“We are focused on meeting community needs.”

Posted on May 24, 2012


This blog post contains the transcript of my interview with Vasi Doncheva, Flexible learning manager at NorthTec Polytechnic in New Zealand, about her institution’s implementation plans for the OER university. Like the other blogs in this series, the transcript has been slightly abridged and it is offered without commentary, with an invitation to the OER community to comment and contribute to the wider discussion about sustainable models of open education for the future.

Many thanks to Vasi for her time and input to this research.

GW: Could you tell me a bit about NorthTec Polytechnic and the context that it works in?

VD: NorthTec offers certificates and diplomas in subjects such as computing, horticulture, rural development, hospitality, cooking, trades like carpentry, automotive, and architecture. We also offer a small number of Bachelors’ Degrees, for example in Applied Management, Nursing, Applied Arts and Social Services. We have around 10-15,000 students per academic year. Most are part-time, with less than 3.5 thousand full-time. Over 60% of our teaching is done face-to-face. There are some exceptions to this, such as the Diploma in Creative Writing, and Certificate in First-Line Management, which are offered entirely online. Some of our programmes are blended. We have seven physical learning sites and many mobile or community based learning centres. The campuses are geographically distributed, with around three and a half hours’ drive between some of the sites. With our highly regional population, we need to offer our learners flexible options.

GW: What curriculum is NorthTec planning to offer in the OERu pilot?

VD: We would like to offer a Management course. We’re looking to offer learning opportunities to the regional population who cannot afford to study with us. Our population includes members of the lowest socio-economic status category in New Zealand, and there is very high unemployment here. We chose the Management course because it meets our RPL (recognition of prior learning) criteria – I’ll talk more about that in a moment. All the partners in New Zealand will be able to accredit this one, as well as the international partners.

GW: What models of assessment is NorthTec planning to use for the OERu pilot? Will RPL play a role?

Our fee-paying students are given assignments and exams. But for the OERu, we will probably use portfolios combined with assignments or reflective journals. It’s likely that the seven partners within the OERu who offered to work on this module will collaborate on developing assessment tools and processes.

As for RPL, our current policy is not very flexible. We offer RPL to students if they can demonstrate that 80% of the learning outcomes of a course they have completed at another institution are the same as learning outcomes on an equivalent course at NorthTec. Until this policy changes, we will only be able to offer courses for the OERu that are very close to what we already offer. We have the same policy when reviewing RPL applications from people who have been working in industry, such as managing their own restaurant for example. The applicant is given a template for the submission of evidence, and the completed portfolio is then given to a subject matter expert for assessment.

Because of the inflexibility of our RPL policy, I will be advocating that we adopt Otago Polytechnic’s RPL policy, which is available under an open licence – it’s more flexible and it seems to be working at Otago.

GW: How is NorthTec planning to recognise credits gained elsewhere? What modifications, if any, are needed to existing institutional frameworks for credit transfer?

DV: NorthTec can accept up to 60% of credits obtained elsewhere, although this differs according to programme. However, in reality there are very few cases in which cross-crediting can be done because of the current requirement for an 80% outcomes match.

What kind of student support (if any) will be provided by NorthTec?

I convened the discussion group around the so-called “Academic Volunteers International” (AVIs). There has been some discussion around their role. I find the term “academic” offputting. I also disagree that their role is to be content experts. We are starting with year 1 and year 2 post secondary education courses. What students need at this stage is help in figuring out how to manage their learning, how to manage their time, how to write an exam. We need to help these learners with the learning experience rather than providing content expertise. The whole point of the OERu, I believe, is for the learning to be research-based rather than content-based. The resources need to be designed to guide the learner through the learning. If the learners get stuck, the volunteers can help them figure it out rather than providing the answers themselves. That’s how we are taking the cost of the learning down. I agree with the Canadians – setting up a social network where students can network with others studying the same thing will be a good way forward. In the pilot we are also looking at building up an FAQ database and providing how-to information.

This will be more like a community service activity. These learners will not be our learners. They will be coming to us for assessment. We have low literacy students. We are focused on meeting community needs. That is what we think of as the role of our institution anyway. It was set up as a community college originally. And some learners may be willing and able to pay by the hour for specific kinds of support. We are looking at offering support within all our learning centres. For our target audience, the face-to-face is really important.

One other thing I may look at is that there are industry practitioners here that could offer mentoring and related services for free. I may be able to recruit some of those people into the process.

GW: How will NorthTec ensure that the accreditation obtained via the OERu route carries the same credibility as that obtained the “normal” way?

VD: I don’t think we see that as an issue. Whether you offer a course in a classroom face-to-face or you offer it online, at the end of the day, students should be assessed. It’s the quality assurance of the assessment process that matters. Every institution that is part of OERu has those quality assurance mechanisms in place.

GW: What role does collaboration with other OERTen institutions play in enabling the achievement of the OERu’s goals?

VD: We are a small institution and we have a lot of needs in our community that we cannot meet on our own. If we want to really offer those opportunities to our learners, we need to collaborate with others. We were already part of a group in New Zealand which has collaborated on staff development and other areas. We’ve seen the value of that collaboration within seven institutions locally. We put in one course and we get seven in return. In addition to meeting the needs of the learners and doing all that good, our senior managers are looking for those efficiencies. That was the main way in which I convinced the senior team to join the OERu.

I don’t see us initially being able to contribute a lot of OERs to the OERu. But we will get there. If we get our staff to stop developing new teaching materials and start looking out there – if we get that changing in our academic culture, then there will be real contributions that we can make as a partner. Initially I see us benefiting more and in the longer term we will be contributing more.

The other aspect of collaboration that I see as important is the opportunity to work with others and offer a kind of staff development process which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to offer to our staff. It’s useful for our academics to see how other institutions are handling things like course development, RPL, etc. We will learn from the others and we’ll tweak our institutional frameworks to make us more flexible.

One of the major challenges will be to change our policies. For example, our IP policy says that at the moment everything created by our staff is owned by NorthTec. On the other hand, Otago Polytechnic’s policy says that by default, all materials developed by their staff are created under a Creative Commons licence. And the second major challenge will be to get more of an open culture within the academic staff. I’ve already started by talking to programme managers and sending them good examples of OERs in their areas. We’re doing staff development, looking at what OERs are out there, how we can find them, how we can use them, and how we can make the outcomes and the learning better for our learners without reinventing the wheel.

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