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E-learning in 2021, from emergency to quality

  elearning quality 2021

The main challenge for the elearning systems will be to go from the emergency to quality

Agustín López
Against the backdrop of the current pandemic, the UOC's experts explain the trends and challenges of online education in forthcoming years

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the biggest shutdown of educational systems in history, affecting almost 1.6 billion students around the world. To offset the disruption caused by the different lockdowns, online education has taken centre stage worldwide, within a forced transformation that has accelerated digital migration and may signal the definitive take-off of this type of education during 2021. Indeed, the industry's initial forecasts predict that the e-learning market will grow at a rate of 8%, exceeding 375 billion dollars in 2026. 

"Nothing that has such a devastating effect for such a high proportion of the population can be good for anyone, but we can at least say that thanks to online education, the world's educational systems have not had to shut down altogether and major segments of the world's population have been able to find out what online education is," explained Albert Sangrā, researcher with the Edul@b group and professor at the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences.

In spite of this success, the conditions in which we have had to undertake the huge challenge of going from face-to-face to online in just a few days have produced a type of teaching that the experts have called emergency remote teaching. In other words, although it has been possible to give classes online, this does not necessarily mean that these classes have met the requirements for quality online education. "One unwanted effect that is a direct result of the unexpected and immediate response that had to be made to the situation is that, in many cases, as a consequence of the lack of preparation, teacher training, resource availability, and connectivity and access to devices, many experiences have not been satisfactory," Sangrā said.

As Carles Sigalčs, Vice President for Teaching and Learning and researcher at the UOC, reminded, "going online is not as easy as one may think. If a university is to offer quality online education, it must organize itself in a completely different way; the transition from face-to-face to remote teaching is not automatic". It is a system that puts students at the core of the learning process, with implications that go beyond simply putting onto a screen the classes that would be given by a teacher at a brick-and-mortar university. "Some people have realized that starting a model like this is far from easy and it is not a question of simply giving synchronous videoconferences. They have seen that you need a design and highly detailed planning, you need to prepare learning resources, and make decisions about changing the assessment method. And this requires developing digital competencies, not just from an instrumental viewpoint but also from a methodological viewpoint," stressed Lourdes Guārdia, researcher at Edul@b and associate dean for Teaching at the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences.


A successful model at the service of the community

As a university that has pioneered this teaching and learning model since it was formed 25 years ago, the UOC has contributed in recent months to helping educational professionals and institutions. "A very popular cycle of webinars has been organized, in which teaching staff from all of the UOC's Faculties have taken part. There is also a book with over 23,000 downloads: Decalogue for improving online teaching. Proposals for educating in discontinuous face-to-face contexts. This alone shows that we can help many people, and, at the same time, continue learning with them, and continue evolving the model," Guārdia highlighted.

One of the elements in this model that has enabled the UOC to stay at the forefront of new learning processes is the eLearn Center, the UOC's e-learning innovation and development centre. "It is the driving force behind our learning model, a technical unit that interacts with the teaching staff and works on new developments, proposes new innovations in our model and encourages this innovation among the teaching staff," said Sigalčs.


Hybridization has come to stay

One of the effects of the acceleration of e-learning that has taken place during the pandemic is the emergence of hybrid models – which combine face-to-face and online classes. These models are useful for training people in skills that are highly necessary in an increasingly technological society and also to cope with unforeseen scenarios, such as the present pandemic. "Some of the universities that have had to migrate online will probably put what they have learned to good use and will start offering distance education as a complement to their main activity," Sigalčs explained.

Along the same lines, Sangrā pointed out that many people working in education have realized that developing hybrid models based on good designs in online education can bring "many benefits, both in terms of the flexibility they bring to their course proposals and in terms of the capacity for interaction, collaboration and personalization".

"However, it is important to design these models with a different gaze than has been used until now, based on the face-to-face class, because otherwise they won't work," the researcher continued.


Teacher training adapted to the digital environment

Although the teacher's role in the digital environment has evolved toward becoming a facilitator of student learning, teachers are still essential. "Unlike what some people have forecast, the human factor is absolutely necessary in a context that is increasingly dominated by data and algorithms. The mentoring, sound judgement and support that a teacher must provide in an online – or even hybrid – context is essential for guaranteeing quality and attaining the students' educational objectives," said Sangrā.

This transformation also implies a need for a different kind of training that takes into account both the new role and the features of online education. "It is the teachers who design the course, who do the planning so that the students will then internalize what is being taught, who design the activities, the basic resources, who design the assessment... but if they have to do this using technology, then they will need specific training, and not just from an instrumental viewpoint but also for its application in teaching," stressed Guārdia.

Sangrā pointed out that the pandemic has shown that teachers need to enhance their online teaching skills, and they also need more training in teaching methodologies, in managing students' motivation and engagement, and in "understanding that the teacher is the grand designer of learning scenarios, in a digital/online context too".

"And above all," he added, "we need to develop the ability to read the indicators that point to changes and help students grow in their role as learners. It goes without saying that, in order to be effective, this training must be given in the same online context in which the educational actions will be designed and managed later on".


Artificial intelligence and learning analytics

One of the key trends in the future development of e-learning is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and learning analytics to leverage the data generated during online learning. "If I teach in a way that I cannot see what is happening with the students' clicks, then I am missing the below-the-surface part of the learning process iceberg. Data are the fuel that powers online educational organizations," said Juliana Raffaghelli, a researcher at Edul@b. For this reason, for the last five years, the UOC has been grouping suitably anonymized data on the students' profiles, their activity on the Campus and the academic results obtained in a system called data mart.

"It is a trend that was already there", Guārdia remarked, "but it has now become more consolidated. Here, we use the trail left by students when they use the technology to extract data about their behaviour and the use made of this technology and also to inform the educational sector's stakeholders so that they can make better reasoned improvement decisions".

One example of this technology is the LIS: Learning Intelligent System project undertaken within the eLearn Center and let by David Baņeres from the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute's (IN3) Systems, Software and Models Research Lab group  (SOM Research Lab) . This project's goal is to detect students at risk of failing and offer personalized solutions to improve their academic performance. In fact, one of the eLearn Center's objectives, through the SoulYou project, will be the implementation of IA in the UOC over the next 10 years.


Fair data processing

As a result of this large quantity of information, one of the challenges of transitioning to online education, as outlined in the European Commission's Digital Education Action Plan for Europe, is to have a suitable technological structure that is respectful with the students' data. "Before implementing the software part, that is, creating and developing spaces, we need access to devices, connectivity and platforms that process the users' data fairly, and also that students accept this, because everything leaves a trial in the digital environment," stressed Raffaghelli.

During the pandemic, many users, universities and other educational institutions resorted to large platforms such as Google, Apple or Zoom to reduce risks during the online migration. However, this decision raises other problems. "Having hundreds of programmers writing code is more reassuring when you have to put all your face-to-face teaching methods online. But what happens and what use is made of the data gathered by free applications such as, for example, Google Classroom?", asked the researcher. "Europe has already begun the debate on how to respect European citizens' data sovereignty, but it is a problem that requires improving teachers' computer literacy and working with the computer scientists to protect data and develop proprietary systems".


The expansion of studying online

The technology that enables online education is evolving continuously at enormous speed. According to the UOC's experts, the current progress will enable online education to enter areas that seemed reserved for face-to-face education. "The online element will enter almost all fields of knowledge. Through the use of simulations, adaptations of laboratories, and internship environments, we will be able to work in many areas that today seem impossible. In fact, when I look back, I realize that today we are doing things that twenty years ago we would never have dreamed of doing," said Sigalčs.

The researchers point to virtual reality as an important part of this evolution. "With the increase in processing speeds, there will be further innovation in the development of technologies related with the use of virtual and augmented reality that will enable us to improve the virtualized systems and online simulated laboratories," predicted Raffaghelli.


Complex networks against the digital divide

Many of these technologies will be the future for part of the educational system. However, for many people, this future will depend on socioeconomic factors and on reducing inequalities in people's access to internet and mobile devices. "Social inequalities, the digital divide... are problems that already existed before coronavirus. What the pandemic has done is to bring them out in the open; we have seen just how pervasive they are and we have not been able to ignore it," explained Sangrā.

One of the challenges for the future is how to enable everyone to gain access to online education in the same conditions. As well as direct involvement by the public administration and governments, the experts point to the need to help families and engage with their immediate environment so that it too can provide resources in terms of infrastructures. "E-learning will be possible and effective in more underprivileged environments when complex networks are structured that go beyond the educational institution, that is, the school cannot work alone but must partner with the territory's associations, who can help it set up the computers, for example, or perform other types of technological volunteering, with the goal of creating a distance community," explained Raffaghelli.

UOC experts

Photograph of Carles Sigalés Conde

Carles Sigalés Conde

Vice President for Teaching and Learning

Expert in: Integration of ICT in education.

Knowledge area: Education policy.

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Photograph of Albert Sangrā Morer

Albert Sangrā Morer

Full professor of Education
Lecturer in the Psychology and Education Sciences Department
Academic director of the UNESCO Chair

Expert in: E-learning; education and ICT; educational organization; online university teaching; teaching methods; educational policy; strategic ICT planning in education.

Knowledge area: Education.

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Photograph of Lourdes Guārdia Ortiz

Lourdes Guārdia Ortiz

Lecturer in the Psychology and Education Sciences Department
Director of the eLearn Center's university master's degree programme in Education and ICTs (e-learning)

Expert in: Education and ICT; educational technology; educational design of multimedia learning materials and e-learning resources and activities; assessing e-learning; e-portfolios; language teaching in e-learning environments.

Knowledge area: Teaching and organization.

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Juliana Raffaghelli

Education and ICT researcher