15 November 2011

OERU vs Pearsons vs OEU

Wayne Mackintosh is making rapid progress joining the dots around the Open Education Resources University (OERU), with some 15 "Anchor Partners" in the fold (although it is hard to say for sure, going by the info on their website). Those anchor partners include two universities from Australia, the Uni Southern Queensland and the Uni of Wollongong.

Cashing in on that word "open" is Pearsons Publishers, who made a dull thud a few months ago with their Open Class idea. Uni of New England is signing in with Pearsons around that, from which I imagine Pearsons will attempt to replicate Apple's iTunesU initial marketing methods, to secure their investment.

All these initiatives make the common mistake of overly focusing on content, and in doing so they are chipping away at the institution's strangle hold over assessment and accreditation - which is ultimately where these developments matter most.

OERU by name, seems largely focused on content, but under the hood they use scenarios that say different. They should drop the word Resources from their name, and go with OEU. At the moment the message is still heavily weighted to the idea that they believe content leads to learning, and are working on formalising recognition and accreditation through that channel of content. Leaving aside questions about content access resulting in learning, or that access to free and open content somehow results in learning (an abstract concept for most), ultimately it is the shortest and least expensive path to a respectable piece of paper that really matters here, and their scenario PDF captures that sentiment.

While OERU's principles around content are admirable, what is more exciting is what they are potentially establishing around educational services for assessment, recognition and accreditation services. If they can continue to develop that aspect of their initiative, and drop the suggestion that such services are available or somehow more valuable through the use of their free content, then I think their onto a game changer, if only by significantly undercutting the hyper inflated competition.




Video used in Alternative Ways to Earn Your Degree: Discussing OER University with Rory McGreal


If they were to successfully influence their anchor institutions to develop sophisticated Recognition and Assessment of Prior Learning (RAPL) services, then they would be enabling people who set themselves to learning, using any content or method they choose, including assignments that meet their own needs and those of the assessor's, an opening to formal education that has to-date been quite closed off.

Places like OERU are potentially important alliances for small to medium sized institutions and private providers who will have to compete with the likes of Pearsons, Google or perhaps even iTunesU, who are clearly moving into this space, or more obviously - the sandstone universities and aspiring global institutions like MIT, who stand to dominate the space the moment they choose to invest in flexible assessment services. If recognition of informal and networked learners were to become the focus of the likes of OERU, then they should change their name to OEU, let content play a very minor part, and work intensely on setting up innovative assessment methods, that meet the standards of the anchor institutions, and maintain integrity in the process.

It's a no-brainer really, and why the formal institutions are so slow to recognise the opportunities here is staggering. If a person can learn something through their own resources, and demonstrate their competence and levels of understanding to assessment standards that we can only assume are robust and have integrity by virtue of their regulation, then why aren't more institutions offering such a service to people?

There are many reasons, not least of all that the actual people who would do the assessing have difficulty separating assessment from their teaching and content. Based on my experience proposing and defending the methods we tested in BPS2011, these veterans of the institutions still expect attendance, and a certain style of teaching. They set assignments and exams that are more aligned to their content rather than to the assessable learning objectives. Then there are the faculties and discipline areas who see this level of service a threat to their bottom line. They imagine a future where everybody takes this pathway to accreditation and stop paying for teaching all together. And there are the die-hard believers in 'educational institutions for the public good', who resist all attempts to further commoditise education, refusing to acknowledge that most of that has already taken place, and that a new and diverse range of learning (I hope to show) is increasingly happening elsewhere, whether it be informally self directed, part time night classes, through networks and communities of practice, on the job, or a combination of all of these.

The freedoms and flexibility that would be opened to people in how they go about getting formal recognition for their knowledge and skills is conceivably quite wide, and is not a new idea at least in the vocational training sector. People would not have to forgo employment to satisfy compulsory or otherwise mandated classroom attendance. Migrants could have a greater opportunity to demonstrate their abilities than arbitrary credit transfers from a very limited range of recognised institutions. People raising families may have more of an opportunity to further their qualifications. Internationals can do more of their study at home, and spend less time in foreign countries with expensive costs of living. People in newly regulated professions may seek assessment of prior learning instead of enduring coursework again. And so on.

In many regards, demonstrating this concept is what motivates my efforts to obtain a PhD through informal and networked channels, but it's difficult because as yet, too few educational institutions have seen the opportunities open to them, and have not invested enough or any thought in how they might take the advantage in this. Instead they choose to continue limiting their intake to a mostly young, school leaving, reasonably affluent, perhaps even directionless class of people, effectively discriminating against all those who might adequately satisfy the assessment standards, if given the chance.

4 comments:

catkins_in_nz said...

Thanks for this post Leigh. I very much agree with your suggestion that is the development of the educational services that are really exciting. If the OERu focuses too much of its energy on content, I fear it will rapidly end up either with out-of-date content or with people who are so busy trying to keep their content current that all the other important aspects are overlooked.
I also agree with you that people will increasingly learn what they need when and where they need to - but will still (sometimes at least) want the piece of paper that says they have. A rigorous but flexible and adaptable RPL process, as Otago Polytechnic are championing will be an essential part in a sustainable OERu.
Thanks again - I always enjoy being challenged by reading your view of things!

Brian Sayer said...

Wholly agree. Very refreshing to read this, thank you.
This has been achievable for decades but the open universities became obsessed with developing content and defensive about quality,and the potential of 'open-ness' was never realised. The few institutions that offered elements of what is now being proposed were singled out for particular criticism and isolated as pariahs. By now, the 'no brainer' option that you describe is quite a toxic proposal that most in the formal HEI mainstream steer away from.
Emphasising content re-emphasises the distraction of writing courseware which is highly attractive to academics. What's needed is long-overdue investment in imaginative, authentic 'open assessment' and related open services which as you say could be the real game changer, feasible for any higher education institution, not just those which bet the farm on distance/online learning. The bricks and mortar HEIs have the awards, the syllabuses, the staff and the quality. And as the OU's discovered when the formal HEIs opened their doors to part-timers, they are attractive to learners because they are local and credible.

SheriO said...

Western Governor's University provides assessment services only to confer university credits.
Like you point out, assessment in universities tend to mix teaching with learning, as in the awarding of marks for participation or attendance and even in awarding grades, which confer some power to HEI beyond teaching and learning.

One of the biggest problems for a potential OEU is the ignorance around sound assessment practices.

One potential starting point for official credit of knowledge and skills achieved outside of formal courses, is with Western Govenor's University and traditions in education for tradespeople.

Thanks so much for this leading edge posting.

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for these responses, it's nice to know someone's interested in what I write. SheriO, there are a few institutions that I know of, doing as your's is. The vocational sector is well ahead of the HE sector in Australia and New Zealand, and no doubt elsewhere. The thing you might consider though, is that things like OERu are alliances, that together stand to take a large proportion of the market share that your institution may be currently enjoying. While you are relying on groups like OERu being ignorant of sound assessment practices, a quick look at the range of institutions they currently have in their alliance should suggest they are not far from developing sophisticated methods. If they succeed in establishing a strong brand (and they'd need to consider some of the points I we raise here in this little blog), then I'd expect more and more people will look to them for the sorts of services already offered by some small and very local institutions.