“We need to have a far more efficient system.”

Posted on May 22, 2012


The TOUCANS project has involved interviews with two categories of people: 1) individuals from institutions that are part of the OER university (OERu) network, and 2) individuals in senior management positions in UK higher education institutions. I am in the process of blogging about both sets of interviews. This post is an abbreviated transcript of an interview with Wayne Mackintosh, Director of the International Centre for Open Education at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, and Member of the Board of Directors of the OER Foundation. The focus of the interview was on how the Otago Polytechnic plans to implement the OERu concept. A very big thank you to Wayne for participating in this research.

Wayne Mackintosh

Wayne Mackintosh (by Jane Nicholls: CC BY)

GW: To start with, can you explain why the OER Foundation is hosted at Otago Polytechnic?

WM: There is a historical reason for this. Otago Polytechnic is the world’s first post-secondary institution to adopt a default CC-Attribution IP policy that says that academics who produce outputs do so under a default CC licence. There are other institutions that are looking at this, for example the University of Cape Town in South Africa has recently adopted a more open policy. Other institutions who have actually adopted open policies include the Commonwealth of Learning, and now BC Campus in Canada has also published an organisational commitment to openness. In short, there was strong strategic alignment with the values of Otago Polytechnic  and the strategic focus of the Foundation. Otago Polytechnic’s Council approved the establishment of the OER Foundation as an independent entity in 2009 and hosts the headoffice here in Dunedin.

GW: To what extent is Otago Polytechnic already offering accreditation for non-formal learning?

WM: We have a very progressive RPL (recognition of prior learning) policy which is openly licensed. (Link to Otago Polytechnic’s RPL policy.) It basically involves a mechanism whereby learning that has taken place outside the classroom can be recognised for degrees and credentials. This is a robust process. Otago Polytechnic is one of the world leaders in RPL. There has been a lot of take-up for this, particularly by mature adults who are, say, senior managers and want to apply to have their professional experience formally assessed  for a qualification, e.g. a Bachelor in Applied Management. Our RPL takes a holistic view and  involves mapping the person’s learning and experience against the graduate  profile – not necessarily against a set of course outcomes.

GW: Why does Otago Polytechnic feel the need for an OERu?

WM: This is a very good question for all institutions. Otago Polytechnic’s commitment to doing this is in terms of its social educational responsibility. It’s a government funded institution and it has a mission to support learners including those who cannot study through conventional channels. Also the institution has a strong strategic commitment to sustainable education practice. Clearly there is a strong link between open education and sustainability in that OER is a sustainable and renewable resource.

In addition, there are clearly a number of important operational benefits. One is the value of collaboration. Not only in terms of potentially reducing costs but more importantly how the open education model can facilitate quality improvement for all partners. Because everything in the OERu network is open and transparent and everyone can see what’s being done, the imperative for improving quality is there. The benefit of saving costs and time is significant – the moment you start sharing resources you are not reinventing wheels any more.

GW: Who is the audience that Otago Polytechnic is aiming to serve through the OERu?

WM: We are looking at learners not currently served by the Otago Polytechnic model as it stands, although there will obviously be some crossover on the edges. Some full-time students may opt to take some courses through the OERu – that’s healthy because it diversifies the curriculum for learners who may not be able to take a course they want to take (due to cost, time demands or timetable clashes associated with the traditional model). Otago Polytechnic is predominantly a face-to-face institution, whereas the OERu will be teaching entirely through independent study. Understandably, there are certain skills you can’t teach online – some carpentry skills for example, because there are safety regulations.

GW: What curriculum will you offer in the OERu pilot?

WM: We have developed a course called “Why sustainable practice?” we will be trailing for the OERu 2012 pilot.  It’s a foundation course in sustainability but we are looking very closely at how we might be able to collaborate with other national partners. Institutions in New Zealand submit their courses to the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, and get approval and authorisation to teach these. However, we have a number of national qualifications – one of these is the New Zealand Diploma in Business. Because it’s a national qualification, any authorised institution in the country can offer it. Having courses like this available as OERs, which any New Zealand institution is authorised to teach would be good candidates for a national OERu collaboration.

GW: How will you assess students in the OERu? How is this the same as, or different from, the way you assess paying students?

WM: The learning outcomes would be the same for full-time learners as for OERu learners but assessment processes will be designed for independent study models. We will be disaggregating assessment from tuition. We are planning to implement portfolio assessment approaches in accordance with our existing RPL policies.

GW: What about the idea of challenge exams, where students are given an exam on request?

WM: Challenge exams provide a mechanism to validate the identity of the learner and may be integrated in some OERu courses within the international network. We anticipate that many of our OERu courses will implement course-based portfolios. We will implement robust solutions for ensuring the identity of OERu learners when submitting online portfolios at Otago Polytechnic.

GW: What will the cost of this assessment or RPL be to the student?

WM: In an RPL model, because the learning is so diversified, it can be labour intensive. Otago Poytechnic  has streamlined their processes and optimised what they do within the model. The OERu model will augment and expand RPL to include course-based portfolios. In this way standardisation of processes can cut costs and improve efficiency. The cost is the time of the assessor. As for the cost to student, we’ve done a few calculations – we’re confident that we can provide assessment services for as little as 20% of the cost of full tuition  – without government funding.

People who can afford to come to school for the college experience will continue to do so.
Hypothetically, if all our campus-based students decide to opt for the OERu model, well, that’s a sign of the times and will signal that higher education institutions need to think about how the open web will impact on existing business models. We need to have a far more efficient system. There is considerable waste and duplication in the current model. We’ve got to get a lot smarter in how we leverage OER and the open web in higher education. The OERu model is to date the most efficient model for meeting the need for more affordable higher education on a massive scale.

GW: How will Otago Polytechnic deal with credit transfer from other institutions? How is this the same as, or different from, the way you handle credit transfer requests for paying students?

WM: The way this will  probably work in the short term will be through individual articulation agreements between the OERu partners. In other words, we send each other letters specifying the courses we agree to cross credit. The OER Foundation strongly encourages that the partners recognise cross-credit from other institutions in the network, but the model is based on recognising the autonomy of individual institutions to operate within their existing policies. There are 15 teaching institutions and a growing list of OERu courses. I envisage an open website providing a list of OERu institutions where learners can apply for assessment services and corresponding list of credit-transfer options within the OERu network.  Within the OERu network matriculation requirements of individual institutions may differ.  For example, some partners may restrict the number of credits which can be transferred whereas other institutions may only require the formal assessment of one course from the conferring institution.

GW: What kind of support will Otago Polytechnic provide for OERu students? How is this the same as, or different from, the way you currently support paying students?

WM: Traditional learner support in the sense of tuition services will not be provided for OERu students – it’s not how the model works. A fair amount of student support will be embedded in the materials. An OERu registered learner is not a formally registered learner until the point they say they would like to be assessed. That said, the network is trying to maximise opportunities for student support through course design. The courses will be designed to maximise social networking for student support. Philosophically,  the network will encourage students to use whatever platforms they want to rather than prescribing particular technologies or support networks. Otago Polytechnic is working with the OER Foundation and OERu anchor partners to find sustainable and scalable solutions for the Academic Volunteers International (the proposed body of volunteers that will support OERu learners). The Open Source Software community is a good model for how this could work – there communities of people around the world that support open source applications because they believe in what they are doing. In today’s world you can pretty much find answers to any question on the web. As a free software user, I support myself through interacting with communities. In this open learning model of the OERu, there will over time be a huge community of support and it won’t cost the participating institutions a cent. From a business management point of view it’s Academic Volunteers International is not a critical path requirement for operationalizing the OERu — its value addition. As with Open Source software, you are free to use it but there are no guarantees given. What we are doing is Philanthropic. We are working in good faith, promising the best possible experience we can provide OERu learners within the constraints. We will be open and learners will know in advance what services they can expect from the model.

GW: What do you see as the benefits to the institutions that participate?

WM: First and foremost the OERu is a philanthropic collaboration to widen access to more affordable education especially for learners currently excluded from the formal sector. That said, the benefits are huge from a marketing and positioning perspective in this emerging field of open education, not too mention the advantages of organisational learning for OERu partners in developing appropriate strategy for digital futures. These institutions are positioned to become world leaders in what is likely to be a very effective model, and will be associated with a practical commitment to community service. We have institutions from four continents who will be collaborating to provide free learning for students – that is huge. The risks are negligible in comparison. There is no requirement for an institution to move all its courses to being open. They only have to provide two courses, but using the power of the Internet, we already have more than 80% of a full degree in terms of learning hours – simply because of the 15 institutions agreeing to commit two courses each. Initially it’s heavily weighted towards foundation courses. You can see how immensely scalable the model is through a small institutional commitment which doesn’t require additional resources. It just takes a shift in IP arrangements, or a commitment to reuse other peoples OERs. There’s no risk of committing to additional expenditure, because recurrent institutional costs will be recouped.

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