uTOP, the Université de Technologie Ouverte Pluripartenaire – Multi-partner Open University of Technology – is an initiative in France bringing together institutions of higher education in engineering and technology and other partners under the aegis of UNIT, Université numérique ingénierie et technologie (Digital University of Engineering and Technology) to provide initial and continuing education online. UNIT is one of eight digital universities, each with a subject specialty, established by the universities and the Ministry of Higher Education and Research in France.
The eight digital universities and their initiatives and accomplishments are described in Available to All - One Portal Featuring more than 34,000 Open Educational Resources Developed by Universities in France.
Fondation UNIT functions as an operational centre, issuing calls for proposals, awarding funding based on peer review and providing support to project development, as well as organizing meetings and opportunities for information exchange and learning. uTOP is one of many projects undertaken by the partners of UNIT.
uTOP received four years of funding starting in 2012, offered its first training opportunities in 2013, and now has more than 80 resources available for online initial and continuing education, both credit and non-credit, in fields such as aeronautics, sustainable development, energy, survey engineering, building construction, and transport.
Traditionally, universities in France offer few opportunities for lifelong learning and continuing professional education. However, as described by Anne Boyer, President of Fondation UNIT, combining the expertise in universities, the employment needs and skills of business partners, and the capacity of digital technologies to deliver learning allows universities to address emerging needs for initial and continuing professional development. The uTOP project is a demonstration of this multi-partner approach to online learning to meet education needs of engineers and senior technologists in informatics on an international basis, especially in other French-speaking countries.
In January 2017, Fondation UNIT organized a closing colloquium for uTOP at which the partners presented on their projects – the achievements, challenges, institutional impacts, and learning outcomes. The resources, courses, and programs developed are (if available) on the uTOP site. To illustrate the numerous innovations and results of the initiative, several projects are outlined.
MOOCs on Research Results in Advanced Technology
The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation (INRIA) produced 11 MOOCs as part of uTOP (16 MOOCs in total) to add value to the research they do in advanced technology by making it more accessible to student and practicing engineers.
These specialized MOOCs include Mobile Robotics, Code-based Cryptography, and Bioinformatics, with some available in English. There are more than 60,000 registrations to date, with over 5,000 attestations awarded. As a result of this experience, the INRIA Learning Lab was established to support e-learning projects and conduct research on e-learning. A number of key lessons and new approaches resulted from the project to date:
- The model for development was initially seen as having three steps: 1. outline specifications; 2. define concept; and 3. develop resources. Instead, experience shows a first phase of concept design and content development should be dedicated to videos and key resources for each MOOC, and a second stage would define and develop quizzes and supports.
- The definition of objectives requires the preparation of evaluation questions before the preparation of the videos, so clear directions and learning results are established.
- The defined target audience was different from those who actually registered, requiring clearer definition of the courses and their pre-requisites in promotional materials. Despite this, MOOCs are still likely to get heterogeneous audiences and the content cannot meet all expectations.
- Access and language pose challenges as the platform hosting the MOOCs is best known in Francophone countries. To address the language issue, some MOOCs were developed in English, with others in French. Bilingual MOOCs, some with simultaneous French and English sessions, are to be tested.
- Use of multiple media, beyond on-screen lectures, can address issues of instructor discomfort with video, in addition to student learning preferences.
Specialized Master’s in Building Information Modeling
The École des Ponts ParisTech, a generalist university for science, engineering and technology, worked with other engineering and architecture universities, research centres and businesses to develop a specialized Master’s degree in Building Information Modelling (BIM) using blended learning.
The program was offered in 2014-2015, with 15% online content; in 2015-16, 72 students from the blended program submitted their theses. The project was a catalyst for developing not only program content, but also an environment of collaboration and research, a platform for ongoing online course and degree development, a unit dedicated to online distance education, and the inclusion of a digital school in the university’s strategic plan.
A studio for filming, captioning, and training of faculty is newly constructed, with additional fully online modules and MOOCs completed and underway. Plans are in development to offer the Master’s in BIM in a completely online format.
Geospatial (Survey) Engineering Related to Water
The National School for Water and Environmental Engineering (ENGEES) worked with the National School for Geographic Sciences (ENSG) to create a professional development course of 150 hours of online learning over three months on the use of a Geographic Information System specifically for bodies of water.
The course ran in 2016, followed by a detailed assessment, which revealed:
- Students: Several students found the course too long, demanding, and difficult to fit into their work and personal life timetables. The platform was initially difficult to access and there was an ongoing need for support and self-discipline.
- Instructors: Those involved in the delivery of the course improved their pedagogical capacities, as well as their facility with online tools. The distinction between online and face-to-face courses diminished. There were concerns about control and ownership between the course designers and those who delivered it, especially with content that remained accessible on the web.
- Course Developers: The benefits articulated by this group highlight the positive benefits: the enrichment of the design and development experience and the final product through the collaborative process; the establishment of a new model for teaching; a greater capacity to manage complexity; and a stronger concentration on pedagogy.
- Institutions: The institutions also perceived benefits from the sharing of expertise, as well as the increased emphasis on pedagogy, evaluation, and the concept of individual learning paths. A centre dedicated to the support of online learning initiatives is under consideration.
The University of Lorraine worked with university hospitals throughout France to develop a one-year, part-time Diploma program, using blended learning, for surgeons and interns in vascular surgery. The goal of the training is to ensure surgeons always have experience inserting a valve before performing the operation on a patient and to put the patient at the centre of the training.
The online content included diagnosis, patient selection, operational risks, post-op complications, and therapy using print, animation, videos, and case studies; face-to-face sessions stressed practice in the insertion of valves using simulations and physical models, in the presence of expert teachers. The online case studies used communities of practice and the communications software PairForm for analysis, diagnosis, and discussion – a new experience of shared learning for many surgeons.
Among the results of the projects:
- Three sessions offered, with 20 surgeons trained;
- Development of resources and collaborative tools, including case studies, with links to the use of simulations;
- Experience showed the benefit of networked learning and simulations, but also the necessity of having experts present at face-to-face sessions;
- Development of an innovative pedagogical model to be applied to other medical training.
The full list and descriptions of the projects are available at uTOP.
Outcomes and Benefits
In addition to the benefits of the individual projects, the uTOP initiative as a whole has several positive consequences:
Numbers tell a story about the success of uTOP:
- A network of 26 higher education institutions which are members of UNIT worked together with more than 100 external partners;
- Thirty-nine different training options developed and offered, including master’s degrees, certificate programs, MOOCs, and several courses offering badges and attestations of achievement;
- More than 80 different resources are available on the uTOP site, with some of the resources available in English; and
- The programs and courses offered through the various uTOP projects averaged an 80% completion rate, much higher than average for online learning.
uTOP was the impetus and model for an important shift in providing learning. Staff, administration and students at the participating universities learned about the possibilities and best practices of digital learning, with most institutions continuing the efforts to integrate technology-enabled learning into their offerings. Many of the universities set up centres for teaching and learning as a result of their experience with uTOP, often hiring the short-term experts in learning and design who worked on the initiatives.
The projects were catalysts for people working together, within the same institution or with multiple partners. As described by Cyril Bai, Project Director for Fondation UNIT: “Each project functioned as a hub for networking and for learning about how to teach online.” Universities, which are normally competitive, came together within UNIT to collaborate, learn about the design and development of digital resources, and produce widely useful courses, programs, and resources.
The projects gave the partners the opportunity to test different business models for the development and diffusion of online learning, with a mix of topics, public/private partnerships, lengths of training, pedagogical approaches, and technology uses.
The collaborative model built on the strengths of each partner - universities offer subject expertise, quality assurance, and respected certification for the resources; companies outline needs and evolving trends; and research institutions work on transferring what was learned to the design of applications. Fondation UNIT provided funding, shared the knowledge from their long experience in online learning, and hired instructional design and pedagogical experts to work on individual projects.
Challenges and Enhancements
As a first experience with digital education for many of its partners, uTOP also introduced a number of new challenges, which were brought forward by participants at the colloquium for closure of the project:
- Universities and businesses often have different priorities and work rhythms which can make collaboration difficult;
- In digital education, especially when offered on a broad geographic basis, it is more difficult to define the learners and their needs;
- Language is a recurring question - whether to provide the resources needed to serve the Francophonie or to reach a wider audience in English;
- The process of development requires much more detailed planning than for a face-to-face class as the resources, assignments and assessments are often designed before the first session, making them less flexible;
- Choosing appropr iate media, technology, pedagogy, assessments, student support and all the other components of online learning was demanding and usually subject to careful evaluation at the end of the project; and
- Assessment of quality and of needs for continuous improvement/revision of content require approaches different from those used on-campus.
As detailed above, uTOP demonstrated the key contribution of online learning to numerous institutions in France and it is being incorporated into their strategies for reaching and serving initial and lifelong learning students.
Fondation UNIT received funding for a new project, SONATE, which is a direct consequence and application of what was learned with uTOP, directed at serving a new group of learners, those who have not completed secondary school (the Bac in France). Currently under development, this Diploma for Access to University Studies (DAEU), for both youth and adults without qualifications, offers teaching and tutoring at a distance. On completion of the program, graduates can enter the workforce or apply to university.
The coaching is seen as the essential element for these returning students and is to be available before, during, and after completion of the program, with an initial orientation to guide the choice of appropriate training and a final session on entering (or re-entering) the workforce. Throughout the program, the coaching focuses on motivation, learning skills, self-confidence, self-discipline, and encouraging completion.
Optional modules are in development by partner universities, with special attention to regional expertise and employment needs. For example, a university in Brittany (Bretagne) is developing a module on agriculture and the sea; another in the Alps is focusing on tourism, hotel management, and languages; a third university in the Paris region is producing a module on telecommunications and new technologies; a fourth university in the South of France is focusing on the field of health and social services. Each of these optional modules is about 60 hours in length, and is preparatory to taking a qualifying exam for entry to a university specialty.
When the SONATE resources are complete, they will be made available to other universities along with content to aid their adoption, such as professional development materials, information on program organization, and establishing relationships with local partners and business and other aids to supporting the success of the returning students.
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