Modem institution struggles with the past

February 13, 1998

EU accolades and swift expansion have thrust the Open University of Catalonia into the virtual spotlight, Rebecca Warden reports.

The first 200 students enrolled in October 1995 had a choice of business studies or educational psychology. Today, the Open University of Catalonia has 4,000 students and the courses on offer include law, humanities, computer systems engineering and management systems engineering. In two and a half years, Spain's first entirely virtual university has landed itself the European Union's Bangemann Challenge prize for innovation, launched the first experiment with a virtual exchange programme (with the Dutch and British open universities) and is now busy branching out into continuing education.

It has set up a joint venture with telephone company Telef"nica to market distance-learning products and services and has exported the model of the Virtual Campus (a tailor-made web which supports all the OUC's educational activities) to universities in Peru and Argentina.

Like other universities of its kind, it aims to give people access to higher education who would otherwise be unable to study. The big difference is that for these students, spread across a region of six million people in north-eastern Spain, a generous slice of their learning experience is gained from the computer screen at home and by plugging into the Virtual Campus by modem. Assignments are set and handed in via email. Students send off queries to lecturers and participate electronically in earnest debates and coursework with fellow students.

Not everything is virtual, however. Support centres, with facilities such as videoconferencing alongside conventional libraries, are being built throughout the region - five now exist. Students attend awaydays twice a semester and must go to specific locations to take exams. "Our students learn as always from other students, from the teachers," says Joaquim Bisbal, director of law studies at the OUC, "but they have at their disposition a whole series of tools that other students do not."

Students have to buy hardware: at least a 486DX processor, 16 megabytes of RAM, CD-Rom drive, sound card and a 28,800 bps modem. "We can't always use the latest models or students would have to upgrade every year," says Gabriel Ferrate, rector of the OUC. Asynchronous communication allows students to fit their studies around other obligations and lecturers to combine this work with full-time jobs at other Spanish universities. All academic staff are drawn from the state university system. This provides experienced teaching staff, but they must be prepared to adapt.

"The aim is not to teach but to ensure the students learn, which is a complete change for the lecturers," says Professor Ferrate.

In conventional universities students often complain of overcrowding and aloof lecturers. At the OUC, students have found they have closer teacher contact than if they were to encounter lecturers in a lecture theatre. But while there is now no good reason for handing in work late, equally lecturers cannot avoid their students. "A tutor of ours went to Norway to do a course, but she still had to log in from there, there is no excuse," says I$aki Azcona, a third-year student of educational psychology and a teacher himself at an experimental primary school. He has found distance learners tend to form their own study groups for mutual support. "It's a necessity because the feeling of solitude when you study at a distance is very hard."

Jordi Solsona, a second-year law student and trainer in computing at Viladecavalls outside Barcelona, is less satisfied with his OUC experience. While impressed by the use of technology, he is "largely critical" of the educational side.

He sees the weighting given to continuous assessment at the OUC, currently up to 25 per cent of final marks, as insufficient and inconsistent with the distance-learning ethos and points out that the figure is 60 per cent at the United Kingdom's Open University. While he finds access to staff easier than at other universities, he has little contact with other students, something he puts down to law students being "more individualistic".

His main criticism, however lies with the OUC's teaching materials as he believes initial efforts to design new content for new media have not been sustained. For Mr Solsona this means the OUC is reproducing a failing common to many Spanish universities and relying too heavily on learning by rote rather than nurturing powers of analysis.

Professor Bisbal concedes that continuous assessment should be given a more significant role. He disagrees that OUC study methods favour reliance on memory rather than analysis, pointing to a new CD-Rom on points of Roman law which uses a case-study method.

"What we are trying to do is aim for a way of learning which leaves less space for this kind of inertia. Moreover, the relationship between memory and analysis in learning is open to debate. You can't analyse if you have no facts to go on," he says.

Professor Bisbal backs up his belief in the OUC method by pointing to the exam results obtained in the first five semesters: 60 per cent of students enrolled passed their exams and, if only those students who actually sat the exams are included, the success rate rises to 80 per cent.

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