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More than 600 UOC students defended their final projects publicly and in real time online due to COVID-19

Emma Pedrol

As the past semester came to its conclusion, 640 students from six UOC master's degrees defended their final projects publicly and synchronously using a videoconferencing tool, in a pilot test implemented as a result of COVID-19. The staff who made it happen have paid tribute to the technological and organizational efforts involved and the commendable adaptability shown by students, and highlighted the tight time frame they had to work to.


In the context of the UOC's e-learning model, Carles Sigals, Vice President for Teaching and Learning, pointed out "This wasn't the UOC's first experience of students performing final project defences synchronously via videoconferencing, it having been used on various occasions in recent semesters. This enabled us to quickly verify the suitability of this method and ensure that we met the quality standards required of universities by AQU Catalunya."

The sessions were held online in real time, and UOC community members were invited to sit in as guests. As part of the master's degree final project assessment process, the defence sessions involved exchanges of questions and answers between each student and the members of their assessment committee.


The value of synchronous online defences

According to Elisenda Estanyol, director of the University Master's Degree in Corporate Communication, Protocol and Events, for students, defending a final master's degree project before an assessment committee means "first of all, having to demonstrate public speaking skills and in-depth understanding of the object of study by fielding questions from the committee members in real time". She added that it also serves to "validate the work put in by students throughout the semester, since during the defence they receive suggestions and comments from the assessment committee members that they can assimilate and apply professionally if they wish".

Estanyol commented that "in most cases, it's the moment that the whole master's degree is building up to, so it can be quite emotional, with the assessment team congratulating students on their efforts". She added that "students responded well and in general performed excellent defences, a clear sign that they made a concerted effort to prepare for the occasion".

Setting up the assessment committee schedules was another task for the faculties had to contend with: in just a few short weeks, they had to organize a large number of defences which, in many cases, overlapped and involved numerous tutors, external assessors and coordinating professors. Communication with students and the members of the assessment committees was conducted automatically by email, with appointments added to their Google Calendars.


Technology plan and teamwork deliver

To ensure that the defences ran smoothly, a technology plan was needed. According to Jos Manuel Santos, project supervisor in the Technology department, "our main challenges were to do with launching the application in a cloud-based environment, which involved complex integration between different systems such as Blackboard Collaborate and Google Calendar". Santos added that "everything was done within a very tight schedule, without room for manoeuvre, and also overlapping with the online final tests project".

The deliverables the tech team had to provide included a repository with all the data needed for the infrastructure, a videoconferencing tool with which to conduct the defences, a schedule management system, and a website on which to publish information.

Arrangements for this semester's synchronous online defences entailed countless hours of planning, coordination and teamwork. One of the team working hard to pull it all together was Sergi Martnez, from Campus Services. He explained how, over the course of the project, "all the participating teams put in good work, everyone was continuously kept in the loop thanks to training sessions and the communication plan, and the faculties and management teams were urged to take part in defining the tool's functionalities and tests".

A record of the project can be found on the UOC final project defences website, which lists the defences scheduled and the links that enabled UOC community members to attend as guests. Laura Castillo, also from Campus Services, explained: "One key point – a condition set by AQU Catalunya – was to ensure that the defences were public. For this to be possible, we needed a platform that any member of the community could log onto as a guest." She said: "The website is currently undergoing beta testing and we hope to improve the defence search and visualization functions over the upcoming academic year."

Another cornerstone of the project was communication, both with students and affiliated teaching staff, and with the different teams working on the pilot programme. Castillo added "It was crucial that we ensured the students understood the process and received information at the right time. And following on from that, it was likewise key to monitor the defences to pinpoint any opportunities for improvement."


Final projects and the e-learning model at the UOC

The UOC has been working in recent years to define a framework of reference for designing final project courses and coordinating the teaching that goes into them. The aim is for the framework to fit well into the UOC's e-learning model while also adhering to the content of publications put out by the Catalan University Quality Assurance Agency (AQU Catalunya). A methodological working group comprising members of the faculties, the Office of the Vice President, the eLearn Center and the Library has been outlining a teaching model for final projects at the UOC over the last two years.

The six master degrees for which final projects were defended were Corporate Communication, Protocol and Events; Human Rights, Democracy and Globalization; Humanities: Contemporary Culture, Literature and Art; Legal Practice; Medical Social Work; and Nutrition and Health. The initiative has been so well received that the UOC is now planning – via a staged, progressive process – for all university master's degrees' final project defences to be conducted this way.


UOC's first ever online thesis defence

Mitchell Peters, who did his PhD at the UOC's Doctoral School, made a successful online defence of his thesis "The Contribution of Lifelong Learning Ecologies in Online Higher Education: Graduate Student Learning Across Contexts", and was awarded Excellent Cum Laude. This was the first time ever that a thesis has been defended completely online at the UOC. The defence was conducted in a way that met all the relevant quality standards. It took place on 3 July and was watched by more than 40 people, who logged in from countries from around the world including the Philippines, Chile, Colombia, Spain, Japan, Canada and the United Kingdom.

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