Landing : Athabascau University

My visit to the British Open University

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My visit to the British Open University

I needed to attend in the flesh a Viva (European name for a PhD Defense) at the Nova University in Lisbon, fo a student I have been co-supervising, and who I met when she attended our TEKRI social media workshop three years ago. This means I have to wear a gown and a funny hat and be VERY serious for at least two hours on Friday.  In order to assuage my carbon footprint guilt I arranged a visit to the Open University UK on the way.

I spent most of my time with old friends at the Institute for Educational Technology who are a bit like our CLDD in that they provide pedagogical consulting to the mainline faculties, but they are also like CDE in that they offer a Masters degree (in online and distance education and a PhD and EdD in Ed Technology. The academics in the Unit have been very successful in research in a variety of areas and especially in winning Hewlett funded research projects to do with OERs (see  OLNet).

I spent time at a meetings related to JIME –the peer reviewed journal that they sponsor and at a start up meeting of their new Hewlett Foundation funded consortium. I also managed to do a show and tell on our work on the Landing.

As always, I get a bit awestruck at the magnitude of the OU and their projects, as compared to Athabasca (250,000 students, most of whom are NOT transferring credits out to other schools like the 50,000 at Athabasca).  However, It was nice to be able to talk about IRRODL, (the Journal we run from Athabasca), that is MUCH larger and more recognized than either JIME or Open Learn – the two OU journals in educ tech/DE).

But for me, the most interesting visit was with Andrew Law, the Director of their Open Media Unit. This Unit began with Hewlett funding to “put OU content online” and make it freely available. It has since become a mainline unit working with the BBC to produce content that supplements regular courses and more importantly serves as a sampler and introduction to OU programming. They currently run the largest University site in the world on  OU ItunesU, and an agreed percentage of ALL new courses produced, must be made available in open formats – Moodle as well as Itunes content or web interaction quizzes, simulations or games. Andrew is deeply involved in web analytics to measure the impact of these promotions on actual course registrations. The impact of this exposure seems to equal other media used by regular promotions vehicles of the OU, but at ¼ the budget AND the brand awareness is huge. In addition, part of the OU’s research funding comes from demonstration of citizen involvement and impact, and Open Media serves to meet that objective. Finally Open Media is used to meet government mandates (currently on Maths) to expand national competence in certain selected areas. In summary, they have built a very strong business case for “giving away” content.

At the OU, as in every other University President’s office, they are scratching their heads about MOOCs. Unlike our efforts to have AU credit MOOCs, they are more interesting in leveraging the interest and up scaling the current open resources and labeling them as MOOCs. Interesting is that they do want to label these with the quality that marks the OU, but two pieces will likely be missing – tutorial support from their 7,000 Associate Lecturers (tutors) and quality feedback on assignments. These both provide value of some /all/most students, but are the most expensive and the least scalable of the pieces of any distance education system. Of course, they also don’t want to provide degree credit for MOOCs (as MIT, Stanford and other MOOC providers) but unlike these Ivy league schools that must protect their brand by insuring scarcity of their degrees to increase their value, open universities have just the opposite mandate. We are charged with increasing numbers of educated and credentialed students. But as of this year in the UK, and as always in North America, tuition revenue is a major component of the budget for the universities, so giving credit courses away for free, is VERY scary.

But the Open Media here at the OU, shows that a business case can be made!