Open Education at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain

Llorenc Valverde

Llorenc Valverde

Interview with Llorenc Valverde, former Technology Vice-Rector, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), Spain

Interview conducted by: Javiera Atenas, Project Officer at SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

Please give a brief overview of the scope of open initiatives at your institution.

The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) has had different lines of action towards open content. Initially there were two European research projects in which UOC researchers were involved. First the OLCOS project and another project related to open systems (free software).

Since 2005 the UOC began to work on the initiative of a master degree in Free Software.  It was until 2006, with the nomination of Imma Tubella as chancellor and her team, that a more profound analysis took place to position the UOC as an open university.  It was through this discussions that a new Open Virtual Campus emerged, where even the open software was developed by the university.

The UOC’s educational model included the development of educational content, as unlike most institutions where teachers develop their own content.  The UOC was committed to produce the content at an institutional level and distributed throughout faculty. Every course had it’s own resources developed by an assigned team of professors. The institution was also responsible for absorbing processing costs through student fees.  This way students didn’t have to spend on textbooks to complete their courses.

In this context, the idea of ​​opening the resources beyond the institution was not far away since all the resources had been produced by the UOC publisher. The main argument presented for this was the need to acknowledge the natural evolution of educational resources, going from text to digital where if not shared openly it was safe to assume that the resources were going to be shared anyway but illegally throughout the internet.

This reason lead the UOC to decided on modifying authoring contracts for their new digital teaching materials; including opening clauses. The UOC’s argument for resisting opinions, was that students pay for support and guidance through learning, not for content itself.

What motivated your institution’s involvement with open education? Why did you get started?

This project was part of the new leadership in late 2005.  It was then that the new team began to reflect on the need of opening the contents inspired by the model and philosophy of MIT and their message on the possibilities granted by the new technologies to create content. At the same time understanding that it would be impossible for a single institution to use all the new technological models out there.  The only way to maximize the possibilities was through collaboration and to collaborate the resources needed to be open.

The first open model used by the UOC was in relation with other Catalan universities in the project Campus Virtual de Software Libre (Free Software Virtual Campus).

What motivates you to continue?

First we were faced with the paradox of opening the resources, where our own authoring contracts prevented us from opening the materials. We also realized that open resources was the future and there was no going back.  Even when the process of opening the contents was going to take some time,  there was no looking back.

How would you describe the level of commitment from faculty, students, and administration?

Students were pleased with the initiative.  Faculty expressed diverse opinions, from those who were very willing to get involved devoting their own time and efforts to get onboard to those who were completely unwilling. We left a way out for those teachers who radically opposed to opening their content but they had to give a justified reason for their refusal.  Many didn’t understand fully what it meant, they were not aware on how they could regulate opening up the contents.

The debate was intense and hard but the idea of opening the resources was ultimately accepted. Change was inevitable and the longer it took the harder it would be.

I do not want to forget a very important part of this strategy comes from the library, as they created a repository to store open content,  where they placed not only the content that we published in open but also students dissertations. This repository (O2) is a fundamental part, because it is the library that provided the repository for open content.

One of the triggers of this strategy also came from when the UOC began to publish their contents in 4 different formats (paper, web, e-book format and audio/video).

In what ways has open education impacted institutional practice, reputation and/or culture?

For starters there was confusion with the definition of the name. The institution’s name is Open University of Catalunya, so if the name is already open, what is this new openness about?

I think nowadays we all expected institutions are using open content and it becomes even more difficult to imagine a future where we don’t use them in our educational systems. However, it’s still a confusing road. For example the emerging of the popular MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).  They might be massive and online but definitely not open. They recommend you to buy the content for an established fee and in most cases the content is offered under copyright license limiting any future usage. This type of initiatives create confusion about what true openness is.

There is a current case in Spain that has caught my attention. In Spain copyright is managed by ah-hoc independent organizations and not directly by the author.  Cedro, one of these organizations, filed a suit against Spanish universities blaming them for improper use of content in their virtual campuses.  Cedro asked  universities to pay authors for their wrongdoing but the universities declined the request. The case went to court where one University of Catalunya was convicted with a few million euros.  The case is still open and we don’t know how will it end.  Universities complained with the Ministry of Education asking for new laws.  The Ministry is currently working on an amendment for exclusion of educational content under the general copyright law.

In any case, my argument, which I wrote in the column for the El País newspaper,  is that thanks to Cedro’s performance, a big boost was given to open content. This case has made us understand that if a University places restrictions on their own content they will have problems uploading the content to their virtual campuses.  However, Cedro cannot do anything against them if the content is open.  Therefore, in order for universities to have control over what they uploaded on their virtual campus they must ensure that the content they produce is open.

What are the most positive outcomes from your institution’s involvement with open initiatives?

The UOC is different since it’s conception, being born with the domestic Internet.  The first university created to be completely online (1994). The founders were careful to create an ad-hoc and risky model with the use of domestic internet, that’s what makes the difference. The institutional impact relates to the fact the UOC is a young University that has a fresh vision with an established model and methodology making it sustainable for the future.

In your assessment, what were some of the most significant challenges your institution had to overcome regarding your involvement with open education?

Challenges are mostly related to economical resources.  Even though the current crisis has not impacted the student population we have to work with fewer resources and we had to double the efforts due to the Bologna agreement. The impact of the crisis has manifested in other areas less noticeable, such as teachers’ overload.  Without the economic capacity and with government restrictions we cannot increase the number of teachers, without enough teachers there is so much we can do, projects get stalled and other priorities get addressed.

At this moment we are unable to continue creating new open material because we don’t  have the economic or human capacity for it. Although the response of the UOC team has been extraordinary considering the situation we are living.

How do you see the future of open education at your institution in the next 3-5 years?

This is a question that I find difficult to answer, because I recently left the UOC.  The new team is defining the strategies they will use in the future. What I can say,  is that for me this is the ideal type of institution for the future, because of how it works and evolves. Universities need to adapt its way to the challenges of the future.

The OUC is a rigorous university with a very serious approach, so their work is sometimes slow and paused.  My philosophy is, avoid waves of innovation, join only those that really matter.  Sometimes its only a temporary fad and by the time you join the excitement has passed.  Surf the good waves let the others pass.

Sometimes we make mistakes but it’s more fun. On the subject of MOOCs I was more interested to see what was coming back from them and that philosophy has given good results UOC, because do not surf all the to waves but the good ones.

If you had to describe open education at your institution in 5 words, what would they be?

LV: Open, Rigorous, Innovative, Atypical, Committed and Responsible.