Interviews

"The trend now is to provide more personalized, flexible, integral and lifelong university training"

 Marcelo F. Maina

To Edul@b researcher, Marcelona Maina, the challenge nowadays is to know how to combine the university tradition with new demands (Photo: UOC)

04/08/2021
Sònia Armengou
Marcelo F. Maina, Edul@b researcher, Director of the Master's Degree in Education and ICT (e-learning) and professor at the UOC's Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences

 

Marcelo Fabián Maina (Santa Fe, Argentina, 1966), is an expert in education and ICT. He is active in the fields of teaching (how we teach), emerging pedagogies (how to do so better) and the transformations in education (how we adopt them), such as e-learning. In addition to teaching teachers, he keeps a close eye on new technologies and nascent education scenarios. A year ago, he was appointed as the new Director of the Master's Degree in Education and ICT (e-learning)—the UOC's flagship master's programme—and, over his 12-year research career at the Edul@ab research lab at the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, he has taken part in education projects with universities from around the world.

Smartphones, tablets, artificial intelligence, mass data, apps, 5G… Technology's onward march is unstoppable. To what degree has it been taken on board by the education system?

Technologies have impacted every aspect of our personal and professional lives and, with the pandemic, both their use and implementation have been boosted at every level. Here in the world of education, we're witnessing a digital transformation of the system with practices that have, in the end, proved to be hastily implemented and that will require more time to be truly assimilated and redefined. The exponential growth in connection speeds, the variety of and improvements in mobile devices and the interconnecting of a raft of apparatus is creating a technological ecosystem that's revolutionizing space and time, access to information and the possibilities of communication. And our educational model is being and will continue to be affected by this situation.

Do we have enough of an understanding of how to use these technologies to improve education?

All this movement could be a little overwhelming, but we've spent many, many years exploring and developing our knowledge of distance and online education. The body of evidence on how we learn, which methodologies are the most suitable and how we as teachers can best ensure continued and ongoing distance and online learning is now abundant. I'd also like to point out that, although the debate appears focused on how the pandemic and technologies foster change, humanities and social sciences have a crucial role to place in the reasoned, productive and effective adoption of these technologies. The outlook is disruptive, but, for those of us who are drawn to innovation, it's also extremely exciting.

Your interests include observing trends in education. Which of these could be transformative?

These are emergent scenarios which still do not have a clearly defined form, thereby calling on us to create, suggest and take chances. The challenge nowadays is to know how to combine the university tradition with new demands. Looking more closely at current trends, we can see that they generally involve more personalized, flexible, modular and integrated training in lifelong education pathways that are more focused on integral education: rather than just specific knowledge and disciplines, cross-cutting skills, in other words, those that are transferable to people's real-world areas of action. So, the university should provide training that fosters integral development, and this entails training critical and reflective thought, creativity and initiative, teamwork and effective communication, in consciously and responsibly managing digital technologies.

And what's your research group, Edul@b, looking at?

At the UOC, we've been working on these challenges from the very start, including research as the driving force behind innovation and participating in cutting-edge projects around the world. At Edul@b, we are committed to leading and taking part in projects focusing on integral, lifelong training. We're particularly interested in the ecologies of learning, which connect formal, non-formal and informal learning, with special emphasis on the flexibility offered by the digital world and the empowerment of individuals' independence in planning their personal and professional futures. One constant concern is to create knowledge, transfer it to society and build in partnership with other universities and education institutions.

You're involved in projects with African, Asian, and Latin American universities. Can distance and online universities contribute to universal education?

All our projects are designed to foster the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (quality education and gender equality) in alliance with other organizations and institutions. For example, with our experience in e-learning, we are, as part of the AMED Erasmus+ project, cooperating with Maldives National University in the shift from a classroom-based to a bimodal model, incorporating hybrid learning. The Maldives' unique geography, spread across hundreds of islands, presents a challenge both to access to higher education and to the country's very development.

With this project, financed by the European Union and involving a number of universities, we are delivering greater opportunities so that anyone may access higher education, whatever their situation or preferences. We are dealing with a range of key aspects for effectively implementing this shift, one that not only affects the form of teaching but also the organizational culture. We're currently training more than 60 university professors and group of key players in administration, senior faculty management and other strategic areas of the Maldivian university.

Training teachers in online education is vitally important. Without them, the model simply can't work properly.

To foster innovation, it's crucial to educate educators. To this end, we are, for example, cooperating with Latin American universities. Our participation in the Oportunidad project a while ago meant we could work with Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador on open education resources and practices, training university teaching staff in open education. Indeed, many of the Erasmus+ projects in which the UOC—and Edul@b—are participating focus on teaching teachers.

What motivates the University to become involved in these partnerships?

Taking part in projects with universities and institutions from both Europe and other continents helps us seek joint solutions and grow together in a different way. These projects provide a framework for learning to our mutual benefit, making us more imaginative, raising our awareness of other contexts and challenging us to find ways of collaborating to deliver results with real impact. Within the UOC itself, partnering with the eLearn Center allows us to explore the viability and possibilities of transferring the developments and innovations arising from these projects to the different programmes offered by the University.

As the result of a recent collaboration with African universities, the European Union has identified a UOC project with market potential. Could you tell me a little more about this?

As part of the Horizon 2020 EPICA project, we have formulated a methodological proposal for the development, assessment and micro-credentialization of the employability skills of university graduates using an ePortfolio-based strategy. We had the chance to carry pilot testing in universities in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, not to mention here at the UOC in our Master's Degree in Education and ICT. Leveraging this experience, we are exploring models so that our students can develop and are also capable of showcasing the most necessary skills and those most in demand, by both society at large and the labour market.

The final objective, in line with a clear trend throughout the European Union, is to provide our graduates with enhanced job opportunities. The fact that the European Commission has included our ePortfolio solution on the Innovation Radar platform is a further achievement of which all of us who took part are extremely proud. Now our goal is to go more in-depth into this field with a new project that takes a deep dive into the opportunities provided by micro-credentials as a means of acknowledging students' achievements.

Do you have any plans for the future that particularly excite you?

Continue along the road we have mapped out. To continue progressing in those projects that impact the UOC itself and those other institutions and societies with which we interact. We have a very important role to play as members of the university community and researchers in bolstering quality, inclusive and socially meaningful education. The outcomes being developed in these projects include new methodologies, technological solutions and processes for change and improvement. The idea is that, through different courses of action, these innovations can be adapted and adopted. We have evidence on how they work that confirms their real-world usefulness.

UOC R&I

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 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