Terry Anderson and Rory McGreal speak about Athabasca University and the OERu

Posted on November 18, 2011


This week I’ve had the good fortune to interview both Terry Anderson  and Rory McGreal, who were visiting Leicester for a meeting with colleagues on a new, EU-funded OER project called POERUP (Policies for OER Uptake). I asked them both to give me their thoughts on how Athabasca was going to go about its participation in the OERu in terms of the four areas outlined in the graphic below. Both noted that they would be speaking more from a personal perspective than from a formal, institutional perspective, as the plans for the OERu are still in their infancy. A few highlights from the interviews follow.

The four issues discussed in the TOUCANS interviews

The four issues discussed in the TOUCANS interviews


There are no fixed plans for the curriculum for the OERu pilot yet, but Athabasca has some materials on Astronomy and Business that could be used. As a longer term strategy, Rory was keen on the idea of working with the Saylor Foundation and using some of their courses that have already undergone a rigorous evaluation process by academic peers. Another longer term objective would be to offer all of the 300-odd courses which have very small numbers of student enrolment as OERu courses, as this would be way of benefitting from the “long tail” of potential students available in the worldwide OERu pool. A win-win situation for everyone, I’d imagine.


Athabasca offers students the option to take “challenge exams”, whereby they can sign up for the exams without going through the course via the usual, tutor-supported route. At present only a small minority of students choose this option; with the OERu these numbers could increase dramatically. Terry explained to me how the “at-home” exam system might be managed in future to validate identity of the person doing the exam and to minimise cheating: it involves a setup whereby the student’s keyboard is monitored (using biometric info based on a sample of the student’s physical typing ); the student’s computer is completely locked down so that no browsers or apps are available during the exam; and a webcam with 180 degree panoramic vision of the room is installed. Exams are then monitored in real time by virtual invigilators (who may be in another country, such as India), watching several screens simultaneously. According to Terry, the Western Governor’s University does 20,000 exams a year by this “at home” method, and a pilot is planned at Athabasca for next year. It’s an amazing system, and one ideally suited to enabling inclusivity of education to all, even in the remotest areas of Canada with its vast distances between cities.


Whereas the requirement to recognise credits obtained by students at other institutions internationally seems to be something of a sticking point for some universities in the UK when the OERu is discussed, for Athabasca this is no problem at all. They already recognise credentials from all around Canada (and their own credits are recognised at all other Canadian universities apart from one), and they would have no problem in recognising credits given by the other OERu institutions for the pilot – although no prior arrangements exist with the University of Delhi and some equivalency testing would be needed there.

Student stupport

Terry shared with us his vision for a student support system that is based on the ELGG platform (recording here). The beauty of this system is that it is entirely student-driven, which makes it seem very suited to the aims and principles of the OERu. Rory’s vision is that students who learn through the OERu will eventually go on to become mentors for future students. He proposes offering these student mentors a reduced fee for their own future assessment via the OERu. The business rationale for that is that, simply by their presence, the mentors would enable a greater number of students to complete their courses, which would increase the scale of operations and enable the institution to afford the discounts to mentors. I’ll end with Rory’s words of encouragement to everyone who wants to understand how the OERu will work:

Cost effectiveness is the key… How do we educate these 97 million learners … in a cost-effective manner? This is the first idea that I’ve seen that practical implementation is possible. And this could work. And the way it’d work is this:  if we could get a cadre, so we get ten percent of them through, so that’s ten million students, but that means there’s a cadre of students who’ve done it, in all these little villages and towns all around the world, and they’re an example to the others, and then you can build on that and build on it and build, and that’s the way you do it. But not only that; we have developed self-motivated learners, and that’s what you need – you need a person who is a self motivated learner. That’s more important than anything they learn. And so we build that up and we’re away…

A very big thank you to Rory and Terry for their generosity with their time and wisdom. 18 Nov 2011

Note: This blog post was edited on 19 Nov. In the original post I had mistakenly indicated that Athabasca was already doing the “at-home” exams; however this is not yet in practice – it is under consideration and will be piloted next year. I had also referred to the “challenge exams” as a system, whereas they are currently being practised on a rather ad hoc basis with some systemic features. Thanks to Terry and Rory for the corrections. Image credits: donkeyhotey; flipplinyank; ivanwalsh; erikcharlton. All published under a CC-by licence.