Last week I interviewed the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford, Professor Martin Hall, about his views on the OER university concept. This blog post contains a lightly edited transcript of the conversation. For entertainment value, I’ve included the bits where Martin turned the tables and started interviewing me… (By the way, I’m not sure how many VCs have a blog – I suspect not many, but here is Martin’s.)
GW: Thank you so much for participating in this research. I’ll start by giving you an overview of the OER university: it is a partnership of 15 institutions that are aiming to offer low-cost assessment and accreditation services to learners who study informally from OERs. They’re trying to create a business model that doesn’t drain the mainstream provision of these institutions. Each institution is contributing a couple of courses into the pot and in the long run, students should be able to accumulate credits for the courses they do, so that they ultimately get a full award. As yet there are no UK institutions involved in the network.
MH: I remember hearing about the OERu. Wayne Mackintosh wrote to me about a year ago about this. The OERu was associating itself with the success of universities like the Open University and MIT making course content openly available. But I think there was a category confusion there: these institutions have been making course content openly available for their own financial reasons. MIT’s course content has been matched by a massive escalation of their fees. The content is not much use without the qualification, and it drives huge amounts of traffic to their websites. For universities like Salford, there’s no value in that model. It would be more sensible for a university like ours to widen the scope of what we’re offering by taking open content and offering our courses off the back of that content.
Secondly, most Vice Chancellors in Britain may be too polite to say, “Here we are facing the greatest change in British higher education in years (because of the student fee increase); we are desperately competing for diminishing student places, and you want us to give our courses away?!” I think that is probably short-sighted though, because if you take a longer-term view, the more you actually draw people who are marginalised into the net of studying, the more likely they are to come to a traditional university subsequently for other forms of qualification. They’re more likely to be able to afford it, because they’re likely to have been drawn into better jobs.
The University of Salford has an unusual proportion of somewhat older people and people with alternative entry-level qualifications to A-levels. I’ve had a very interesting conversation with the national apprenticeship service about offering higher apprenticeships, which are the equivalent of an Honours degree. I don’t regard that as competition, because I think that increases the number of people who are in the broad machine, if you know what I mean.
What are they saying in the OERu partner universities about why they joined it?
GW: When I interviewed people in the OERu network about the reasons why their institutions had joined the OERu initiative, a number of them said they see it as a big marketing opportunity. They say they’re positioning themselves as world leaders, and associating themselves with other world leaders in higher education. They see openness as the next big thing, and they want to be seen to be out there innovating. They want to put a toe in the water and experiment with taking openness to the next level.
MH: Those are very interesting answers. Now you are obviously an enthusiast of this, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing this research?
GW: Yes, I’m not going to try to sell it to you, but I’m not a neutral, dispassionate researcher… I think the OERu is a wonderful ideal. I think there are lots of flaws to it, but even if only 1% of the estimated 100 million learners succeed, that’s still a million people who get degrees. The scale of it makes it appealing for me.
MH: OK, so what is your disciplinary background?
GW: I studied Applied Linguistics and I spent many years in South Africa in the eighties and nineties doing adult literacy work in the NGO sector.
MH: And what are you now?
GW: I’m a research fellow at the University of Leicester on the SCORE programme, which is coordinated by the OU and funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
MH: Well, there are some parallel convergences from my side. There’s an interesting conversation taking place between ourselves at Salford and the University of Bradford around the notion of the community university, which would be very consistent with what you’re talking about. There’s a great deal of concern here about lower income groups being systematically excluded from higher education, and also people who are losing jobs in the public sector and need to retrain, and the question would be, is there an opportunity for a free university? I was involved in a model of that in Cape Town, where we set up a degree-awarding community university, and I was on the board of that for a long time. It’s actually been very successful.
GW: That’s interesting. How would the community university with Bradford work?
MH: It’s not been thought through to a detailed degree. It comes down to who is going to validate and offer the qualifications…
GW: In the OERu model, it’s the institutions in the partnership themselves that do that. They choose the courses they want to support and assess. It needn’t be courses they’ve developed – some have chosen to use courses developed by the Saylor Foundation for example.
MH: Right, so they’ve got to have resources online in the first place?
GW: Yes, the OERs that they’re looking at for the OERu are full courses with learning pathways defined, so there’s a lot of support built in for the learners.
MH: So what levels of qualifications are being discussed?
GW: Ultimately they’ll have the full spectrum from single certificate courses through diplomas to degrees. The OERu people call it a “parallel universe” to mainstream higher education.
MH: Then an issue would also be how it falls into statutory quality assurance. From the QAA point of view in Britain, if the model requires that the course has the same degree of validation as a mainstream qualification, then it would fall within collaborative provision, and then it would be subject to QAA audit. The quality assurance requirement would lead to questions about admissions decisions, etc. There are two meanings of the word “open”: either it refers to open content, or it means that there are no entry qualifications. If you said, we’re widening participation through open content, but we require people to have three A-levels before they can participate, you’re not actually doing anything open at all. But when you come to a quality agency, they’re only interested in process; they’re not remotely interested in learning outcomes. They test your process and your paper trail. They say, for example, “Do you have a consistent and fair process for admitting students to your courses?”
GW: That might be appropriate for students who are paying for the student experience. But the OERu students are not enrolling for the course. Your institution would possibly only know about them at the point that they sign up for assessment.
MH: That’s a very interesting point. In that case, it’s not our qualification. In fact what we’d be doing there is we’d be validating the module or the course, but we would not be validating the qualification, and that’s a very important distinction.
GW: Isn’t it the students’ achievement you would be validating?
MH: We can give certificates on a short sub-degree course. We do that for continuing professional development. These courses may have the equivalent content to an undergraduate course, but we don’t offer a qualification. It’s our qualifications that are validated, and not our individual courses.
GW: Could a student get recognition of prior learning based on the continuing professional development courses they’ve done?
MH: Yes, they certainly can, if our regulations allow the transfer of credits. You can come to me saying I’ve got these credits from another university, and I’ll look up in my rule book and I’ll say, we recognise this and this, but we don’t recognise that.
GW: That’s exactly the way the OERu is supposed to operate as well. The institutions in the network are encouraged to recognise credits given by others in the network, but there’s no expectation that all of them will be able to do that for all of the others.
MH: So the big question is then, ultimately, who is going to give the student the qualification, and how is that going to be validated? I could come to you as a learner with 27 pieces of paper demonstrating all the learning I’ve done…
GW: I understand that the OERu institutions would try to help you, as the learner, to find a pathway through the wide range of OERs that are being offered from the outset, so that you know which modules will be recognised by which universities, and which university will give you your award.
MH: Then that takes us back to the quality assurance agency thing, because what you’re saying is that one of those partner universities will be the single validator of the qualification, recognising the contributions of other institutions. They’ve got to be able to defend that with the QAA because that does become collaborative provision.
GW: Let’s look at it from another angle. Something that we’ve been doing at Leicester recently, in the learning design workshops we run with academics here, is we encourage academics to look and see what already exists out there in terms of OERs before starting to write a new course from scratch. More and more of them are now building on OERs that have been produced elsewhere, and I haven’t heard any of them say to us, “But we can’t do that because it won’t get validated.”
MH: So that would be a University of Leicester degree… I’m pushing a far more specific line, which is who ultimately and how, in this movement, is the cumulative effect of a person’s study over a number of years, how is that aggregated and validated? And how is it done in a way that has currency in the labour market?
GW: I think for the most part, awards will be given and validated within existing institutional credit transfer arrangements and existing policy frameworks. However, there are one or two institutions in the network that are going to try to change their policies, e.g. RPL and IPL policies, where policies seem to be too restrictive for this kind of agenda.
MH: Well that’s really worthwhile. So as a group, they are lobbying for better practice?
GW: Yes, they see the network as a way of benchmarking what they’re doing. There are some in the network with very strong reputations in recognition of prior learning, for example, and the others are looking to them.
GW: I can see it’s time to finish now – thank you so much for participating in this research!
MH: I think this has been really interesting. You’ve encouraged me to revisit the earlier correspondence that I had with Wayne.