Making A Difference: Maintaining Academic Excellence in Latin American Universities

By Elizabeth Langosy

The Iniciativa para el Desarrollo de la Innovación Académica (IDIA), a teaching and learning initiative of LASPAU, helps higher education institutions in Latin America address the perennial question of how to maintain academic excellence.

The role of universities has changed with the shift from industrial to knowledge economies, which demand a more versatile labor force than was needed in the past. Along with acquiring knowledge in their fields, students must develop competencies, such as critical thinking, that are transferable to any discipline and that stay with them beyond their university years. Both new and longstanding institutions must respond to the call for an enhanced learning experience in order to attract and retain students.

The majority of programs implemented by LASPAU over the past forty years have provided grants for graduate studies in the United States to faculty of Latin American and Caribbean universities. Many of the universities that benefited from these efforts— designed to provide professors with enhanced expertise in their disciplines—are now returning to LASPAU to seek assistance in strengthening the pedagogical skills of their faculty and creating more effective learning environments for their students.

Through IDIA, LASPAU partners with universities to develop tailored programs that foster effective teaching and learning. These efforts take many forms, including (among others) dialogues to assess institutional needs, conferences on specific issues, faculty workshops, academic visits for administrators, and online training through an innovative learning system. Successful efforts begin with an institutional commitment to change, which is why each program is designed in conjunction with the university. The program then belongs to the university and grows its roots within it.

The heart of IDIA’s efforts lies in an integrated approach to institutional development. At the classroom level, a well-designed syllabus is seen as critical to ensuring that both professors and students become engaged in the goals of a course and the competencies to be developed through it. To animate the syllabus, the professor selects methodologies from a range of pedagogical techniques acquired through IDIA. At the institutional level, IDIA staff members work with university leaders to design mechanisms to ensure that resources are shared and concerns are addressed, create opportunities for faculty to discuss teaching and learning, and develop a faculty evaluation system that provides meaningful data about learning achievements. The end goal is a sustainable culture of teaching excellence and effective learning at the university.

IDIA’s work in Latin America began in 2006 with the Séneca Program for Teaching Excellence at the Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana (UNITEC) in Honduras. Through a workshop in Cambridge and a subsequent effort that enabled workshop participants to train other UNITEC faculty, the program accomplished a wide range of institutional goals. By November 2007, a new syllabus model fostering student-centered learning was in the process of implementation, 50%half of the 250 UNITEC faculty members had been trained in active learning techniques, and a culture of teaching excellence had been strengthened through interactive forums that ensure ongoing quality in teaching and learning.

In 2007, other initiatives have been developed through IDIA to address the unique special needs of partner institutions. At the Universidad de Monterrey in Mexico, a one-day conference was held to open a dialogue on teaching and learning excellence among faculty and administrators. A four-day academic visit designed for the Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez (UAI) in Chile enabled UAI leaders to meet with experts on teaching and learning at New England’s top universities, including Harvard. To strengthen the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas in Mexico, a Leadership Program for Academic and Administrative Deans was developed, with an initial workshop held in Tamaulipas in September 2007 and a second in Cambridge in December.

To foster institution-wide teaching excellence at the Universidad de las Americas (UDLA) in Chile, a private university with 2,000 faculty members and over 25,000 students on six campuses, LASPAU has partnered with Iris Stammberger, a cognitive scientist whose work has focused on knowledge acquisition and creation, to provide an innovative method of large-scale training. Dr. Stammberger has developed the Teaching and Learning Body of Knowledge (TALBOK), a learning system that uses the tools and techniques of cognitive engineering.

The TALBOK is a map that identifies what makes learning environments effective. It gives participants the tools and techniques needed to create those environments and exposes them to best practices at the global level. The TALBOK is customized for each university in a way that allows it to capture, articulate, and share its own best practices. A percentage of faculty trained in the TALBOK go on to become TALBOK facilitators through additional training in leadership strategies, coaching techniques, and group dynamics. In the case of UDLA, the faculty trained as TALBOK facilitators will work in teams to train a significant number of additional professors using the structured TALBOK curriculum and a companion self-paced online learning tool. The result is cohesive and effective institutional transformation.

IDIA is providing a means for students, faculty, and administrators at universities throughout Latin America to reflect on teaching and learning issues and to implement change in a way that best meets the specific needs of an institution. IDIA is also a vehicle through which best practices in effective teaching and learning are provided to Latin American universities with the goal of improving the academic experiences of students and their long-term professional success. In the end, the improvement in student outcomes will better position the countries of region to meet the human resource needs of knowledge economies.


Elizabeth Langosy
 is the associate director for communications at LASPAU (the Harvard-based Academic and Professional Programs for the Americas). For more information on IDIA, please visit www.laspau.harvard.edu/idia/