“I think the idea of democratising education is the most powerful part of OER.”

Posted on July 2, 2012


This is a record of an interview held with Professor Wyn Morgan, Director of Teaching and Learning at the University of Nottingham, who spoke to me in his personal capacity about the OER university. Many thanks to Wyn for giving of his time and knowledge for this research.

Prof. Wyn Morgan, Director of Teaching and Learning at University of Nottingham

GW: What I’m aiming to do in the TOUCANS project is to find out what “the UK view” is on the OER university concept. I was particularly interested to speak to you because of a keynote you gave at OER10, in which you depicted a very powerful vision of OERs for the future, and so I wondered whether you would see the OERu almost as a logical extension of your own thinking about OERs.

WM: Well, in some respects, it’s the next logical step to where we were coming from. Initially, it was about opening up what we were doing in teaching and learning, providing a window for people who don’t understand what universities are, providing access to materials for people who wouldn’t have access to those types of rich materials. And also, ultimately a secondary issue was an element of marketing. Our OER programme should not be seen in any sense as a distance learning operation. It wasn’t meant to replace our face-to-face provision by any means. There’s been no appetite for pushing it towards an accredited approach towards getting degrees. However, once you put materials out there, people can engage with them, and the next step is, well, if they’ve engaged and they’ve done the learning, shouldn’t you assess that and shouldn’t you provide some accreditation for that, and I guess that’s where the OERu is going. The question then is well, how do you provide that in a comprehensive and meaningful way? How do you provide that in a way that academic staff can support it, because it’s not going to be entirely easy if we say to learners, ‘Well there’s a website, go away and study it and then there’s an assessment when you’re done.’ That’s a very cold way of doing things. And then you’re moving into a world of distance learning, and does it then disappear back into a university’s own provision and you have passwords and you sign up for a whole course, etc.? You can quite easily roll it back on itself and you end up where you started. The other thing of course is that you can pull together resources from different institutions and package those together as an offering, you know the ‘badges’ approach. As a learner, you’re a magpie really, you take a module here, a module there; you get accreditation for it and then put it together as your own degree. Now that to some extent is quite radical, and the key to that is not really whether it can be done because I think it could be done quite easily. It’s the acceptance of that by employers, by other HE institutions if you want to go on and study further. How would they view a system where you’ve just collated modules from a range of institutions at distance? That’s a market that hasn’t been established yet. I could see how it could come – if it’s a module from Harvard and a module from MIT, then I think you’re going by the reputation of the institution.

GW: I love the imagery of the magpie. Let’s say a student studied a module from Harvard and a module from MIT, and then got assessed by a different institution, say Unisa in South Africa. Would that play any role in your perception of the value of the student’s achievement?

WM: I suspect it would be fine, provided that the relationship between MIT and Unisa is well-defined. I think if MIT endorsed what was being done in the third institution, that would have more credibility. I can see how it might localise learning and create a feeling of involvement if there was say a South African or a Rwandan or Malawian institution doing this, to put it in a context and to provide for the student a sense of localisation and comfort. I can also see how if MIT took on all the assessment then this would be just an extra burden and a cost for them. Whereas if this was being in some sense shared with another institution, then at least the cost is being defrayed. Does the student pay a fee? For instance, what would the return be for the African institution?

GW: According to the OERu philosophy, it should be on a cost recovery basis. It’s a philanthropic thing, reaching out to learners who can’t afford traditional higher education fees, but no institution should be making a loss.

WM: Of course hopefully your cost base will be lower if it’s more localised.

GW: Yes. And the thinking is that all you are offering is assessment and accreditation, so you don’t have all the costs associated with traditional tutoring and student support.

WM: I think we would have some concerns about that. Our model is all about face-to-face. That’s where we are squarely positioned, and we are not unusual in that. We do some distance education, mostly at the Masters level, but not at the mass undergraduate level. How would we feel about the assessment? I suspect we might be a little nervous, just because we have a reputation around our international campuses, where we’ve established those as our campuses and we’re delivering everything from there. It’s not a franchise – they are our campuses, and so I think we are quite protective of that approach. As a consequence, if we were to say, ‘This is what we are offering, but someone else is doing the work,’ we’d have to look at the model very carefully before going down that route.

We’ve grown our UNOW site; we’ve developed a whole range of online resources, but the next question is where do we take Open Nottingham, which is our umbrella programme. It’s not just about teaching and learning, but research as well. Our next step with Open Nottingham is, do we start to accredit our OER materials, and if so, how do we do that, given that our undergraduate students here are coming in in September under a different fee structure? They’ll be demanding more. Have we got the resource to support it? If we haven’t, and we want to do it, then I suspect the OERu is a model we would look at. But nobody’s taken a decision that that is where we want to go yet.

GW: There is a sort of soft option that some institutions are considering, and that’s the MITx approach that you have probably heard of. The student gets a certificate from the institution, but it isn’t equivalent to the award they would get if they had studied there in the traditional way.

WM: Yes, I think that’s in some ways a more attractive option because there’s still that feeling of ownership if you like. I know we’re putting these materials out there anyway, and anybody can use them, but I still think there’s a nervousness amongst academics around this. We’ve never enforced it; it’s all been done on a voluntary basis. So if we were to move more squarely into this area, we would have to have more people involved with it; we’d have to have more material. We’d want to say we’re still in control of it. If we took the MIT approach, there might be more buy-in as a consequence. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg. To actually offer it we’d need to have more materials, but to get more materials we might have to offer it ourselves.

GW: Within the OERu, the thinking is that each institution should only offer one or two courses. However, when you start offering short courses you have all the issues that people have raised in these interviews around the QAA, particularly around collaborative provision.

WM: Absolutely. I think the regulatory issues are not insignificant. I think it harks back to the original UK eUniversity and the issues there around who is providing what; whose rules apply; whose badge goes on the final degree; all sorts of issues that never really appeared to get ironed out. I think as a consequence, there was a lack of buy-in from institutions. They just didn’t feel comfortable that they were part of something that didn’t have solidity. Whilst the world has moved on since those days, there are still some issues around the rules and regulations that we would have to be very sure about before entering into any sort of collaborative approach.

GW: Yes. A few people have told me about the UK eUniversity failure – I’ve only been in the UK for three years so I don’t have that history. But I understand that the eUniversity had a different mission – it was intended to be profit-making, whereas the OERu is focusing on meeting the need of “underserved” populations. Would that make a difference?

WM: I think it would, but unfortunately I’m not sure that the rules and regulations would recognise the difference, and that’s the problem. If it doesn’t have the stamp that says this is QAA-approved, in UK terms, then there’s a sense that it’s not as good as the programmes that are being offered within the institutions themselves, and you’d undermine the confidence in the process, and also you’d undermine the confidence in the quality of other (traditional) programmes, because people would start to think, ‘It’s the same degree, the same qualification; fine, it’s far cheaper so I’ll do that.’ And that’s not what you want – you want it to be high quality but you want it to reach out to people who can’t get to your face-to-face provision.

GW: Well, certainly what the OERu is trying to do is offer certificates and awards that are identical to the awards offered in mainstream education. So when you asked earlier whether employers would recognise it, they wouldn’t even need to know that this is the way the student achieved their degree. They would just be presented with the certificate, and perhaps a transcript which might include the names of the other institutions that they had done programmes through, but the certificate will come from a recognised institution.

WM: So, suppose you took 360 credits for your degree, and let’s say that that consisted of eight modules per year and you took those from different institutions. Do you end up with, you know, twenty-four different certificates that you have to evidence every time, or how do you show this in a way that is not confusing to the employer but is quite clear and does retain that credibility that this is a recognised institution?

GW: I think there’s a filtering process before it gets to the employer, and the filtering is done by the institutions in the network. So I understand the way it’s being envisioned by the current members of the OERu network is that the wiki which is currently the hub of communication between these institutions (www.wikieducator.org/oeru) will have a page with a big grid where students can see which courses are available through the OERu, which institutions in the network offer assessment for each of these courses, and then which institutions will recognise the credits awarded by which others, and finally, which courses can be combined to create a whole degree. In that way, students should be able to map out and plan their whole degree before they start. Eventually they will take all their credits to a particular university, and they know from the start that that institution is going to give them the whole qualification. So what they present to the employer then is the final qualification.

WM: Oh right. OK.

GW: So that is the commitment from the participating universities. Each institution already has its own credit transfer agreements with other institutions, so the idea of the OERu is to work within existing frameworks. If there are other institutions in the network that are already recognised by your own institution for credit transfer, there shouldn’t be any problem with that.

WM: OK. Well that makes sense. I guess the key then is the extent to how big those networks are – you need to know who’s in before you join. Are we going to jump into bed with universities X, Y and Z, or is it going to have to be A, B and C? There’s always a first-mover issue here. But I can see the logic behind using existing agreements. That is sensible. And, as you rightly say, if there’s a model of cost recovery, this could be neutral for the institution in terms of activity but hugely beneficial in terms of outreach, social responsibility, which I think is the major part of OER. I think there’s a lot in the idea of democratising higher education. We’re still tip-toeing around that area, but actually it’s the most powerful part of OER. It is getting learning out to people who just can’t access it in other ways. If you can have a model that is cost-free, or cost-neutral, is done within existing frameworks and is not heavy in terms of programme requirements, just individual modules or a strand of modules, then I think that is a more doable model, and that would be more attractive as a consequence. I think the more different it is from what we’re currently doing, the more people will just not bother. It’s different in the sense that you might have to think about how you package and assess some of the courses, but in terms of the administrative processes, if they could be straightforward, then it becomes a lot easier.

GW: Yes. And from a cost point of view, no institution should be putting out more than half a percent of their total offerings through the OERu. Whether that’s just a handful of courses, or a whole degree, which would be simpler from a QAA point of view, then students would have the choice as to whether to go through it the traditional way and get the loan or go through it the OERu way. For example, Nottingham could offer Spanish 101 in both the traditional way and via the OERu.

WM: In some respects students already have a choice: they can come to Nottingham, or they can study at a distance through the OU. But that’s a fee-paying option in both cases, whereas the OERu is not, to the same extent. They are different experiences, there’s no question. Someone quizzed me at OER10, saying why wouldn’t a student just do the OER route? Well, a lot of the socialising in learning that happens in a face-to-face environment is almost impossible to replicate in a distance learning environment. You can do some, but it’s never the same as the informal interaction you get as people wander around the campus and all the other things associated with the student experience. I could see it happening, but I would be very surprised, because I still think we are about face-to-face experience; I still think that is what many of the students who apply here are interested in. Yes, the degree matters but it’s the whole package, not just the study element that is important for the typical student we get. If we could then extend access to the students who couldn’t afford to study with us, then that’s good, and that’s where OER comes in as a value. Would they (our mainstream students) choose the OERu route as a substitute? I think in our case probably not. But that’s a very local view. Maybe that will change as the £9,000 (enrolment fee per year) really kicks in. An interesting extension to this idea is to what extent the student drives their own curriculum. In Spanish 101, we are determining the curriculum. The potential in an OER route is for the student to determine the curriculum. It might be within broad confines set by the group of universities, but actually you might get more freedom to concentrate more on, say, the literature side of Spanish, which the traditional Spanish 101 doesn’t let you do. I’m talking hypothetically. It might allow students a sense of self-assembly of curriculum.

GW: Students would still have to do Nottingham’s assessment of Spanish 101, and so if the assessment is more grammar-focused, that’s what they’d have to do if they wanted that qualification.

WM: We would set the assessment; fine. If it was a case that they took a Spanish literature module from Nottingham but then took Spanish Art from another university and then wanted to look for other similar modules that would combine to produce 360 credits of Spanish learning, how is that then badged? If we’re talking truly about democratisation then the student does own it to some extent, and can they set their own outcomes? That’s a really big step.

GW: I think that’s going beyond what the OERu is trying to do. They’re working within traditional structures of institutions determining what constitutes a degree.

WM: So in a sense then, let’s say USQ was the final stamper of the degree certificate, they could say, ‘Well, we’d like to see these components of a degree, so we’ll ask for this from Nottingham, this from Paris, that from MIT. Those three would meet our learning outcomes for the programme. Students would have to be assessed in the different institutions and put them together. That allows us to have our certificate of degree in Spanish 101.’ I guess that’s what we’re talking about.

GW: Yes.

WM: Well, that’s fine… it’s not too radical!

GW: No, maybe not, but the radical part is that you’re not charging the student for the “student experience”, and you’re not providing the very structured academic support; instead you’re providing volunteer and peer support. Would that be seen as a quality issue?

WM: So in other words, what you’re saying is, if you’ve got a student studying face-to-face and a student doing OER on the same programme, do you assess them at the same standard? I guess you would. Well, if one has had minimal support and one has had a lot, is that a fair reflection?

GW: OK, let’s say they both sat in the same exam room. Let’s say you required your OERu learner to come to an exam centre on a particular day at a particular time, and they sat together with the student who had been in the classroom, and both students performed equally well. Can you give them both the same certificate, and can that be seen to be the same quality of learning?

WM: If they performed to the same level in the assessment, then they’ve met the same level of learning outcomes, I don’t see how you could discriminate between them. Ultimately, you get students who do not engage in the face-to-face process; students who don’t turn up for lectures. But they turn up for exams and they do fine. And we don’t say you didn’t turn up so therefore you’re ten percent less good a student. There’s no difference.

GW: That really is the premise of the OERu. In my understanding it’s quite a pure outcomes-based approach, which I think sits more easily in the North American culture than it does in the UK.

WM: Yes, that’s true at present, but there’s a lot more discourse around outcomes-based education at the moment. There are more institutions looking at this, going back to scratch with their curricula. Rather than saying, ‘Here is our content; what do we get students to do with it, and how is it meaningful to them when they graduate?’, which is the wrong way round, it’s going back to the outcome, saying what the assessment is and then working out what the content is – that’s really what we should be doing. I guess that’s what OER is really about, starting with the outcomes.

GW: That’s certainly what the OERu is about. I know we have to finish soon, but I have one more question for you. At OER10 you talked about a nursing programme, which was entirely created out of OERs.

WM: I think this was not the full degree but the graduate entry to nursing. I’m hesitating slightly because it’s all still in development. What they’ve essentially done is they’ve made a commitment to make it open. I’ll follow up on that.

GW: At OER12, I saw Steve Stapleton and Andy Beggan talking about OERs for the Ear Foundation, and as we mentioned earlier, Nottingham has also put out OERs for nursing. I’m intrigued that Nottingham has chosen these medical themes – can you tell me more about this?

WM: Part of the what we’ve learnt from the work with the Ear foundation and to some extent nursing, is the value of getting access to expertise within an existing degree programme that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. So for example you might be studying nursing in a given country, but some of the latest developments or nuances around say trauma you couldn’t get access to because your educators don’t have that knowledge. So it’s almost in addition to existing knowledge. But that’s only a part of it. There must be lots of people wanting to do this who are not enrolled in programmes.

The nursing programme is due to go into U-Now later this month. It has ended up being one module short of the full programme, but nonetheless is pretty comprehensive as a result.

For the Ear Foundation resources, one of their main target audiences is teachers of the deaf, and during a needs analysis, teachers of the deaf identified a requirement for these types of resources that they can use to help up-skill teaching assistants. So there will still be some hands on support in that sense. Also one of the main drivers for the Ear Foundation to get involved was the potential to increase numbers that register for their face-to-face courses. So if informal learners do want to transition to formal routes for full hands on support they can do and it will be very clear to them the process of doing so.

As for the medical flavour to our OERs, there was no formal strategic plan to do this; it simply happened. The GEN team became interested in opening up the programme as a result of becoming aware of the Open Nottingham project, which was encouraging. Their programme is built around problem-based learning so does support self-study, but potentially is likely to be most useful to practitioners at other institutions who will get to see how we deliver GEN and build it on. So they could fold the materials and the PBL case studies into any accreditation processes they have within their own courses which is the way it will help satisfy professional competencies.  Also, as they aren’t offering accreditation and they don’t redesign face-to-face resources to make them distance modules, they are more interested in showing how we do it and letting others find what value they can – rather than prescribing a route of study or outcomes.

GW: Would you like to make a final comment about the potential relevance or not for the OERu concept in UK higher education?

WM: Well, I suspect that its time is coming, in that the landscape is still very uncertain as to what happens with the new funding arrangements. I think universities are becoming much more aware of their social responsibilities. They need to be seen to be playing a much greater role for the regions they’re in, and also society as a whole, and this is a way of putting something back without charging people, and I think that has huge appeal. I bought into the OER idea on the social responsibility grounds, and the rest of it is more ephemeral in my mind, but that notion that we can provide something for people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to access our degrees is hugely powerful. But I suspect that the UK higher education sector will see it as an adjunct to what they already offer, rather than opening up whole new areas of activity. It’s more a bolt-on and I think that’s probably the right way to do it, because that’s where it gets its strength from – it’s what you already offer in a slightly different way.

GW: Thank you! It’s been really interesting hearing your thoughts on this.

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