Two weeks ago I visited two open universities (the UK OU and the Open University of Catalonia) and a research lab of the Institute of Education at the University of London. Full reports of the visits will be appearing later this month on the Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructors managed by Contact North. These reports are looked at from the perspective of key ‘game-changers’ in online learning, and provide an overall picture of each institution.
However, I want to use my blog to discuss in more detail the research into online learning that is being conducted in these institutions, because as a result of these visits I want to question why here in Canada we are so disorganized and frankly ineffective in the way we conduct research in this area, despite having several world leaders in online learning research and development.
First though I will provide a series of posts on the research and development being done at the three European institutions we visited. The first post is on research at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), where there are two research and development units as well as a program of innovation specifically on online learning.
the eLearn Centre.
The director is Albert Sangrà, a former colleague of mine. This unit has 10 full time researchers and 134 researchers across the world (including some from Canada) affiliated or collaborating on research with staff from the eLearn Centre.
The time factor
The eLearn Centre decided to focus on a four year program of research on the time factor in online learning. The four year period ends this month. This study covers topics as diverse as learning rhythms, the timing of curricula and courses, student time management, and the effect of timing on feedback and learning. The research team leader is Elena Barberà.
Research students doing dissertations as part of their graduate studies in the eLearn Centre, and affiliated researchers, have been asked to include a least a question on the time factor when collecting data and analysing their results, whatever the topic of their thesis or dissertation. As a result the centre has been able to produce a six monthly journal on the time factor in online learning.
There are now five issues of this journal published to date, with 28 different papers published, covering the time factor in assessment, collaborative learning, time management in networked learning, and the time factor in online teaching and learning in maths and physics.
Open educational resources
The eLearn Centre is a partner with several other European universities in a European Commission project called OERtest, whose objectives are:
- creation of a single portal for accessing Euro-centric OER content
- development of quality standards, assessment guidelines, financial models, curricular provisions and any other administrative requirements necessary to allow for HEIs within the EU to assess learning received exclusively through OER
- assessment of the feasibility for EU HEIs to offer assessment services for OER
- establishment of a European network to promote and follow the development of OER and Open Educational Practices within the EHEA.
eLearn centre staff are also engaged in another European Commission project, OporTunidad. The project intends to foster the adoption and pilot of open educational practices, and open educational resources), at an institutional level, in Latin American countries. The focus here is on institutional strategies that promote the adoption and use of OEPs and OERs. Contact at UOC: Lourdes Guàrdia
Another focus of research is on e-portfolios. The centre has taken a lead role in developing a Spanish national community of practice on the use of e-portfolios in post-secondary education, with 14 institutional members, with a focus particularly on the use of e-portfolios for assessment. Staff from the eLearn centre are also particpating in another project funded by the European Commission, Europortfolio. The aim is to create a Learning Community Portal as a space to publish, share and review data and resources on ePortfolio practices and technologies across Europe. Contact at UOC: Lourdes Guàrdia
eLearn Centre staff disseminate their research and experience through establishing a community of practice for UOC faculty for training in how best to use OERs and e-portfolios, as well as drawing on the research for more formal teaching such as in UOC’s Masters in e-Learning.
The eLearn centre also worked in collaboration with the New Media Consortium to produce the Iberoamerican edition of the Horizon Report 2010, which specifically looked at the Spanish/Latin American context, and has an invited visiting scholars program, and a program for inviting institutions to visit.
In addition to its research, the eLearn Centre also provides training in e-learning through its Doctorate program, and its Masters, Diplomas and Certificates in Education and ICTs.
I have touched on only part of the work of the eLearn Centre. There are 10 other research groups associated with the eLearn Centre. More details can be found at: http://www.uoc.edu/portal/en/elearncenter/index.html
The Office of Learning Technologies
Its mission is ‘to create the learning environments of the 21st Century for the new digital generations and global citizens.’ It has a staff of 42, and its director is Magì Almirall. This is an educational technology development group. This department develops a wide variety of tools and applications for use in the university. In 2011 it was working on a total of 38 projects.
A major focus at the moment is the development of ‘My mobile UOC’, that enables students to access their learning on any kind of devices, websites and other environments such as SmartTV or Chrome Operating System. Several of the projects focus on helping students with disabilities, by making the online environment more accessible.
The Office has developed a number of social media applications and tools, such as microblogging tools and small group online videoconferencing facilities, as well as augemented reality tools for creating virtual worlds.
All these tools are integrated or interoperable with the university’s in-house developed Virtual Campus, an open source, combined learning management and administrative system. Once the tools developed by the office become adopted and operational, the responsibility for maintaining them passes to the Learning Services division. However, the Office is also responsible for the overall design of the university portal and the community services that are run through the portal.
The Office of Learning Technologies reports to the Vice Rector, Technology, who manages a fund of around 100,000 euros a year for innovative projects that are bid for internally through an RFP process. The theme this year has been mobile learning, including the development of apps for learning.
The Open University of Catalonia is a fully online university with more than 60,000 students and an annual operating budget of 100 million euros ($125 million). This has enabled it to set up these R&D units at a sufficient scale of operation that they can take on substantial projects that will have direct impact on the operation of the university, both pedagogically and technically. Given that both these units are relatively new, their influence on the external world of online learning is likely to grow, despite language and cultural differences.