“The more flexible we are, the worse it is for the students”

Posted on May 22, 2012


Over the last couple of weeks, I have been interviewing selected individuals in senior management positions in UK Higher Education institutions for their views on the OER university (OERu) concept. I started close to home, by speaking to Dave Hall, who is Registrar of the University of Leicester. The following extracts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity. I would like to thank Dave for giving up the time for this interview, and for agreeing to have me blog about it. I have decided not to give any commentary for now, as I will be collating all the interview data over the coming month and putting the highlights and key points into various publications, but in the meantime I invite the open education community to comment on the blog posts. There are plenty of issues worth discussion and debate in what follows, and even though the reference point is the OERu concept, the principles at stake are broader principles about how to best move forward with the good work that has already been done in the area of open educational practices over the last few years, and I believe they are relevant to all higher education institutions today.

GW: Would you like to start by giving an overall response to the concept of the OER university?

DH: From the point of view of a university that has large scale distance learning activity, putting some material out for free would seem, instinctively, to make sense. It could broaden the market. There will be people who can find their way through the material and present themselves for APEL (Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning), so there’s a tradition within universities of being able to handle someone just coming along and saying, “Validate my academic ability; give me some accreditation of it.” And that can attract people into more formal pathways of study. So I’m quite taken by the concept.

One of the questions I have is, if MIT and Harvard have made their materials available, what’s the point in learners going anywhere else? They’ve got the best stuff in the world, the most prestigious. Why would learners go anywhere else?

GW: What MIT is not offering is any kind of award that equates to an award you’d get by studying as a fee-paying student. The idea with the OERu is, it doesn’t matter whose materials you study from; you present yourself at an institution in the network and say you would like to be assessed.

DH: So a student could get a load of MIT’s materials and then turn up on Leicester’s doorstep and say, “Test me!”?

GW: Yes!

DH: As an institutional manager, I’d want to know what the pattern of activity looks like currently – how many students are accessing materials, how many are presenting for accreditation, how many are getting pulled through into formal study arrangements.

GW: It’s a bit too soon to get that kind of information from the OERu, as the pilot hasn’t started yet.

DH: We’ve done a lot of work over the last year studying student progress and the systems that support distance learning students. We’re following a methodology called systems thinking. We are assessing the demand on the system, and then seeing how the system reacts and then trying to make changes to it to improve services to students. And the evidence is quite clear that the more flexible we are, the worse it is for the students. It’s counter-intuitive. When we looked at students who failed or disappeared, we found that the majority of them had had extensions, started late, or hadn’t paid on time. So there’s a pattern – right from the start you can see who is most likely to proceed and who isn’t, and whatever flexibility is built in, for example through time scales, etc. tends to lead to students not progressing or failing. It’s counter-intuitive, but flexibility doesn’t necessarily work for the student.

The other question that I’d have, again as a manager, is: does the traditional university matter? Can an institution like Leicester simply ignore the OERu because there’s always going to be a demand for on campus study? My suspicion would be that, that would be the wrong thing to do. I think that the future is that on-campus students will become the distance learners and online learners of the future, so we need to organise ourselves so that we can afford to create the knowledge and then distribute that knowledge in a way that is partly free and partly paid for. Also, how do we validate knowledge as universities? How do students know what’s credible and what isn’t? I mean, could a student get a degree just by referring to Wikipedia?

GW: No because your degree that you get through this process has to be identical to a degree that you get through a traditional process. Those institutions that have signed up for it have committed to ensuring that when they give accreditation, that it’s equivalent to the accreditation they would give to a fee-paying student.

 DH: Oh I see, I see! So there’s more guidance than I think has been implied…

GW: Yes. The assessment should be equal to an assessment that a student does on campus.

DH: So then… why… why… do… we need… the OERu…?

GW: Good question! Why don’t individual institutions just invite students to apply for assessment and accreditation?

DH: Yes!

GW: You could do that, but then your business model becomes all about offering exams and accreditation. You become a kind of licensing office, giving people their driving licences. The intention of the OERu is because it’s collaborative, and there are all these other institutions that are accredited nationally within their own countries, there’s already a level of trust established, and everybody contributes a little bit to the pot. Members of the OERu network are talking about a maximum of 0.5% of the institution’s total offerings going out as part of the OERu. When I asked people from the OERu network why they had joined the OERu, they said that because it’s collaborative, it enables you to be fairly altruistic.  The OERu network is, to my mind, characterised by individuals who really want their institutions to be of service to the world. There’s a big focus on social inclusion and widening participation, and many of the institutions involved see the OERu as a minimal risk way of achieving that. 

DH: Another thought I have is that, in the United States, they have said that publicly funded research should be made publicly available. I guess the problem for us is that, that made sense until students began paying for it themselves.

GW: Yes, I wonder if the enormous fee increases for students in the UK have coloured the way that institutions look at the whole arena of open educational practices…

DH: I think the other point that’s critical is the best way for any university to make progress, in my experience, is for it to have keen and enthusiastic colleagues who are very engaged in an initiative. They can push the value of it and share their enthusiasm. That’s how change is most easily achieved. And the best place to start in that regard is the areas that face the most challenges – either they are financially challenged or they work in the most competitive areas. It’s the areas where they don’t have to try so hard where it’s difficult to get colleagues engaged in new or different ventures.

GW: That’s a really good point. So in conclusion, if I were to ask you for your view on how viable or how relevant this whole concept is to the UK HE sector, what would you say?

DH: Well there might be two questions there, because it’s whether you’re asking about the OERu or open educational learning. Is it particularly about the OERu?

GW: It’s particularly about the core concept of the OERu, which is disaggregating content from instruction from assessment, and putting assessment at the heart, with the aim of making higher education available to learners on a massive scale.

DH: Well, my response to that would be that it would be strategically wrong to ignore it, and talking about Leicester in particular, with a large-scale distance learning activity, it’s something that we should understand more. We need to get more evidence about it. In terms of the OERu, what would worry me, funnily enough, would be the collaboration, having had experience with other consortia such as the European Consortium of Innovative Universities at Warwick, and the U21 at Birmingham. Universities poured money in and they couldn’t get it to work in a coherent way for the market. Now if they can crack that, then that’s fine. If we’ve got to sort out bilateral or multilateral agreements around credit transfer, we’d lose the will to live.

GW: There is no requirement for OERu partners to recognise credit from other partners. You can, if you want to, come up with your own articulation agreements. I think that’s one of the strong points of the model, that each institution goes in at their own level, within their own policy frameworks.

DH: It’s helpful to join something where somebody else has done some of the thinking for you and join some sort of infrastructure in place which you can work with. If we tried to do this alone, we’d have a thousand questions we’d have to ask ourselves…