Sílvia Sivera, director of the eLearning Innovation Center
Sílvia Sivera, a creativity and communication expert, took on the role of director of the new eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC) of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) just over a year ago. The eLinC looks to focus more clearly on innovation than its predecessor, the eLearn Center. In this interview, she told us about innovation and digital transformation in education. As she explained, this is a process "that must go far beyond mere digitalization."
A year after you took on the role of director of the eLinC, its new approach is already clear. What is behind this commitment to innovation?
The pandemic has caused other universities and educational institutions to start moving over to e-learning, and the UOC, as a ground-breaking university in the digital arena, must always be one step ahead. The way to do this is through innovation, and the eLinC must be the heart that gives life to innovative ideas and spreads them all over the university with the clear mission of transferring the knowledge acquired over more than 20 years in the field of lifelong digital education.
How do you encourage innovation?
The eLinC strives to ensure that the UOC's educational model remains unique and evolves based on students' needs and changes taking place around us; i.e. according to the new possibilities provided by technology, the evolution of society, the labour market and the context of each moment.
The eLinC is based on four pillars linked to innovation. One group in our team works on providing learning design consultancy and support for teaching staff in the process of transforming courses and training. Another group focuses on fostering educational innovation processes, creating an ecosystem in which ideas can be put into practice so they can be tested and analysed and their true impact on teaching and learning can be assessed. A third group specializes in Learning Analytics, obtaining data-based evidence to help with teaching innovation and improvement processes. The final group works on knowledge generation and transfer, as well as on identifying new trends.
Which part of the educational system is most in need of innovation?
There is room for improvement in the areas of methodology and technology, but what needs to change above all is people's mindset. There has been a cultural change that's led to the transformation of the education sector, but we must go further than this rather than stop at the mere digitalization of the education sector.
"Teaching and research staff need more time to innovate"
What changes can a university make to improve innovation?
Universities can make methodological and technological changes, but what is needed above all is a strong institutional commitment to provide more resources to innovation processes and give teaching and research staff more time to innovate. We also need to put in place support policies that foster this change of mindset and take students into account throughout the innovation process, from start to finish.
You mentioned research in e-learning, which is one of the university's pillars. How does the eLinC connect to the research carried out at the university?
All the UOC's faculties, and the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), carry out research into e-learning. There are 20 e-learning research groups. In addition, research is carried out in this area, from the various disciplines, by individual members of the teaching staff. In order to drive it forward, the UOC has established the E-learning Research Promotion Committee, and the eLinC is part of this. E-learning research is one of the main thematic focuses of scientific production in the UOC's history, and it is clearly a driver of innovation. The eLinC is always up to date with new knowledge so it can capitalize on it and enable more applied research to be conducted.
What changes have been applied to the UOC's model and at other institutions as a result of innovation?
A major recent methodological advance has been the UOC course transformation plan, the Niu Challenge, which entails a complete paradigm shift from the way courses were previously designed. We look at the competencies that must be worked on by students for their future careers and use them as the basis for designing learning challenges and ordering the resources or curating the contents that students will need to solve them. This was previously done the other way round: we started with a set of contents that had to be learned and then designed the course around them.
What new projects can we expect?
Apart from the major strategic projects already in progress, such as Folio, Graf or the Niu Challenge itself, we have various pilot programmes almost ready for the transfer stage. Two examples of these are Codelab, an online programming project; and Inclou, a project that aims to make learning resources more accessible and usable for students with disabilities. We've also carried out Chatbot pilots, and the UOC's new Canvas Classrooms will open up a whole world of possibilities. Furthermore, we have an ecosystem of educational tech start-ups and spin-offs that have emerged around the UOC and can help us create more innovation projects.
In addition to innovation, the eLinC advises higher education institutions wishing to undergo a digital transformation. What services are available?
We work with organizations in accordance with their own models, adapting to their needs and helping them carry out digital transformation processes, not just in relation to their educational models but also as regards their service and organizational models. It's a flexible consultancy service: we can just as easily deal with raising awareness in executive teams as with training teaching staff.
Over the last few years we've advised various organizations, mainly in Latin America. They include renowned universities such as, among many others, the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Colombia's Uninorte or UCACUE in Ecuador.
"Learning Analytics will be extremely important when it comes to providing evidence for the improvement of teaching and innovation"
Big data studies and analyses are spreading to many fields. How can they be useful in education?
All Learning Analytics-related aspects will be extremely important in the future when it comes to providing evidence for the improvement of teaching and innovation. At the UOC, this area is already helping make strategic decisions. We use our own data to analyse aspects such as student performance, the use of Campus tools and resources, the way the pandemic has affected students. All this helps us, among other things, to reduce drop-out rates or make it easier for new students to adapt. It's an area with huge potential.
Based on your role as an observer of e-learning trends, can you define the current main trends and what the online education of the future will look like?
The future entails understanding that students are at the heart of the learning process and that they learn not just at university but also outside it. We live in a hybrid world, and any innovation that focuses on the learning rather than the teaching process will provide a strong basis for implementing changes that will have an impact on students' lives and society at large.
As regards the technological aspects, the current trends include applying emerging technologies to online education. These include artificial intelligence; machine learning; virtual and augmented reality, or as it's now known, the metaverse; blockchain, and chatbots. All these will help increase personalization for everything from enrolment processes to micro-credentials. The learning experience will also be better, and students will be more actively involved in the design of their own learning pathways and bespoke training programmes. Likewise, automation of some tasks will allow teaching staff to take on more of a role of mentor.
There's a lot at stake right now. In order to reinforce this mission of highlighting and finding educational innovation in the world, this month the eLinC launched the Días Singulares en Universidades Singulares (Singular Days in Singular Universities) podcast, whose aim is to ask, share and discuss the hottest issues in higher education with experts from all over the world.
The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century, by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.
Over 500 researchers and 51 research groups work among the University's seven faculties and two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).
The University also cultivates online learning innovations at its eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC), as well as UOC community entrepreneurship and knowledge transfer via the Hubbik platform.
The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu #UOC25years