Mexico’s Madero University (UMAD) has a motto: “Tenemos Madera”, which means “We Have What It Takes”. This call to arms motivates UMAD staff to reinvent, renew, and innovate the way it educates its students. It’s also helped the university develop an exemplary virtual education system, capable of training students with high academic skills as well as a love for this new educational modality:
“Some of our students have enrolled on the basis of ‘well, let’s see if I can [study virtually]’. And those who were not sure are the ones who end up loving the virtual learning modality and saying that it has many advantages,” said Beatriz Cruz Olivares, Virtual Campus and Education Area Coordinator at Madero University, located in Puebla, Mexico. With a Master’s degree in Educational Communication and Technology, Cruz Olivares is an expert in technology-mediated education. She’s been involved in this type of training for 18 years, seven of which have been for UMAD.
Implementing virtual learning at the university means ensuring the institution is always looking one step ahead, to benefit the educational community as well as to look for strategic partners to help them achieve their pedagogical objectives. For this reason, they joined forces with Open LMS, in order to deliver a better technological experience to staff and students.
“We have been working with SICOM, an Open LMS channel partner in Mexico, for several years. It’s been a strategic partnership of great relevance for our distance education process. With the pandemic, SICOM was the right partner to make this expansion in an agile and fast way,” says Cruz Olivares. She also stresses that having a strategic partner is essential when you need to migrate to a digital environment.
The Goal: To Train Students With Technological Skills
Being one step ahead is one of the university’s calling cards. This foresight guided them to include distance education options after conducting studies among employers and specialists. “We started to implement some aspects [of virtual learning] and conduct some studies to be able to offer this modality,” Cruz Olivares highlights.
Overcoming initial resistance to virtual learning was one of the main challenges faced by the university, due to the belief that distance education was of lower quality. However, with the proper use of the platforms and tools, they managed to convince the students by showing them the multiple benefits of virtual learning. “At the Master’s level, they began to realize the advantages of being able to continue studying without putting aside activities such as work, family, etc.,” added Cruz Olivares.
At the same time, she recalls that students first needed to be convinced to study virtually. So the university implemented a network for students, teachers, and parents. “This has been one of the main challenges… making our minds up to unlearn what we’ve been taught for years, giving a different dynamic and seeing the advantages of working under these methodologies,” says Cruz Olivares.
Open LMS: The Main Partner to Meet Digital Education Goals
Madero University took advantage of Open LMS technology to carry out its virtual education process. In 2014, just 27% of Master’s students were enrolled in virtual learning while, currently, 100% of students are distributed in four fully online Master’s degrees.
With the arrival of Open LMS (in 2018), the quality of the virtual education offered to students began to improve, as Cruz Olivares states: “When we didn’t have Open LMS, our platform wasn’t really as user-friendly as we wanted. It was difficult to get students to identify where their activities and resources were.”
New technologies were also incorporated such as H5P, which has helped UMAD to make courses more dynamic, user-friendly, and organized. “With Open LMS, we’ve been doing something very interesting, because it gives us the option to provide precisely the quality education we want. The technology of the Open LMS platform has many advantages, including the fact that it’s very user-friendly and intuitive,” says Cruz Olivares.
“The Open LMS platform has strengthened the way our students learn and our lecturers teach. The teachers are very happy because they can see students are applying the knowledge that they’re getting in the courses they took in the platform,” Cruz Olivares says.
Teachers, a Fundamental Link in Virtual Education
At the undergraduate level, for the past six years, Madero University has given added value to teachers with the creation of blended courses, emphasizing their importance in the delivery of content and the cognitive development of students. The blended learning method complies with some characteristics of the hybrid modality, as some activities are carried out in the classroom and others on the platform.
Thanks to this system, the institution was already prepared when it had to face the COVID-19 pandemic. When it was time to move to virtual classes, they began to train teachers in strategies, tools, and instructional design. “Learning isn’t going to be autonomous. We need the teaching staff and the students. With virtual learning, the teacher is just as relevant as in a classroom,” Cruz Olivares says.
Teachers built all their courses within the Open LMS platform, in a way that they could take advantage of all its tools and design, such as lessons, forums, and workshops. “One particular tool that has helped us a lot is H5P, as it’s one of the most used tools to create interactive learning experiences.” The faculty staff also get good use of Open LMS features such as the ability to create evaluations and assign homework.
Digital culture: Cognitive Skills and Community Building
UMAD launched a campaign for students, parents, and teachers to provide support and explain the virtual learning system. The university also implemented a communication strategy within its educational community to create an approach capable of breaking down the barriers created by the digital environment.
“It’s been said that distance education is very cold, that there’s no way to create communities. But that’s completely false. It’s definitely possible to create learning communities; we even have students from abroad,” said Cruz Olivares, who adds that the community is strengthened through monitoring students on the virtual campus, as well as support from virtual tutors. This, she says, helps to avoid school dropouts and allows for the admission of new students.
These achievements have been attained thanks to the channels available to them, such as direct messages in forums, emails, real-time sessions, and networking. “Distance education isn’t cold, but depends on the strategies that you establish to generate communities,” explains Cruz Olivares. For educators, online pedagogy shouldn’t be limited to just uploading a PDF, she adds, but “it must have pedagogical support so that it can be functional”.
UMAD also has several strategies to develop the cognitive skills of students, including the study tips they disseminate through their social networks and the platform. These are designed to help learners organize their study space, their educational method, and adapt their learning schedules. “This has been a good thing because it’s allowed students to continue with their studies,” she adds.
On the other hand, the academic campus has provided the possibility of conducting studies to employers to know what they’re looking for in graduates. With that information, they develop a culture of being able to work on digital skills. “We are trying to train our students not only with knowledge in the area of specialty, but also in purely digital skills because we want to develop a digital citizenship,” says Cruz Olivares.