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.

Your comments

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.





    • Hi Wayne, Tony and all: I am co-chair with Dr. Ellen Murphy of a task force at the Empire State College Center for Distance Learning charged with providing direction for our OER-u development and want to make sure that our efforts are moving in parallel with the OER-u effort.

      Speaking for what I know of ESC faculty and traditions (and not speaking for Empire State College administration) I imagine that while ESC will be willing participants in creating new courses or converting existing ones for the OER-u credential you are envisioning, we will also be interested in continuing to use our existing PLA process to grant personalized Prior Learning Assessments, based on student documentation as we have for forty years now (only in today’s world we will probably use e-portfolios created by students as documentation for PLA). These e-portfolios would document the students’ college level learning from a variety of sources including the MIT stuff etc. that students (presumably helped by volunteers) would assemble along with a summary of their learning and present to ESC for evaluation at a reasonable evaluation cost. I am reasonably sure that anything with a recommendation for credit would transfer into ESC for students who come to us.

      For those not planning to become ESC students it is my understanding that we are discussing whether or not we could open our PLA process to students who would then take our recommendations to other anchor partners who agree to accept them. I imagine acceptance of our PLA assessments will be something each partner institution will have to decide on. At the present time we formally grant the PLA credit to students at their graduation from Empire State College…they cannot transfer it to other institutions.

      In answer to Dr. Bates blog question about making PLA evaluation criteria available to students prior to submission of their requests, our current practice is to hire experts in the field of the Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) request to evaluate the student’s documentation of their learning. These evaluators then conduct an oral conversation with the student to determine credit recommendations. This has been systematized in a very efficient computer based process thanks to Dr. Nan Travers who is charge of assessment. This individualized approach has worked well for us for years and has enabled countless students to receive credit for unusual learning efforts but may be a bit hard to scale.

      Since the evaluation process is tailored to each student by individual evaluators it would be difficult to provide specific questions except for a hand full of frequently requested topics where we do have guidelines. Our flexibility with PLA probably makes us fairly unique among the anchor institutions many of whom seem to rely on examinations which we almost never use…but I hope our process can be integrated into the long range plans because it truly does offer students many opportunities to attain credit for unique college level learning. I am sharing this with everyone with the usual caveat that I speak for myself as a long time Empire State College faculty member with a special interest in self-direction and prior learning assessment and not for anyone else at the college. I am extremely excited about the OER-u and hopes this explains the ESC world a bit better, from a faculty member’s perspective. Let’s build the future. Dr. Joyce McKnight, Associate Professor, SUNY/Empire State College

  1. Hi Tony,

    That’s a good summary of the OERu model. I enjoy reading your blog posts especially the critical questioning. As you correctly point out, thinking about how ODL institutions can lower cost can’t be a bad thing.

    In my comments, I will first add a few points of clarification and then respond to your more important questions — through the lens of the OER Foundation and the OER Tertiary Education Network who are implementing the OERu. Apology for the long comment, but given the moral imperatives underpinning what we are trying to achieve – we need to reflect critically to ensure that we get this right.

    Points of clarification

    Just to add perspective and further clarification on a few point you raised:

    Correct, recurrent costs associated with assessment and credential services will be recouped on a cost-recovery basis from student fees. However, some governments may choose to subsidise an assessment-only model using OERs because it can provide cheaper and more effective use of taxpayer dollars in post secondary education. We will be exploring these government funding options with the Tertiary Education Commission here in New Zealand, and I suspect other governments will be doing the same. Tentative estimates suggest that the OERu model would be approximately a four-to-one cost ratio. That is the direct costs of the OERu model would be able to provide assessment and credentialling services for four learners when compared to the direct costs of one learner under the conventional system. Therefore our approach is likely to be an attractive proposition for funders and politicians alike.
    We don’t anticipate that the network itself will confer degrees, however the network model facilitates: better coordination on the degree programs offered through the OERu model; it will guarantee credit transfer of courses within the network; and implement the necessary quality assurance mechanisms and transnational qualification frameworks needed in this cross-border scenario. The fact that we are only working with accredited institutions combined with the cornerstone of quality assurance and credible credentials is very important because this is how we will ensure equivalence and parity of esteem for OERu qualifications. Not unlike the early days of distance when quality was “challenged” by the conventional institutions. We know the outcome of that red herring.
    We envisage that assessment and credentialisation could incorporate a mix of challenge exams, e-portfolio assessments and prior learning assessment. We believe that the traditional models of prior learning assessment will not scale well for the future and are expensive. We will need to improve efficiencies here. Athabasca University is leading a research project looking into these issues.

    Why isn’t ICDE leading?

    The OER Foundation is an open organisation and we welcome associate membership of the ICDE or any organisations who are interested in sustainable education futures. That’s a good suggestion I will send a formal invitation to the ICDE executive to join our network as associate members. I can’t speak for ICDE and why they are not taking a leadership role here. However, to be fair, and looking in from the outside “open education” with reference to OERs and OEPs is not the core business of ICDE and overemphasis of OER would amount to mission drift for them. ICDE have been engaged in OER related projects like OPAL and OER research reports so I think they are keeping their eye on the “open education” ball, but justifiably do not want to risk mission drift.

    In comparison, the core mission of the OER Foundation (OERF) is to help institutions achieve their objectives using open education approaches. Open education (i.e. OER plus OEP and Quality) is our core business as a Foundation. The OERF is small, agile, responsive and very focused on achieving scalable and sustainable OER ecosystems. For example, we tested the idea and logic model for the OERu concept in February this year. A few months later we are convening the implementation planning meeting having achieved a critical mass of founding anchor partners. Few organisations can move at this speed. We subscribe to open philanthropy, open governance and transparent management models which scale at lightening speed. Everybody gets to see what we are doing and how we are doing it. It builds trust and saves considerable time without the need to continuously revisit old issues.

    Missing members

    As an open institution, the OER Foundation has extends an open invitation to all post secondary institutions in the world to join this international innovation partnership. No one is excluded from the OER Tertiary Education Network if you are an accredited institution. Again, I can’t speak for the UKOU other than speculate that they may be adopting a wait-and-see approach or prefer to work alone. Personally, I don’t think that’s a prudent strategy. There is an adage that you “can’t lead from behind” and in the case of disruptive innovation in higher education, this is especially true. I think that it is better to be collaborating around the OERu planning table then waiting for the future to happen to you.

    The UKOU has been very successful with OpenLearn – -it is an exemplary project. The downloads of the UKOU’s iTunesU are also astounding. Some of these OER learners convert to full-time study at the OUUK. So this model is very similar to earlier models used at the UKOU when comparing the iTunesU to the relationship with the BBC where OU courses were screened on national TV. It becomes a window to university study and effective marketing tool for recruiting students to your institution. A number of organisation-based OER projects focus on this model.

    The OERu is not using this approach. We are innovating on two separate fronts. First, basing all courses under the OERu umbrella solely on OER. Second, disaggregating core education services using a open networked model. We do not want to innovate beyond the capacity of society or the economy to accept these innovations. An important difference between the UKOU institution-based and when compared to the OERu is that we achieve cost-efficiencies possible through collaboration at the onset. When capital costs of course development are shared, they are cheaper than doing this alone. So for example, each anchor partner may contribute to assembling 2 courses for an agreed OERu credential. If we have 10 contributing institutions (and we do), anchor partners will get 18 courses in “return” for the 2 they put into the kitty. That is an order of magnitude more efficient than the OpenLearn model.

    Strategically speaking, the OERu is working with the “geography of distance” and we prefer to work with partners who a serious about getting this right and are spread internationally. It would not be in the interests of the OERu to be working with partners who will stall and hold back on building these futures.

    Capitalise on existing investment

    You absolutely right – you list a number of organisations who have spent millions in developing high quality OER. These are OERs and we are permitted to using these resources for assembling OERu courses. A creative commons license is irrevocable. We won’t be recreating these OERs, but rather the OERu will be implementing a pedagogy of discovery guiding and supporting learners through activities using existing OERs. Yes we will be making our assessment questions available as OER – no point in restricting access to these. Individual accrediting institutions may choose to keep their questions closed if they like, but in an open model it’s not cost-effective to do so.

    Market predications

    The uniqueness of the OERu model is that we are targeting learners who are currently excluded from the system. It’s comparable to industry’s “co-opetition” model where using OER approaches collaboratively enables individual institutions to compete more effectively. The OERu is aiming to serve the additional 98 million learners who will be seeking places in the post-secondary education system. We are not competing for the traditional cohort.

    In addition, the OERu is a philanthropic international initiative aimed at widening access to free learning opportunities through our community service missions. We are not attempting to replace or substitute the existing system – -Jim Taylor calls this a parallel learning universe. If we succeed in providing free learning opportunities to a conservative 1% of these learners – that is 1 million students over the next 15 years. Of course the model is designed to scale. My predication is a large market.


    I trained as an account in my first life, so we’ve done tour calculations ;-). The breakeven point for sustainability of the network is 30 contributing institutions. We have achieved a third of this target and the network is growing by the day. The model works because participating institutions get considerably more value in return than the cost of participation. Participation does not require new money – because course materials are sunken cost. Recurrent expenditure for institutions is covered through a fee-for-service model. It will be possible for the OERu provide a full degree for considerably lower cost than current student fees in most countries – its not speculation, we will be doing this. The implementation planning meeting for founding anchor partners will take place in November this year.

    The OERu is the “Wikinomics” of higher education – we don’t need to spend money on advertising. For example, WikiEducator is a flagship project of the OER Foundation. WikiEducator comprises a community of more than 20,000 educators spread round the world – -that constitutes a large international footprint. WikiEducators are our advertisers – they will spread the word using social networks.

    The academic volunteers international concept will take time to scale and implement, but this not a critical path issue for implementing the first credential or the prototype planned for 2012. Academic volunteers international will ultimately provide scalable tutorial support for the network. We must not underestimate the power of peer-to-peer learning in open networks. In addition, through careful design it is possible to design a volunteer which will scale. Its based on the principles of mass-customisation. Drawing on prior experience from recognition models where your karma increases through your levels of contribution we can achieve these objectives through mass-collaboration. I imagine that participating institutions will encourage their facility to focus their community service efforts on contributing to the OERu’s academic volunteers international and this will be embedded as an incentive within staff appraisal systems of anchor partners. If each anchor partner were to allocate 1% of the existing community service budget to the OERu network – we will achieve the levels of support required for academic volunteers international. In addition, community service learning models where senior students can earn community service credits towards their degree will also assist with the sustainability of the model.

    We do not intend competing with the University of the People or the P2PU projects. We need hundreds of institutions like OERu, University of the People and P2PU if we are serious about providing free learning to the world. On the contrary, I suspect we may see collaboration on shared infrastructure in the future. For example, OERu and University of the People could collaborate on building the infrastructure needed for Academic Volunteers International which would serve both institutions.

    Will OERu bring the worlds of OER and the formal education sector together?

    The answers is clear – the anchor partners are respected and experienced institutions in the formal sector. We will get this right because we can rely on the organisational experience of more than 60 years of knowledge in providing high quality learning experiences asynchronously. For example, Unisa, as the world’s first single-mode distance teaching university is a founding anchor partner. This experience is supplemented by leading ODL practitioners and thought leaders from North America and Oceania. If I were a betting man, I’d be putting money on this network to resolve these challenges.

    With your help we can build a world were every student can have free learning opportunities with pathways to earn credible credentials. Together, we can make the future happen!

  2. Dear Dr. Tony,

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts, which are highly constructive and answering which and discussions there on would make the objective of OERu more conceivable as well as inspiring to the major institutions who are seriously watching this initiative.

    In respect of the tardy response from some of the major providers as listed in the blog, I think, Dr. Wayne’s guess is right. As this being an experimentation through comparatively unexplored path, normally, the administrators would prefer a safe play. We may expect more participation once the pilot project is successfully implemented.

    About assessment boards, I hope, OERu through OERten would be able to work out issues, if any, arise at national accreditation or degree assessment boards’ end. Definitely we have to anticipate some issues and be prepared to tackle them as we go ahead.

    Now market demand, in this aspect, I would also like to predict substantial enrollment with the support of the OER community platforms, without much investment on commercial kind of advertisement, Apart from graduation programmes on conventional subjects, world is heading towards a situation wherein it has to ensure a critical mass of people trained in environment friendly alternative technologies through out the world, in a time-bound manner, to protect our planet (various accords on climate change also agree on this). We just can’t count the numbers here! Dr. Wayne is right, we would require many OERus

    Finally, Dr. Tony is correct , we have to converge the efforts and benefits as well. The convergence, not alone between conventional ODL and OER driven education, whereas it includes classroom education as well. The major reasons I foresee for this are (1) population explosion and (2) climate change issues. There will come a time where in conventional universities advise its students to take some (if not majority of) credits from systems like OERu.

    I hope, Dr. Tony’s thoughts will be discussed in the forthcoming OERu meeting also.

    Warm regards

  3. As you say Tony.

    “At the least it is leading to some hard thinking among the ODL institutions and that can’t be a bad thing”.

    I think that the real problem for all of these initiatives is that they don’t focus on the one person who they purport to educate; the “user”. By which i mean people who are both “delivering” the education and those who are “receiving” it. Each is either institution-centric or a massive aggregation of all types of courses from groups of institutions.

    E.g. Wayne points out that having each institution “delivering 2 courses each” shares the production costs, for institutions. But it doesn’t offer the one thing that users would want; a course which provides the best from each institution. So we get these fabulous aggregations from the well intentioned, which users must search for. Meantime we miss the one thing that we need; communities of cross-institutional collaboration producing broadcast quality media.

    If you take this further, I would see that the model needs to get to the point where every course is up to broadcast standard, so that unis can (re) institute a global researchchannel. At this point unis may gain new revenue sources/marketing outlets, while reaching the millions who have no idea of where to start. i.e. On the broadcast program credits point to the relevant course’s url. BBC and OU-type relationships are critical.

    The OCWC site provides a good illustration of the evolution from institution-centric to community(OP) centric. You’ll find all the institutional members, and then have to search through every institutional site for a course, and community, one might be interested in. You can find a course, but rarely a community. Meantime, you can find on OCWC ‘Community’ pages a hint of what Wayne is turning into an artform = community building. Like most new industries, it’s not on the unis’ curriculum yet. Reason. it can’t be taught. One has to partipate to learn its culture.

    Re: Infrastructure. As Wayne says, “For example, OERu and University of the People could collaborate on building the infrastructure”. I’d suggest that every OER initiative has a role to play in this collaboration. In fact, it’s development is what will bind them. While those with a bent to content production figure out the economics of sharing some individual courses, those who provide institutions with their infrastructure flounder aimlessly. Infrastructure builders need direction as to what services the OER institutions want to share. This is where the big savings for institutions lie, both in economic and environmental terms. http://billstarnaud.blogspot.com/2011/10/commercial-cloud-services-for.html

    Internet2 is an example of what is happening in all National R&E networks at the moment. The problem? They don’t have a Global user group like “the combined OER user groups” to inform their NREN’s which services they want to share, GLOBALLY. OERU’s “partnership with (international) accredited educational institutions” might provide the forum to identify them.

    A n illustration of services? Just looking at your “events” (and the ICDE’s and so many others). Imagine their secretariats shared/collaborated on services, like using the same social networking platform to take feedback before, during and after each (other’s) conference. Or streaming similar conferences from the same url. Or sharing the same calender of events as the ICDE is attempting to encourage. Sure would be more productive than having some Authors produce another Journal about the technology which might provide a collaborative culture. Might even make Online Learning sustainable.

    Market predictions? We are entering a pretty serious recession. Budgets will be cut, possibly as much as they have been in Greece. Youth unemployment has reached 45% in Spain & is growing globally, so we know education institutions aren’t preparing many students for jobs, & research institutions aren’t developing new industries fast enough. Necessity is the mother of invention. As the infrastructure falls into place, due to budget cuts, there will be lots of new industries based around the co-production of media infrastructures, platforms and services. This will lead to the mainstreaming of (consortiums of) disciplinary-centric OERunis. New disciplines of course.

  4. […] Natürlich gibt es hier Fragen über Fragen, und einige stellt Tony Bates auch direkt. Wie auch immer sich solche Initiativen weiterentwickeln, sie bringen die notwendige Veränderung und Unruhe in die Bildungs- und Lernlandschaft. “Maybe this initiative can bring the best of both worlds together; or will it just make a somewhat messy development even more messy?” Tony Bates, e-learning and distant education RESOURCES, 5. Oktober 2011 […]

  5. Hi Tony,
    I am a life long learner. Most of the education has been through P2P where the faculty is supreme and institute is their kingdom. This mode does not give a learner and knowledge seeker all that he is seeking.
    From the student view point, who is the beneficiary of the whole education system, the essential outputs for future are “Global outlook, Global networking and Globally recognized degree” at a “Globally competitive cost.”
    The efforts of OERu appear apt and the synergy between the gaints can happen with your recommendations. As a stakeholder I wish this happens at a faster pace.

  6. Learning is open regardless of whether you are affiliated with a formal learning organization or not. Qualifying for an academic degree requires students to complete specific courses and so on. However, institutions of learning need funds to stay in business. Where is the money going to come from with the OER initiative? BTW, who is funding the University of the People? How long will the Shai Reshef hold out with volunteers?

  7. These are valiant steps in helping marginalized people. I was recently at the ICDE open and distance education conference in Bali where OER projects were discussed. Some of the speakers were from developing countries very interested in openly shared education.

    As an instructional designer I am curious on the model and methods to be used for assessment. Typically, good instruction and learning offers diagnostic, formative and summative assessments along the way. I suppose some of the assessments could be self-administered and embedded in the OER to allow learners to determine if they are on the right track. However, at a university level assessments tend to evaluate deeper learning such as critical thinking, synthesizing, projects, problem solving, etc. I wonder if such rich learning would be available through an OER-based course and program.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here