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Victor Saquicela: Why should we travel through the digital route towards the Smart University?

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In the context of universities, the digital route, through the transformation of ICT services, aims to convert traditional universities into intelligent digital universities, obtaining improvements and satisfaction for the different types of users that make up the University in these times of the digital age, in such a way that significant resources are contributed to training and education.

In 2020, in the context of the global pandemic, the big question that arose in mid-March in Ecuador was: Are universities digitally prepared to face the pandemic and continue to provide academic and administrative services to its university community? The answer basically  depends on the infrastructure that the universities have and on the fast action of their technology departments. These proceeded to allocate more resources to their virtual platforms; Since, from one day to the next, there was a transition from face-to-face to virtual teaching, videoconferencing platforms were activated to maintain activities and continue with the development of content. In the same way, the necessary technical actions were carried out so that all the information systems are available to administrative personnel and, thus, they could access from their homes to continue executing their daily activities and maintaining active the different services that they allow continuity to institutional processes.

Another great question was related to the students: Are students technologically prepared for the pandemic? Basically, the answer depends on whether the student has the necessary tools in terms of technology, as well as optimal Internet connectivity or not. In the case of public institutions, this has probably been the greatest inconvenience that occurred in mid-March, since the lack of infrastructure at the national level was evident; this, due to the limited bandwidth that students have in their residences, due, among other factors, to the high cost of Internet plans offered by national providers and which is still far from first world countries.

In addition, the Ecuadorian reality in terms of the number of people living in a dwelling and taking into account that many of the members use the Internet service for different activities, in most cases, caused connectivity to be shared between several devices, which generates a decrease in the quality of the service. Likewise, there is the specific case of public sector students who do not have a personal computer, which prompted the university authorities to execute a plan that allowed them to transfer computer equipment as a temporary loan, so that the students could continue with the development of their learning activities. Additionally, in order to solve the problem of Internet connectivity, the authorities arranged with some mobile phone operators, the allocation of plans at affordable prices and, in some cases, donations to low-income students.

In this context, it is evident that Ecuadorian universities have been forced, suddenly, to make a leap towards digital transformation. This has caused methodological processes not to be applied to obtain high levels of maturity in the change process. Among the great challenges that arise, is the transition process, by users of the university community, towards learning a digital culture, based on the ICT services that have been made available.

This process of change and transition implies the accelerated learning and use of new technologies. As for the technology departments, the use of the different services are generating large amounts of data, which implies the execution of data analysis processes, generating, in turn, the application of strong research and innovation processes that allow making decisions, mainly related to Big Data technologies, ICT Management and digital governance processes, among others.

Universities continue to work, as far as possible, in a virtual and blended way; providing their administrative services in the form of teleworking, and teachers teaching their classes through digital platforms.

It is worth a final reflection in the Ecuadorian context, if we want smart digital universities, this implies investment in different areas such as technological infrastructure, training, among others, which is why the application of budget reduction policies in the area of education is currently not relevant, and, on the contrary, investment in this sector is imminent.

Víctor Hugo Saquicela Galarza is a Teacher/Researcher and Director of Information and Communication Technologies at the University of Cuenca, Ecuador.