The OER university: pushing – and pulling – the boundaries in Higher Education

Posted on March 29, 2012


The Beyond Distance Research Alliance’s Follow the Sun 2012 festival, hosted in collaboration with USQ in Australia and Athabasca University in Canada, has been really fascinating. It’s a 48-hour non-stop conference, taking place across three time zones, and access is open and free. If you missed it, you can access the recordings from the website shortly. (See note re recordings at the end of this post.)

This morning the keynote was given by Mike Petterson from the University of Leicester’s Geology Department. It was a brilliant whistle-stop tour of the field of Geology and Geology teaching, past, present and future, that included a strong emphasis on the role of Geologists, and indeed academics in general, as peace-keepers, by virtue of the fact that we engage with fellow academics in diverse, global contexts (through forums like Follow the Sun). The knowledge-sharing that can take place in these seemingly “unimportant” exchanges can be life-changing, and (I hope I’m not overstating Mike’s point here!), ultimately planet-changing. Which was a great lead-in to my presentation, belo:.

Recording of the slides and voice-over on Vimeo.

In my presentation I made reference to a great paper by Norm Friesen and Judith Murray from Thompson Rivers University in Canada (an OERu anchor partner), in which they present the radical new paradigm that the OERu is premised on: the disaggregation of teachers, students and content, while assessment and credentialling remain core services provided by higher education institutions.  One interesting point that emerged in the discussion was whether students participating in OERu courses would join  as members of a cohort (with a fixed start and end point, and hence the option to have a paced learning environment) as opposed to continuous enrolment and individual, flexible schedules.  Gilly Salmon, who was in the audience, commented that this would probably be a make-or-break feature of the OERu, and that it was important for groups to go through the learning experience together. My response was that the OERu concept itself does not dictate whether there should be paced cohorts or not; it is up to each institution to decide how to do that. Time will tell how this pans out!

Because my talk focused on the question of support for learners in the OERu, there was also some discussion about the nature of support needed for these potential learners. Paul Prinsloo from Unisa (University of South Africa) noted that student support at Unisa and the Open University (UK) is provided in three categories: affective, administrative and cognitive support.  He noted that in the South African distance education context, it was found that the non-academic factors had greater weight than cognitive (academic) support. (Subotzky, G., & Prinsloo, P. (2011). Turning the tide: a socio-critical model and framework for improving student success in open distance learning at the University of South Africa. Distance Education, 32(2), 177-193.) This is potentially a really useful study for OERu anchor partner institutions in their planning for student support.

In the same session, my colleague Ming Nie spoke about her Evol-OER research, in which she is gathering information about how academics are using and reusing OERs. This gave an update on an earlier blog post by Alejandro Armellini about how openness is impacting on learning design. More to follow…

I hope to get some comments from people who participated in the session this morning (and those who didn’t!) via the Comments thread.

Recording of the slides and voice-over on Vimeo.

Gabi Witthaus, 29 March 2012