“I don’t see the death of the university that some people are going on about.”

Posted on May 24, 2012

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Here is the interview I had with Irwin DeVries (Director of Instructional Design for Thompson Rivers University: Open Learning, Canada) earlier this year about how his institution was planning to implement the OERu concept.

Many thanks to Irwin for his contribution to this process.

GW: Could you give me a bit of background to Thompson Rivers University (TRU) and Open Learning?

ID: Open Learning as an organisation has a long history in British Columbia. It was only about five or six years ago that it merged in with TRU. TRU at the time was a University College and it gained status as a full university at the same time that Open Learning joined it. Open Learning has a specific open mandate, yet all our courses go through a Senate approval process. We have students all around the world but mainly in western and central Canada.

GW: Your colleagues developed the triangle diagram (below), that is often used to explain the OERu concept. Could you talk a bit about that?

ID: In this concept, there’s not a necessary connection between content, instructors and learners. It’s a disaggregation. The triangle is a flexible model – you can mix it up in any way. For example it could be “our students” studying “our courses” here, or “other students” studying “other materials” here. It’s that formula that’s going to determine how far we are pushing the boundaries of traditional distance education. The assessment is the key piece.

GW: Why did your institution see the need to join the OER?

ID: Well, this is what we do. We’re open educators. We see this as a real opportunity to provide open learning worldwide. It’s a new and emerging model. We’re very aware of the OERs out there. It’s a major challenge to build up and maintain OERs, and in this way we contribute to the work among multiple institutions. I think people who are keeping their eyes open as to what’s happening in HE worldwide, looking a bit into the future, we can see that it’s not a highly scalable model. It’s our job as an open education institution to see where it’s going and to participate in a way that helps us lead the way and learn as we go. And it’s not all altruism. We do feel there’s a business model underlying all of this too. It’s not just ideology here.

GW: Can you describe the business model?

ID: In very broad terms, one part of it obviously is just that if we have large numbers of students doing the assessments, it extends our reach and builds our student base. Also there’s the idea that a lot of students might find that they want to start engaging with our organisation when they find that we have good courses and good tutors. They might want to go more deeply into our programmes. And we specialise in learner support and alternative forms of assessment.

There was something very important that came out in the OERu planning meetings in Dunedin. We broke into groups, and in the group I was in, a debate broke out between two universities – one being more oriented towards a business model and the other being oriented towards a service model of why we are doing this. I think there is a way to do both, but I think there is an underlying question which is: How do we, in a humanistic way, make learning available to so many people that don’t have access to it? It’s not just finding an efficiency or a business model, although you have to take care of the business. Quite a few years ago I did some work with the Commonwealth of Learning and went to Central and South America and did some work with faculty on developing distance learning and just saw the need, and that has never left me. We have all these resources; wouldn’t it be nice if other people can get this stuff? And not just the material but some sort of pathway that gives them some hope for recognition. And it works both ways, for example, OERAfrica has some amazing resources.

GW: So the students you would be expecting to join as OERu students, are they of the same profile as your existing students, or entirely different group?

ID: We simply don’t know that yet. But our existing profile is definitely different from the standard university – it’s an older group, it’s a working group, and they have different demands on their life from those typically attending universities. They are mostly working people who are studying part-time. But I could picture there could come a point where we’d work with other kinds of agencies or even governments of developing countries. It’s all about scalability. On a personal level, that’s the piece that really excites me.

GW: What kind of assessment processes would TRU use for OERu students?

ID: Challenge exams would be one possibility. The way we usually do this is, a faculty member on campus is typically paid a certain sum to create a custom exam for a topic and a specific student who has applied. They may use an existing exam. It’s really up to them – whatever they feel is necessary. We also use standardised exams, portfolios and other forms of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR).

GW: Are there large numbers of students who choose to do challenge exams?

ID: Yes. But there are some interesting dynamics here when we talk about scaling these things. Let’s say a school of business suddenly got hundreds of students writing challenge exams for Accounting 101 or whatever, that would escalate things to an entirely different perception. You don’t want to be perceived as a degree mill. We trust and totally believe in our processes and we’re an accredited provincial post-secondary institution. It’s a very credible and proven process. But it’s about perception. When you scale these ideas, some people start to get sort of nervous.

GW: Does the institution have a PLAR policy?

ID: At Open Learning, our residency requirement is minimal, which means that we could potentially give a degree based entirely on credits gained through PLAR of various types.

GW: A related element would be the extent to which you can transfer credit.

ID: Right. We do that all the time, and that’s not really questioned within the university up to a certain percentage. Different programmes have different requirements. Certainly here in British Columbia, we were one of the lead jurisdictions over the past decades developing a credit transfer system that is very robust and all online. It applies to all lower level courses up to second year. It’s all worked out on a database. You can go online and figure out which courses align with which universities. Credit transfer among peer institutions is not generally a problem.

GW: How are you seeing learner support within the OERu?

ID: We don’t want to go back to the days of highly independent study. One form of support is in digital literacy and all that that entails. The other, at a minimum, is some feedback on things they are doing. A lot of that can be automated, but when you get into Art Appreciation… The course we are looking at has a lot of reflection built into it. There are different models that will pertain to different disciplines. We need to help build learner networks with peer and volunteer support.

GW: What do you think about the role of volunteers in supporting OERu students? Do you see them as having an academic role or rather supporting learners in finding a pathway through their learning and providing digital literacy support?

ID: I would think more of the latter. If we don’t stay with the latter, then we’re building a university again. I see us giving some mentoring, where possible, but not full tutoring. And I still see the whole system being anchored to partner universities as a parallel process. We also have to remember that knowledge keeps being created, and the universities as research institutions contribute to the knowledge that these courses are built on, and the courses have to be maintained. So it’s not a replacement, not an independent teaching system; it’s in a sense dependent on the overall higher education system. I think that, in the end, we have to ask what the core strengths of the higher education system are and maintain those. And that’s of course research, development and dissemination of knowledge, and then knowing good ways to teach and assess that knowledge. These are the core strengths of the institutions. I don’t see the death of the university that some people are going on about.

GW: How do you see the role of collaboration between institutions in the OERu?

ID: That role definitely has to increase; either that or we will all just be throwing in our own bits and pieces. I think the wiki is good. We are moving away from strictly content and course artefacts and towards a body of open educators that learn from each other. We have a huge amount of learning to do in the area of open pedagogies. We need the research, we need that knowledge dissemination. We are creating a new body of knowledge. I was glad to see that we are now starting to develop some dialogue around building our course blueprints and explicating our pedagogies and learning designs. Nobody can figure this out on their own. It’s going to take the power of the crowd. But it’s a select crowd because we’re learning something unique here. It’s different from the MIT, different from the OCW Consortium, it’s a unique creature and we have to build it together and figure out what it is.

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