"In Spain, 15% of university students were already studying online before the pandemic"

 Carles Sigalés

Carles Sigalés

Lluís Pastor
Carles Sigalés, UOC Vice President for Teaching and Learning


One teacher who has seen the UOC blossom and grow over the past 25 years, who has believed in e-learning from day one, is Carles Sigalés, the UOC's current vice president for Teaching and Learning. His relationship with the University began back in 1997 as an associate professor specializing in educational policy. Then, from 2000 to 2003 and again from 2011 to 2013, he served as dean of the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences. Between those terms, he was made vice president for Academic Policy and Faculty, an office he held from 2003 to 2005. As a teacher, he has extensive experience in training education professionals at various universities. He is also the author of several online training resources in the field of pedagogy and educational psychology. Sitting down with UOC professor Lluís Pastor for an interview, Sigalés talked about what makes the world's first online university unique, the growing demand for e-learning, and the impact of COVID-19 on education. 

The UOC became the world's first online university 25 years ago. 

Indeed, it did. It was founded in 1995, when only 0.4% of the population had an internet connection. Our founding president, Gabriel Ferraté, was truly audacious. He had the opportunity to set up a distance university to offer online higher education in Catalan, and he did so in a way that greatly differed from what had been done before. 

President Ferraté never considered copying on-site universities, deciding instead to deconstruct and reinvent everything from the ground up.

Exactly. Ferraté had been the president of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya for many years and had a very clear vision of what he wanted if he started up a new university. It wouldn't have made sense to replicate on-site universities, nor would it have made sense to replicate the distance universities that had been around for over 20 years at that point. That was key.

As our current president, Josep A. Planell, has said on occasion, the wisdom of the UOC founders – and especially President Ferraté – lay in asking the right question, which was not how am I going to carry on doing what's been done up to now using technology, but rather how can I harness technology to accomplish feats that have been impossible up to now

And that led to the creation of a unique educational model, one that has since been copied by many universities worldwide. 

You're right. The optimal conditions for learning occur when students' activity is at the centre of it all. By "activity", I mean that students play an active role and learn as they perform a series of activities, ranging from reading and reflecting on a text to doing a project, working on a case, completing a challenge, etc. On top of that, students are supported by a professor who can answer their queries, set challenges, raise new questions and help them to continue progressing.

At the UOC, since 1995, students have been seen as people who actively engage in their learning. What other resources are available to help them learn?

Our educational model has three main pillars. The first is that students are put in an online classroom environment with a course plan which details what they have to do in a specific course and what competencies they are going to develop. This means that they know from day one what they are expected to do during the semester to advance in their learning and pass the course. The course plan also provides them with a list of multimedia resources that are essential for them to continue learning.

The course plan also outlines the continuous assessment process, the aim of which is twofold: to check that students are meeting their learning milestones and to help them identify where they need to improve, as well as aiding faculty in figuring out what type of support they need to prosper in the course. 

Finally, the students receive two types of guidance: first, there's a professor in each classroom monitoring students – proposing activities, answering questions, assessing. Second, there's the class group, because in an environment like ours, student-to-student interaction comes easily and is very beneficial. 

So we have students who, instead of attending scheduled classes, study on their own initiative with help from their professor. I don't see that ending with a final exam, or am I mistaken?

Yes and no. There are exams or final tests in some courses, but they're the culmination of the continuous assessment process. The UOC decided from the outset that student assessment would take place as an ongoing process whereby students complete assignments throughout the semester. This way they can gauge whether they're on the right track, receive partial assessment of their learning process, and get feedback on what they need to improve and what they are doing well. At the end of the semester, a students' final course mark is based on those periodic assessments plus, in some cases, a final assessment that is simply a synthesis assessment. That's what keeps students engaged, attentive and active over the course of the semester. 

We have nearly 80,000 students and you say that students' activities are monitored on a continuous basis. The UOC must have an enormous teaching team. 

It does. A distance university – and especially an online university like ours – requires a type of organization that's entirely different from what one might find at an on-site university. 

Starting with our academic model, we have three teaching figures, each playing a crucial role. First is our "faculty", the full-time UOC staffers that carry out teaching, research and transfer activities. They hold accreditation and meet all the requirements demanded of any university professor, because they are responsible for all the University's academic activity. Focusing on their teaching duties, they are the professors who design the courses, pick the most suitable learning resources and draw up the course plans. They also select the collaborators who teach the courses and guide students' learning, who we call "course instructors".

Finally, we have the tutors, who perform various functions. The first is to help new UOC students adapt to the online learning environment. The second is to track their learning process, to see at what point they might need extra support. And the third is to guide students, as needed, towards professional job opportunities or the next step in their education. 

At its core, the UOC is a group of multidisciplinary teams working together to offer large-scale solutions. Technology must be the backbone of it all, right?

The initial versions of the Virtual Campus were our own, because there were no developments extensive enough to apply them to our campus. In a way, we were anomalously ahead of the technological developments of tech companies which, in the long run, would have a much greater capacity than we did to develop this type of tool. That has changed over time and what we have today is a mixed campus that combines our own developments with outsourced ones, in some cases commercial or even open source software that allows us to tap into new features. 

We are in the middle of a pandemic that triggered sudden change in universities, which have had to adapt in response to the emergency situation. What is your outlook on universities post-COVID-19?

The pandemic has forced the vast majority of universities to rely on remote solutions, with someone coining the term "emergency remote teaching". That has given rise to two situations that are, to a certain extent, divergent. First, people have seen first-hand that moving online is no walk in the park, that universities offering online education are organized completely differently, which means there's no on-campus/off-campus switch you can flip. Universities have encountered many difficulties because of this, and still do. The second is like the other side of the coin; having been forced to move online, many universities are quickly learning about issues of which they had barely scratched the surface before now. Therefore, some of these universities will take away valuable lessons and be able to offer distance education to round out their on-campus activities. 

Now let me touch on the second question. COVID-19 appeared at a time of sustained growth in the demand for online education, a trend predating the pandemic. In Spain, 15% of university students were already studying online before the pandemic. The online education phenomenon is linked especially to the demand for lifelong learning, which has been growing steadily since before the pandemic broke out. What the pandemic is doing is accelerating processes that would have otherwise taken much longer.