Tuesday, November 15, 2011

OERU vs Pearsons vs OEU

Wayne Mackintosh is making rapid progress joining the dots around the Open Education Resources University (OERU), with some 15 "Anchor Partners" in the fold (although it is hard to say for sure, going by the info on their website). Those anchor partners include two universities from Australia, the Uni Southern Queensland and the Uni of Wollongong.

Cashing in on that word "open" is Pearsons Publishers, who made a dull thud a few months ago with their Open Class idea. Uni of New England is signing in with Pearsons around that, from which I imagine Pearsons will attempt to replicate Apple's iTunesU initial marketing methods, to secure their investment.

All these initiatives make the common mistake of overly focusing on content, and in doing so they are chipping away at the institution's strangle hold over assessment and accreditation - which is ultimately where these developments matter most.

OERU by name, seems largely focused on content, but under the hood they use scenarios that say different. They should drop the word Resources from their name, and go with OEU. At the moment the message is still heavily weighted to the idea that they believe content leads to learning, and are working on formalising recognition and accreditation through that channel of content. Leaving aside questions about content access resulting in learning, or that access to free and open content somehow results in learning (an abstract concept for most), ultimately it is the shortest and least expensive path to a respectable piece of paper that really matters here, and their scenario PDF captures that sentiment.

While OERU's principles around content are admirable, what is more exciting is what they are potentially establishing around educational services for assessment, recognition and accreditation services. If they can continue to develop that aspect of their initiative, and drop the suggestion that such services are available or somehow more valuable through the use of their free content, then I think their onto a game changer, if only by significantly undercutting the hyper inflated competition.

Video used in Alternative Ways to Earn Your Degree: Discussing OER University with Rory McGreal

If they were to successfully influence their anchor institutions to develop sophisticated Recognition and Assessment of Prior Learning (RAPL) services, then they would be enabling people who set themselves to learning, using any content or method they choose, including assignments that meet their own needs and those of the assessor's, an opening to formal education that has to-date been quite closed off.

Places like OERU are potentially important alliances for small to medium sized institutions and private providers who will have to compete with the likes of Pearsons, Google or perhaps even iTunesU, who are clearly moving into this space, or more obviously - the sandstone universities and aspiring global institutions like MIT, who stand to dominate the space the moment they choose to invest in flexible assessment services. If recognition of informal and networked learners were to become the focus of the likes of OERU, then they should change their name to OEU, let content play a very minor part, and work intensely on setting up innovative assessment methods, that meet the standards of the anchor institutions, and maintain integrity in the process.

It's a no-brainer really, and why the formal institutions are so slow to recognise the opportunities here is staggering. If a person can learn something through their own resources, and demonstrate their competence and levels of understanding to assessment standards that we can only assume are robust and have integrity by virtue of their regulation, then why aren't more institutions offering such a service to people?

There are many reasons, not least of all that the actual people who would do the assessing have difficulty separating assessment from their teaching and content. Based on my experience proposing and defending the methods we tested in BPS2011, these veterans of the institutions still expect attendance, and a certain style of teaching. They set assignments and exams that are more aligned to their content rather than to the assessable learning objectives. Then there are the faculties and discipline areas who see this level of service a threat to their bottom line. They imagine a future where everybody takes this pathway to accreditation and stop paying for teaching all together. And there are the die-hard believers in 'educational institutions for the public good', who resist all attempts to further commoditise education, refusing to acknowledge that most of that has already taken place, and that a new and diverse range of learning (I hope to show) is increasingly happening elsewhere, whether it be informally self directed, part time night classes, through networks and communities of practice, on the job, or a combination of all of these.

The freedoms and flexibility that would be opened to people in how they go about getting formal recognition for their knowledge and skills is conceivably quite wide, and is not a new idea at least in the vocational training sector. People would not have to forgo employment to satisfy compulsory or otherwise mandated classroom attendance. Migrants could have a greater opportunity to demonstrate their abilities than arbitrary credit transfers from a very limited range of recognised institutions. People raising families may have more of an opportunity to further their qualifications. Internationals can do more of their study at home, and spend less time in foreign countries with expensive costs of living. People in newly regulated professions may seek assessment of prior learning instead of enduring coursework again. And so on.

In many regards, demonstrating this concept is what motivates my efforts to obtain a PhD through informal and networked channels, but it's difficult because as yet, too few educational institutions have seen the opportunities open to them, and have not invested enough or any thought in how they might take the advantage in this. Instead they choose to continue limiting their intake to a mostly young, school leaving, reasonably affluent, perhaps even directionless class of people, effectively discriminating against all those who might adequately satisfy the assessment standards, if given the chance.

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