Since 2004, the French Ministry of Higher Education and Research has supported the development of eight Digital Thematic Universities (Universités Numériques Thématiques – UNT) and one unique web-TV portal, Canal-U, with the goals of:
- Improving the results of undergraduate students;
- Publishing re-usable Open Educational Resources (OERs) created by professors and researchers from partner institutions. All of the OERs are quality assessed in terms of content, pedagogy, and technology; and
- Promoting French higher education in all the domains represented by the eight UNTs.
The Digital Thematic Universities
Eight Digital Thematic Universities focus on specific disciplines:
Law and Politics
Environment and Sustainable Development
Humanities, Social Sciences, Languages and the Arts
Each of the UNTs is a separate legal entity that brings together between 25 and 40 partners from higher education, with a global total funding of about €1.2 million annually from the Ministry of Higher Education and Research, and contributions from partner universities. Many universities belong to more than one UNT, reflecting their diverse areas of content expertise. The UNT are not educational institutions; they do not enrol students or award diplomas. They are organizations through which the member institutions cooperate to develop OERs.
Responding to calls for proposals, faculty and researchers at partner institutions apply for funding to create OERs within the specified discipline. The OERs can be developed by a single institution or through cooperation with other French or international partners according to the policies of each UNT. Each OER is subject to review by experts within each UNT to ensure pedagogical, scientific, and technological quality.
Furthermore, UNT are financed to create an online index of their production and of other French OERs in their discipline found on the Internet.
The OERs and the Single Entrance Portal and Search Engine
The open educational resources available through the UNTs encompass multiple formats – course modules, exercises, documents, videos, animations, simulations, images – and include all disciplines. Many of the resources are available in multiple languages, as educators in other countries recognized their value and translated them for their students. Each UNT set up a website for access to its resources.
In 2015, a single portal was launched to provide access to the 34,000 OERs from all digital universities on one site. The portal – located at sup-numerique-gouv.fr – provides educational news and highlights, information on using OERs and other technology for teaching and learning, as well as the search engine for OERs.
A search using the term “eau” (water) reveals the detail and complexity of the site. The search provides more than 1,200 results. Filters are offered to narrow these results according to a number of factors:
- The discipline with which the OER on water is affiliated – science, engineering, law, health, etc.;
- The type of content such as lecture, exam, guide, case study, demonstration, or self-assessment;
- The educational level – whether higher education or training; and
- The media used such as video, text, simulation, interactive resource, images, or sound.
The resulting list of OERs can be organized by date, author, or title, and each listing provides a brief description of the OER content, as well as a set of descriptive terms. Linking to a specific OER brings up a more detailed introductory page, including such information as:
- The type of OER – presentation, assignment, simulation, etc;
- The estimated time for completing a module, viewing resource, or other usages;
- Its license type under Creative Commons Open Licensing;
- Languages in which it is available;
- Educational level and target users;
- Suggested pedagogical applications;
- Summary of contents;
- Links to associated documents, exercises, etc.
- Its classification according to the Dewey Decimal System;
- The specific subject areas for which it is useful;
- Those responsible for its development; and
- The Digital Thematic University with which it is associated.
Perrine de Coëtlogon worked as a member of the portal’s development team, as well as with the Université Numérique Francophone des Sciences de la Santé et du Sport, the UNT dedicated to health and sport sciences (UNF3S). She highlights a resource entitled Anatomie 3D from UNF3S to indicate the pedagogical and technological quality and sophistication of the resources. As she says: “Sometime, in one resource, you can find a world.”
Anatomie 3D features an extensive collection of videos featuring 3D animations of human anatomy for students of sport sciences and para-medical studies, accompanied by written materials and a blog that updates the latest resources added to the site. The videos have silent and sound options and many are available in English, Spanish, Italian, Slovenian, and Arabic.
Another useful pedagogical resource, especially for non-French speakers, is the one on FLE or Français langue étrangère, i.e. French as a foreign language).
The complementary service Canal U is a video site bringing together all the OERs produced as videos, as well as broadcasting conferences, documentaries, and events at French universities. As all universities can contribute to Canal U, it offers a broad vision of activity in higher education across the country.
In addition on the global sup-numerique portal, a calendar of all free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by public and private providers in France is featured. The MOOCs can be searched by discipline and platform for easier access.
Outcomes and Benefits
The development and accessibility of 34,000 open educational resources provides an immense inventory to support educators in course development, as well as students in learning, whether for courses or independent interest. Among the eight UNTs, the wide diversity of content and expertise within French universities results in OERs related to all major disciplines.
One of the NTUs, UNISCIEL, dedicated to the basic sciences, reports almost eight million visitors a year to its site, with 15 million pages viewed.
Collaboration on the development of OERs extends beyond higher education institutes in France, with numerous partnerships around the world. As well, the UNT partner institutes share their expertise and experience with universities around the world.
The new portal, featuring access to all OERs from the UNTs, highlights the level and range of innovation taking place in higher education in France, making this accessible to all educators and learners everywhere.
Challenges and Enhancements
The development of the portal, with its detailed descriptions of each resource, as well as multiple filters and points of access, required considerable time and effort.
A challenge for the new portal is to clearly demonstrate what is available and make it easily accessible. An updated version is scheduled for launch in October 2016 to further facilitate searching.
Wider communication about the portal is an ongoing goal, to encourage use of its resources around the world and to bring in new partners and collaborators.
As part of this promotion, the UNTs and the Secretary of State for Higher Education are planning, in October and November 2016, several events organised together with UNESCO and Open Education Consortium (former OpenCourseWare), whose Vice-President, Sophie Touzé, is French.
A study is underway on the success of certain OERs chosen by the UNTs in order to determine ideal scenarios and guidelines that can be developed for their further use, adaptation, and re-use. And many French university presidents and the Secretary of State for Higher Education have decided that research projects should be funded on pedagogical innovation, including on OERs at European level.
Ongoing development of OERs continues to renew and expand the present inventory.
Wider usage and enhanced partnerships are goals for the Digital Thematic Universities and the portal.
For Further Information
Perrine de Coëtlogon
Expert in Digital Technology for Higher Education
Open Educational Resources & Digital Skills and Competencies
MIPNES Mission Pedagogical and Digital for Higher Education
Ministry of Higher Education and Research