I’ve been following the development (at a distance) of the OERu, and here’s my understanding of what it’s trying to do.
The OERu (the Open Educational Resources University) aims to provide a route to formal accreditation through study of free open educational resources in the form of free courses and materials developed by accredited universities. To quote (Q&A: 5 Things You Should Know About The OER University Network Plan):
It does not confer degrees, but works in partnership with accredited educational institutions who provide assessment and credentialisation services on a fee-for-service basis
There are two aspects here: the provision of free open educational resources specifically designed for independent study by institutions offering accredited online programs; and the provision of assessment for qualification from one of the accredited partner institutions, or from the Network itself, presumably through a challenge exam or possibly through some process of prior learning assessment.
Thus while access to study materials is free, you have to pay an exam fee or fees in order to get the accreditation. What you don’t get is the online academic support you would get if you enrolled in the partner institutions and paid full fee. Thus while not completely free, the OERu would lead to substantially lower costs for learners (provided the exam fees are set at a reasonable level).
The founding partner institutions are:
- Athabasca University (Canada)
- BCcampus (Canada)
- Thompson Rivers University (Canada)
- Otago Polytechnic (New Zealand)
- Thompson Rivers University (Canada)
- University of South Africa (Republic of South Africa)
- Southern New Hampshire University (United States)
- University of Southern Queensland (Australia)
- Empire State University, SUNY (United States)
The founding anchor partners of the OER university network are hosting an open planning meeting in New Zealand on 9-10 November 2011 to select the inaugural credential and commence implementation planning.
The OERu Network is looking for more publicly funded and accredited universities to join the network (see OERu FAQs for more details)
This is an interesting development, with enthusiastic leadership from Wayne Macintosh, of Otago Polytechnic. He has pulled together a significant number of institutions experienced in open and distance learning (but I wonder why the ICDE isn’t taking the leadership role here). There are still some interesting missing members, in particular the UK Open University, which already offers substantial OERs through its OpenLearn site, MIT OpenCourseware, and the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative. Perhaps they will be joining the network later. If not, I wonder why.
Second, these organizations collectively have a huge resource of high quality open educational resources already available, and specifically designed for distance learners. I will be interested to see whether they are willing to make their assessment questions available as well as course materials, so learners can see what kind of assessment is expected of them.
The hard bit though will be how the institutions provide the assessment to enable students to get an accredited degree, and whether such a degree or qualification will be accepted by national accreditation or degree assessment boards.
It will also be interesting to see what the demand is from learners for working their way towards a qualification in this way. I can see the attraction of open educational resources for informal learning, or as a component of a course or program from an accredited institution in which a student has enrolled and is paying tuition fees, but this seems a somewhat convoluted way to build up a qualification. However, we will have to wait and see; the market might be large.
Another question is sustainability. There will be some cost to the partner institutions. The aim is to cover costs through the exam fees, but as well as the cost of assessment there will be other substantial costs, such as marketing, admission, and providing at least some online guidance as to acceptable combinations of OERs leading towards a degree.
Lastly, the OERu already faces direct competition from the University of the People, which is completely free (but faces more questions that those I have raised about OERu).
Clearly the OER movement presents a significant challenge to well-established open and distance teaching universities. As I have also pointed out in other posts, there are also some real challenges for the OER movement. Maybe this initiative can bring the best of both worlds together; or will it just make a somewhat messy development even more messy?
Despite these questions, any attempt to provide low-cost, high quality post-secondary education is to be welcomed. I hope this alternative approach is successful. At the least it is leading to some hard thinking among the ODL institutions and that can’t be a bad thing.
I’m very interested to hear what others think about this initiative, and particularly why MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the UKOU are not committed yet to joining, if they really believe in open learning.