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How Universities Can Move the Digital Agenda Forward

By Guest Writer on March 2, 2023

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Digital transformation is disrupting the field of international development and propelling it into new directions. International development professionals will need to learn new skills and gain a deeper understanding of how technology and its applications can be used responsibly to solve global challenges. Graduate programs in international development, public policy, and other related fields play a huge role in training future development professionals, and therefore, must equip students with hard, soft, and policy skills.

Although universities face several challenges and are slower to adapt to the digital age than other institutions, change is possible. Progress does not necessarily mean that schools must completely overhaul their programs and syllabi. Universities can start slowly by gradually tailoring their approaches, revamping curricula, and implementing strategies that integrate critical digital topics and skills into their course offerings and programs. In that way, they will better prepare the next generation of development practitioners for the digital age so that these professionals feel empowered to address the global challenges of tomorrow.

Universities can take concrete steps to improve their coursework and skills related to digital transformation in the short, medium, and long term. These approaches include significant efforts to engage university leaders (e.g., deans, provosts, and master’s program directors), form academic networks, create partnerships with companies and other organizations in the field, expose students to practical experiences, pursue more interdisciplinary approaches within graduate programs, and incorporate digital ethics and governance into their curricula.

Short-Term Approaches: Within One Year

1. Proactively Engage University Leaders

From the ground up, businesses, professors, and students will need to find ways to create engagement among the leadership of the universities on the importance of digital transformation. As a first step, it is important to demonstrate to deans and provosts what skills and knowledge employers are demanding and what recent graduates are lacking.

To make a stronger case, it is important to present concrete data and metrics, for example, on which classes and subjects are oversubscribed and undersubscribed, what student surveys show, and what graduates’ employment trends are. This information can be a strong signal for change. Educating academic leaders on the importance of digital development can be pursued today.

2. Form Strong Academic Networks

Despite the naturally competitive environment that exists within academia, professors from different universities can create networks where they can share ideas, experiences, and approaches to digital topics. These networks can create better communication channels among students, professors, and potential employers and can help align coursework and training with the demands of the industry.

Medium- to Long-Term Approaches: Within Two to Five Years

3. Bring the Expertise of the Private Sector

Graduate schools need to bring together the development issues of the day, the subjects students are interested in, and the critical skills companies value. Therefore, school administrators and professors can approach companies and development institutions to weigh in on program and curriculum designs. These conversations might help align coursework and training with the demands of the industry. There is also a need to combine the knowledge of core tenured faculty with the expertise of practitioners. To help alleviate this gap, universities can invite professionals working in various industries and geographies as guest lecturers or hire them as adjunct faculty.

Additionally, schools need to be informed by market signals to allocate their funds; for example, assume students are increasingly interested in pursuing a STEM-related degree or incorporating a STEM subject into their current degree. In that case, university leadership should incorporate these developments into funding plans. Partnerships between multiple sectors can bolster training in STEM-focused areas, including engineering, computational analysis, coding, and the understanding of innovative and emerging technologies. Allowing students to collaborate with private-sector clients can provide them with skills that development professors lack expertise in.

4. Structure Innovative Partnerships for Practical Experience

Additionally, universities can partner with companies, nonprofits, and aid institutions to develop internships and apprenticeships for students. They can also pursue client-centered approaches through capstone projects, blending theory and practice. For example:

  • Researchers and students at Auburn University partnered with Walmart to apply innovative technology in solving some of the company’s supply chain management issues. Walmart also partnered with John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to create the Global Policy Challenge, where students collaborate with the Government Affairs team at Walmart to address complex challenges, such as climate change and emerging technology.
  • SIPA has 30 capstone projects focused on digital development issues, partnering with governments (such as Brazil, Estonia, and Kazakhstan), UN agencies and programs (such as the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Capital Development Fund, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the United Nations Children’s Fund), and NGOs and social enterprises (such as Instituto Palmas, Self Employed Women’s Association, TechnoServe, and WeRobotics).

These exercises expose students to real-world applications of digital technologies in the development field. They also give students hands-on experience working in a particular industry. This real-world exposure allows students to gain relevant skills so they can better transition into the workforce. Collaboration between different industries (e.g., tech and retail and tech and food processing) continues to be an untapped tool.

Through these partnerships, universities can bolster training in more STEM-focused areas, including engineering, computational analysis, and coding. Additionally, universities can encourage students to gain overseas experience through internships and study-abroad programs. Universities across geographies can design student and faculty exchange programs to provide valuable insights into how digital tools and applications can be implemented in different counties. For example:

  • WPI’s Development Design Lab brings humanitarian and STEM practitioners together and allows them to engage in development projects with non-Western partners in low- and middle-income countries.
  • At SIPA, the “Computing in Context” course is cotaught with data scientists from Columbia’s Data Science Institute and applies computing concepts and Python programming to address public policy issues.

5. Pursue More Interdisciplinary Approaches Within Graduate Programs

Public policy and international development programs can “cross pollinate” with other disciplines, such as economics, engineering, health, and management. This collaboration can be achieved by offering cross-registration with different schools and hiring faculty with field experience in specific sectors (e.g., health, education, and finance). Additionally, public policy and international development programs should engage with engineering, health, and education master’s programs, which do not necessarily have an international focus but can provide valuable insights.

6. Offer Courses and Seminars Related to Digital Governance and Ethics in Technology

Overall, the topic of ethics in digital transformation is a great opportunity to bring together different disciplines. Producing a curriculum that includes a discussion of the risks, human rights impacts, and foreign policy implications of innovative technology (e.g., AI/ML and biometric technology) may be difficult, but some solutions include combining tenured faculty with practitioners, as well as embedding ethics into development courses. It is important to note that ethics should not be taught separately but ideally should be incorporated into all lessons.

A lightly edited synopsis of Preparing International Development Professionals for the Digital Age by Romina Bandura

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