Denise Leite

Denise Leite

Denise Leite is professor at the Graduate Programme on Education of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Brazil. She is a senior researcher in charge of coordinating inter-institutional and international research projects about innovation, evaluation and university pedagogy in public universities of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Portugal.

Professor Denise Leite reflects on the concept of innovation and good practices in higher education.

“Innovation is a search for new configurations of knowledge and power”

How would you define innovation in the context of higher education institutions (HEIs)?

I think innovation happens when teachers break with the traditional approach to teaching, when they break with the paradigm of reproduction, what Paulo Freire calls ‘banking education’—the ‘I teach the way my teachers taught me’ approach. For my research group, innovation is defined as a discontinuous process that involves breaking with traditional paradigms in education, teaching-learning and evaluation. It can be a transition, a search for new configurations of knowledge and power, new ways of relating being, knowing and doing, approaches that are more liberating and therefore more democratic.

For your research group, what’s a good practice in an HEI?

A good practice is one that presents a new epistemological quality that’s linked to ethical and social values, including the values of democratic participation.

In the framework of an international process aimed at assessing good practices, do all the initiatives carried out in different countries and contexts have to meet the same requirements?

No, of course not. Each institution’s project is unique, and each HEI organises and plans its project. The idea of a project implies something future-oriented. So the important thing is that the requirements that apply serve the project and reflect the context and historical conditions of each particular university.

It doesn’t matter if the institution is in the first, second, third, fourth or fifth world—or however you want to divide up the world. What’s important is that each institution must be unique in terms of its project and its context and in its history. With these three elements in place, innovation is going to take place within an institution. That’s why the requirements can’t be the same. People need to engage with their specific context. When that happens, something new emerges. I think what GUNI’s doing is very important. GUNI launches ideas about innovation. New ideas are important because they stimulate you. But not everyone is going to do the same thing. Innovation takes place in the context of a project. So the most important thing when it comes to innovation is engagement with a particular context (of the institution, the teacher and the student).

You use concepts like ‘spider web’ and ‘homoeopathic contamination’ in reference to innovation…

The ‘spider web’ is a powerful concept for us because it reflects the way a learning situation unfolds in the classroom. No two situations are the same. You can cover the same subject matter or the same content from one year to another but the group will be different. The situation, the world, isn’t the same. The teacher isn’t the same and neither are the students. So in each class we must create a spider web that’s unique and unrepeatable.

We need to think anew and find new solutions. And we need to find solutions by involving people; teachers and students must play an active role. We need to construct this spider web, but we have to be patient. And the ‘contamination’ that takes place must be homoeopathic. This is another concept we need to bear in mind in relation to innovation. Innovation isn’t just a matter of taking a nice idea and incorporating it in a university. When that happens it’s an exception. Things have to be built up from within, in a way that reflects the context, involves people, and draws on their specific knowledge. And then other spaces need to be progressively ‘contaminated’. And that’s a slow process. It’s not like an antibiotic, which acts quickly—in a week you’re cured. That’s not how it works. ‘Homoeopathic contamination’ involves the slow insemination of innovation.

How do you see university outreach in Brazil and the Mercosur countries? Do you think an effort should be made to strengthen links between universities, the third sector, the private sector and governments?

Compared to European and American universities, I see some differences in the approach to outreach, especially at public universities in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia. There’s a great deal of social concern, a social commitment. We’re in an institution that emerges from the elite and has resources, so it has to be socially responsible. What can we do for our environment, for our community? This attitude leads to a lot of interaction with communities. The social commitment also comes in part from our students. Let me give you an example. The students at my university (UFRGS) help secondary school students who can’t afford to pay for private tuition prepare for their university entrance exams. And they provide this assistance for free. UFRGS students request permission to use classrooms and then go ahead and teach the classes. And in terms of policy, at the institutional level, the extension of this practice based on concern for the community and social commitment is one of the requirements defined in Brazil’s national assessment process. So this practice isn’t just one you find in public universities because they’re public: it’s a practice common to all Brazilian universities, which highlight the commitment to the community.

The relationship with government is a close one (at least in Brazil) because universities are financially dependent on centralised funding provided by the Ministry of Education. This funding is provided directly in the case of public universities and indirectly in the case of private institutions, for which there are specific programmes. There’s not always a relationship with companies, not in all knowledge areas, but there are areas where this relationship is strong. This is the case, for example, in engineering, administration, physics and geology. Outreach in relation to the third sector is also well developed (particularly when it comes to projects involving NGOs). Outreach activities don’t always involve services. The most common practice is for universities to make their human and other resources available to the community. Social responsibility is one of the criteria for assessment of HEIs under the Brazilian government’s National Assessment System for Higher Education (SINAES).

Are you familiar with other international networks of HEIs? What kind of contribution do you think they can make?

In the Latin American context, I think the University Association of the Montevideo Group (AUGM) plays a significant role. The association works with public universities in the Mercosur area and operates through a network of public institutions in our countries. AUGM has a programme that focuses on strengthening certain knowledge areas and identifying good practices. The association also promotes student mobility and has created the UNESCO-AUGM Chair on New Teaching Methods and Pedagogical Innovation. The chair has played an important role in setting up innovation-related networks.

What do you think of the transfer of experiences between HEIs?

I don’t believe in this kind of transfer. I believe in experiences that emerge. Of course, ideas are vital to such experiences, but I believe in innovation, in the notion I have of breaking with paradigms, and if that can be achieved it’s a significant step. Breaking with a paradigm that a university’s been working with for centuries—that’s been built up through all the tasks it engages in—isn’t an easy thing to do. That’s why I think the work has to start internally and extend outwards. This means it must be homeopathic and based on an approach that actively engages people. And the entire process needs to unfold within the context and space of a particular institution. Projects need to be constructed together.

Can you tell us about the international study you’re carrying out on innovative evaluation practices that use Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)? What’s the aim of the study?

The study is supported by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), the public agency that supports research in Brazil. It’s an international study aimed at identifying innovative evaluation practices that involve the use of ICTs, including both institutional practices and those related to teaching-learning. We’re looking at practices used in universities that are located in Mercosur countries or belong to the AUGM.

A number of institutions are involved: the UFRGS, the Porto Alegre Institute (IPA, a private denominational university centre), and Santa Cruz del Sur University (UNISC, a community university) in Brazil; the University of the Republic in Uruguay; and the National University of entre Ríos in Argentina.

We seek to identify practices for institutional and learning evaluation that use information technologies as a tool for improving procedures. Researchers describe practices, the context in which they occur, the conditions for their appearance, and the results or impacts they produce. This is done in a way that shows how ICTs are integrated in the structure of the university and in the structure of the activity carried out by instructors. The results are presented and discussed in a workshop held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where participants include ICT firms that work in partnership with teachers. This process allows us to identify the most relevant factors in the innovation process: the results achieved, the planning behind the practice, how the practice developed, and its impact within the university.

The dialogue between universities and the business sector, with both participating on an equal footing, opens up new prospects for innovation. We seek to identify the practices we have in common, the software we’re using, and the processes we’re applying that are unnecessary or obsolete—processes that are causing us to waste time. We look at what each partner knows or doesn’t know and what we will be able to exchange. This is how the partnership works: it involves collaboration, exchange, discussion between partners, and an effort to identify alternatives highlighted by innovative practices.

This article is based on a conversation held with the GUNI Secretariat. It is not a literal transcription of the interview. The full interview is shown in the video that accompanies the article.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government