Chapter 4

Open and Distance Learning in Italy

Luciano Cecconi and Luca Piria


Open and distance learning in Italian universities

Open and distance learning within the field of vocational training in Italy


Open and Distance Learning (ODL) in Italy has had a very limited success, especially when you compare it to the success it has had in other countries of the European Union. In the last few decades no educational policy has been formed with the aim of developing ODL systems, in contrast, for example, to the case of the United Kingdom. Here an active policy to support ODL emerged at the end of the 1960s. As a result, no university exists in Italy which conducts its didactic courses completely on a distance basis, as is the case in Spain with U.N.E.D. (Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia) or in Portugal with la Universidade Aberta. Furthermore, the universities that offer ODL, as well as conventional courses, are very few in number. There are now moves in the direction of ODL, however. For example, the three universities of Rome are active in this field as is the Consorzio Net.t.un.o. (NETwork Teledidattico UNiversità Ovunque), a consortium of 24 universities and 5 companies. In the field of corporate and vocational training, courses of any significance are scarce, and nearly all of them specialize in the field of teacher training. The absence of a national policy on ODL is reflected also at the local level. Regions in Italy are in charge of vocational state training courses, and they have only very recently started to face up to thematic systems concerning ODL, as well as establishing development strategies, and setting standards in the field.

In the paragraphs that follow the most significant ODL experiences carried out in the university, vocational, and corporate sectors will be described in detail.

Open and distance learning in Italian universities

In Italian universities there are three different sectors in which distance education is used:

1. degree courses totally held at distance (C.U.D., Consorzio Net.t.un.o.);

2. specialist postgraduate courses at distance (Università degli studi di Roma "Tor Vergata", Università degli Studi di Roma Tre, Università degli Studi di Ferrara, Università degli Studi di Firenze, For.Com.);

3. distance courses elements, within the stucture of conventional degree courses, carried out according to conventional systems (for example: Università degli Studi di Milano in collaboration with CTU).

The examples cited here are limited and it would be true to say that in Italy there is still much development work to be done this area. However, although the demand for ODL in Italy is at an embryonic stage and the availability of courses is limited there is growing interest being shown by both private and public sectors institutions. From this point of view, educational laws passed in the 1980s have paved the way to create a more visible commitment on the part of universities, both in the sector of general professional updating (the postgraduate-specialised courses can be seen in this light ), and in the sector of distance education.

In the subsequent paragraphs we will briefly analyse the Italian experience in the three sectors mentioned above.

University consortiums

Articles 91, 92, and 93 of the D.P.R. 382/80 allow Italian universities to group themselves into consortiums and to experiment alternative ways of providing their courses. As a result of this, the first Italian experience in the field of ODL was developed at university level. Afterwards, with the university didactic law of 19 November 1990 no. 341, a more specific state framework for university at distance was reached. This law, as well as establishing the first level university degree, foresees distance education within the university's own didactic structure. At the present time, there are two university consortiums, the C.U.D. and the Consorzio Net.t.un.o..

The CUD (Consorzio per l'Università a distanza), which was founded in 1984, is the first inter-university consortium developing from D.P.R. 382/80. The universities that have adhered to the consortium are: Università della Calabria, Università degli Studi "La Sapienza" di Roma, Politecnico di Milano, Università degli Studi di Bari, Politecnico di Bari, Università di Siena, Università di Trento. In addition to these universities there are a number of private company partners who have elected to join the consortium: CRAI (Consorzio per la Ricerca e le Applicazioni di Informatica), Olivetti, Confindustria (Association of Italian Industrialists), IBM, RAI, Telecom (SIP already) and Telespazio.

C.U.D.'s training has covered the first level university courses. Degree courses have been initiated in particular in "Ingeneria Informatica e Automatica" (Informatics and Computer Engineering). There are also part course in areas such a Economics, that replace the first two years of the "Economia e Commercio" (Economics), as well as courses for updating teachers in secondary education.

The organisational model that has been adopted is essentially centralized as, even though it foresees the presence of study centres, distributed throughout the country (around 16), the head office retains the responsability for didactic planning and the choice of material. This, together with the absence of a positive culture towards distance learning and, more generally, as a result of teaching methods that are alien to the traditional academic establishment, has limited the potential of C.U.D. Throughout the years, C.U.D. has gone through several crises, in the course of the next few years it is anticipated that the consortium will stop functioning. Currently only two courses, each lasting 36 months, are operational. These are a course in "Diploma di Laurea in Economia e Commercio" (which has about 120 students), and the "Informatica di Base" (with just 40 students). In the near future, C.U.D. will change its activities so as to concentrate on setting up preparatory courses for university studies.

The second Italian experience in the field of creating distance university degrees is the Consorzio Net.t. un. o. The organisational and structural model adopted in this case, is also that of a consortium grouping together traditional universities and companies. The system of teaching and learning is based on the wide use of communication systems already available to the general public at affordable prices, in particular television.

The Consorzio was founded in 1992, and originally consisted of 3 universities and 5 companies. Within the space of three years the universities numbered 24: Politecnico di Bari, Politecnico di Milano, Politecnico di Torino, Università de L'Aquilla, Bologna, Camerino, Cassino, Firenze, Genova, Lecce, Milano, Modena, Napoli "Federico II", la Seconda Università di Napoli, Padova, Parma, Pisa, Roma Tor Vergata, Salerno, Siena, Torino, Trento, Trieste, Viterbo "La Tuscia". The companies that are part of the consortium are: Telecom Italia, IRI, RAI, Confindustria. In the academic years 92-93, 93-94 and 94-95 nearly 2,000 hours of video-lectures were broadcast.

The strategy of the Consorzio Net.t.un.o. has been different to that of the CUD, as it has adopted a decentralized structure, in which the production of courses is entrusted to individual university members of the consortium. At a centralized level, control and co-ordination is provided. The data relating to course enrolment indcates that this strategy is bearing fruit. In the space of four years the figure of students enrolled on courses has increased from 589 in the academic year 1993-1994, to 2,200 in the academic year 1996-1997. Nearly 82% of the students enrolled are in full-time employment and 50% are students who dropped out of the conventional educational system.

Besides individual students, the distance courses are aimed at company employees, in particular companies that operate in the field of telecommunication, information technology, electronic appliances, and that are geographically close to the universities that are part of the consortium.

Postgraduate courses at a distance

Italian university legislation takes into account the possibility of universities establishing postgraduate courses specialising in specific skills and professional areas. Such courses, which are defined as "perfezionamento" are permitted by the academic Authorities, and are set up with a rector's decree. The qualification required to enrol on these courses is a "diploma di laurea" (degree) or the equivalent. These courses are principally taken by existing teachers or by new graduates who plan to dedicate themselves to the teaching profession.

The professional value of the certificate, obtained at the end of the course, is also significant for the legal professions. The certificate is used as a means of assessment for entry exams into the civil service. The certificate is of particular importance to teachers as it can be used to support the argumant for a higher grading as authorised by the educational authority. Such recognition is at the discretion of each individual educational authority, which every school year compiles a list of the recognised professionals.

The first important development in this sector was one by the "Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Educazione dell'Università degli Studi di Roma Tre". At the start of the 1980s, the Deparment received from schools and other organizations numerous demands for courses to update teachers. In view of this large demand, in the academic year 1986-1987, the Department decided to establish the first distance postgraduate course on the "Metodi della valutazione scolastica" (Evaluation and assessment in schools). In subsequent years, as a result of its success, other courses were added:

Furthermore, a course has been set up in the international language Esperanto for teachers keen to experiment. All postgraduate courses have a duration of one year, whilst the "International Esperanto Language" course lasts two years.

Since the academic year 1986-1987, some 20,000 people have enrolled themselves on the postgraduate courses at a distance. For the academic year 1996-1997 the total number of those who enrolled on courses was 2,316.

The organisation for didactic courses includes mailing course material plus the participation in at least one face-to-face meeting during the course of the year. The final examination is also held on-site.

The majority of the didactic units for the courses were developed by university lecturers who are members of the teachers' council. As regards this, it should be stressed that the activities associated with distance education are part of the lecturers' job, just like classroom teaching. For certain subjects expert help was sought from outside the department.

The evaluation of the didactic units is undertaken on a yearly basis through the distribution of a questionnaire compiled by the students. Alongside this procedure, the material used is periodically checked by the team in charge of the course in order to update the texts of university lectures.

In the establishment of postgraduate courses at a distance, fundamental importance is given to procedures aimed at achieving a two-way communication structure between the course and the students, and by providing individualized teaching/learning courses. Such procedures are characterised by their joint functions, support of the learning system and increased motivation. In short, four activities that fall within the scope of this joint sphere, can be identified:

New courses from the academic year 1997-1998 include a postgraduate course at a distance in "Educazione interculturale". This course has been designed to satisfy the growing demand for cultural studies in Italy that is, inpart, linked to the need to support the growing number of immigrant population within our country.

Experimental use of the Internet for supplying texts and on line feedback on course exercises for existing courses has also been taking place. This experiment is being conducted in collaboration with the "Dipartimento di Elettronica della Facoltà di Ingeneria dell'Università degli Studi di Roma Tre".

In the field of postgraduate distance courses another institution is FOR.COM. (FORmazione per la COMunicazione - Consorzio inter-universitario, founded and promoted by the Università di Roma "La Sapienza"). FOR.COM. is yet another university consortium. Members of the consortium are: Università degli Studi di Torino, Università degli Studi di Macerata, Southampton Institute of Higher Education, CIRPS (Centro Inter-universitario di Ricerca per i Paesi in Via di Sviluppo), Centro Inter-universitario di Teoria e Storia dei Generi Letterari (Centri Inter-universitari, based at Università di Roma "La Sapienza" ), Polytechnic University of Tirana, UniversitÈ de la Savoie with CEFI-CNRS.

Courses on offer by FOR.COM. include:

All in all, FOR.COM's educational and training facilities provide about 90 courses that cover a wide spectrum of subjects, economics, law, educational sciences, psychology and information technology, just to name a few. In the academic year 1996-1997 the total number of students who enrolled was circa 3,000. All the FOR.COM. courses include an entry exam by post and a series of didactic units. Each Unit works together for a period of one month, at the start of each term those who have enrolled receive a folder that contains the course's texts and exercises, exam papers, directions on course requirements and any eventual information of an administrative nature. The students enrolled on the courses send their examination or exercise answers every fortnight, and after the teachers have marked the papers the students receive a personal letter with corrections. At the end of the course a final exam is set.

The postgraduate courses are, in particular, structured in organized cycles in order to obtain from the students a commitment of 18 hours for the theory; 6 hours for practical activities; 6 hours for assessment exercises; making a total of 240 hours for a one year course and 480 hours for two year course.

The students as well as receiving their course corrections can benefit from:
- telephone assistance, at pre-arranged times,
- written assistance,
- personal meetings (for small groups) when students have encountered difficulties concerning aspects of the course.

In 1996 the Università di Tor Vergata in association with the Consorzio B.A.I.C.R. (Biblioteche e Archivi Istituti Culturali di Roma) also established 5 distance postgraduate courses specifically aimed at the teaching profession. The project proved successful, obtaining circa 1,200 enrolments. In the academic year 1997-1998 the number of courses has increased to 12. These courses cover inherent teaching themes and different didactic disciplines (amongst others, geography, history, music and the Italian language).

The course is comprised of 8 teaching units that are mailed to students by post.These include both the theortical and knowledge content, together with tests that the students must complete and return to the institution that administers the course. The tests are marked and the students receive private correction letters. The possibility of telephone or telematic assistance is provided through a special Web site.


Distance courses within the stucture of traditional degree courses

Apart from the projects that offer the possibility to enrol on courses that are held solely on a distance basis, facilities are starting to be set up that permit students to take advantage of distance learning for sections of the more diffused courses. In this mixed-mode sector there is not yet any substantial experience and only a few experiment trials have been initiated.

One of the first experiments in this field was made in the academic year 1993-1994 at the "Facoltà di Magistero dell'Università di Genova", in collaboration with the "Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Educazione dell'Università degli Studi di Roma Tre". The collaboration between the two universities and the choice of a distance learning model permitted the creation of a course in "Docimologia" (Evaluation), a subject fundamental to the educational sciences when you consider that no university chair for this subject existed previously.

A second project in this sector is the one developed, in the academic year 1996-1997, by the "Dipartimento di Sociologia dell'Università degli Studi di Milano" and by the CTU. ("Centro di Tecnologie per l'Apprendimento Università degli Studi di Milano"). Students were offered the possibility of integrating the normal course of "Sociologia Urbana" with a distance seminar on "Sociologia Visuale".

Open and distance learning within the field of vocational training in Italy

In Italy Open and Distance Learning in the field of vocational training has had very little success. In this field it is possible to distinguish two areas: state participation and participation from the private sector.

State participation

State participation is governed by the law (no.845/1978), that entrusts to the regions the responsibility of financing and managing vocational training. However, the regional educational authorities have not established, up until now, a specific policy concerning open and distance learning. Recently, two regions, Emilia-Romagna and Toscana, have undertaken some actions that favour the development of distance education.

The Emilia-Romagna region established in 1996 a Committee (CERFAD), to certify the didactic material and the systems associated with distance education. It elaborated a guide for quality criteria and it published a catalogue listing all the approved didactic material. This project helped to stimulate, both the production of quality didactic material and the creation of projects based on distance education. One of Emilia-Romagna's most significant projects, is the creation of a "Resource Centre" for multimedia and distance education. The structure of the Centre, which in a small period of time has become an important focal point for the local training establishments, consists of a headoffice in Bologna and a regional network of 9 offices, one for each province (Bologna, Ferrara, Reggio-Emilia, Modena, Piacenza, Parma, Villa San Martino-Lugo di Ravenna, Cesena and Rimini). The management of the Resource Centre has been entrusted to the Consorzio Sin.Form ("SINergie per la FORMazione"), that unites the most important training establishments in the Emilia-Romagna region (AECA, ECAP, ENAIP, ENFAP and IAL). Those aspects which concern the planning and technical management of the computer network are the responsibility of Trainet (which is part of the STET-Telecom group). Nine training establishments, one for each province, also participate in the management and running of the project.

At the head office in Bologna the functional aspects of the system that are managed include:

Every regional office is equipped with a multi-media didactic room (a server and 5 work stations) and it is connected to the web.

Emilia-Romagna together with Piemonte, as well as Toscana and Lombardia, have elaborated a model to certify distance courses (Progetto Iperion ) with a view to overcoming problems resulting from a lack of recognised procedures, especially those associated with accounts and assessments. An agreement, between the region of Emilia-Romagna and ISFOL (Istituto per lo sviluppo della formazione professionale dei lavoratori ), has been reached so as to collaborate in the exchange of didactic material that can be used for distance courses.

In 1998 the region of Toscana initiated a project, for the development of a regional teletraining system (Progetto T-Teleform), based on the use of a computer networks and on the creation of didactic regional offices (3 regional offices and 7 provincial ones).Up until today, only a few experimental projects have been established between companies and universities in Tuscany. A collaboration has finally been started, between the regions of Toscana, Umbria and Basilicata, for the development of tele-training regional systems.

Until now, distance education has been used in vocational training with state backing prevalently for in-service teachers training. From the beginning of 1988 ISFOL, which is a state company and works in association with the Ministry of Labour and the Regions in the field of vocational training, has carried out an experiment in the use of computer networks. The aim has been to distance-train groups of teachers, belonging to various training establishments and who are resident in different regions (Progetto FAD-ISOL). By the end of 1997 a total of 8 annual activity cycles have been accomplished in which 1,000 trainers have taken part. Whilst ISFOL has taken care of the course planning, managed the course supervision and the assessment program, Trainet has looked after the performance and management of the telematic and information systems. ISFOL is working on a project to set up a telematic distance course, that is promoted by the the Ministry of Labour and financed by the European Social Fund. The course is aimed at all employees of the professional public training system (circa 17,000 units spread out through the country).

 Through the use of non-telematics systems (seminars, multimedia didactic material, tutoring on the phone and also on a face to face basis), the region of Sicilia created in 1990, in the vocational training system, a vast program of teachers training at a distance (circa 500).

Since 1993 the region of Piemonte, within the structure of S.INF.O.D. ("Sistema INFormativo per l'Orientamento e la didattica"), has also initiated projects for teachers training at a distance, especially in the field of planning and in the development of multi-media didactic tools.

Private participation

The projects resulting from private finance can be divided into two categories:

a) projects that are aimed at training for exams and professional activities; and

b) projects targetting company training schemes.

In terms of category a) the most important experience has been that of the "Scuola Radio Elettra di Torino", a private group that has operated in the world of distance education since 1951. The school's courses are essentially correspondence courses, albeit, recently it has made some progress in the use of new communication technologies. The courses presently available are of two types: a) those that prepare students for exams leading to a school diploma age 11-14 and age 14-18, and the change of one school diploma for another; b) those that prepare students for professional activities, especially in the sector of electronics and technical-electronics. The courses are based largely on: the mailing of didactic paper material and of assembly kits; the students'completion of exercises and proof of performance; the teachers'careful corrections and their ability to communicate to the students their learning progress. The theoretical and practical proof of performance is carried out on a distance basis (for example, by assembly kit tests). At the present time about 80 courses are aactive. They last from 6 to 9 months and they involve about 10,000 students. The "Scuola Radio Elettra di Torino" is also present in France, EURELEC, where a training establishment operates in the field of on-going training (continuing education). From 1951 until today, more than 500,000 people have been distance trained in the courses provided by the "Scuola Radio Elettra di Torino".

For category b), company training schemes, there is a strong need to resort to training systems that, as well as assuring the quality of didactic results, can significantly contain the costs incurred by the companies. It is for this reason that in the 1980s there was a big boom in self-instructional materials (Computer Based Training software), both in the banking and insurance sectors. However, because of the near total absence of control and help to the consumers, it is difficult to consider these experiences as examples of distance education. As regards those companies, that pondered the problem of how to assure their students organizational and didactic support, the case is different. The experiences of distance education in companies, is marked none the less by the advanced automated systems and procedures, and by the slender presence of structures and support systems. Amonst the various experiences of this type you can single out Trainet, for reasons of size and the complexity of the technologies used.

Trainet (TRAIning NETwork ) is a company which is part of the STET-Telecom group. Since 1992 it has worked in the sector concerned with the development of products and services for distance learning. Trainet deals mostly with the distance education for Telecom Italia employees (more than 180 courses that last a minimum of one month to a maximum of two years, 63,000 students, 3,000 work stations). In the last few years it has also offered its products and services for distance education to other national and international clients (for example, ISFOL and Telecom Argentina). At present for the management of its distance courses Trainet uses the Hypercom system which permits:

Furthermore Hypercom uses the First Class electronic mail system that provides different functions, ranging from the electronic mail and conference lines, to chatting with the management of the courseware.