core of higher education. Within teaching and learning, some institutions are focusing on blended learning and flipped classrooms whereas others are inclined towards pure on-line learning. In both cases, current learning management tools can already provide a good start but, typically, teachers are not currently exploiting the tools to their full potential. In addition, research and development work is ongoing to create new interesting features, such as the ability of the tools to adapt to the learners’ individual characteristics. The increased use of intelligent tools and learning analytics may lead to a pedagogical transformation.

On the research side, the digital transformation will bring new elements for computationally intensive research work. This will include, among other things, tools for simulation, modeling and data analysis. Such tools have been available for technical research disciplines for years, but their use is being extended towards less technical domains, such as humanities and other similar disciplines. As a result, there will be a need for a much more user-friendly combination of tools and methodologies.

The fact that the world is turning digital has also other consequences for the research work. Research data sets will be a valuable asset in the future competition between research teams. Methodologies and tools will be needed for creating, capturing and reusing data sets. The need for such methodologies is being boosted by the European Union as they require research data to be opened up in Horizon 2020 calls.

Finally, the research process itself will benefit from the use of digital tools for supporting the management, reporting, collaboration and other activities in research projects. For the individual researcher, this will reduce the amount of administrative work and, for the institution, the result is a more accurate way to manage and follow up the research work taking place in different parts of the organization.

It’s time to take action

There is clearly an imperative for change and ignoring it would be a gross mistake. Digital capabilities will be a key success factor in the increasingly competitive higher education landscape, and failure to develop such capabilities will have serious consequences. Some institutions have already drafted separate digital strategies and others have included the use of digital technologies in their institutional strategies, but most of them haven’t made up their minds. It’s time to take action now.

The good thing about the digital future is the fact that we don’t know what it will bring to us. Consequently, the best approach today is to start exploring and experimenting with those elements that are best suited for each institution. As this blog illustrates, there are a lot of options to choose from and, consequently, each institution will have to select its preferred approach for starting the digital transformation.

UNIVERSITIC: IT Survey in Spanish and Latin America Universities

The knowledge society that Europe designed in Lisbon is based on a modern higher education system with innovative methods and resources. Universities that were pioneering in introducing computation and Internet for research have been walking fast to adopt information technology (IT) in three levels: teaching, management and government.

In Spain, this evolution has sometimes lacked of assessments and of lightness. For this reason, the IT Committee of the Spanish Association of University Rectors (CRUE in Spanish set of initials), in 2004, drove the establishment of an inquest, called UNIVERSITIC, in order to achieve a global assessment of IT in universities that includes: IT description, IT Management and IT Governance.

The results of the first year’s survey showed that Spanish Universities, in general had adopted a compromised stance with the aim of incorporating and use of IT, but frequently this compromise was more reactive than proactive, more improvised than planned.

Ten years later, this survey has been improved and now also includes the Latin America area. Current results indicate that universities usually plan IT implementation and they are aware of the need to achieve best practices both in IT management and in IT governance. So the UNIVERSITIC survey and its results are very useful for the Spanish and Latin American universities and we hope it could become a good reference for European Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) too.

Read full paper