The Open University of Catalonia (UOC) turns 25 at a crucial moment for the future of higher education. It has a very varied training offer that adapts to lifelong learning needs and reaches more than 140 countries. Josep A. Planell i Estany, rector of the UOC since 2013, assesses where the institution is currently.
How would you describe the evolution of the UOC from its inception until now?
What began as a risky bet, in 1995, as a distance university using the Internet – a decision that could even seem eccentric at that time – has led to the UOC becoming one of the world leaders in online education o e-learning.
The evolution of the UOC over these 25 years both from the technological point of view, as well as in terms of its pedagogical model, its governance, the criteria that configure the quality of online teaching and, without a doubt, the Research and knowledge generation, especially in areas of interaction between technology and human sciences, have made the UOC a model and reference for online education.
From your point of view, what is the essence of this university?
The decision that the university’s communication vehicle is the internet carries irreversible consequences. Our pedagogical model represents the re-engineering of face-to-face education: the student learns by doing and for this they are offered learning resources, is accompanied in their work by a teacher and interacts and works with their classmates in the virtual classroom. On the other hand, by virtue of being the ubiquitous internet, the university can be global. This does not mean having only an international dimension, but it means training global citizens and professionals, respecting the diversity of each person and with a strong will for social transformation.
“The student learns by doing and for this they are offered learning resources”
On the other hand, the UOC is a university that focuses its research and innovation on the interaction between technology and the human and social sciences. It is precisely research in this interaction between technologies and the different fields of knowledge where our strength lies, especially in education (e-learning) and in the health field (e-health or digital health). It is very relevant to understand that the UOC is open precisely because the only access condition is to have the minimum access requirements to the university in Spain. And this public access means that the UOC’s prices are public.
What have been the most notable changes that the institution carried out?
One of the challenges of the last decade has been the commitment to the global dimension of the university. In our case, this means promoting classrooms and global content, promoting interculturality and that acquired skills (digital, organizational, collective work) facilitate the training of people prepared for the challenges of the 21st century. At the moment, our almost 80,000 students live in 142 countries and approximately 12,000 are from other countries, the majority from Latin America.
How has your reaction been to the Covid-19 pandemic?
The online nature of our university facilitated a rapid adaptation to this exceptional situation and we were able to keep our campus, teaching and research active. The great challenge, successfully overcome, was the virtualization of 30,000 exams, which could not be face-to-face, and do it in record time, last June. For the first time in the 25-year history of the UOC, 17,000 students took the online exam.
In addition, we wanted to put our knowledge at the service of the community. On the one hand, we launched, together with the UNED and in collaboration with the Ministry of Universities and the CRUE, a resource platform for teachers, students and society in general. On the other hand, a year ago we launched a program that we call Emergency Non-Presential Teaching, aimed at openly sharing the knowledge of our teaching staff with teachers from other universities and systems to solve their concrete and urgent problems. This program has been the most impactful international cooperation program in the entire history of the UOC: nearly 10,000 people from 47 countries signed up to follow it live and it has already seen more than 155,000 views.
How is the UOC’s learning model characterized?
The uniqueness of the pedagogical model is that it is focused on student learning and activity. This learning is carried out by solving challenges that are proposed to be solved by the student and that for this purpose a set of learning resources are made available to them, the teacher accompanies them in their doubts and in their progress and finally can maintain contacts and consult with the rest of the students of the virtual classroom in which it is integrated.
“The uniqueness of the pedagogical model is that it is focused on student learning and activity”
A very important aspect of the model is that it can be and in fact is asynchronous: the student and the teacher do not have to coincide in space or time. The university is where the student is and the university is where the professor is.
An extremely important aspect of the model is that for it to work, cross-collaboration between the academic team and the management team is necessary.
Digital transformation is essential for this university, what role does it currently have?
The UOC is a digital native and this means that the concept of a digital institution is very much incorporated into the way of working. In fact, to put it in a nutshell, digital transformation means that technology is no longer just another area in the organization (a silo), to become part of all processes in all areas. In fact, the most important technological project for us today is a data governance project, essential both to follow the progress of the student, and to avoid their abandonment, or to carry out research, particularly in the field of e-learning.
What profile of students is the UOC aimed at?
It is very difficult to define a single student profile. I want to recall the first aspect of the university’s mission: we train people throughout life, adapting to their vital and / or professional needs. Therefore, the profiles are going to be very different. We have a high percentage of students from higher vocational training cycles, and we are the second Spanish university with the most students with disabilities (after UNED). We have a large percentage of women who, after leaving work for family reasons, decide to rejoin the world of work. We have a large number of Latin American immigrants in Spain and Europe who decide to obtain a European degree by studying with us. We also have people who study for personal satisfaction.
What role does online education have today?
According to OECD projections, in 2030 we will reach 400 million new university students. Added to this growing demand is an unstoppable diversity that ranges from the basic graduate to the doctorate, passing through the specialized course, updating and training throughout life. If serving only the new student with traditional centers would force us to build two universities with twenty thousand students every day, responding to this plurality of needs is unimaginable. It is simply unsustainable. Therefore, the future ?? including the immediate present ?? of university education is played on the net.
How is research and innovation at this university?
Research is inherent to the nature of a university. In fact, when we talked about the essence of our university and it explained our mission, it already said that the UOC focuses its research and innovation on the interaction between technology and the human and social sciences. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of scientific research and, above all, the role that science should play as an antidote to denial, flat Earth and everything we agree to call fakenews. The university is therefore called to play a leading role as a generator of knowledge and scientific reasoning. Research is therefore the great lever to face current and future challenges.
“At the UOC we promote interdisciplinary research, on the frontier of diverse disciplines”
At the UOC we promote interdisciplinary research, on the frontier of diverse disciplines. And we are determined to also commit to open science, to openly disseminate the knowledge generated in the university, and to promote initiatives that connect us with economic and social agents.
Do you have any measures designed to increase the number of women in the STEM area?
Yes, of course, without a doubt. However, to produce an increase in the number of women in the STEM area we will not do it in the university. Women already come to university with an orientation that is very difficult to change. The only way to achieve the goal is by acting from childhood. It is at school and in families that girls’ interest in mathematics, science and technology must be forged. In this sense, we think that we will be able to exert a clear influence through the Grade of Primary Education that we will begin to teach from September. Future empowered teachers with strong scientific backgrounds and accredited digital competencies will be able to foster STEM vocations in both girls and boys studying in their classrooms.
What relationship does the UOC have with the business world?
At the UOC we are convinced that universities cannot limit ourselves to generating and transmitting knowledge, but rather we have to bet on a broad vision of support for personal and professional advancement: knowledge must also bear fruit in the form of job placement. That is why at the UOC we created a vice-rector for Competitiveness and Employability.
In addition, the orientation to the new employability requires a more permeable university, with a dialogue with the rest of the inhabitants of the ecosystem. For example, opening the classrooms to professionals with a teaching profile or transferring learning outside the classrooms.
As a university whose mission is to train throughout life, in addition to offering official bachelor’s and master’s degrees, we have two lines of activity: UOC X, aimed at providing professional training at different levels, and UOC Corporate, which offers learning solutions to companies that has allowed us to train more than 7000 professionals.
A recent initiative that we are very satisfied with is the Virtual Employment Fair, which we launched last year with the aim of staying over time, and in whose first edition more than 100 companies and 5,000 students and alumni participated.
How do you see this university in the future?
The universities of the 21st century, and in particular the UOC, must ensure lifelong learning based on the vital and professional moment of the citizens. And this will have to be done at public prices in order to ensure social impact. Talent is the most well-distributed wealth in the world and wherever it is found, it must be given the opportunity to flourish and consolidate, and this is the mission of universities with a strong social impact such as the UOC.
It seems quite clear that entry into the field by profit-making companies or entities will increase in the coming years. Public universities have an opportunity to reinforce citizenship values in the sense of training critical, responsible citizens with democratic values.