“Don’t underestimate the earthquakes… What would happen if the physical university were no longer available?”

Posted on May 24, 2012


This post is a summary of my interview with Herbert Thomas, Electronic Learning Media Team Leader at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, about his thoughts on the implementation of the OER university concept. Comments and contributions from the open education community will be welcomed.

Herbert ThomasMany thanks to Herbert for his input.

GW: Could you give me a bit of background on the University of Canterbury?

HT: Canterbury is a face-to-face institution with around 15,000 students. Many of our courses use a Moodle site, and this is mostly content based, although academics are beginning to embrace interactive tools such as the discussion forum. Apart from our campus-based students in Canterbury, there are also distance students across New Zealand, who have contact with tutors in their towns and receive support via videoconferencing at satellite centres.

I’ve been in Canterbury since August 2010, which was just before the big earthquake. There have been serious aftershocks more or less every four months since then. Don’t underestimate the impact of the earthquakes. They have forced universities to think of a whole host of things related to resilience, and what would happen if the physical university were no longer available.

GW: That sounds incredibly challenging.

HT: Yes. The timing of the OERu has been good to us. After the earthquake, we did a little research to find out how academics were coping with situation when formal learning spaces were not available. Canterbury has always been a very traditional university, but in this situation a lot of academics had been incredibly innovative. What we found was that some of them were capturing excerpts of their lectures via podcast and vodcasts and PowerPoints, using tools like Audacity and Adobe Present. They would present those to students before classes, and during the class they dealt solely with problem issues and case studies etc. That seemed to work incredibly well for them. They have embraced this and redesigned their courses. This was a very small percentage of academics. But what it did for the university was it created the kind of atmosphere where people were willing to take chances and go out on a limb. It made an impact on the quality of student engagement.

GW: That sounds like a good precedent for participating in the OERu.

HT: Yes!

GW: For the pilot, who do you envisage as your audience?

HT: We would be looking at a new student target audience. For several reasons, mainly financial, there are a number of students who are excluded at the moment. They might well be in the Canterbury region. Many of those students would be non-traditional students whose situation precludes them from participating in any formal study in the way that it’s currently available in the region. Also, the number of international students coming through Canterbury has declined, and this is just my personal opinion, but I think the OERu might attract more international students here.

GW: Right. And what curriculum are you planning to offer in the pilot?

HT: We have had discussions around the importance of not reinventing the wheel. There are perfectly good OERs on the Web, such as the ones produced by the Saylor Foundation.  But there may be quality assurance issues if we use materials that have been developed elsewhere, and so we may go with courses from our own Masters programme in Education. We could show that this programme has the kind of quality that the university demanded.

GW: What are your thoughts on recognition of prior learning (RPL) for OERu learners?

The big issue is accrediting non-formal learners who, in essence, have not followed a recognised course of learning anywhere. That’s going to be a big discussion here. One thing that struck me in the discussions we had with the North American universities is that their government framework and policy seems to be a lot more self-determining for each university than it is in New Zealand. I would suspect that the New Zealand higher education policy might be more constraining.

GW: I’ve saved the most important question for last: why did Canterbury join the OERu?

HT: (Professor) Niki Davis and I both heard about the OERu and we were immediately enthused. To a large extent there is a moral imperative for universities to get involved in initiatives like this. The cost for students of buying textbooks is one line of argument. The other line is that we are losing international students. This might be a way of attracting international students back to the university. There is also an allied issue, and that is that we really have to start thinking about delivering services in new ways, purely in terms of sustainability over the long term.

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