6/6/24 · Education

"Arts-based learning improves socio-emotional development"

Nella Escala, doctoral student at the UOC
Nella Escala

Nella Escala (photo: Esteban Peñaherrera)

Fostering a passion for work and learning is undoubtedly one of the most important challenges faced by educators, especially in the early years. One of the tools for fighting against school dropout (often caused by a lack of motivation) is using the arts as a vehicle for learning with tech (e-learning). These strategies have been shown to benefit the educational experience and to result in students participating more and being more enthusiastic.

This is the basis of the research carried out by Nella Escala, a student on the UOC's doctoral programme in Education and ICT, who has also previously completed a master's degree and been a tutor at the university. Her thesis is on tech-enhanced arts-based learning to boost student engagement in primary education. So far, she has already seen changes in the way students learn and interact, with more participation, creativity and motivation. Nella, an Italian-Ecuadorian national, speaks perfect Catalan, the language in which this interview was conducted.

Can you give us a brief summary of your time and experience as a student and tutor at the UOC?

My time at the UOC began when I decided to move from the corporate world of e-learning to teaching and research. I'd done a master's degree in Cultural Management and wanted to explore how we learn through the arts with technology as a way to enrich learning. I already had experience in education, art and technology, so I decided to do the UOC's Master's Degree in Education and ICT, specializing in research, with the aim of then moving on to do a PhD.

Once I finished the master's degree, I had the opportunity to collaborate as a tutor on the Master's Degree in Education and ICT thanks to Marcelo Maina, the programme's director, who suggested this possibility of supporting, helping and guiding master's degree students in their studies. This experience allowed me to understand the different needs and realities of students who seek a balance between their professional, personal and family lives without losing focus on their studies. I then went on to start my PhD with the Edul@b research group. I started part-time because I was working full-time. Striking a balance between work and family was hard for the first year but, with the support of my supervisors, Montse Guitert and Teresa Romeu, I applied for a FI-SDUR grant, a predoctoral research grant awarded by the Government of Catalonia, so that I could work full-time on my doctoral degree.

What did you like most, and why did you decide to do your PhD at the UOC?

I originally decided to do my doctoral degree at the UOC for three reasons: to continue with the Education and ICT programme, because of the flexibility of doing it online and part-time, and because of the encouragement I got from one of my supervisors, who told me to submit the proposal for the project.

I knew how the UOC works and was very happy with the process I'd had as a master's degree student and as a tutor. It seemed like a good time and a good place to continue with my doctoral studies. In addition, the possibility of sharing and learning about other experiences in conferences, seminars and workshops, as well as the chance to do research stays in other countries, made everything even more enriching.

“I decided to do my doctoral degree at the UOC to continue with the Education and ICT programme, because of the flexibility of doing it online and part-time, and because of the encouragement I got from one of my supervisors”

Let's talk about the doctoral degree. What does your research consist of, why did you choose it, and what was the starting point?

When I was working in a digital education programme with primary school students in Ecuador, I noticed a certain lack of interest in learning despite having technological equipment in the classroom. But there was something wrong with the methodological and pedagogical approach that was preventing them from creating a good learning experience. Also, one of the things that worried me about the education system was the dropout rate in secondary school. In this case, one of the causes of school dropout is poor performance and a lack of motivation to learn. There are clearly other aspects that affect this problem, but I wanted to approach it from the point of view of students' lack of interest in learning.

So, I decided to link it back to what I'd previously worked on: using the arts as a vehicle for learning, and technologies as tools that benefit the educational experience. This is how my thesis proposal came about – integrating arts-based learning in educational practice with ICT: a methodology for getting primary school students engaged in their learning process.

The project is carried out in two contexts, Catalonia and Ecuador, and follows a design-based research (DBR) approach in four phases that are interrelated. The first phase included a literature review and analysis of experiences of social, cultural and educational institutions in Catalonia and Quito in order to find out how they approach the integration of the arts and tech in the different knowledge areas. The second phase involved developing a tech-enhanced arts-based learning model and the joint construction of an educational experience with the involvement of teachers, cultural agents and pedagogy specialists. The third phase was the implementation of the model with the arts-based learning methods in a state school in the city of Quito with students in the 5th and 6th grades of primary school. Finally, in the fourth phase, the action was assessed, reflected on and analysed to make improvements for a second iteration.

How are you finding the experience, and what conclusions are you reaching?

The experience is fascinating and full of learning with the teaching staff, art specialists and other researchers. It's like a rollercoaster, with its ups and downs. When everything goes well, something always happens to change everything, but that's part of the process. Depending on how you look at it, it can be exciting or frustrating. But I take it as a challenge, and I like it.

Despite being in the middle of the process towards the second iteration, I've already seen, based on observations and interviews with teaching staff, changes in the way students learn and interact: they participate more and are more creative and motivated.

When we did the literature review and experience analysis, we identified five key dimensions, which we're working on throughout the research project. They're related to educational experiences that integrate the arts into the curriculum, collaboration between teaching staff and art specialists, the factors that influence the progress of these experiences, the benefits of integrating the arts into education, and the integration of the arts through technology. I like to think that this research can be useful for educators as well as cultural agents and policymakers in the field of education.

How important is arts-based learning for motivating young children and encouraging their creativity?

Arts-based learning is a methodological approach in which students build knowledge through an art form and participate in a creative process that promotes meaningful learning and develops key competencies that allow them to link concepts together, collaborate and interact with others, solve problems, create solutions, reflect on their learning, contextualize it in their environment, and promote a love of arts and culture.

Elliot Eisner said that fostering a passion for work and learning is one of the most important goals of education, especially in the early years. Luis Camnitzer also emphasized that art is a way of thinking, posing problems and solving them, and how it's the field where you can imagine both that which is possible and that which is not. We've found many articles that demonstrate the importance and benefits of arts-based learning in the development of 21st-century competencies, such as creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking, as well as how it improves the socio-emotional development of students, leads to greater participation and engagement in the learning experience, and fosters the desire to know more.

But when you experience it in the classroom, with children with diverse needs and from vulnerable backgrounds, you realize that they're more motivated, involved, expressive and willing to learn.

How do you think this can change the mindset of younger students, and how can it help them in the future?

When students enjoy what they're doing, express it, share it and question themselves critically, you see a change in the way they think and the way they do things. Working on knowledge with the arts in an interdisciplinary way can strengthen the development of key competencies to address global challenges and situations in their environment, as well as making an active contribution to the community.

Schools that are committed to the arts see how their students actively contribute to society, whether in community projects or artistic presentations or through other forms of interaction that demonstrate what they've learned in terms of knowledge, artistic language and social commitment. In addition, the integration of tech allows students to improve their digital skills, connect ideas and create innovative solutions using digital tools and resources.

In order for this change to take place, there must be a strong commitment by the school's leadership and teaching staff. This factor was very important in all our preliminary analysis work. If the school doesn't believe in the potential of integrating the arts and making a judicious use of tech, it's unlikely to have an effect and bring about a change in the mindset of teaching staff and students.

Sometimes, especially in Latin America, the arts are thought to require less intelligence and are seen as taking time and resources from the school that could be used elsewhere. However, we now know that the arts inspire many of the creative skills required to foster other non-traditional occupations. Collaboration between teaching staff and arts and culture specialists is also important to generate proposals that connect knowledge with other artistic disciplines, thus enriching students' educational experience. Finally, it's crucial to create a safe environment where students feel comfortable exploring new ideas, making mistakes and learning from them without being afraid to take risks. This makes them more motivated and gives them more confidence to explore new ideas. 

The UOC's Research Hub has become a magnet for talent from abroad, like you and many of your peers. Why do you think this is?

The Hub itself is attractive because of the concept behind it and the possibilities it offers researchers. First, it has a modern research space where you can work without stress and interact with other researchers from different programmes and disciplines to exchange opinions and create synergies, adding to each other's ideas and learning together. This collaboration significantly enriches the research process.

There's also the possibility of experimenting with the UOC Labs, which are equipped to carry out applied research, which is appealing because it's probably harder to find elsewhere. In addition, the possibility of starting a business with your research project, with the support of a knowledge transfer and entrepreneurship platform, makes it even more interesting.

What surprised you the most, or what would you like to highlight about the research work carried out at the UOC and about the Doctoral School?

I'm surprised by the number of research groups there are and the amount of knowledge and knowledge transfer that's generated here. It's interesting to see what other groups are doing and how what we do can be aligned with a more interdisciplinary type of work. And this is why I think it's important to look at the events and spaces that are generated in various areas which, regardless of whether or not they are from our own area of study, can complement it from a different approach, and it's interesting to open up this perspective a little. 

I'm fascinated by the Doctoral School's dynamism when it comes to generating learning spaces on current issues, whether in the form of workshops or seminars or meetings that allow us to learn more about what researchers in the various doctoral programmes are doing. I'd also like to highlight the support of the Doctoral School staff, who are always there to help you, listen to you, answer your questions and guide you on your journey as a researcher.


The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.

Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).

The university also develops online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.

Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.

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