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LEARNING STRATEGIES IN THE VIRTUAL UNIVERSITY:

THE CASE STUDY OF THE OPEN UNIVERSITY OF CATALONIA

Mireia Aparicio-Valverde, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain)

Anna Pagès Santacana, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Barcelona, Spain)

Gerard A. Ryan, Middlesex University (London, United Kingdom)

INTRODUCTION

Education systems are today facing many changes as a result of the transition from the industrial society to the information society, characterised by technological development and new, more flexible forms of social organisation. As a consequence, higher education faces many new challenges to long standing traditions. Indeed the future of education and training must be viewed in the context of the social and technological factors which are transforming our society. The educational model of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) attempts to anticipate and meet the educational needs of the post industrial era.

The UOC defines itself as a distance learning university institution which utilises the possibilities and benefits offered by new technologies. These possibilities include

Indeed the applications of new technologies is one of the key features of the educational model of the UOC. The Virtual Campus, which is based on a computer network, represents the main interface for communication among the university population. This Virtual Campus facilitates education and learning and forms the basis for the integration of the university institution. Thus, to understand the roles of the various parties involved in this new learning institution we must focus on this Virtual Campus, on how it operates and how it differs from the traditional university campus.

DISTINCTIVE FEATURES OF THE UOC

The educational model of the UOC is based on five basic dimensions or elements:

1. The Virtual Campus.

All registered students who possess a suitable computer and modem may access the Virtual Campus which is connected to a telephone network covering the entire territory of Catalonia. This Virtual Campus allows:

2. The learning materials.

The learning materials are the core element of student study. The contents of these materials are structured in a sequential manner. Various student exercises and activities are used to measure achievement of learning objectives and outcomes. Most individual modules also have associated multimedia materials (diskettes, videos, etc.).

3. The meetings and the support centres.

Students and lecturers meet twice a term. One of the main functions of these meetings is to present or conclude the contents of particular modules, but they also provide an opportunity for human interaction and relationships, allowing students to personally meet lecturers and other staff.

Additionally, the support centres, spread throughout Catalonia, are a physical space where students can meet to study together, solve doubts and prepare team coursework. Support centres are also used as venues for conferences or other cultural or learning activities, which can be video-conferenced to other centres or universities.

4. The role of lecturers.

"Professorat propi", tutors and consultors. "Professorat propi" manage the running of the various courses and programmes. Tutors advise and guide the students during their studies, and consultors teach the contents of each module. As a group, the academic team offer personalised attention to each student.

5. The type of student.

A central feature of the UOC is the diversity of its student population in terms of age, time available for studying, academic background and geographical location. This diversity requires an extremely flexible university system which may be adapted by each student to suit his/her own personal circumstances.

LEARNING STRATEGIES AT THE VIRTUAL CAMPUS

This section focuses on the specific learning strategies required to provide the diverse student population at the UOC with a high quality education, and university degrees which are comparable to those granted by any traditional university. It examines the learning process in the Virtual Campus and the outcomes of the first eight months of this new university.

1. Teaching

The UOC distinguishes between the 'tutor' and the 'consultor' to reflect the differences between the specific roles and responsibilities of each of these functions.

Consultor

The consultor is responsible for teaching the module. It is the consultor who explains the contents of each subject, presents the material to the student and describes how to use it, clarifies doubts and questions, initiates discussions or debates, and evaluates the exercises sent and received through electronic mail. He/she is also responsible for maintaining the continuous evaluation (regular work of the student) and marking exams. In a traditional university the consultor would normally be the teacher/ lecturer/ module leader of a specific subject/ module of a specific year.

Tutor

The figure of the tutor is similar to that of a counsellor (student academic adviser), a person who follows the student's career, examines his/her motivations, and assesses the progress of the student in their university studies. The tutor helps the student to evaluate and develop his/her time schedule for studying and to ensure that the student's progress meets the requirements of his/her course of study.

Additionally, the tutor helps the student to understand the institution and its functioning, and may mediate on behalf of the student with the consultor should any particular difficulties or situations arise which threaten the student's progress.

The tutor is the main point of communication between the university and the student who works alone at home most of the time (as is the norm with distance education). The tutor is there to provide a point of social reference and to ensure that the student feels part of the university community despite the geographical remoteness of the student from the physical university campus.

The regular university presentations and student meetings are generally a good opportunity for students and staff to get to know each other, and to develop a sense of community among members of the university. Nevertheless, it is the daily frequent e-mail contact with the tutor, telephone calls, personal visits, advise and encouragement that overcome the limitations of any system based on a computer interface.

The tutor is a key figure in overcoming the traditionally high level of student drop-out rates in distance education. Many students fail to complete distance learning courses simply because of the isolation and lack of individual student support in distance education. The support provided by the tutors at the UOC has so far proved invaluable for the well-being of the students and the development of the university.

2. Materials

A central principle of the UOC learning system is to initially provide each student with the basic materials required for each of their modules. However, it is the students responsibility to build on these materials and develop their knowledge of the subject or module. Hence, initial (paper) texts are used in conjunction with multimedia aids (computer discs and videos) and most importantly with the teaching activities through the Virtual Campus (over the computer network).

A quality learning experience can only take place if these learning materials are used in conjunction with each other and with the advise and guidance of the consultor. Each consultor planifies his/her teaching during the term and advises on the use of the learning materials, giving tips on how and when each should be used, explaining how and when to read and watch (in the case of a video) each educational unit. This planification is modelled by the consultor in what we call a teaching planning.

3. Learning

How does the UOC student learn? First of all, he/she has a computer which, connected to a telephone line through a modem, can log on to the university network, in effect, the Virtual Campus.

The students work alone at home, and are generally limited in terms of the time they have available to dedicate to university. As a result, learning takes place mostly at night or very early in the morning. Each student has paper and multimedia learning materials, and a communication system.

The UOC has adapted new technologies to benefit, improve and support distance education. Electronic mail (email) creates a feeling of proximity that ordinary mail cannot. If a student has a question for any member of staff, they can put it in the mail, and they will receive a reply within 24 hours. Students may also submit coursework or exercises via email. This material can be evaluated and returned directly to the student.

Already the short history and experience of the UOC's Virtual Campus system has provided much grounds for evaluating the whole learning experience at the university.

Virtual class.

In the Virtual Campus, there is a space reserved for each course and each consultor. Entering this option, the student can access the place where this subject is taught (virtually !). This facility allows us to refer to a virtual class. The student can use this class in three different ways:

a) Questions

In the virtual class students can send a message to the consultor. This message must be a question or a doubt related to the study of the subject: a misunderstanding of the contents, a lack of understanding in the reading of some units, or a question on how to link the video with the written contents of a particular subject.

b) Discussion-debate

The consultor may pose a question and initiate a discussion. The students participate by sending messages about that question. This has become a very interesting tool for comprehension and learning.

Some consultors have also used this facility to motivate the students, with statements such as "Why do you think you have to study this subject in your university career ?" or "Tell me what was your first thought when you were told to make an application for this subject".

Others have used it as a real forum of discussion. For example, one consultor displayed a definition of Wittgenstein on Philosophy, and asked students for a similar method of defining science. Indeed this has proved one of the most successful discussions in the Campus, with more than one hundred opinions commented on by a consultor (with great sensitivity).

A vital quality of any UOC consultor is an ability to achieve a high level of communication in writing. In the example above, the consultor invented an adjective for every student to answer his/her statement (such as "to Russellian Robert"; "to funny Maria"; "to serious Marta"; "to empiricist Joan", and so on).

The discussion-debate space also allows the incorporation of up-to-date, real life matters in the teaching of specific courses. For example, during the recent Spanish general elections consultors in "Economics" proposed a debate to analyse the outcomes of the economic policies of the different political parties. The same election was used on the "Introduction to Statistics" module to initiate analysis of the accuracy of the different opinion polls published in the daily newspapers preceding the elections.

c) Announcements.

Here the consultor sends general messages to the entire group of students.

Some consultors use this facility solely as a place to send messages such as "Pay attention, please, there's a mistake in chapter 1 unit 2, page 22". Others use it to introduce themselves at the beginning of the term, welcoming the students: "Hello, this is your teacher of Social Psychology, I'm very pleased to meet you and I hope we can work well together", but especially to communicate the teaching and learning schedule for the term: "I enclose a file with the schedule for the term and the deadlines for coursework".

In other cases, the announcements section is used as a virtual class, as a place where the teacher may explain certain concepts, areas or sections which are not quite clear in the materials, or to widen the contents of certain units, introducing new concepts or readings.

Some others us it as a place to clarify something a particular student asked through the "Questions" option and where the consultor believes the reply may be useful to the entire group.

Reading and writing through virtuality.

The Virtual Campus has only been in operation for eight months. While evaluations of the system continue at the UOC it is clear that there are many possibilities for developing and extending the system.

An interesting aspect for further study lies in the essence of this form of written language and communication. One would normally expect that students with better standards of written language skills would benefit most (and most easily) from the Virtual campus system. In effect, reading and writing are the core learning methods adopted at the UOC, even if they take place with the support of new technologies, over a digital network.

Students and staff alike develop ideas and impressions of each other through their written communications. The method by which students and staff get to know each other depends on how each communicates in the written word. This often creates many great disadvantages: it lacks physical expression, ironic or worried or whatever a slight facial sign or expression could mean. It results in misunderstood and misinterpreted messages.

On other occasions, the written language can be an advantage: it reduces inhibitions which may otherwise result from the physical presence of the other, so students and staff can express what they think as they like. Many University members display an element of 'bravery' in their remarks which may otherwise be restricted by the mere physical presence of the other parties involved.

CONCLUSION

In less than one year the experiences of the UOC demonstrate that the Virtual Campus is far from utopia, despite the wizardry and wonder of new-fangled technologies. It is a practical reality catering for the needs of a community of students who otherwise would not have access to university education.

Furthermore, although this new system of education may act as a substitute to the traditional university by adapting the learning process to meet the needs of a post industrial society, it also offers a whole range of new possibilities to enhance the task of the traditional university. Thus the question we pose is not "The Virtual University ?, but now that it is a reality "How do we make the most of the Virtual University ?".