Landing : Athabascau University

Thoughts from E-learn Centre at Open University of Catalonia


I am a visiting the UOC E-Learn Centre for two months and chairing their E-Learn Centre Advisory group.  The UOC is 100% at a distance, founded in 1994 as a public, 100% online institution with currently 60,000 part time students.

I wanted to share insights that I think have relevance for Athabasca 

 In a nutshell their E-Learn Centre (full time staff of about 12, including 5 full time academics) runs a Masters degree/Grad Certificate program (1,104 students), a PhD program (52 candidates) and has a mandate and funding to involve EVERY faculty member (who wishes) in one of their supported discipline based e-learning research teams (ie e-learning and Law, tourism, health studies. etc.)  They also do e-learning training for tutors across the University (offering a graduate certificate program for them) and have a healthy research agenda with participation in a number of EU projects. Finally they sponsor activities (lectures, workshops, research e-seminars, visiting scholars etc. in 2012  85 such activities sponsored involving 2,040 participants)  

Thus, they fill roles at UOC much like the CDE, but with funding and mandate to lead elearning research throughout the University and full time admin staff to support admin of research (like the Research Centre) .

First observation is that I get tired just listening to the number  of projects/ responsibilities the E-Learn Centre staff undertake. They undertake an amazing work load. For those interested their annual report, with statistics on activities is available at 

UOC has this year revised their teaching plan (throughout the University) so that each course coordinator has 600 Euros per course to hire tutors for course enhancements (a focus on OERs, new Web 2.0 tools, revising exams etc), all driven by student evaluations). These small stipends are in addition to regular tutor salaries. These changes are approved by the course supervisor (a full time academic) and implemented immediately.  

UOC  has an Learning  technology unit in charge of the LMS, faculty training and in-house research which has similar roles to the non-admin responsibilities of CS, with perhaps a bit more pedagogical focus.  UOC uses a home grown LMS and  we heard  constant complaints from Faculty and tutors that the system is too old, inflexible and "stuck in the 1990's". This assessment however is not shared by the Learning technology group encharge of developing and maintaining the system.  The UOC also assigns a "counsellor" to each student for the life of their time at the University. Unlike, Athabasca, they have very few 'visiting students" as credit transfer doesn't happen much in Spain. These counsellors help students plan their program with UOC.

UOC programs are hampered for growth opportunities by the low fees (currently 512 Euros/per year for PhD program) which do not cover the costs of development and delivery. As you might expect government support to Universities  in Spain has also been reduced - by 40% over the past few years. UOC offers postgrad training in South America and has an office in Mexico. These operations are growing, but revenue model isn't there (sounds like us at Athabasca, only our problem is too high fees, UOC's is too low!)

They seem to make extensive use of social apps (see and also run a social network  (like the Landing) which  seems to be used quite effectively for external engagement and outreach to the community. They haven't developed much of an internal social nwtwork- nothing like the landing.

UOC also supports an Open Portal for distribution of journals, papers, oERs etc. see

The ELearn Centre supports 9 research groups, each from a different discipline. This support consists of conference help, visting scholar support, travel, advise, help with external research fund calls, recommendations for PhD students from the elearn Centre join and do research with the teams. The Elearn Centre spends about 32,000 Euros/year on supporting these teams. For example,  the Management in E-Learnign group has 6 faculty members from the Business faculty. They have three projects for 2013:

  • 1. Analyze the organizational factors that differentiate effectiveness of virtual teams of online tutors (the tutors teaching  different business courses.
  • 2. A project to explore tutors use of tablets to download assessment activities, correct and annotate them (voice and video) and upload back to their LMS
  • 3. Design, Implement and assess a training program to reduce psychosocial risks of virtual workers.

 You can see how these research activities focus on the mission critical issues of the University and also engage faculty in publishable research. Each groups' output is assessed annually in terms of conference presentations, papers and other dissemination and mobilization training activities that they have coordinated.

All and all a very impressive unit of an interesting University. Unlike, Open Universities like Athabasca, Netherlands, Madrid and Portugal, UOC was founded as an online institution and thus has (to date) been more effective and has had less problems moving to the post-industrial models of net based development and delivery of distance educuation.


  • Thanks Terry.

    Can their faculty members access each other's live courses on an ad hoc basis?

    I think this would go a long way in the cross-discipline/organizational knowledge sharing, something I wish we could prioritize here at AU within our LMS (i.e., library role access to all our live Moodle courses).

    Carmen Southgate June 10, 2013 - 7:55am

  • Thanks for this summary, Terry.

    I see the word "open" in the name OUC, and I wonder how openness is defined there, and has that definition changed or is it changing?

    Even among the Open Universities (such as those you cite) it seems that the meaning of openness varies somewhat. With changing models of development/delivery, and pressures in funding, competition, and so on, are ideas about openness being discussed? 


    Jan Thiessen June 12, 2013 - 9:48am

  • Yes indeed Jan definition of "open" varies considerably around the world. To my understanding the only common theme is "openness" as in no prerequistits (especially terrific high school marks) to enroll. But "openess" is USUALLY associated with lower costs than traditional universities. Almost all open universities also have no residency requirements (except maybe occasional tutorials or summer schools), and most offer openness in terms of time, with asynchronous delivery modes. Our openness in terms of self paced programming is (as you know) actually quite rare in Open Universities.

    I think everyone is trying to be more accommodating to student needs - and not just in the "open universities" - thus the focus on time and place shifting associated with online courses at campus universities. Few seem to have any apetite for self paced courses because of the adminstrative issues and a sense that giving up pacing and cohorts would increase attrition rates.


    Terry Anderson June 12, 2013 - 2:06pm

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