Landing : Athabascau University

Visit to Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

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By Terry Anderson November 8, 2011 - 2:08am

I was asked a year or more ago to make a visit to UOC (Open University of Calalonia) by Prof. Albert Sangra, mostly to be introduced to their eLearn Research Centre and possibly to develop ties with Athabasca. Thus, I find myself for 9 days in beautiful (but raining) Barcelona.

UOC was established in 1994 as Open University, teaching mainly in Catalone language, but unlike earlier open universities like Athabasca, it was always envisioned as an online institution - no correspondence delivery heritage. The University now has 54,000 students, 250 faculty 2,200 'consultants' - who operate in some ways like our tutors (undergrad) or adjunct teachers (our grad programs). They also have a role that we do not have referred to as tutors (around 250 persons). The tutor is proactive as a student mentor and guide who stays with the student throughout their degree program. The tutors do initial online training and familiarization and then contact student regularly for advice and support through the program. They find that especially during the first two months of a student's experience at UOC, this personal intervention is critica for reducing drop outs.  Obviously these persons, who focus on one school or faculty, must be very familiar with the whole program and auxilliary services (registrar, library etc.).

In 2009 they established the eLearn Research Innovation and Training Centre, which is sort of like our Centre for Distance Education and TEKRI, except it has a central institutional role as well. The elearn Centre has about 20 full time faculty and staff, teaches 650 students in a Masters of ELearning program and has just started a new PhD program (22 students). Many of the masters students are from Latin America. The Centre is charged with research and innovation in e-learning for the whole campus and thus has a network of research projects, funds internal innovations throughout the University and has research links with 120 faculty across the University. They also do faculty training and work at disseminate of innovations across the academy.


The building also hosts UOC's other research institute the Internet Interdisciplenary Institute headed by Manual Castells -(of Networked Society fame). I've yet to meet the great man, but interesting to see the research focus (elearning and Internet) of this University.

UOC, uses their own inhouse 'virtual campus' software, that has simiar functionality to Moodle or other generic LMS systems. Interesting though, is that the professor creates and manages the course, but the individual 'consultants' create and manage the LMS. Thus, they are allowed to update, add links, or learning activities to the course, though needing permission from the professor for major deviations from the origional course. This model means that indiviudal 'consultants' are free to customize the course, but of course that means the core course changes and adds some complexity for versioning. The class size can go up to 50, which is a bit larger than most LMS based paced online courses that I have seen elsewhere.

The jobs of the 'consutants' and tutors are not secured by tenure or even contract and are renewed on a semester basis - 'if everything goes well'. The classes are all paced over 4 months yielding 6 credits in a 240 credit undergraduate degree (standardized across Europe under the Bologne Accord).  Unlike some Open University with their face-to-face tutorials, the UOC is 100% online.  They seem at this point to be quite rabidly asynchronous, stressing the flexibility of time shifting and the time zone issues with Latin American students. 

Interesting is that the University translates all of their courses into Spanish - again mostly for their Latin American students, as the UNED in Madrid competes - though largely from a print base. They also expect graduate students to be able to read papers in English and some complete their dissertations in English as well.

Today I meet more of their staff, have lunch with the Vice President research and spend some time with the editor of their journal - talking about open access publishing. Tomorrow I visit the main campus and give a public lecture on Connectivism and online learning.