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The world's first online university celebrates its 25th anniversary as a world leader in quality e-learning

  The world's first online university UOC celebrates its 25th anniversary as a world leader in quality e-learning

Photo: UOC

Anna Torres Garrote
In 1995 the UOC reinvented learning with a transformative online educational model, now endorsed by the world's top university rankings and chosen by more than 77,000 international students

25 years ago – when only 0.4% of the world's population had access to internet, phones were landlines, hardly anyone knew what ADSL was and there was no Google – the UOC began life as a digital native, revolutionizing higher education with its asynchronous online educational model. During its first academic year, 1995/96, about 200 students chose this new institution to study Educational Psychology and Business Studies, which were the only courses available for study at the University at that time. With Gabriel Ferrat at the helm as its president, the UOC leveraged the incipient World Wide Web to become the first distanceless university, with the mission of providing lifelong learning. Twenty-five years later, with more than 77,000 students and more than 85,000 graduates, the UOC has achieved a major milestone but, with the current global pandemic, the celebrations will have to wait. A pandemic that "forces us to strengthen the University's role as a hub for creation, connection and dissemination, adopting an outlook that is both critical and self-critical," said Josep A. Planell, the UOC's current president.

One of the first students who enrolled for the degree in Educational Psychology, Joana Pardo, reminisced about how, before enrolling, she had only used the computer as a word processor. However, she quickly learned how to navigate around the Virtual Campus and to use this new methodology to study unbound by time and space constraints.

Albert Vergs enrolled for the pilot course in Business Studies in 1995, when Windows 95 had only just been launched. What the UOC offered Albert, and many people like him, was the opportunity to take his education to a higher level. Another student who took the same course was Francesc Xavier Verdalet. His was a conflicting sensation of "feeling like a guinea-pig (because they were the first people in the world to use internet to study on a university programme) and one of a fortunate few, as they had been chosen from among many more who had applied to take the course".


A transformative university

The University applies a learning model that puts students at the centre and seeks continual improvement of their competencies, with constant access to the support offered by the teaching staff's expertise. Over these 25 years, the UOC has become a leader in e-learning and is now considered among the world's 150 best young universities and the best online university in Ibero-America according to the world-renowned British journal Times Higher Education.

It is an educational model that is constantly evolving thanks to the eLearn Center (eLC), created in 2009 to foster innovation and the continuous improvement and evolution of the UOC's educational model. The work of the eLC is fuelled by research and practical experience in learning in online environments, arising from close collaborations with the University's faculties.

During the pandemic, this expertise in e-learning has helped more than 9,000 teachers working in primary schools, secondary schools and other brick-and-mortar universities to adapt to the online environment. Over a two-month period, the UOC's faculty have given 24 free webinars to help the Spanish-speaking educational community complete the previous academic year online. A glance at the figures provides ample proof of this initiative's success: more than 34,000 viewers from more than 70 countries followed the lectures live and almost 10,000 registered for the cycle's webinars. Half of the participants came from Spain, followed by countries on the other side of the Atlantic, such as Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela.

The University offers programmes in Catalan, Spanish and some in English. It is a "highly diverse course range that meets lifelong learning needs; it is accredited by the quality rating agencies and meets the standards of the European university system," explained Carles Sigals, Vice President for Teaching and Learning.


A socially engaged university

This sense of responsibility is also expressed in the undertaking to integrate the 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined in the United Nations' 2030 Agenda. "The digital transformation must create conditions conducive to fostering the well-being of people and the planet, increasing prosperity while promoting participation, justice and peace," said Pastora Martnez, Vice President for Globalization and Cooperation.

One of the UOC's guiding principles is to guarantee quality higher education for everyone. Thus, the University is working with other university systems in different countries, such as Mexico, Chile, Ecuador or Jordan, to help them develop their own regulatory systems that assure quality online education and provide more people with access to higher education. Precisely to guarantee equal opportunity in university access, the UOC has awarded 159 scholarships to refugees since 2017 and offers grants in partnership with other international institutions and bodies, such as the SEGIB, the OAS, SENESCYT or ICETEX, to promote lifelong learning in the Americas.


A university committed to research

The UOC's research "contributes to addressing the challenges faced by the global societies of the 21st century by studying the interaction between technology and human and social sciences, with a particular focus on the network society, education and e-health," said Marta Aymerich, Vice President for Strategic Planning and Research.

Since 2014, the number of scientific publications has increased, and the University's visibility, in terms of open-access publications and indexed articles, has more than doubled. The funds received for research and innovation have also doubled, with annual figures ranging between four and five million euros.

The first research centre, the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), was created in 1999 under the management of the sociologist and current Minister for Universities, Manuel Castells. At present, there are eleven research groups evaluated by an external scientific committee.

Another of the University's strategic research pillars is digital health. In 2017, it created the eHealth Center. This cross-disciplinary academic centre open to the world generates, transfers and shares e-health knowledge to educate and empower professionals and ordinary citizens alike to lead the paradigm shift in health through the use of technology.

As a result, the UOC has been rated as the number one online university in research by the 2020 CYD ranking, which uses performance indicators to evaluate Spanish universities.


A connected university

The UOC provides lifelong learning to help professionals adapt to a changing professional context. "In our role as facilitators of personal and professional development, our goal is to ensure that the knowledge given leads to practical benefits in terms of improved employment opportunities," explained Angels Fit, Vice President for Competitiveness and Employability.

Thus, the 2020 U-Ranking, published by the BBVA Foundation and the Valencian Institute of Economic Research (IVIE), confirms that the UOC's graduate community achieves excellent results in terms of employment and average Social Security contribution base (the highest of all the universities analysed, with €32,559).

In addition, UOC Corporate has been created to support companies in their professionals' growth, helping them meet their business challenges and advance in their organizations' transformation. More than 80 companies, including Leche Pascual, Banc Sabadell and Grup Catalana Occident, have used the UOC to provide training to their employees.


A not-for-profit university

The UOC was created in 1995 as a Government of Catalonia initiative to offer lifelong learning. The bill to create the UOC was unanimously passed in the Catalan parliament and became law on 6 April 1995.

The UOC is a not-for-profit foundation, with a public mandate and a vocation for public service. During the last six years, it has achieved sustained growth that has enabled it to broaden its course range and improve its quality.

This year, "everything seems to indicate that we are moving towards a scenario in which we will meet our budget forecasts and may even be above-budget in revenues," said Antoni Cahner, the University's general manager.


A university with a history

During this quarter century, the University has had three presidents: Josep A. Planell (2013-present), Imma Tubella (2005-2013) and Gabriel Ferrat (1995-2005). And it has awarded its highest academic distinction, the honorary doctoral degree, to Mary Beard (2019), Manuel Borja-Villel (2018), Alejandro Jadad (2018), Hanna Damsio (2012), Aina Moll (2012), Brenda M. Gourley (2011), Sir Timothy Berners-Lee (2008), Alain Touraine (2007), William J. Mitchell (2006), Jordi Pujol (2006), Tony Bates (2005) and Josep Laporte (2003).


An MIT vice president will inaugurate the UOC's 25th year

The first event to commemorate the 25th anniversary will be the inaugural lecture given online by Sanjay Sarma, professor of Mechanical Engineering and Vice President for Open Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on 21 October, at 4 pm. Everyone is welcome to register to follow it live.


Related links:

25th anniversary website

Latest news on the UOC's 25th anniversary celebrations