Continuing the strand of interviews with thought leaders in Higher Education in the UK, this post contains the highlights from an interview I had earlier this month with Amber Thomas, who is Programme Manager, Digital Infrastructure at JISC.
Many thanks to Amber for her time and input into this research.
GW: This is a very open-ended interview, so let’s start with any questions you want to ask me about the OER university (OERu) or my research project.
AT: Just one to start with – I’d like to know who the research project is funded by.
GW: It’s a SCORE fellowship, which is coordinated by the Open University and funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
AT: OK thanks. So you want to know my view on the OERu. I think my comments will be specific to the UK. We already have some collaboration within the sector, and I think that might distinguish us a bit from other countries. Partnerships like the White Rose Consortium (between the Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York), and the Birmingham and Nottingham partnership show that people are willing to collaborate. But the big thing in our history of collaboration was the UK e-University. That was an attempt to coordinate a distance learning offer and it failed, so people’s fingers have been burnt by that.
Another thing is that we have the Open University (OU), which does a brilliant job of meeting the needs of learners who are open to distance learning, so in terms of our own learners in the UK we have a solution. In terms of learners abroad, the big UK universities have all got campuses and are franchising out anyway, so the universities that are interested in international collaboration are already doing it. So I’m not sure what need the OERu meets in the UK.
GW: I’m interested in your mention of the e-university. Do you know why it failed?
AT: The focus was about some big players sharing infrastructure and brand for a UK public limited company offering distance learning. From what I remember, they focused on subjects like Business Studies. As to what went wrong, there are lots of different opinions. One is that it never found its business model. It wanted the big players, but the big players already had ways of attracting overseas students.
GW: It sounds as if the e-university was meeting a different need from the OERu? One was an income-generating project; the other is aiming at just covering costs.
AT: Yes. But I’m what wondering is: is there a difference between the audience that the OERu is targeting and the audience that it will get? I had a look at the QA&A document, “Five things you should know about the OERu”. There’s this scenario about Ibrahim Omawali. I completely understand the aspiration. But I think one of the things that we do know from the last 20 years of distance education is that keeping up the learners’ momentum to study online is really hard. So if this is someone who is working, is he really going to have the time to study? And then it makes me wonder, well what kind of learning experience is that guy being offered? Is it appropriate to say that he’s going to be learning? Because we could all perform for tests. But learning is a lot more than performing for tests. I suppose I do have a social theory of learning. And I think you can have social learning online too, but I’m not quite sure that the OERu does that. And I was having a look at the OERu volunteers as a support structure. I should say that in my time as a learner, I did A-levels as a 6th form learner, and I did A-levels in an FE college, on the same campus. After that I did an Adult Psychology course which I dropped; I did an Adult Education course at Warwick which I dropped. As a teenager I did some WEA courses, which was leisure learning with very committed experts, who were probably quite similar to the OERu volunteers, and they were great people, but that was not a structured learning experience which would have resulted in a solid qualification. I learnt, but it was a softer, more quality-oriented experiential learning. It wasn’t what Ibrahim needs. And for Ibrahim it’s pretty high stakes; he’s in the construction industry and there’s lives at stake. It’s not so much a question about accreditation and so on, but a social responsibility question: is this the best way to support these learners?
I suppose the OERu will partly be a brokering thing. So, another question is: who will determine which curricula get focused on? If in Africa, it’s the African health system that is pulling in the OERu to help them and they are leading, then that is good. But in project management terms, in time-cost-quality terms, the OERu is not moving the time, it’s moving the cost, and so everyone’s asking about the quality. In terms of the push of asking universities to join in, what’s the chance of matchmaking what institutions want to share with the need?
One of the things that annoyed me about the OERu was this pressure to join. That’s commissioning universities to join – saying we need specific stuff from you. That’s moving away from the talk about OERs being voluntary at the institutional level if doing that makes sense to you. If it’s about commissioning educational practices, I think it’s OK but I think you can extrapolate out of normal OER models too far. They’re sort of trading on the good will and momentum of OER under existing levels of release, and they’re saying if you don’t join in you’re a bit selfish. It’s the difference between sustainable development and commissioning.
GW: This pressure, where was it coming from?
AT: I saw a blog post saying “Where are the big players, and in particular, where is the OU?” That’s pressure. But what is the effect on students of an unsatisfactory and frustrating educational experience? Because I think it’s pretty unavoidable that that’s what the OERu is going to be like. I understand why people have concerns about imperialism, because it feels good to give, but I want to know, does it feel good to get?
In the UK we’ve got quite a social system for HE, whereas in the US, the system is more stratified – there are some institutions that have a public mission and some that don’t. You’re battling your own demons! In phase one of the UK OER programme, some people participated as individuals, and one of the frustrations for individuals can be that they are not allowed to reach out enough beyond their institution. I sympathise with those people. It might feel to them like there’s a revolution going on from the inside. But if you think of it in terms of power structures, they are small people in their institution. This sounds terrible, but through being involved in this bigger system, they are on the side of right, and they can put pressure on a big institution like the OU. It gives them a perceived power over other institutions that is not a true reflection of their own power within their institutions.
I suppose one interesting way to look at it is that there are innovators, early adopters, and mainstream people. Some projects are more of a sandbox thing, putting your toe in the water. They’re actually quite low stakes. To the people involved, it feels like high stakes because they’ve got agreement from senior levels, but actually it’s low stakes. We still need to see whether the JISC OER programmes are maintained in the future. It can feel quite transformative, but it’s too easy… The senior people who agree to it as a tactic, as a low-effort way of achieving something, might go cold on it. And so that’s on the supply side if you like, if you think of the OERu as a broker. But on the demand side, there’s potential for it having the Hawthorne effect, or it might have a transformative effect, say in nursing in Africa. If they don’t need these big, western universities helping them that’s great. It can be transformative, for both sides. So, if the OERu builds capacity in Nigeria’s health service for nurses, and then, with more workplace training, they find that they can do it themselves, would they then change their relationship to the OERu, or would they exit the OERu? Would it have played a positive role in brokering the relationship between the government health service and with universities in the region? That would be a success for the OERu in terms of its mission, but it would possibly eat away at the business model for the OERu providers. So I suppose that’s a question for the OERu because it would possibly eat away at their business model.
GW: The OERu is just about cost recovery. There’s no profit incentive.
AT: But managers are just as concerned about cost recovery as they are about profit. The time that is always explicitly costed in higher education is academics’ time, but what about the technicians, the developers?
I think my other concern is the labour needed for learner support. It’s that question again. I know it’s good to give and voluntary support is great and important, but I’d imagine that the voluntary labour market is quite volatile, and that can become quite frustrating for the learner.
I do see that the OERu comes from a place of goodwill. I just think, what is the end game here? We don’t have to be OERu to achieve all that.
[This post was updated on 6 June.]