February 27, 2017

What does ‘open’ really mean?

Hilton III, J. et al. (2010) Using online technologies to extend a classroom to learners at a distance, Distance Education, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 77-92

This team of researchers (including David Wiley) from Brigham Young University, examined the extent to which a face-to-face course can be shared with learners at a distance. Distance learners did not have to register with the university, nor received credit for the course. The face-to-face classes were recorded and made available online to the distance learners, as well as the online course material. (This is a follow-up to a study by Young, 2008, in which David Wiley also opened up his face-to-face class to distance learners). The Hilton et al. study examined a graduate seminar on open education offered by Wiley, but in this case, Wiley deliberately restricted the time devoted to the ‘extra’ distance students to no more than 30 minutes a week, whereas in the Young study, he put in more work on the distance learners. Note that there were only 6 face-to-face students in the class, while there were 38 at a distance.

Comment: I have some real concerns about this approach by Wiley. I think the idea of opening up classes to non-registered students is a good one, but not just making them relatively ‘outside’ participants of a class designed deliberately for face-to-face teaching. Wouldn’t it be more logical to open up classes deliberately designed for distance delivery to non-registered participants, and design them carefully for joint use? The distance learners in the Wiley experiment are being treated as second-class citizens in this set-up. Also it is one thing to open up a class of six students to anyone, but a very different matter if there are 30 or more registered students in a course.

Incidentally, opening up online credit classes to non-registered students is not new. In many universities all lectures are open to the public. How is this any different, just because the non-registered students are at a distance? In the 1980s-1990s, students who enrolled with the Open Learning Agency could take distance courses from any of the three universities in British Columbia for credit towards their Open University degree, without having to be admitted to the other universities. Nowadays, the University of British Columbia offers both a certificate and a masters online program where all the students participate together online in the same classes.

These programs however do highlight some of the absurdities of credit vs non-credit teaching. What happens when certificate or ‘external’ students who do not qualify for entry to a graduate program do as well or better than the admitted students in the same class? We had this situation at UBC, which became ridiculous when students who had excelled as certificate students wanted to transfer into the masters program and were denied, because they did not have the requisite qualifications for graduate studies (the certificate was not considered an appropriate qualification, even though the students had ‘proved’ themselves.).

The point is that our systems are unnecessarily restrictive in allowing in particular mature adults to access university programs. The real problem is a lack of places in the system, and hence over-zealous admission requirements, rather than finding means to combine registered students with others.

My point here is that just opening up classes to non-admitted students does little to make access really open, but merely results in frustration when these extra students try to get credit for their often excellent work. Such efforts at opening access need to be combined with changes to admission policies if they are to be meaningful. I’d like to see open access to all university programs, but only those that ‘prove’ themselves at the end of the first course or year are allowed to continue. (Tuition fees are now at such a level as to discourage ‘flippant’ enrolments).


Young, J. (2008) When professors print their own diplomas, who needs universities? Chronicle of Higher Education, September 25

Essential versus strategic IT investments

Hilton, J. (2009) Essential versus strategic IT investments Educause Review Vol. 44, No. 3

The CIO of University of Virginia discusses the need to prioritise IT activities on university campuses.

The Future for Higher Education: Sunrise or Perfect Storm?

Hilton, J. (2006) The Future for Higher Education: Sunrise or Perfect Storm? EDUCAUSE Review, Vol. 41, No. 2