Venezuela: Forging Knowledge

Students as Entrepreneurs in Training

by | Oct 13, 2012

Venezuelan students put into practice the techniques developed by UNITEC. Independent learning stimulates construction of solid relations with others. Photo courtesy of UNITEC.

How does a student figure out how to be a petroleum engineer or a social worker? The traditional path is to study, then get an internship and finally go out into the real world. At the Universidad Tecnológica del Centro (UNITEC) in Valencia, Venezuela, we have incorporated work experience and entrepreneurship from the very beginning of a student’s studies with the idea of making students more competent in the world of professionals, business and government. Engaged students make the most of their education.

Our project-based process makes students “entrepreneurs of their own learning.” In these new roles, which apply both to teachers and students, talent is the reigning drive in the design and operation of university activities. The instruction method known as project-based learning isn’t new, but in Latin America, it’s quite innovative. It uses student teamwork to solve problems while working with professors as facilitators and bringing in outside experts.

Thus an engineering student might start to ask questions about how to design a project for regions where flooding occurs. Following up, he or she might first consult architecture students and professors, perhaps propose new courses on the subject, bring in experts from engineering, architecture and even environment, take traditional courses related to the problem, and then form professional-student teams to test the theories.

We guide our students through professional training led by business consultants with expertise relevant to each particular case. Thus, one aspect of our job as a university is to help organize learning plans developed though student initiative, as well as to develop networks and stimulate the generation of new ideas. We go beyond the regular classroom to bring more effective learning with both academic and hands-on labor aims.

Such a modular concept of university management also makes the participation of students more horizontal and central. Teams of students get involved in projects of economic utility, seeking practical results. They are evaluated on the activities associated with their learning goals. The student entrepreneur in charge of his or her own learning assumes extracurricular risks beyond standard coursework, and risk-taking is encouraged, since the evaluation of learning goes beyond a simple evaluation of grades.

Administration of Talent

Talent is a constructive and creative force both in society in general and in higher education in particular. To take advantage of talent is to devise tasks and programs that convert the efforts to learn and conduct research into results that benefit society. Taking advantage of talent is an ideological principle and a practical guide to achieving value from an academic education.

Effective university management seeks to develop talent, rather than just settle for formal educational programs. Students and professors come together to confront the complexity of the modern world and to offer solutions for improving conditions for future lives. For example, look at the enormous complexity of the environment, an area that is of enormous interest to all professions, which need to master at least the basic knowledge and capabilities of how to manage the environment on a daily basis.

A student should have enough freedom to choose, construct his or her own path of learning and to count on work teams to boost individual effort. Risk-taking is one of the opportunity costs of freely elected learning.

Learning tasks have no set limits; rather, limits are determined by the quality of the work and available resources. For the last thirty years, UNITEC has extended the limits and speed of learning well beyond the formal demands of professors and even of the university itself. Students set the highest limits.

A significant part of the administration of talent is conventional learning, as is the formal evaluation of that experience. Project-based learning encourages the construction and applications of models that make teaching more effective; it stretches the limits of learning and enhances the stimulation of evaluations.

A student’s learning plan should lead to a value commensurate with the resources invested in it, and the results obtained should continually help to evaluate the effects of the university. Independent learning—the most appreciated and ambitious goal of any educational project—stimulates construction of solid relations with others, building social capital that results in favorable conditions for more learning and for the development of business or labor networks.

Creating the Need for Learning

Students discover the need to learn from observation and the effort to understand unfamiliar subjects. This understanding may be partial or complementary when some aspects of the subject matter are familiar, or the area may be totally unknown. The task of the university is to place students in situations in which they do not feel firmly grounded and to help them develop specific questions that they need to answer in order to learn from the situation.

Creating the need for learning places the students—and implicitly the professors—into situations they know little or nothing about. They must recognize what they ought to learn and begin to do so; in this way, they discover other gaps in their knowledge, manage to plug those gaps, and then see that there is something else they need to know. It is hoped that this awareness of the need to learn will stay with them for their lifetime, and that there will always be some learning left to do—welcome and always understood as positive reinforcement.

Students—preferably on their own—should eventually be able to develop answers to the questions that arise during their learning exercises. These answers may be partial or incomplete, but they will keep on trying to get better answers.

An ideal outcome for the UNITEC model is that the need to learn, upon becoming evident, will be satisfied by taking an appropriate course as soon as possible. Another desirable scenario is that lifetime learning become available. In the context of this curriculum model, the needs for learning are like the seeds of a whole that is not yet defined, but will gradually come into being through the process of learning. There is no one road to learning: paths include courses, learning initiatives, one or more projects, humanistic studies, and opportunities to think and to act creatively while acquiring the tools to organize one’s own learning and gain the support of others in teamwork.

Learning Initiatives

Within this model, students learn to design courses with academic value and to develop content. Later, they can select a tutor who will guide them, and receive recommendations from the university to improve their learning, as well as approval of their work. This acceptance becomes part of the evaluation of academic performance in a percentage more or less equivalent to 12 percent of the total grade in any determined academic period.

Learning through initiative, however, only complements, rather than substitutes, for conventional systems of study in which the student receives mandated content and needs to demonstrate what he or she has learned.

This model implicitly encourages projects and other practices of a professional type with students and tutors ready to confront the needs to learn new skills. It attempts to create initial consciousness of problems, rather than final solutions, so that students as well as professors can figure out future programs of learning. Results obtained over the last thirty years have shown the predominance of student initiatives in many different areas, including history, art and literature, and to a lesser degree, technical specialties.

The experience of learning through initiative includes work sessions, with frequent lectures by experts invited by the students themselves to talk about new trends in specific fields. Marketing, management, computer science and humanities are the preferred topics.

Carrying Out Projects

Student-led projects, directed by business consultants associated with the university for this purpose, develop themes in several fields, including humanities and interdisciplinary studies that contribute to professional development. Projects also involve making up multidisciplinary work groups in which students from different fields can acquire awareness about content and reach of extraordinary tasks and gain practical experience.

In interviews, university alumni emphasize the enormous importance that these projects had in their professional development, pointing out that their experience has allowed them to try out new things in the labor force or business field.

UNITEC students incorporate the idea of being entrepreneurs of their own learning into their everyday life, and when they feel some gap exists in what the university offers, they use the entrepreneurial concept to demand a higher quality of education, professional performance and valuable relationships within and outside the university.

Carrying out projects with this model in mind reinforces throughout the course of studies the acquisition of basic work competencies, then professional competencies in each area of study and also emotional maturity. Even students who leave the university at the beginning of their studies have already developed some professional abilities.

Key Roles

Students who take on greater challenges than those taking ordinary courses are considered “practicing” professionals who are preparing themselves better. They receive opportunities to participate in learning situations of a professional nature, and with this, to stimulate the development of the needs to learn. Other components of this value chain are the following: 

  • To acquire a sense of professional risk;
  • To better appreciate learning; 
  • To use available information as part of a continuous and inevitable process of answering questions;
  • To submit on a regular basis to the judgment of other than their professors in academic disciplines;
  • To more adequately evaluate data and information with a statistical basis;
  • To give key roles to students in order to give them a sense of importance, of emulation of outstanding role models, and to provide a context in which their decisions can have accepted value and a foreseeable effect;
  • To outline and formulate a life project filled with components tied to the university and the general environment.

For example, outstanding students play a key role in the processes of integrating new students to the university. The idea is that new students will eventually also contribute to projects with social utility, so they must be carefully selected and prepared. The exceptional students may also serve as representatives of students and professors in important activities outside the university.

This model can be used in the design of new universities, as well as in reforms of existing universities. It has already been applied at several universities, following the example of UNITEC. The model can be implemented in stages and in a partial manner. It’s important to point out that it’s possible to take advantage of its ideas and concepts within an existing curriculum, without requiring any administrative overhaul.

Fall 2012Volume XII, Number 1

César Peña Vigas is president of the UNITEC Foundation and the founding rector of the Universidad Tecnológica del Centro (UNITEC) in Valencia, Venezuela.

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