"The results that are obtained in e-learning are equivalent if not better at times than in on-site learning"
Photo: UOC
Rubn Permuy

Albert Sangr is a teacher with 30 years of experience. Today, he is an international expert in the field of e-learning. Currently, he is academic director of the UNESCO Chair in Education and Technology for Social Change and director of the Government of Catalonia's Industrial Doctorates Plan. Albert Sangr is also a researcher in the research group in Education and ICT (EDUL@B), affiliated with the UOC's eLearn Center, where he was director from 2012 to 2014. In 2015 he received the Award for Excellence in eLearning from the World Education Congress, the only academic in Spanish to receive this honour. He is also an EDEN Senior Fellow. Together we take a look at e-learning as it stands today.

Does e-learning have a good enough reputation?

Some people want to create doubts about it because e-learning is growing so quickly. As it meets the needs of people who want to study, it's more accessible and more flexible. Sometimes this all leads to a little nervousness among the traditional face-to-face models of education. What we are interested in is showing that there are very good practices in e-learning and that the results we obtain are equivalent to face-to-face education and sometimes even better.

And is this reputation very unfair when we compare it to other countries in Europe?

Although e-learning has a better reputation in the Nordic and English-speaking countries than in Latin and Latin American countries, probably for cultural and historical reasons, we can turn this situation around.

Could you briefly tell us about what your research work consists of? Is e-learning your main field?

I basically work in the field of e-learning – I prefer to refer to it in those terms because I think it makes it clearer. In other words, everything that contributes to the evolution of e-learning and the models that have developed. My research work focuses on the renowned EDUL@B research group and on the uses of technology in the field of education, considered from the perspective of policies, organization, management, leadership and professional development and training, while always identifying the characteristics of quality in e-learning. In addition, as academic director of the UNESCO Chair, I have undertaken a line of work that focuses on the social and economic impact of e-learning, which is fundamental to understanding how it plays an important role in today's society and the impact that it is having.

It is difficult to predict, but do you think that classroom training at universities will disappear as e-learning becomes established?

Not only will it not disappear, but in the coming years there will be a kind of revival of classroom education which will try to challenge the reputation of e-learning. However, the tendency will be towards some degree of balance. I don't believe in arguing that one is better than the other, rather that each one is used for specific times, goals and people. I believe that the two types of education should coexist.

Do you think that e-learning could make the transition to other levels of education apart from higher education, such as making home schooling for children easier?

One thing is what technology allows us to do and another thing is what is advisable. We are too used to the idea that if technology allows us to do something, we have to do it. As human beings we are capable of incorporating values into what we do, so we know why we want to do it. As such, there are philosophical and ideological aspects that have to be considered. It's not just a question of teaching. We have to socialize people and that's why we have to see to what extent home schooling makes that possible, for example. What it is we win and what it is we lose. It could be considered in some extreme situations, as is the case in other countries, such as for families who live a long distance from a town. But in cities like Barcelona, if we want to integrate our children into our society, it's probably not the best idea, even if it does seem like it sometimes.

Let's talk about the research projects you are involved in. The European project coordinated by the UOC entitled "Creating an Online Dimension for University Rankings (CODUR)" has started recently: what is its main objective?

Yes, it is based on today's needs. Rankings are overvalued, or are perhaps one of the things that everybody looks at when deciding whether to go to a university. When we look at them carefully, we realize that the universities that provide e-learning for our students are not listed. We need to establish some sort of listing that can include them so that those indicators are available to people who want to use them. The CODUR project aims to create this specific dimension for e-learning and to include it in a ranking, such as the European U-Multirank listing, which would probably help us to enhance reputation when the quality level is high.

You're also involved in the project "Central Asian Center for Teaching, Learning and Entrepreneurship (CACTLE)", in which the UOC is a partner. Could you explain briefly what its objectives are?

The Central Asian countries involved – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – are awakening, with new models for university teaching. They are looking for a way for us in Europe to be able to help them develop these models and create new ones. By doing so, they will modernize their higher education, introducing technologies and new teaching strategies to it. This project is led by the University of Vienna, and aims to establish a virtual centre that will give these universities the resources to make the progress and have the training necessary to incorporate these developments in their teaching. I am involved in it to contribute my vision of how technology can help them modernize teaching in higher education.

Although research on e-learning is relatively new, a lot has changed in a short time, as in other areas of technology, for reasons such as the presence of social media. Is the rapid pace of change one of the problems?

To a certain extent yes, because it is part of what we are studying, but it also depends on whether the research is looking at the fundamentals or whether we are only interested in the more volatile aspects. I'm more concerned with the fundamentals. I'm interested in finding out how it is evolving, and how new technologies are being incorporated in a training model that means that the teacher and the student do not have to be in the same place at the same time. This allows you to adopt a different pace for studying, which means that it can be extended on a lifelong basis quite easily, and therefore uses technologies that become a part of it. That allows me to analyse the fundamentals that are not changing so quickly, unlike the technologies that are being used. At the EDUL@B research group, we are trying to look at it from a distance to be able to see the whole picture, and how the various factors can change it, so that we can make predictions for the longer term.

According to various current thinkers, we live in a hurry. Perhaps we also want to learn in a hurry? Do we need some slow education to make the most of learning? Do you think that education is determined too much by the needs of the market at any given time?

Education is a marathon rather than a sprint. We need to reflect, internalize and assimilate things in order to subsequently be able to apply what has been learned properly. Training that is very quick, immediate and short is a very shallow and superficial kind of learning. If we're talking about education rather than instruction, some reflection is in order. I don't agree with rapid learning, because there is some evidence to suggest that it is a very superficial type of learning.

Since last summer, you have been director of the Government of Catalonia's Industrial Doctorates Plan, which aims to create opportunities to carry out doctoral theses in businesses. What is the objective behind this new project?

The Plan aims to bring together research groups from universities that are carrying out specific research which may be ideal for our country's industry, and businesses that can benefit from it so that the research groups can transfer the results of their work to society. A doctoral project is a fantastic opportunity to bring together a group's research line and the needs of a business through the figure of the doctoral student. And if that also means that a business hires a doctoral student and that person stays there, we are adding talent and competitiveness.

Does the market take full advantage of excellence and talent of the type which could come from a doctoral thesis? Is the Industrial Doctorates Plan a firm commitment to improving relationships between universities and business?

There is still a long way to go, but we now have around 240 companies which are involved in the Industrial Doctorates Plan. That's not enough. There is still some mistrust about placing doctoral students in a company, on the part of both the business world and academia. With a tool like this Plan, that mistrust should disappear, showing that this cooperation is possible and fruitful for both sides.

The UOC currently has eleven industrial doctorates: would your assessment of them be a positive one?

It certainly would! My assessment would be very positive, although more of them could be done. Probably because of its characteristics and its student profile, the UOC may have some added difficulties because its students on average tend to be older than those of other universities. I would encourage research groups to consider the Plan. We have realized that there are research groups at all universities that do not have an industrial doctorate because they don't have the information they need to be able to assess it. The Plan provides an interesting sum of money to finance part of the company's hiring costs and also gives students access to a mobility fund and covers the enrolment fees. These are just some of the interesting incentives that would lead a research group to consider establishing a relationship with a company based on an industrial doctorate project. The UOC has some work to do in this area because there is definitely potential.

Finally, could you recommend a book for those wishing to learn more about how e-learning has developed?

Teaching in a Digital Age, a book written in 2015 by my Canadian friend Tony Bates, which you can download for free from his website. The book looks at what is involved in the adventure of organizing and designing an online course and how to teach one.