Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Developing a financial model for open education

I had an extremely productive meeting yesterday with Nicola Johnston, Sector Manager - Creative and Services at our local branch of the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise agency. Nicola was very generous with her time, helping me think through a number of areas relating to the open educational work we have been trailing, as well as the economic opportunities inherent in that work. Thankfully, Nicola is one who understands the concept easily, and so can identify many areas of interest that I had not previously seen. My approach to Nicola was to establish whether of not NZTE would have an interest in our work, and if that might lead to some sort of market development, or capability build funding. I came away from that meeting with four clear tasks:
  1. Gather up all the raw data we have been accumulating, and look closely at the economics inside it, and present it in a clear and concise way.
  2. Talk with Otago Polytechnic's Centre for Assessment of Prior Learning, as they are working on very similar projects but related to assessment, and already have a working relationship with NZTE.
  3. Contact New Zealand Immigration regarding the aspects of the model relating to skilled migrants, and determine how this might fit together with our initial work in open education.
  4. Talk with the Educational Development team about positioning ourselves as providers of educational development work for NZTE and Education NZ.
NZTE is currently going through a rethink on how it provides support to business development. In the past it has focused on two broad themes, capability building and market development. Nicola and I could easily recognise how our open education model can develop international markets with synergistic benefits to local needs, and (or but) we could see how a significant amount of capability building would be needed to then service those new "markets" while meeting our local brief.

Whatever the new funding model is that NZTE will follow, we will ultimately need to show them a direct and tangible financially sustainable model, which is my first task towards NZTE's suggestions.

Enter Ako Aoteroa who might potentially support us in doing this initial work, while at the same time clarifying (emphasising) the educational outcomes as well. After making the OER video with a small grant from Ako called the Good Practices grant, it is my hope that this video helps convey the intent and message in our work in open educational development and practices. That we are not motivated by commercial gain, but are interested in finding the balance between lowering barriers for people accessing educational services, improving the efficiency and quality in which we provide such services, and ensuring the model/s is/are financially sustainable.

First of all I called up Kirsty Weir who managed the Good Practices fund at Ako and who assisted us with the video production, to tell her about my meeting with Nicole at NZTE. I wanted to get her advice based on her familiarity with our work in the video, and how we might approach Ako for further support in the nuts and bolts of what we are trying to do. Kirsty gave me some excellent advice, a lot of encouragement as to the value of the idea, and some valuable pointers on how to ensure we meet Ako's brief. Specifically to ensure we focus on the benefits to teaching and learning, the implications for the wider NZ education sector, what partnerships might be likely, and what outcomes we can demonstrate for people's learning and education.

Through discussion with Kirsty, we thought it might be possible to get initial support from the Ako Regional Hub Grant ($10 000) to research the data we have been collecting - such as learning outcomes, completion rates, internationalisation, efficiency gains, real over heads, and an audit on skills and capabilities needed. We would present all this information in a way that compliments a proposal made to a larger Ako funding amount called the National Project Fund - Research and Implementation Stream. The work done in the Regional Hub would also potentially compliment our negotiations with NZTE, not to mention help us communicate the model more succinctly to other institutions in our constant efforts to encourage sector wide collaboration.

So I called up Bridget O'Regan who coordinates the Southern Regonal Hub of Ako Aetoeroa. I filled Bridget in on the background, that we have produced the video, that I'd been speaking with NZTE, and I outlined the idea to Bridget for a project using the Regional Hub's support. Again, Bridget was very encouraging, making sure I didn't confuse the NZTE's interests in financial - even profit motivations, with Ako's goals of improving educational outcomes and quality. Needless to say we are on the same page on that, but I can appreciate that people who are not intimately aware of our work (not Bridget but perhaps the panel who considers the applications), might bork at some of the economic considerations - thinking it was a profit driven initiative before it was a teaching and learning initiative. Bridget suggested that I focus the Regional Hub project on a specific outcome - such as a user's guide to the model we are developing, and I think that's a great idea. It will help us communicate the model in nice plain English that is accessible to as many people reading the guide as possible. This will be a neat and worthwhile challenge for so many reasons.

The pressure is on now though. I have to try and get Regional Hub support quickly, so I have enough time to complete it and use it to propose a project to the National Project Fund - which is due in late August.

I've given myself 2 weeks to get a draft over to Bridget, with a view that we might be able to get an approval within June - assuming I can meet all the criteria of the Regional Hub Grant. That would give us July and some of August to go through all the raw data, articulate the model/s, propose other subject areas and institutions we think will find the model useful, seek partnerships with institutions that provide for those subject areas, produce the user guide and propose a National Project. It is going to be a hairy 3 months!

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