eLearning to promote equitable access to quality higher education
Op-ed by Gemma Xarles-Jubany, Director Globalisation & Cooperation Unit, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and participant in the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education in Edinburgh, UK, from 24–27 November 2019
During the ASEF Capacity Building Training on Equitable Access to Higher Education held in Edinburgh in November 2019, our colleagues Omar, Boud, Fermin, Riaz and Creedon shared with us the following definition of equitable access:
“Recognising and addressing challenges or barriers by individuals and communities in order to widen participation in higher education based on principles of inclusivity, diversity and empowerment.”
If we accept this definition as valid, I would claim that quality online higher education institutions are a great example of making equitable access a reality. Let us consider the UOC Case Study.
The Open University of Catalonia is a fully online university based in Barcelona, that was created by the Catalan government in 1995. The UOC’s aim is to complement the university system in Catalonia widening the access to those who might previously or otherwise have been locked out of the system. More than 80% of UOC students — a total of 73,081 — work and study at the same time; the most part of them are mature students even though the number of youth has been growing. Around 40% of the 2,854 Catalan students with disabilities, study at the UOC, the remaining 60% (1,064 students) are distributed among the other 11 universities of the Catalan university system. UOC has around 2,200 non-Spanish-nationals’ students living in Spain, so we count between our students of an important group of people with migratory background, refugees and asylum seekers.
Furthermore, the equitable access that an online university can provide is not limited at the national level. Thanks to online programs there can also be an equitable access to international experiences, historically restricted to a small elite of students from affluent background. Let us continue with the UOC example. UOC programmes are offered not only in Catalan but also in Spanish and a few of them in English. We have more than 7,000 international students, all of them living outside Spain, in their own countries or abroad. Thus, online education does not aggravate the brain drain, on the contrary, allows, for instance, lecturers from higher education institutions from the Global South, access to an international Master or even a PhD without living their duties. In addition, the UOC began in late 2016 a project aimed at achieving massive virtual mobility with other international universities. These virtual mobilities allow many students from other universities to study one or more subjects in the virtual classrooms of the UOC, providing them with an international experience without having to travel. For the last years we have receive more than 1,800 undergraduates students under these virtual mobility programs.
For all the above, virtual classrooms are very inclusive and diverse. Within UOC’ students, for instant, we count with people that works on government, are university lecturers, entrepreneurs, artists and elite athletes as well as first-generation applicants, people with disabilities and low economic social groups, students with migratory background, refugees and asylum seekers; students from different ages and nationalities, living in 134 countries all around the globe. All of them learning on an online global environment.
It is true that the increase of the number of online institutions during the last decades has raised suspicion against elearning programmes. There is a need for policy makers to regulate these programs and institutions to ensure high standards of quality, but there is no sense, taking into consideration the UOC experience, to not include online methodologies as part of the Education public policies on higher education given their impact on widening the access. In that sense, and convinced that the UOC experience can be replicated in other contexts, the university has been accompanying national quality agencies and governments in the implementation of these policies as well as supporting higher education institutions in the complex process of incorporating virtual methodologies into their programs.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely by the author(s) and do not represent that of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF).