http://havanajournal.com/culture/entry/cuba_other_revolution_information_sciences/

HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Culture

Cuba’s Other Revolution - Information Sciences

Posted December 08, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Posted by Marc Eisenstadt | Corante.com

http://www.corante.com/getreal/archives/cubas_other_revolution.php

Last month, Marc Eisenstadt had the privilege of visiting a hi-tech campus whose very existence defies belief. Here’s his report.

image
A model of the campus – real photos are below

I was in Havana last month to attend TelEduc04, the 3rd International Symposium on Distance Learning and Lifelong Learning, a key Latin American e-learning workshop. I’ve filed a short news report about the conference, my keynote address, and my 30 seconds of fame on Cuban TV in a KMi Planet News Story—here I want to describe a very exciting post-conference visit.

During the opening day of the conference, the TelEduc President and Chair, Tomás Lopez, said to me, “you would probably be very interested to hear what is happening at UCI.” (pronounced “ooh-see”). “UCI: What’s that?” I asked.” “Universidad de las Ciencias Informáticas” said Tomas, “and they are doing some very interesting things. You should listen to the presentation tomorrow by the Vice-Rector.”

The Vision

I duly attended the presentation by UCI Vice-Rector Rosa Vázquez. In that talk, she set out the vision of an institution conceived by Cuban President Fidel Castro in March of 2002. Castro’s idea was to bridge the ‘digital divide’ in one enormous leap into the future: a hi-tech campus, housing 10,000 students selected from the best and brightest in the country. The campus would be dedicated to a new university, La Universidad de las Ciencias Informáticas, and would be lavishly endowed with all the provisions an up-and-coming student of Information Sciences might require.

A multi-gigabit fiber-optic backbone would ring the campus, bringing multi-megabit internet and faster intranet capabilities to all buildings (correction: all rooms in all buildings) – yes, including the custom-built halls of residence, which would be equipped with air conditioning, plus a TV and computer in every student suite. Classroom facilities would be mixture of modular workspace, videoconference suites, and ample workstations of the latest spec to provide one computer for every student. Teaching staff would be specially recruited from among the best the country could offer. All students would be expected to spend a certain proportion of their time working on production teams developing commercial software, which in turn would help pay for the operation and bootstrap a Cuban software industry that could, at the very least, serve all of Latin America.

Sound interesting? The plan gets even bolder: conceived in March 2002, approval would be sought immediately, and construction would begin by May 2002, with the first student intake by September 2002! [NOTE: my original posting said “construction ... by September 2002 ... student intake by May 2003”, but I have updated the preceding sentence in light of the comment by Alina Ruiz below.] Guess what: the vast bulk of the dedicated campus has already been built, and the annual intake of 2000 students is in full swing, aiming for a steady-state of 10,000. Fully 6000 are on campus right now. Half of the students are women, and 250 professors are on hand, living on campus with them.

I sat dumb-struck as I heard the concept and the numbers from the presenter. This was a colossal plan, on a scale that would challenge most countries in the developed world. That it was so bold was staggering enough – but this was topped by the realization that it had already been built. I am pretty tuned in to the e-learning and distance learning grapevines, and had even been to Havana previously for TelEduc03 with the same organizers, yet I had never heard of UCI. I thought I surely must be dreaming. “Tomas, I’d really love to see this place, and meet some of the people involved – would that be possible?”

The Visit

Tomas knows everyone in Cuban higher education, particularly in the high-tech area, including the Rector of UCI, Melchor Gil, who kindly arranged for me to visit on my final day in Cuba. I had already interacted with several UCI staff during TelEduc04: the translators who assisted me with two presentations, Liliana Casar and Olga Lydia Martinez, were in fact lecturers at UCI, specialising in the teaching of English, which I discovered is a required subject for all UCI students. This requirement is a smart move, and I don’t say that as a native speaker of English: I say it because a Brazilian guy at last year’s TelEduc told me that his students, who speak Portuguese and English, had a big advantage over Cuban students who speak Spanish and either nothing else or perhaps Russian, because getting all the relevant documentation, instruction manuals, FAQs, discussion threads, RSS feeds, and other sources of late-breaking high-tech info on many topics is overwhelmingly facilitated by a knowledge of the English language. UCI is now addressing this gap, big-time.

So off we went in a minivan. The driver took us about 1 hour north of Havana, on the route towards Piñar del Rio, into open countryside and farmland. In the distance I could see some sculptures, and these turned out to be works of art stationed around the entrance to UCI. The driver turned in, and we were treated to some of the sculptures you see in the accompanying pictures. This began a theme that was echoed throughout the day: for students to be well-rounded, they needed to be immersed in art, music, and culture. Culture was more than just a passive presence on the campus: students were expected and encouraged to be active in the pursuit of the arts.

One of the many dramatic works of art gracing the long entrance road to the UCI campus

Art was everywhere. I met the proud director of one of the halls of residence, who boasted about UCI students winning national music and dance awards as a result of their extra-curricular activities. Original art, typically in the form of large murals, filled the exterior walls of the halls of residence. The very first room I was taken to was not a computer lab, but an on-campus art gallery.

image
Halls of residence. Note the air conditioners visible outside each room.

Bulldozers and cranes were everywhere. Roads were being paved, buildings being constructed, right before my eyes. It was like one of these scenes from The X-Files, where yesterday there was no 10,000-student campus, and today there is – hard work on a colossal scale, but hey, why not? Five separate ‘faculties’ are already in existence, in effect modular sub-campuses, and more are under construction right now – 24 hours a day, as far as I can tell.

I was speechless for a large part of my visit. “This is like visiting Jurassic Park” I muttered to myself. “You mean because you think we’re dinosaurs?” joked Beatriz Aragon, UCI Director of International Cooperation. “On the contrary,” I replied, “it’s because this place is like something from a science fiction story: no one will believe me when I tell them about it!”

The Effort

Everyone knows about Cuba’s economic difficulties. “How on earth did they fund this enormous University?” I asked myself, my hosts, even my driver. The answer came back with a resounding “It’s the most important thing happening in this country: we can afford it.” Clearly every possible resource has been marshalled to make this happen, and fast. Saying “no expense was spared” would be misleading, because the place is not ostentatious, nor dripping with wealth. It’s nice – very nice. It’s functional – very functional. It’s pleasant, and it’s a buzzing beehive of activity. My driver said that his wife also worked there, and that he was extremely proud of this institution. The sense of both pride and sacrifice was palpable. UCI was, in my opinion, clearly designed to supersede other sources of income in the long term. And it was already working, even in the short term. The poster in the entrance hall of one of the halls of residence summed up the philosophy: “We are connected to the future; we are connected to the revolution.”

UCI is connected to the future; and also to the revolution

 

This means never losing sight of the important cultural and societal roots of this University, and developing technologies that will, in the words of Vice-Rector Rosa Vázquez “Help transform education and society, and bring quality higher education to all of Cuba.” In a word: bootstrapping. Educating the best and the brightest, deploying their skills to bring in more resources (e.g. by acting as an outsourcing operation for all of Latin America), and leveraging their newly-gained skills to help spread this model throughout Cuba.

We had a lovely lunch with the Rector, Melchor Gil, who discussed the bootstrapping model with me. Every student had to work on a project to help round out their education, and in a typical case this would be a project that would also result in a software product which would create a revenue stream for the University. Moreover, despite the University being only 2 years old, there was already enough money coming in to help pay back a significant amount of the initial expenditure. Thus, things looked very rosy for the future of UCI.

The Talent

I met Juan Fung, a Chinese Cuban who showed me his group of students developing multimedia training software. A few students looked like they were there ‘just’ doing their homework, while others had that ‘extra aura’ that all of the readers of this column will recognize: the gleam in the eye, the talent, the inquisitiveness. (I had seen this also during a brief visit to InfoMed earlier in the day, home of the Latin American medical information network. A very small team, very switched on – people like Roger Vargas who runs a Latin American Linux group, and the group that runs the nerve center of medical informatics for an entire continent on a very modest budget and with only a handful of staff.)

Juan and his students showed me a training package that was in effect an emulator of CorelDraw, since they had to reproduce most of the functionality of the original in order to let students experiment and navigate around the interface within the training package. It was a nice and highly-polished piece of work, particularly for undergraduates in their first or second year of study. Another group was working on a driving simulator, for none other than the Guatemalan government, which had decided to outsource the development of this software suite to UCI. The particular multimedia lab I was in (one of untold dozens of such labs around the campus) had a car that was rigged up to a large screen… so I was able to sit in the car and take a virtual driving test, in a faithfully-rendered Guatemala City – not bad!

This was pretty neat stuff. Yet, being a researcher at heart, my instinct was that UCI could be a lot more than just a ‘software factory’ to handle the outsourcing of Latin American software projects. Where were the next-generation leaders going to come from? If they got this right, surely the Cubans could become a dominant force in Latin American software within a handful of years, no? Why not have a PhD program too? “Be patient” was the essence of the replies I got. “UCI is only two years old… let us walk before we run!”

Stay tuned, everybody. Cuba is coming.

For more information:

image

Marc Eisenstadt serves as Chief Scientist at the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute, where he is interested in fostering quality learning experiences with or without technology. His current work interests include very large scale presence via messaging and gaming; intelligent agents as mediating tools for human interaction; internet mapping and visualization; ubiquitous bandwidth and the educational challenge summed up by the phrase “wired… now what?”

Member Comments

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
On December 08, 2004, publisher wrote:

Special thanks to reader and content provider, Dana Garrett for showing us this article.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
On December 09, 2004, Jesus Perez wrote:

Prioritizing the allocation of resources. In contrast to what is described in the above article, we are spending billions of dollars trying to impose our way of life to a country and killing its people in the process. Democracy is great, free elections are great, what doesn’t seem to be so great is our choice of leaders.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
On December 10, 2004, Dana Garrett wrote:

This is truly an outstanding and visionary achievement. 

I remain continually amazed at Cubaís achievements given the limitations imposed on it by the embargo.  I can see why many in high places of power in Washington DC and elsewhere want to keep Cuba under the thumb of the embargo.  If it can be this efficient and visionary with less, imagine what it could achieve with more. Cubaís example would inspire many people throughout the Caribbean and Latin America if not the world. 

The USA wouldnít know what to do with itself if nations no longer needed it. 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
On September 04, 2006, ALEXANDER wrote:

hola atodos los cubanos sigan pa lante con la revolucion