April 20, 2024

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What can be the challenges of a digital university in the social, educational and economic context of the post-pandemic? For the economist Àngels Fitó (Barcelona, ​​1970), the new rector of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), efforts are already directed towards aspects as essential as lifelong training, with the introduction of micro-credentials; technological innovation as a challenge and a tool for the future; the pedagogical and professional accompaniment of the students and the accessibility of a student body as heterogeneous as the educational or professional trajectory that has led them to its doors. “We are in a context where we work for more years, and during that time, our professional profile must evolve faster. (The people we train) have very different personal, educational and professional backpacks, and that is why our first challenge has to do with personalization and attention to the diversity of a student body that can be 25, 40 or 60 years old, who lives in different contexts and who has very varied competencies”, he explains during a videoconference with EL PAÍS.

Managing the training needs of the 87,000 students enrolled at the UOC (data from the 2021-22 academic year), with previous skills and backgrounds, requires a high degree of flexibility that, in the coming years, will be enhanced with the development of so-called micro-credentials, a short, modularized and customizable training in which both the university and Vocational Training will be key. “In this context of growing need for massive training in the professional field, universities will have many non-university competitors (…). But our battle must be in the quality, in the investigation and in the certifications of knowledge”, wields Fitó.

For the rector, this scenario where it was considered “that there was only one stage to train” has been superseded by a reality where the evidence indicates that training will take place throughout life: “Learning to learn is the first most valued in the job market. We have to promote that people who have done Vocational Training continue their training processes towards degrees, but also that people who have started a degree and find it uphill, can at any given time go on to FP and access the market of I work through a certification perhaps with less time”, he points out.

After taking office on April 13, Fitó has begun a mandate that will last, if there are no setbacks, until 2030. She is part of the small group of women who have managed to reach the top of university management: in Spain, There are only 19 rectors (nine public and 10 private) in the 76 universities (50 public and 26 private) that are part of CRUE. Without going any further, the Complutense University of Madrid, which recently re-elected Joaquín Goyache as rector, has never had a woman in charge, and there are now 56 men who have governed it since the institution moved from Alcalá de Henares to Madrid , in 1822. The gender gap becomes more palpable as you go up in category: if women represent 54% of the student body, the percentage drops to 49% of the doctoral theses read (where, therefore, there is parity) and 43% of the teaching and research faculty (PDI), but only 25% of the full professors and rectors.

“As long as the requirements to access rector positions continue to contain strongly masculinized attributes, it is difficult to reverse it,” says Fitó. “On the other hand, if we consider a broader criterion in terms of possible contributions in the academic world, and we incorporate issues related to research, but also teaching, management and innovation, surely access to these positions will be more neutral in terms of gender”, he adds. “It has been shown (and there is a lot of research in this regard) that this gender scissors (…) occurs because there has been a systemic invisibility of the contribution of women to the academic and scientific field. The entire chain of recognition that is needed to reach higher positions is skewed, and therefore the final result is also skewed.

The technological challenge

The integration of technological innovations, from ChatGPT and everything that artificial intelligence entails to emerging tools such as virtual or augmented reality, is another of the great priorities indicated by Fitó: “The new technological opportunities are also educational opportunities, challenges for improve our educational model and an opportunity cost if we don’t do it”. And, in a training institution on-line Like the UOC, innovation serves to improve the quality of the advice offered to students: “We must take advantage of technology to provide the best accompaniment on a scale, in a massive way, to a greater number of people in the professional field; but, at the same time, also humanize access and pedagogical support as much as possible, so that they are truly inclusive”, says Fitó. During the first two semesters, UOC students “have a person at their disposal at any time”; and then, within the scope of each subject, there is an academic manager who gives support and dynamizes the classrooms and the learning process. “On the professional side, we are developing a tool for job self-orientation, in addition to incorporating a group of professional counselors.”

“Research tells us that what college students want are relevant educational experiences; that are not only useful for their future, but that are satisfying from the experiential point of view”. In the experimentation phase, for example, the incorporation of virtual or augmented reality into training processes is something that can multiply knowledge retention fourfold and that, for the rector, is especially beneficial when it comes to developing some skills soft: “For example, we have an experience with a hospital where we are working on everything that is virtual reality to teach, in this case, health professionals to give certain news to families, and we use virtual reality because it suits us very well. good”.

Another case is everything related to artificial intelligence and, especially, generative AIs like the popular ChatGPT. A presence called to change the paradigm of training and evaluation that raises doubts about its possible impact on the academic integrity of students. “I believe that these artificial intelligences are an opportunity because, deep down, they are tools to increase our individual productivity, but we have to know how to use them. This is an immediate challenge that is on the table”.

Now, what happens if we ask ChatGPT about the challenges that education will face on-line? This is precisely what we did, and we asked the new rector of the UOC to confirm or deny each of the six points that artificial intelligence highlighted. This was the result:

  1. The education on-line often lacks face-to-face interaction, making it difficult to build relationships and get individualized support. “This corresponds to the prejudice of thinking that a face-to-face relationship can only occur in person, but contact with a student in virtual training can be just as individual, intense and personalized as in a face-to-face format”.
  2. Technological problems such as a slow internet connection, equipment that does not work or incompatible programs can slow down the learning process. “That’s true. Virtual learning environments are based on a technological base and, therefore, a good integration of technologies is essential for learning to flow as it should. The figures show that we are well wired at the fiber optic level, although in homes with less economic resources, a third of the children do not have access to the Internet or a proper computer”.
  3. The learning on-line It requires students to take greater management responsibility for their own learning, their schedules and their dedication, without the support of a traditional educational environment. “It’s also true; but this can be learned. In fact, in that pedagogical accompaniment that I mentioned, we focus on this type of competence. And in turn, we have to think that when you ask in the job market about graduates on-line, recognizes that they are people with a very high capacity for organization and time management”.
  4. Limited access to reference sources such as libraries, laboratories or study groups. “Absolutely. Access to the new learning resources is online and, therefore, it is the other way around: accessibility is maximum. Today hardly anyone travels to look for physical manuals”.
  5. The education on-line makes it easier to cheat on papers or tests. “This is a universal issue, not just distance learning. We have sufficient technological mechanisms to guarantee the authorship of our students’ work. Also, the smart thing to do is to integrate those technologies so that people can take advantage of their productivity. Avoiding academic fraud involves designing adequate evaluation processes, that is, asking what ChatGPT cannot do”.
  6. The learning on-line may not be suitable for all learning styles. “Yes, although face-to-face universities have the same challenge; the process of personalizing learning is a universal necessity. We have two assets to deal with these special or differentiated needs: technology, on the one hand, and human, academic, pedagogical and professional accompaniment”.

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