Metaphor made real with an open mind

October 13, 1995

Catalonia has launched a virtual campus that emphasises a sense of belonging, Rebecca Warden reports. The Open University of Catalonia (UOC) a working example of the virtual campus, aiming to harness advances in communications technology to deliver degrees at a distance throughout this region of north-eastern Spain. The university went online in the summer, offering courses in educational psychology and business studies to 200 students.

By the year 2000, the number of students will have topped 11,000 and subjects on offer will include law, engineering, English, Catalan and statistics. While pen and paper still have their place, the main tool for learning will be the personal computer, all students are required to have one. Working from home, students will use electronic mail to hand in work, receive corrections, and communicate with their tutors and other students.

They will also have access to the Internet and a virtual library and will use multimedia packages, tapes and videos as aids to the learning process. Before the technophobes among us reach for the panic button, however, one thing should be made clear. Technology here is a means to an end and the UOC is clear that it will be used only insofar as it adds something to the core activity, quality distance education.

As distance learning can be isolating, efforts are also being made to personalise the experience and provide a sense of belonging to a university community. "The virtual campus is all well and good," says vice rector Francesc Pedro, "but only if it serves as a metaphor for something that really exists."

Students will be assigned a personal tutor along the lines of the United Kingdom system, something not a feature of conventional Spanish universities. They will also have the chance to meet the tutors and each other during study weekends twice a semester. A network of resource centres, being established throughout Catalonia, will provide a place where students can meet and even participate in live video-debates and conferences.

Distance learning in Spain is not new; UNED, the national open university, has been in business since 1972. However, the UOC, an initiative of the reglon's autonomous government, draws on a peculiarly Catalan tradition of educational experimentation. Past examples include libertarian Francisco Ferrer's Modern Schools in the 1900s and an earlier distance education venture, the Technical Training Extension (TTE). Established in 1916, the TTE offered correspondence courses in Catalan to electricians, technicians and farmers until it was dismantled by Franco in 1939.

The new open university, which will also use Catalan as the language of instruction, fits into the process of re-asserting a specifically Catalan identity underway since Spain's return to democracy in 1975. The university sees itself very much in a pioneering role, not only as the first teaching institution to be built from scratch around new technology, but also in its response to changing education needs.

It offers a new route to education for groups not otherwise able to study. These include professionals needing to update their skills without taking time out from careers, adults who wish to start a university degree, and other groups, such as the physically disabled or people with young families, who are unable to attend regular classes. Course structures, base don credits and a mix of core, optional and "free-choice" subjects, follow the same pattern as conventional "attendance" universities. Tuition fees are set at exactly the same rate as for the other Catalan universities. Here the similarities end however, as the idea of using new means of teaching non-standard students entails many other breaks with tradition. First among these is the preoccupation with the quality of teaching and study materials. People studying via distance learning often do not finish their courses. "Taking into account students; circumstances - tiredness, family obligations, night-time study - we have to find a way of making subjects which could be easily explained in a traditional university, easy to take in. If we don't want to lose our students, we have to take a good look at our teaching methods," says Dr Pedro.

Accordingly, all course materials are being designed afresh, producing study booklets far more user-friendly than an average textbook. Experts have been commissioned to design multimedia learning packages.

The first 200 students are required to help evaluate the UOC's performance as a condition of accepting a place. While the student profile is very diverse, some common traits exist. Eighty per cent are between 25 and 45 years old. Most have chosenr an Open University course for its flexibility, as 90 per cent of students work. Three-quarters of the student intake already have a computer.

What many also seem to share is high motivation and a clear idea of what they wish to get out of studying.

"Here you are on your own, there's no 'today I'll go to my lessons, have a good time and see some people'," says Nuria Sala, 24, about to start business studies. "In this case you are studying because you want to, so you have to have a lot of willpower."

Teaching staff are divided into tutors, with overall responsibility for individual students, and lecturers, who teach, mark essays and respond to any doubts students may have on their particular subject. Staff are drawn from the other Catalan universities, and, as most of their contact with students will be via email, they will combine their UOC duties with work in the same way as their students. Demand for places in this opening year has been high. There were more than 2,000 applicants for 200 places.

"I see the students as very excited, very motivated," says Joan Baro, UOC tutor and professor of statistics at the University of Lerida. "Now it is up to us not to disappoint them."

Francesc Pedro is convinced the increasing diversity of demand for education means the virtual campus is a model for the future. Developed societies are moving further from the traditional model whereby people complete their education early on and then dedicate themselves solely to work.

Initiatives such as distance learning built around new technology offer one way of meeting the need for a more flexible system, allowing people to dip in and out of education and periodically update their knowledge.

For this reason, he believes, the idea of the virtual campus will soon be taken onboard by conventional universities as one more way of delivering higher education.

"If universities wish to get involved in continuing education, they will see that technology now allows them to provide it in a different way, one which is much more attractive to the working professional," he says.

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