Internet Universities

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
29 January, 2019
Editorial: 276
Fecha de publicación original: 17 julio, 2001

When the shepherds argue you’ll find out where the cheese is

Despite all the media coverage about university summer schools, one recent event received very little media attention and seemed to come and go almost unannounced. This was the “Universidad de Verano Campus-Ti, Ciencia y Tecnología” (The University Summer School -IT – Information Technology), held in Valencia from 2-13 July. It was the first time that a campus of this kind had been organised in Spain and the aim was to address the pressing need for finding a common ground that would bring disciplines essential to the development of the Information Society together: systems engineers, computer scientists or telecommunications engineers, on the one hand, and the world of digital communication, the economy, sociology, education and anthropology, on the other. And there, to adorn the affair, was Nicholas Negroponte, who gave the inaugural speech. MediaLab’s director did his bit by pointing out the urgent need for hybridising knowledge areas which, strange as it may seem, hardly touch sides yet.

Campus-TI is the fruit borne of an encounter between the Asociación E3 Futura and the Universitat Politecnica de Valencia. The latter organised the academic content. The course took place in Valencia’s Príncipe Felipe Museum, a magnificent building designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, which forms part of “La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias” (“The City of Arts and Science”) Complex in this capital city of the Levante. Over a period of 10 days, more than 600 students ranging in age from 23 to 60 years old, divided their time among four large areas: Networks (infrastructures), The Information Society, Security and Electronic Commerce.

Apart from the academic nature of the event, what made it much more significant was the fact that telecommunications made contact with communications in the digital environment. This remains a problem to be addressed by all branches of engineering, despite everything that has happened over the last few years. Our economic and social framework has changed spectacularly over the last five years, not to mention the labour market. Up until very recently, computer scientists, telecommunications technicians and systems specialists have worked in privileged and exclusive corners of their particular organisations. Their speciality has been “digitalisation” which meant bringing together processes, equipment, methodology and human resources which would allow organisations to work at the level of local area networks and take advantage of computer technology (from interconnected computers to data bases in powerful servers) for the daily running of the company.

This is no longer the case. Or rather it is only one aspect of it. When open architecture networks, the Internet in particular, burst onto the scene, it changed (and is changing) the nature of organisations and how they operate. Information and knowledge management within a participatory and interactive environment for users, such as that which is possible on the Net, is now absolutely fundamental . The organisation of communication flows is emerging as an essential feature in the structuring of activities designed by networks. And this is a process which cannot be reduced to the limited field of a few specialists (technologists and communicators), but is, by definition, only justified (or reaches basic minimum efficiency and profitability) when it is based on a critical mass of participants, as the evolution of the Internet itself proves to us again and again with every passing day.

This, change, let’s call it paradigmatic, however profound and dramatic that may sound, has not even knocked on the doors of the engineering schools yet. The training of engineers has obviously incorporated everything to do with the telecommunications networks and telematics at the level of infrastructure. But communication, especially digital communication as a social and economic phenomenon, has not just been forgotten, basically it has never even formed part of this training and, with very few exceptions, is still not systematically included in almost any of the curricula of polytechnical or technological universities.

That was what made Campus-TI and its innovative proposals so interesting. As I have often said on these pages before, contrary to “current opinion”, it seems to me that there is not, in fact, a deficit of engineers and technicians in our society, to satisfy the demands of a market revolutionised by the Internet. Quite the opposite is true. But there is a serious lack of people with the new professional profiles that the networks demand, engineers with a broad knowledge and experience of the finer features of communication in open networks. In Valencia, we saw, for instance, wonderful technological (and other) designs of extremely expensive platforms for electronic commerce which were, nevertheless, totally disastrous from the communications point of view: Not even the engineer’s mother would have been able to work them out when it came to the chat.

During the Campus-TI sessions, cases of this kind were examined and information systems analysed not only from the computer architecture point of view (always beautiful and impeccable), but also from the user’s point of view (always alienated and hostile). Online knowledge management emerged as one of the crucial areas of synthesis between technological and communication platforms. After one of these sessions, a group of engineers came over to me to express their concern regarding a question we could all see with great clarity then: Why aren’t these aspects of online communication taught in computer science and telecommunications faculties? University Summer Schools are quite clearly not a solution although they are extremely helpful when it comes to detecting gaps of this kind and preparing those who will have to take the matter in hand and fill them somehow in the future.

One last thing. The Asociación E3 Futura, the driving force behind Campus-TI, is an organisation founded by four enthusiastic young people from Malaga. They have earned a well-deserved place on the Spanish network map as organisers of the Campus Party mega-festivals. Hundreds of young people set off each year, with nothing but their computers, a toothbrush and a few basic changes of clothing, to a designated place where they have access to high speed networks on which they can give free rein to their creative impulses. This year the Campus Party will be held at the beginning of August in Valencia’s Príncipe Felipe Museum as well. Those attending will be able to enjoy access to a 28 MB network. But, don’t bother to try and get into it, there is a limit of 900 places already taken and a waiting list of 9.000.

Translation: Bridget King