Losing Control: The true democratisation of learning - Keynote interview with Albert SangrĂ 

June 3, 2015 by EDEN Secretariat   Comments (0)

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Interview by Ebba Ossiannilsson

I have the privilege to interview one of the keynote speakers for the EDEN 2015 Annual Conference (Barcelona, 9-12 June 2015), Albert Sangrà, the Academic Director of the UNESCO Chair in Technology and education for Social Change at the Open University of Catalonia, Spain. It is a great pleasure for me to interview you Professor Dr. Albert Sangrà for the upcoming EDEN Conference in wonderful Barcelona.


Albert Sangrà is the Academic Director of the UNESCO Chair in Technology and education for Social Change at the Open University of Catalonia. He is a researcher at the Edul@b research group. He worked as a consultant and trainer in several online and blended education projects in Europe, the United States, and Asia, focusing on implementation strategies for the use of technology in teaching and learning and its quality. He has been the Director of the eLearn Center at UOC (2012-2014) and member of the Executive Committee of EDEN (2003-2009).


Ebba: Albert, first of all let me thank you for the time you are devoting to this interview. You are the UNESCO Chair in Education and Technology for Social Change (formerly the UOC UNESCO Chair in E-Learning) Can you please tell us more about your work and what you are doing?

Albert: The UNESCO Chair in Education and Technology for Social Change at UOC focuses on the analysis, the proposal of actions and the dissemination of innovative practices in the use of ICT in education, particularly in online education. We try to carefully follow and track the main global trends and related key institutions and experts in the field. Its outreach activity tries to give access to new knowledge to the communities of educators and leaders and decision-makers, and to gradually increase its social impact.

My role as the Academic Director is to design and carry out our strategic Plan, especially fostering the research area. This area is currently focusing on three main topics: a) Quality of Online Education; b) ICT for Development, and c) Economics of Online Education. We are creating networks of researchers and professionals interested in collaborating with the UNESCO Chair in order to carry out different kind of projects and working papers as a result of the Roundtable and Seminars that we organize.

Your topic at the Annual EDEN conference in Barcelona is about Expanding Learning Opportunities for the Last 25 Years... and Beyond. Can you please explore your views and visions about your visions?

A.S.: EDEN is going to celebrate its 25th Anniversary and UOC its 20th one. I think it is a precious moment to have a look on the different development in this last 25 years which have led distance and online education to become a hallmark for education. And it has been done using technology for expanding and creating new learning opportunities for people. And during this period of time, the ways to exercise guidance, support and control have been evolving very much.

I currently think that we are in a time in which the most important thing is to understand how people is putting in practice their right to choose the way they are going to learn and to be taught. And this should not be lead by the technology, but the educational purposes of every action people are going to take. They will have the control.

According to what you see globally on Expanding Learning Opportunities for the Last 25 Years... and Beyond. What are the three to five steps Institutions have to take?

A.S.: First of all, I think that nothing will be as it was. In general, institutions are still struggling to adapt themselves by doing a kind of type-1 of change, as Watzlawick stated: changing almost everything trying that nothing would really change. In other words, they try to keep the current status by making some highlighting but not very deep changes.
Institutions have to understand they will lose the control. Usually it is said that teachers are moving to a new role: facilitating, guiding, and supporting the students … Institutions should do the same. Learning is outside there, and the institutions should become entities which could help people to achieve their educational goals without controlling everything the student is going to do. It’s hard, I know, but will be this or … probably nothing.
So they should become much more open, valuing what they are contributing with: real quality, criteria, experience, and personal support. And, especially, creating new learning opportunities, no matter if they are going to be taken formally, non formally or informally, face-to-face or online.
The thing is not only to offer new and different content programmes, but to do it differently, in a much more flexible and open way.

According to what you see globally on Expanding Learning Opportunities for the Last 25 Years... and Beyond. What are the steps Associations as EDEN have to take?

A.S.: The first step should be to make the institutions aware of that, and to help them to move to this very difficult new scenario. And it is not about technology: it is about strategy. Unfortunately, technology is only providing tools that try to replicate traditional ways of providing education and training. And sometimes, the main aim is to substitute educational institutions by technology-driven private companies. This is not the path if we are looking for a true democratisation of education.

As a second one and I think that EDEN is already doing this, to provide an ever-easier access to these learning opportunities, by means of dissemination, realisation of projects and, maybe, sponsoring some initiatives. EDEN, and others, will play a significant role in this.

At the moment, there seems to be several very different directions for open and online learning: fully online (distance) courses for credit; blended courses; OERs, and MOOCs. Will MOOCs eventually replace these other forms of online and open learning? If not, what unique role(s) will MOOCs continue to play?

A.S.: I have always stated that MOOCs may be a good resource for supporting learning and teaching, but I don’t believe in the messianic role of them. In general, xMOOCs didn’t contribute to develop a new learning or teaching approach, but a very traditional one. Currently they are sloping down as expected, but I think they will stay as a resource in the bigger new scenario of the lifelong learning ecologies. And they will play a role there.

There have been 20 years' research and experience in credit-based online learning and over 40 years research in open and distance learning. Is any of this relevant to MOOCs and the use of OERs or are these complete game-changers?"

A.S.: My perception is that they are only game-changers from the economic point of view. This has also been stated by Cormier and Christensen. Cormier created the first cMOOC, and Christensen is well known by his ideas on “disruptive innovation”. Both of them agree that this was not the expected.

I think the main problem has been that the promoters of xMOOCs are people who didn’t take into consideration previous research. They say that research have to be done after experiencing this kind of MOOCs. I don’t think so. Would you accept and approve a research project without any kind of literature review of the  state-of-the-art on the topic? I know that engineers use to work this way, and I can respect the practices of this discipline, but we are now talking about education. And it works differently, I’m afraid.

What do you think will be the next big thing in education? Will we see something new that will transform the learner experience, or will it simply be more of the same?

A.S.: Most people suppose it is going to be Big Data and, accordingly, Learning Analytics. But I think this is more a methodology for data collection and analysis rather than anything related to the learning experience.

From my perspective, the real challenge is to foster real and significant quality interaction among students; among students and teachers; and students and content resources. There is a long road ahead to understand and to measure these different kinds of interaction. It is not just to have a “click” recorded. It is to really and qualitatively understand how our students interact with other, and how we could interact with what Dron and Anderson call “the crowds”.

More than new technologies, I am waiting for a big move of learning scenarios. I think this will be the next big thing. And I know that I am not becoming too speculative, but it is a matter of effectiveness and efficiency more than spectacularity.

In your opinion and as UNESCO Chair what is needed to do in the educational landscapes so the learners can orchestrate their own learning and to be in the driving seat?

A.S.: There is a very important need on this. Everyone is claiming that teachers and researchers have to publish in open spaces and give access to research data openly, too. I agree with all this.

But it is a little bit hypocrite to suggest that this is all we need for widening access to learning and to educate big populations of people with educational lacks all over the world. Costs should not only move from the teachers and researchers. Also publishing companies and telecommunication companies have an enormous responsibility on this.

If I want to publish in an open way, I should pay. And which will be the contribution of the publishers? The most important question is: when will we all have universal free access to Internet connection? This is what the world really needs to democratise education.


See other keynote speakers of the #EDEN15 Conference

Ebba Ossiannilsson holds a PhD, her research focus is on quality in e-learning in higher education and international benchmarking on e-learning. Ebba is also a Project Manager at Lund University in Sweden, MSc OTR, EDEN Fellow and Members of the NAP Steering Committee, and President of SVERD (The Swedish Association for Distance Education). Read more on Ebba here.