Universidad Santo Tomás’s Virtual Mission: From a New Online Campus to Colombia’s First Online Doctoral Program
Major educational institutions are rethinking the way they teach in order to adapt to new teaching processes. These new processes have partly come about due to lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. An example of this is the Universidad Santo Tomás campus in Tunja, Colombia.
Universidad Santo Tomás, also known by its acronym SANTOTO, is a Catholic institution of higher education founded in June 1580. With campuses in five cities in Colombia, the university has approximately 20,000 students and 840 professors. Many of its graduates have become recognized personalities—Colombian independence heroes, poets, politicians, and writers are among its alumni.
The institution currently offers a wide variety of in-person and virtual undergraduate and graduate academic programs, courses, and diploma certifications. In order to offer the guarantees of open and flexible education to its student population, the university has relied on the creation of a robust, reliable, and scalable digital learning platform through Open LMS.
We spoke to Liliana Mendivelso Melo, Director of SANTOTO's Virtual Campus, to learn more about how the university has evolved to offer an effective learning model for students and professors through the support of Open LMS and CognosOnline, Open LMS’ partner in Colombia and other countries across Latin America.
Choosing an Online Learning Management System
The process of choosing the right LMS happened across multiple phrases, Liliana says.
Phase #1: Understanding and Addressing the Problems
The university's senior staff had identified the main problems that the institution was experiencing at the time. The previous learning management system had frequent network failures and slow service, among other problems. These issues led SANTOTO to decide to provide a quality virtual campus.
For this reason, and after evaluating different possibilities and suppliers with an interdisciplinary team, the university decided to work with Open LMS. In addition to being a cloud service, Open LMS ensures quality solutions for the academic community, alongside added value from CognosOnline.
"Before acquiring the service with Cognos and Open LMS, common student complaints included: ‘The platform crashed’, ‘My work didn't load’, and ‘The platform doesn't work’. The complaints were persistent,” Liliana says. “However, by having the guarantees, backing, and support of Open LMS, we were able to minimize these problems in the first semester after implementing the service".
Phase #2: Improvements in the Learning Model
With its new LMS, the university’s Tunja campus has significantly improved its teaching and learning processes. There are hardly any technical issues, and if they do occur, they’re mostly invisible to the end-user. "The system allows for clean, fresh navigation tailored to the needs of the students. As far as professors are concerned, course management is much more intuitive," Liliana says.
With Open LMS in place, the university has been able to focus on improving its course modeling and design. To offer the best academic experience for the students, multiple elements have been implemented using HTML code, which enables the animation of resources within Moodle™. Several teams, including staff involved in instructional design, pedagogy, technological education, and multimedia development are helping the institution achieve these goals.
““Before acquiring the service with Cognos and Open LMS, common student complaints included: ‘The platform crashed’, ‘My work didn't load’, and ‘The platform doesn't work’. The complaints were persistent. However, by having the guarantees, backing, and support of Open LMS, we were able to minimize these problems in the first semester after implementing the service.””
Knowing that digital content is more attractive to the students, professors now use digital tools to promote interest in the classroom. The students themselves tested and approved the new tools and functionalities.
“Students are embracing the new educational models and tools. They also appreciate the professors’ work to provide different resources that contribute to their professional growth. At Virtual Campus, we carry out workshops, contests, and training to help professors produce digital content, using Information and Communications Technology (ICT), and complemented by Open LMS quality service," says Liliana.
Phase #3: Achievements & New Opportunities
A platform isn’t functional without the proper talent to run it effectively. That’s why SANTOTO, Open LMS, and CognosOnline have joined efforts to ensure the digital system is in optimal condition for both students and educators.
Before using Open LMS, the university lacked sufficient guarantees to offer a quality virtual campus. After the implementation and now confident of its service, the university, in addition to receiving positive feedback from students and professors, also gained approval from Colombia’s Ministry of National Education to create the first virtual doctoral program in the country called Doctorate in Public Law.
To strengthen its teaching and research competencies, its capability to go international, and to identify trends and opportunities in virtual education, the university has also leveraged Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), Learning and Knowledge Technologies (LKTs), and Empowerment and Participation Technologies (EPTs).
Currently, around 6,000 users use the platform every semester, a sure sign of the high participation level of both students and professors in the system.
"New learning models bring new challenges for professors. However, having technical guarantees to achieve the implementation of these models is very important. Some of these guarantees provided by Open LMS include availability, concurrency, scalability, updates, maintenance, data security, SaaS technology, and having a storage service in the cloud,” Liliana says about the Open LMS and CognosOnline service.
Phase #4: New Competitive Advantages
The use of eLearning platforms has enabled Universidad Santo Tomás to better interact with students by:
- Promoting new learning experiences with online content
- Enabling different types of assessment activities
- Taking advantage of class time to do practical and interactive activities
As Liliana states: "In terms of virtual education, a learning management system is more than an advantage; it’s a necessity. I believe that all educational institutions should have this type of system in order to guarantee high quality in virtual modalities."
The university wants to continue expanding its academic offer, in collaboration with Open LMS, with a focus on:
- Innovative educational models using ICTs
- Global expansion with high-quality programs
- Interactive virtual classrooms
- Measurement of digital competencies for teachers
“With Open LMS in place, the university has been able to focus on improving its course modeling and design. To offer the best academic experience for the students, multiple elements have been implemented using HTML code, which enables the animation of resources within Moodle™.”
Understanding the Past, the Present, and the Future
Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Universidad Santo Tomás was able to grow, expanding its virtual offer substantially from continuing education to postgraduate degree programs.
"The platform was the main tool that enabled us to support the entire educational system. In a way, since 2018 we’ve been implementing training to teach faculty on how to use the virtual platform and digital tools. When the pandemic began, I think only a few professors weren’t using the platform. Still, we developed a contingency training plan in record time,” adds Liliana.
Now that SANTOTO has a new LMS, it’s working on enhancing its digital resources. It plans to cover most of its academic agenda with interactive and content-rich features. With the size of its student campus, Universidad Santo Tomás is constantly rethinking its teaching processes, Liliana concludes. “The university develops projects that are only limited by its students’ imagination and creativity, and which will have a positive impact on the economy of the region and the country.”