“I don’t think it’s about being first; I think it’s about being absolutely sustainable in the long term.”

Posted on June 26, 2012


This post is a record of a verbal interview with Andrew Law, Director of Open Media at the Open University in the UK, about his views on the OER university (OERu) concept. Although there has been much discussion about the OERu initiative at the OU, the purpose of the interview was for Andrew to share his own, informal thoughts on the topic with the TOUCANS project audience, and the piece should not be read as a formal policy statement from the OU.

Andrew Law

GW: In general terms, what is your thinking about the OERu?

AL: OK, I’ll start with the financial aspects of becoming a member of the OERu network. In short, the $4,000 per year for anchor partners is not something we would worry about for simple membership. For an organisation of our size, the $12,000 over 3 years is not significant compared to the overall investment that we’re making in OERs. But the membership fee is not the only cost. The real cost is the relationship management with the other organisations in the network. We think this would potentially require a minimum of 20% of a grade 8 or grade 9 post and that suddenly becomes a bit more of an issue. I have a relatively small team to run OER as a business for the OU, and the OU likes to not run things on a shoestring. The actual logistics of negotiating with third party organisations around the world could absorb quite a lot of management and mid-management attention. The minimum cost of running this would be one tenth of my staff.

I think the other question we have to ask is: Why OERu? Why don’t we sign up with Coursera? Why don’t we form a partnership with MIT? Why, given that there are very large MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in other places, is this of particular importance to us at this time? We do have other opportunities, and although I mention those other organisations, none of them are actually in our sights at the moment. At this stage we’re in no rush to make that decision. We want to see how OERu performs. One of the things I’d like to know more about is the metrics of the OERu at the moment, in terms of the number of students that they’ve actually got and the number that bother to move forward into a credit-bearing mode, and the kind of levels of seed the other organisations are setting to do that.

GW: I think it’s a bit soon to get that kind of information. The OERu has not yet started delivering courses.

AL: In the absence of any data or forecasts from the OERu, if I take this to the government panel of the OU, I can’t tell them whether it might work or it will work; I don’t have any evidence to tell them if it’s going to take off faster or more effectively than Udacity or Coursera. We love the values of the OERu and we certainly want to be associated with it, but do we actively want to commit to what is effectively ten percent of our staff working on it? That’s quite a big ask with no evidence at all.

Then there is a requirement is to release at least two full courses, whether they’re our own or not. Now, I don’t think we’d be interested in going to Saylor or somewhere else and being seen to release other people’s content; it doesn’t quite fit with what we’re doing. And as yet we’ve not released a whole course for public provision. At the moment we are working on a five percent release model – five percent of any one course is released under open licence.  And that produces all of the business benefits that we currently want from OERs. It produces registrations, it does social good, people remix these materials and make use of them, it creates assets for us which we can bring back, and it produces income. What I’d need to do to start releasing whole courses is show how in particular that would turbo-boost what we’re doing under the existing model. But bear in mind that existing model for four or five years was entirely externally funded (by the Hewlett Foundation), and is now entirely internally funded and supported as part of our core business. It’s an absolute commitment of the OU to continue to release five percent of its content for free into the public domain under Creative Commons Non-Commercial licences. So It’s part of our business and it’s signed off at the most senior level at the university. It’s already funded. So we’d be asking ourselves, why would we want to extend that to a hundred percent model on course content?

G: Do you think MIT or Stanford have found answers to that question?

AL: I don’t think they’ve found answers, no. My personal suspicion is, there may be all sorts of other reasons for these models, apart from social good. And you may see those business models change over time. Also, they haven’t solved the formal credit problem. As far as I can see, MIT has one course running which can provide feedback on scale in one particular area because it’s mathematically modelled, but if you were to spread that to other subjects, it would be difficult to scale. So they can do it in this one area on scale, although bear in mind that the 200,000 people who signed up are not the 1,000 people who look like they might complete the course, so it’s not clear that, even in this instance, they’ve got a scaleable model for providing low-cost assessment and feedback. And that’s clearly where some of the significant costs lie. So we need to find other more sustainable solutions that work across the institution as a whole.

There’s no urgency, there’s no particular advantage for us being there first. Now, you could argue that the OU is morally bound to do this, because as an organisation we were committed to OERs over the last six years and therefore we should be supporting this process. Well, we’re supporting 500,000 teachers in Africa; we’re supporting potentially a million teachers in India; we’re working in Bangladesh under DfId funding. And I don’t think that, under those circumstances, when the OERs are released under Creative Commons licences, we feel necessarily an obligation to go much further than that. So, the twenty courses that the OERu is planning to put out (in the pilot) just doesn’t sound a lot to me. It isn’t a significant range of qualifications that we could then begin to associate ourselves with, and it doesn’t solve the quantum problem of access (that the OERu is trying to address).
Due to changes in the UK environment, the OU has got to move from a module-based framework to a qualifications-based framework. That’s new for the OU, and here is in a sense a bit of grist that just provides another problem to resolve. How would these twenty courses, which are unpredictable and unknown in nature, fit within our qualifications framework? We, from a business perspective, are only interested now in students signing up in the long term in qualifications. So the benefit of offering a single, credit-bearing course is not necessarily obvious to us, unless it can be seen within a qualifications framework.

GW: A big part of the OERu implementation procedures will involve recognition of credit from other institutions.

AL: I’ve only just come out of the meeting with the people that deal with credit transfer in the OU, and obviously the question for them is, are those other organisations (in the OERu network) on the OU’s credit transfer list, because if they’re not, the cost of maintaining a relationship with each of those courses and justifying whether they are worth the credit or not is going to be a significant issue.

GW: In my understanding, it’s the individual student who gets accredited, so the source of the OER is not so much in question as the assessment that is provided for the student.

AL: But will we recognise other institutions’ assessment processes as appropriate? And there is another issue, which is that the student might do the course and then at the end decide that they might want to do the assessment, as an option. Our assessment is built into our courses throughout. It’s part of our pedagogic model, and so disaggregating it can easily separate the process of the assessment from the pedagogy and although you can obviously remove the links to assessment, we think that fine-grained assessment at pit-stops during the learning is quite important. So disaggregation is technically possible and pedagogically possible, but saying to students “You can go back and do the assessment” is not very easy for an individual to then do, because they’ve got to go back through the course.

GW: Yes, that is one of my biggest questions about how the OERu is actually going to be implemented. Assessment is integrated so deeply into the pedagogy of so many programmes (particularly in the social sciences) that it is difficult to imagine how it could be disaggregated. 

AL: We don’t want to pervert the pedagogic model, which seems to be quite successful. That doesn’t mean that in our OER world we’re not keen to release large amounts of OER content without assessment attached to it, indeed that’s what we do – we strip it out. It’s still meaningful activity but we think it will probably be less effective as teaching with those missing formative bits. What we are interested in is building informal methods of formative assessment that can soft-badge, soft-credit people as they make their progress through materials, but we then wouldn’t recognise those badges as credit at the end.

So the issue seems also to be about the fact that of those 18 other courses (we put two in and everybody else puts two in), we’ve got to manage a relationship with those other organisations according to their assessment standards and how they’re being measured and monitored and quality-assured and maintained. Our quality assurance people have told me that if the other institutions are on the list and are already part of our standard process, not a problem. Those students can simply get credit transfer. If they’re not, it’s weeks’ worth of work per course every year, for 18 courses: I’d lose a second person out of my team of team of ten to doing that as an overhead. These institutions are going to have to join our UK qualification framework for them to be part of our core business. I think that might be quite an ask of us, to attach our mechanics to that.

GW: I put this question to Wayne recently: What is the position of the OERu in terms of the extent to which members are expected to recognise credit from the others? He said it’s entirely up to each institution; there is no requirement to change your policy.

AL: The OERu could also just take some of our OERs. They’ve got some from Saylor, and you know Saylor is composed not insignificantly of some OU OpenLearn materials, so that is available; that is our absolute commitment to feeding those systems in an ongoing way in the future with content.

GW: Let’s say the OU agreed, as an experiment, to offer an entire programme in, say, Spanish language. And you put that out as an OER and invited people to either do it the normal way or do it via challenge exams and APEL. Based on what you’ve been saying, the OU wouldn’t see any business advantage to releasing a whole course as an OER, so in this instance, you would be simply fulfilling that moral duty that you mentioned earlier, and it would be a philanthropic project Would you see any value in that?

AL: Bear in mind, we must assume that the majority of our students will be those entering in a fairly traditional way in the UK for some significant time. These students are going to ask us a pretty important question – I’ve just taken out a loan for the next 50 years of my life to pay for a bundled service, so why is it that half of that service is available for free outside of this organisation?

GW: I think that would be a really valid question, and I think that if you did go this route, to be fair about it, you’d have to make it a choice to every single student, whether they are in the UK or not.

AL: For the first time ever, in October this year, students are going to have to take out effectively a lifetime loan, in fairly challenged economic circumstances. I think in the long and medium term, content is going to have next to no value, but at this point for us, I think it’s going to be perceived as an important component of the course. I think in the long term, the economic logic of content being of little value and services being of high value, is absolutely sharp. I think the logic of the OERu is good, but the reality in the UK is, actually particularly for a distance organisation, where students are not seeing their tutors in front of them on a daily basis but are experiencing their content online with services, they are going to value that content quite highly.

GW: For me the heart of the matter is really about support. I have done some online tutoring and I have known students who do the bare minimum and never contact their tutors. They just submit their assignments and they do very well. For them it would make sense to just apply for assessment and just pay for that if they had the option… It’s what Terry Anderson called the Ryanair model of education. The OERu institutions would provide a no-frills service. So in your Spanish programme, there would be some people who would be prepared to pay the full price, but perhaps a large number of students would “defect”, as it were, to the assessment-only model. You would also have a large number of new students who previously didn’t come to you because they couldn’t afford it, so you’d have two business models running parallel that should, in theory, be viable. What are your thoughts on that?

AL: The two models shouldn’t cannibalise each other, and if you asked us in two or three years time if we were ready to do that, I think that would be fair. But at this point in time, for the first time ever, the university is going to have students taking loans not for modules but for whole qualifications. The cheapest in the country, but as far as many of our students are concerned, very substantial loans. And those students are a substantial portion of our business. This is a 400-million pound turnover operation, and so interest in other models is absolutely something we should be thinking about, but our academics are only just getting used to the qualifications framework and their attention is completely dedicated to that. They have only just accepted that the OER business is not doing damage but is doing good, in terms of business benefits and social benefits. If we start releasing their courses, they are going to start getting very worried that we’re undermining the qualification model. I have to have their sign-off on releasing content to the public domain, and they are going to be extremely reluctant to release whole courses. However, they’re not going to be reluctant to release courses that are not currently part of qualifications.
So it’s not that we’re not interested in these things, it’s just that there are other options for us. I mean, the other option is that we do a deal with Coursera and say we actually would like to put some of our content in there. There are big economic issues about the business models here, which are not fully understood, and you might say well you could run a pilot, but actually there are psychological issues which are felt by the academics and the students and at a time when students for the first time will be taking out fairly substantial loans. We don’t want on the social network a wildfire response which is “I’m taking a course which is costing me X but it’s available on OERu for nothing.” Now they would be wrong to compare them like for like, logically, but they wouldn’t be wrong to feel that something might be awry and they’d want those questions answered, and there’s a logical answer that we could give them, but it’s probably not one that would satisfy them.

So, the cost is not a big issue for us. The accreditation issue is complicated and potentially costly, if we were to do it as well as we would want to be seen to be doing it in the public domain. And the business model issue is one in which the university is very significantly reorganising itself to be a qualifications-based organisation as the fundamental component of business, over the next two years. It’s undergone probably the biggest change programme in 40 years to prepare for that in a very short space of time. In that sense, OERu couldn’t have asked at a worse time.

GW: If it hadn’t been for the huge fee increase for students in England, would you be looking at this differently?

AL: Bear in mind the fee increase is not really real, the cost has always been there; it’s just it was always borne by HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) and now it’s being borne by the individual. So the decision-making point is somebody buying something as opposed to getting a course that HEFCE was significantly supporting. Our costs have not gone up, it’s just the costs are borne now entirely by the student.

We will be interested in exploring this option, but not this year. I also think non-accredited learning is of enormous interest to us but it’s a dangerous time to enter into it on scale. Soft accreditation and badging are also of great interest to us. These are probably all things that we will be looking at over the next year, but module-based credits in an international domain are not an urgent priority for us. We already have a lot of challenges to deal with. You know, most of our students up until now have taken modules. Getting them to study towards a degree is going to be a more challenging experience for us. We also have academics on campus who are completely redesigning their qualification framework, pruning the curriculum, changing the curriculum re-gluing it together, making sure that this makes sense as a learning experience in a qualification. I can’t ask any of them to step aside from that process at the moment and say, “Can we look at a module-based process  internationally? There’s a really interesting way we can give away your courses for free and students will all get credit on an international scale!” It is a timing issue. But I do think the OU is probably in a different situation to other universities because it is distance from the outset, the materials are designed, and they’re designed for the screen, and we have the mechanisms to do that, to think about rendering this content for the Web, for e-book. And of course we run big Moodles, and we build really big potentially subject-generic assessment processes, on scale. And we may have slightly more general solutions that MIT is struggling to find.

That’s all my brain emptied of everything I’ve been thinking about. But, you should probably know that the OU is looking in more depth into the issues that lie behind this. As I’ve said, I have some reservations about the timing, because there is a pretty significant change taking place at the OU, the biggest in 40 years, and it happens to be this summer that it’s taking place.

GW: That’s what I thought. I got asked by one of the North Americans, a committed adult educator, who said that since the 70s, her institution had followed the OU and learnt everything they knew from them, and then when they joined the OERU, the OU wasn’t there. She said, “It was like, where are mom and dad?!”

AL: Personally, I’m completely committed to the goals that the OERu are declaring in terms of values, and I’m acutely aware that maybe we’re missing something here, which is why I’m really pleased that we will be looking at it in a lot more detail. The biggest question for me is, are we going to die as an organisation that is providing free and open education if we don’t join now? And I don’t think the answer is yes. I think we’ll still be here next year. I think we may miss out on declaring that we were foundation partners. Well, that opportunity has already gone. But we could have been foundation partners on a whole swathe of other projects over the last five years. I don’t think it’s about being first; I think it’s about being absolutely sustainable in the long term. And this initiative could, ironically, undermine that for the OU if we jump into it too quickly.

GW: Many thanks Andrew, for your time and for sharing so much thought-provoking information with the TOUCANS project. 

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