To the Academic Authorities, professors, students and other members of the University Community:
In these times of pandemic, so serious and worrying, it is surprising that universities decide to maintain face-to-face classes, neglecting the high risk of infections and deaths that this teaching format entails for teachers, students and their families, as we were able to verify so long ago only a few months. The memory of the numerous victims of Covid-19 that occurred last spring in Spanish universities immediately comes to mind. I was especially shocked by the loss of a colleague and friend with whom I shared many moments of office in our early days of distance learning at the National University of Distance Education (UNED), and who later had moved to the Autonomous University of Madrid ( face-to-face university), dying last April from coronavirus with just 60 years. I cannot prevent a thought from coming to my mind: if I had continued at UNED, quite possibly I would not have been infected.
Universities are an important vector of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in the population, as they require the movement of thousands of people every day -many of them by public transport-, and concentrate a very high number of social interactions, thus opening them Presentially, high levels of transmission can lead to a large focus of infections and deaths. The university, as a social institution, should not want this, and neither should it subject its teachers and students to the risk of risking their own lives and those of their families. Thanks to new technologies, today we have a solution within reach.
Precisely in these times of “new situation” – I prefer to call these new circumstances, rather than “new normal” -, the Distance Education model in which I have acquired extensive experience, first as a student and later as a tutor teacher of the UNED for more than 30 years, manifests itself, in my modest opinion, as the great solution. This model has proven to be effective and successful, allowing students to achieve competencies comparable to those acquired through face-to-face teaching, as evidenced by the high number of its graduates who have developed excellent curricular, academic and insertion careers in the world of work. Studying at a distance also has added advantages for the student, who has the freedom to plan and establish their own study schedules, in addition to promoting values such as perseverance, responsibility, self-discipline and organization. There are many experts who share that distance learning is as valuable as face-to-face teaching.
Thus, face-to-face universities have the opportunity to incorporate, totally or partially, the tools that for decades have been used effectively in distance learning, also counting on the new resources offered by technological development, such as for example the possibility of giving classes in streaming. In this regard, the highest body that guarantees the quality of teaching in Spanish universities, the National Agency for Quality Assessment and Accreditation (ANECA), has recognized classes taught live via telematics as face-to-face teaching. On the other hand, the cost of implementing this “remote face-to-face” modality is also far from the high costs that other alternative solutions that have been considered in recent months would entail, such as expanding the teaching staff, doubling schedules or doubling spaces and resources to comply with health security measures. None of these measures would also be as effective as the Distance Education Model in the fight against the virus.
It would therefore be a matter of implementing an online teaching model in face-to-face universities, as long as there is a high community transmission of the virus in our country and the danger of infection by SARS-CoV-2 continues to be a threat. The basis of this model can be very useful also in post-Covid-19 times and can be established in anticipation of future pandemics. In summary, the implementation of this model would consist of the following:
In the first place, good Didactic Units should be developed for each of the subjects –or adapt the existing ones– so that they contain clear objectives and content distributed by topics, as well as self-testing exercises that allow the student to obtain a feedback immediate learning. These units, which are the basic material for the student’s work, could be elaborated or reviewed by the teachers at the beginning of the course, preferably in teams of teachers who teach the same subject. The study of the Didactic Units must be complemented with the support of online classes and tutorials that clarify all kinds of doubts to the students in relation to the materials, contents, methodology and evaluation tests that may arise throughout the course.
Second, there must be a virtual campus and a specialized User Service Center to support and advise teachers and students in the face of any computer problem (most face-to-face universities already have these resources). At the beginning of the course, students would be informed, through email and in the first classes, about the new methodology and the computer platforms that will be used in communication. It is important to establish different virtual groups (chats) that guarantee, for each of the subjects, frequent interaction between students, between teachers, and of course between students and teachers.
Finally, the evaluation would consist of a series of online exams and / or in the presentation of works distributed throughout the course, in relation to the contents taught (Distance Evaluation Tests), which can be scored with a percentage of the final grade , or simply serve to reorient student learning. At the end of the course, a single face-to-face exam would be carried out, if sanitary circumstances allow it, with all possible security measures, which must shield teachers and students. This synthesis should not be considered as something closed and static, but open to adaptations and modifications that, based on the peculiarities of the departments and subjects, it is considered appropriate to carry out.
Unfortunately, in the current situation in which we find ourselves, with an alarmingly growing incidence of infections and a rate of positives that in some regions of our country is four times the threshold recommended by the WHO to keep the epidemic under control, we must understand that some resignations are necessary, and we have to sacrifice a certain presence in teaching, if we consider that the most important thing is to save lives. For this reason, we must not decide based on the criterion of better or worse education system, but we must choose the model that offers the population greater security. As a vocational educator, I have exalted the value and importance of education to the unspeakable, convinced that academic training is the greatest fortune that human beings can achieve. But now, in the times and circumstances that we live in, I have no doubt that it is time to retreat, in favor of a more urgent and even more important objective than education, such as preserving health and human life.