Last March marked the one-year anniversary of a radically-changed university dynamics. This change has involved the collaboration of the entire university community, not just to resume on-campus activities, but also to help society live better in the context of the pandemic.
By Judith Morán and Montserrat Muñoz. Photos by OCI
First, classes were transferred to the online modality; then it was the administrative staff who began working remotely. In less than a week, ITESO´s campus was practically empty. A year has passed since then. Besides changing our way of being in the world (face masks, sanitizing gels, and thermometers have become part of everyday life), the COVID-19 pandemic also brought with it immeasurable personal losses, the death of family and friends, and unemployment.
It has been a year of physical distance that has forced us to strengthen existing ties and weave new collaboration partnerships within the university community in order to begin solving the tremendous challenges as best we can, as well as to prepare for possible future scenarios.
From the classroom to the screen
The first challenge to be met was remote learning. This implied, for students and teachers, transferring 3,000 face-to-face courses to the online modality. Although it was already an ongoing project at ITESO, the pandemic accelerated the move: each degree program, coordination, department, center and office of the university worked to find solutions to the different challenges that suddenly arose.
As a first step, the team that has been supporting teachers for years provided reference material and tutorials on an academic innovation website so that teachers could take the initiative and appropriate the tools offered by ITESO for their online classes.
Best practices from other organizations were analyzed, and new channels were opened for face-to-face and telephone counseling; support groups among teachers were created for specific tutoring sessions on the use of tools such as Canvas or Webex. Hundreds of teachers have participated in training to design online courses, forming a large learning community where the best experiences are shared.
The circumstances prompted student-to-student tutoring in two areas: adaptation to university life and course-specific tutoring. In the Fall 2020 semester there were three courses that offered tutoring sessions. For the Spring 2021 period, there are 15 different courses offering tutoring sessions in areas such as Differential Calculus, Fluid Mechanics, Financial Analysis, Algorithms and Programming, among others.
48 classrooms on campus were equipped to allow mixed-modality classes (some students on-site and others online). In addition, portable packages are available for remote livestreams and interaction with students in every ITESO laboratory or classroom.
New accompaniment practices
It was also necessary to reinvent the way of doing things in order to maintain ITESO’s model of integral formation. In this regard, experimentation is the key word for transferring athletic, spiritual, and cultural activities to an online format.
The accompaniment that regularly took place in person, including psychological care, self-knowledge workshops, sports classes, and the Ignatian route, was all transferred to the virtual world. New spaces were also opened for topics such as the management of emotions during the quarantine and the organization of work, in other words, everything that could provide the community with tools for living under the current conditions.
Although there was an online welcome session for first-year students, telephone contact was also established to open more channels of communication and, little by little, new ways of visiting the campus were made available.
When it comes to accompaniment, throughout the year we have sought to keep the university community informed about how the remote university would operate, including the resources available, the activities that have resumed on campus, admission protocols, prevention measures on campus, etc. In addition to the usual channels used to disseminate the latest news (e-mail, social media), ITESO created two websites, iteso.mx/covid-19 and iteso.mx/regresoalcampus, to concentrate all relevant information and make it available for students, teachers, and administrative staff.
Some of the students are being followed up even more closely. After the COVID-19 health emergency, a diagnosis was made of how the situation was affecting ITESO students from indigenous communities to determine whether they were in their communities, if they had an internet connection, and if they were continuing to work on their studies. Based on the results of this diagnosis, ITESO designed a strategy for economic, psycho-affective, and academic support.
The long-awaited return to campus
ITESO was the first university in the region to carry out in-person activities with the strictest protocols to ensure the people’s health. This semester, over 2,800 students have used the laboratories and workshops. With the progress made in vaccination efforts, and the improving conditions of public health in the region, we will be able to return to campus very soon.
Adapting university facilities to the needs imposed by the COVID-19 health emergency called for the precise skills that universities specialize in: research, needs assessment, proposal design, validation, implementation, and follow-up.
As the weeks went by and more information about the virus became available, an interdisciplinary team made adjustments to the plan with the help of different specialized areas from ITESO and a review of the best international practices at institutions in different countries that had been dealing with the pandemic for a longer time. Everything was done in compliance with the requirements established by federal and state authorities.
Five sanitary filters were installed around the university to facilitate the flow of people arriving on campus, while avoiding crowds. These stations are equipped with thermographic cameras to measure body temperature and make sure that people entering and leaving ITESO are wearing face masks.
Furthermore, an app was developed to generate QR codes for students, faculty, and staff whose presence on campus is indispensable, in order to meet the current requirements established by the authorities regarding the number of people on campus. Both camera systems and QR codes facilitate entry and are designed to speed up the flow of people as more members of the university community return to the facilities.
With people’s health as a priority, cleaning protocols were updated to achieve the sanitation standards required due to the pandemic. With this goal in mind, university personnel in charge of cleaning processes on campus and university transportation units were trained and accredited by a company specializing in industrial safety.
Adjustments were made to academic spaces, offices, and transportation units to maintain social distancing. In some cases, furniture was removed; in others, acrylic partitions or screens were set up. There will be other places where face shields will be provided to employees upon their return.
One of the factors that facilitate the spread of COVID is the recirculation of air, so in the spaces with air conditioning, high intensity ultraviolet lamps have been installed to deactivate the virus. There are spaces where it is not necessary to install these lamps, such as the Pedro Arrupe, SJ Auditorium because the air there is always fresh, as it does not recirculate.
In each one of the plans that have been drawn up there are measures that will be implemented as the flow of people increases. For example, operation protocols were created for cafeteria services, and vendors received training and the necessary supplies to responsibly manage their facilities. In addition, the university modified spaces so that users can maintain social distancing when they are eating.
Those returning to campus will notice that the pedestrian flow was also organized with striping and signage to mark lanes and points of access to the campus.
These projects, adjustments, and changes have been accompanied by a legal team in charge of clarifying the requirements that must be met according to federal and state guidelines, for the purpose, for example, of allowing people to return to work in laboratories and workshops without contravening government mandates. This enabled us to increase the number of courses and students that can attend the campus this semester.
The university follows up on people who frequently attend the campus (personnel, students, and teachers) in the event they become ill with COVID. For this purpose, the university developed an app to provide orientation to the university community from the moment they suspect they are infected until they enter the rehabilitation and medical discharge stages. In addition, random COVID tests are applied.
The pandemic shook up processes and led us to do things in different ways. If we made a list of everything that has been adapted and modified, and the actors who have intervened to allow university life to find new paths, it would be a very long one; maybe it is enough to know that the work has been done in collaboration, professionally, and with an eye to caring for all the people involved.
ITESO’s response, outward
The work undertaken throughout this year is not limited to solving issues related to teaching or administrative tasks. As a university entrusted to the Society of Jesus, ITESO is called to offer solutions and alternatives for and with society. Thus, the pandemic reinforced the social commitment that characterizes the university, as expressed in its Fundamental Orientations.
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the university community – made up of students, graduates, academics, researchers and other collaborators – has focused its efforts and its theoretical, methodological, and technical knowledge on creating solutions that address the challenges brought on by the pandemic, in the form of proposals for social and technological innovation, as well as programs and initiatives for counseling, dissemination and support for the most vulnerable sectors. This is evidenced by over 90 projects of applied research and 60 conferences, round tables, forums, and discussions.
As was already ITESO’s practice with research projects, the initiatives developed throughout the year were grouped according to certain topics of interest: Sustainability and Technology; Identities, Social Inclusion and Health; The Solidarity Economy and Decent Employment; and Justice and Democracy. It is important to mention that these projects and research have been modified over the course of several months, in an effort to adapt to the changing circumstances.
Professional Application Projects (PAPs) are unique to the university and form an essential part of students’ integral education in all of ITESO’s undergraduate and engineering programs, hence the importance of transferring them to the virtual sphere. Most PAPs are developed in off-campus scenarios, which posed the challenge of maintaining the quality of teaching, social impact, and academic performance.
Over 60% of the projects ITESO proposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are PAPs. This is a reflection of the students´ social engagement, as evidenced during the Summer 2020, Fall 2020, and Spring 2021 terms, where over 750 students chose to participate in PAPs with pandemic-related objects of study or intervention.
However, one of the most important challenges was creating new PAP scenarios that would respond to the most immediate needs of society at both the local and national levels, as well as to change the approaches of other projects to adapt them to the needs of the current context.
The Interdisciplinary Center for Social Formation and Engagement (CIFOVIS) sought a way to structure the PAPs using a logic of nodes that would bring together several initiatives according to the thematic areas of confluence. The purpose was to provide a powerful response to achieve the desired impact in the current situation, embracing complexity and steering clear of atomized efforts.
This nodal system represented a milestone in the PAP format, which in response to the pandemic took an important step toward a transdisciplinary model.
The strategy worked as follows: For the Fall 2020 term, PAPs were grouped into four macro-problems: Fair Alternatives to the Market and Material Redistribution; Health, Dignity, and Care for People; State Capture and the Construction of the Public Interest; and Environmental Degradation. Each one of these groups worked on different thematic areas, which in turn were addressed by the PAPs. It should be emphasized that this classification promoted communication and collaboration among the different projects. For example, in the case of the macro-problem “Environmental Degradation,” three thematic areas were examined: the social construction of habitat, ecological restoration, and technologies for life. To this last node, seven PAPs made contributions; one of them was named “Design and Engineering of Objects for Mitigating and Combating Disasters and Contingencies.”
This PAP gave rise to one of ITESO’s most emblematic projects: the Brankia transparent face mask, developed in the Summer 2020 term. The device was the result of the work of five students from the undergraduate programs in Industrial Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Design.
The mask was made of flexible PVC in order to be washable, easy to fit, and suitable for the ergonomics of the average Mexican. While the mask aims to limit the spread of the sars-cov-2 virus through its use — it has two interchangeable filters that block up to 95 percent of airborne particles — it also meets the communication need for hearing-impaired people who rely on lip-reading.
Meanwhile, Brankia’s local production and marketing also aims to reactivate the regional economy, as well as to reduce the product’s carbon footprint. Brankia is already on sale and has registered its industrial design, utility model, and trademark before the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (IMPI).
Collaboration and multidisciplinary approach: the key
Collaboration with civil organizations, research centers, government agencies, companies, and other educational institutions has always been a pillar of ITESO’s projects, even more so during the health emergency. Rather than individual efforts, ITESO’s proposal has focused on working jointly to find solutions that contribute to the common good and prioritize the welfare of the most vulnerable sectors, with multidisciplinary, scientific, and academic collaboration serving as the means to overcome the difficulties caused by the pandemic.
The “Stay Home” initiative, led by state government, is an example of this. As part of this project, academics of ITESO’s Department of Psychology, Education and Health (DPES) collaborated in the design and execution of a strategy aimed at providing mental health care for the general public, and specifically, for medical personnel during the quarantine period.
Between July and December of 2020, Danielle Strickland, a DPES academic, participated in the research project “Experiences and Security Practices in the Management, Monitoring, Control and Containment of COVID-19 and Its Social Consequences,” which surveyed the opinions of young people on public policy issues, domestic violence, and technological innovation, within the context of the pandemic. The project was funded by the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT) and involved specialists from El Colegio de Jalisco (COLJAL), El Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) and the University of Guadalajara (UDEG).
Other examples of collaboration go beyond Mexico’s borders. From April to June 2020, ITESO, through its graduate programs in sustainability, participated in the international cycle of online discussions “Reflections on the Future of Habitat and Urban and Architectural Sustainability Post-COVID-19” together with academics, researchers, and entrepreneurs from Colombia, Spain, Italy and Mexico. Students also worked, from the PAP platform, on the development of an artificial respirator for ventilatory support of patients with COVID-19, based on an open-source model released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In 2021, over 180 ITESO academics have a formal research assignment. The Directorate of Research and Graduate Studies (DIP) proposes to confront the pandemic with relevant projects, in addition to consolidating interdisciplinary groups that focus their efforts on addressing problems beyond the current situation.
For example, the Center for Innovation and Technology Management (CEGINT) started a project for the digital reconversion of the manufacturing industry to promote economic reactivation after the COVID-19 contingency. Supported by funds from the State Council for Science and Technology (COECYTJAL) and the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Technology (SICYT), the initiative put CEGINT undergraduate students and consultants to work with companies to incorporate technological tools that facilitate an increase in their commercial transactions.
While some projects are funded with federal or state government resources, there are also projects supported directly by the university through ITESO’s Support Fund for Research. This is the case of the project “Human Mobility along the Central-North Route in Western Mexico: Vulnerabilities, Alternatives, and Public Policies,” led by academics from the Department of Sociopolitical and Legal Studies (DSOJ) and the Coordination of Social Advocacy Programs (COINCIDE).
Meeting place for analysis
ITESO has also been a (virtual) meeting place for analysis and reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on society at the local, national, and international levels. The first conference on the coronavirus was held in person at ITESO’s D1 auditorium a week before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the pandemic and face-to-face activities were suspended.
An important part of ITESO´s response to COVID-19 has taken the form of workshops, seminars, and webinars focused on the survival of micro, small and medium-sized businesses, led by institutions such as the University Business Center (CUE), the School of Business, and CEGINT. These programs explore the incorporation of technological tools into business processes, as well as schemes that focus on strategic innovation and social economy indicators, such as cooperatives and mutual help organizations, among other topics.
The webinars “How to Achieve Financial Solvency in Times of Crisis,” “Social Media to Boost Sales” and “The Impact of the Declaration of a Health Emergency in Mexico on Labor Relations”, as well as Banregio’s mentorships (which advised over 100 companies nationwide) are some of the initiatives aimed at accompanying companies and businesses in the reconfiguration of their internal processes for the purpose of preserving and promoting job creation in the context of the pandemic.
Despite a year’s worth of progress, the pandemic is far from over. Different parts of the world continue to see new waves of infections in spite of the international efforts to slow the spread of the virus through mass vaccination. However, in the hope of returning soon to in-person activities, we know that ITESO will continue working to produce knowledge, to accompany all the members of its community, and to serve society.