May 25, 2017

One business case for OER examined

A video on electricity from the OpenLearn platform

Law, P. and Perryman, L.-A. (2017) How OpenLearn supports a business model for OER Distance Education, Vol. 38, No. 1

The journal: ‘Distance Education’

Distance Education is one of the oldest and most established journals in the field. It is the journal of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA) and over the years it has published some of the best research in distance education. However, it is not an open access journal, so I am providing my own personal review of one of the articles in this, generally excellent, edition. I should point out though that I am a member of the editorial board so do have an interest in supporting this journal.


Som Naidu, the editor, does an excellent job of introducing the articles in the journal under the heading of ‘Openness and flexibility are the norm, but what are the challenges?’ He correctly points out that

While distance education is largely responsible for the articulation and spearheading of openness and flexibility as desirable value principles, these educational goals are fast becoming universally attractive across all sectors and modes of education.

The rapid move to blended and more flexible learning and the slow but increasing use of open educational resources (OER) in campus-based based institutions indeed is challenging the uniqueness of distance education in terms of openness and flexibility. It is easy to argue that distance education is now no more than just another delivery option. Nevertheless, there are still important differences, and Som Naidu draws out some interesting comparisons between the experience of on-campus and distance learning that are still valid.

A business model for OER?

In this latest issue of Distance Education, Patrina Law and Leigh-Anne Perryman have written a very interesting paper about the business case for OER based on three surveys of users (in 2013, 2014, and 2015) of the UK Open University’s OpenLearn project. First some information about OpenLearn:

  • OpenLearn is an open content platform. Initially it used samples of course content from the OU’s undergraduate and postgraduate ‘modules’ (courses) but now hosts specially commissioned audio, video and other interactive materials and short online courses including free certificates and badges;
  • OpenLearn now offers the equivalent of 850 free courses representing 5% of the undergraduate and graduate degree content;
  • 6 million people visit each year with a total of 46 million unique visitors since it was established in 2006; 
  • 13% of users go on to enquire about the OU’s formal degree programs (equivalent of about 1,000 student enrolments per year).

Law and Perryman provide an excellent review of the business cases for OER put forward by others such as the OECD and Creative Commons, then use the survey data from OpenLearn users to test these arguments. Here’s what they found:

  • provision of OER is complementary rather than competitive with the OU’s formal degree programming
  • over half the users are UK-based
  • about 20% reported a disability
  • median age was 36-45
  • about 20% indicated that English was not their first language
  • 70% had some form of post-secondary qualification
  • 16% were part-time or full-time students
  • about two-thirds of the users were ‘tasting’ or ‘testing’ content before making a decision about whether to take a formal program (at either the OU or another institution)
  • almost half (45%) used OpenLearn to find out more about the UK OU (22% had never heard of it before and altogether over half knew nothing or little previously about the OU)
  • the average cost of conversion to OER was between £1500-£2000 per course
  • 13% of OpenLearn users clicked through to make a formal enquiry resulting in about 1,000 new student registrations.


Very importantly, Law and Perryman link the growing use of OpenLearn to the sudden increase in tuition fees in the UK (£9,000 a year in general, and £5,000 per year for an OU full time degree). Students are not willing to risk this cost without being sure they stand a chance of success and have an interest in the subject. OpenLearn allows them to test this.

This is an important point. The UK government policy of very high tuition fees does appear to be negatively impacting access for many potential students, or at least making them think very carefully before committing to such a large investment. The OU in particular has lost student enrolments as its fees have gone up. There is a danger in my mind that OER can be politically used as a diversion from ‘true’ open education for credit that is available to everyone, irrespective of their means. The best form of open education remains a well-funded state system.

This leads to my one serious criticism of the article. Apart from the cost of conversion, no proper analysis of the true cost of OpenLearn is given so the title is misleading. It does not describe a business model, with full input costs and output benefits stated in monetary terms, but a business case which provides uncosted but positive arguments based on other than cost factors. 

This is a really important distinction because the business model depends heavily on adequate funding for the formal, degree programs which provide the base for the OpenLearn materials. Without that funding, and other costs, OpenLearn will quickly become unsustainable. It is not a parasite in the negative sense of the word but it can’t exist without the funding for the core function of the OU. Without a sense of the full cost of OpenLearn it remains difficult to judge whether the obvious benefits are worth the drain on the OU’s other resources, as the money has to come from somewhere.

Otherwise this is a very good article that should read carefully by anyone concerned with policy regarding the use of OER.

Online learning in 2012: a retrospective

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Well, 2012 was certainly the year of the MOOC. Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of what happened with MOOCs in 2012, so I won’t repeat what she has done. Instead in this post I will focus mainly on trying to explain with regards to MOOCs what appears to me to be highly irrational organizational behaviour, more akin to lemmings than pillars of higher learning.

Why MOOCs?

For those of us who work mainly in universities and colleges, the hype around MOOCs is like living in two parallel universes: what we do every day in online learning, and what we read or hear about in the media. (I leave you to judge which is the true reality.) Even organizations that should know better think that online learning started at MIT in 2002 with OpenCourseWare. So why have MOOCs in particular got so much press?

This is an exercise in social anthropology.

To quote from Wikipedia:

It is unknown why lemming populations fluctuate with such variance roughly every four years, before plummeting to near extinction.

Now some evidence suggests their predators’ populations, particularly the stoat, may be more closely involved in changing the lemming population

Lemmings can swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. In such cases, many may drown if the body of water is so wide as to stretch their physical capability to the limit.

 I believe there are several themes that have led to MOOC hysteria in 2012:

  • they appear to be free. The direct costs of higher education, especially but not only in the USA and the UK, have been systematically transferred from the tax payer to the individual student or parents through cuts in government funding and increases in tuition fees. In other words, the cost of higher education has become more transparent. It’s really expensive. Free of course is better than expensive. MOOCs have been promoted as being free. However, there are no free services. All services have a true cost. At least to date, MOOCs are the opposite of transparency on the true cost. We do know that over a hundred million dollars have been invested this year alone in MOOCs, but what are the costs of the professors’ time, the cost of managing large numbers of students, and above all, the cost of ensuring student learning (however it is measured)? We just don’t know. Until we do, it’s a shell game
  • it’s also a numbers game: input matters more than output. The focus of the media has been on the massive numbers enrolling. However, there has been little focus on what students are actually learning. All we know is that completion rates are pathetic (less than 10%), and many of those that do complete are already well educated. Nevertheless it is argued that on a global perspective, the completion numbers are still large. However, so are the numbers in traditional higher education, and also in credit-based online learning. Sloan and Babson have been tracking the online credit numbers for years. They have been growing at a steady rate of between 12-20% a year. Ontario alone has over 500,000 online course registrations in its public universities and colleges, with completion rates in the 75-85%, matching completion rates in face-to-face classes. Millions are taking online courses for credit in Asia. But does this get mass coverage in the media? No.
  • technology triumphs over teaching: MOOCs in general have been driven by computer scientists who believe that just ‘delivering’ content over the Internet equates to learning. It doesn’t, but broadcast content delivery is something that lazy reporters can easily understand.
  • it’s all about the elite institutions. The media love to focus on the ivy league universities to the almost total neglect of the rest of the system (the cult of the superstar). Here is an appalling irony. The top tier research universities have by and large ignored online learning for the last 15 years. Suddenly though when MIT, Stanford and Harvard jump in, all the rest follow like lemmings. MOOCs are seen as an easy, low risk way for these universities not only to catch up, but to jump into the front line. But they are hugely wrong. Moving from broadcasting to learning is not going to be easy. More importantly, MOOCs are a side issue, a distraction. The real change for universities is going to come from hybrid learning – a mix of on-campus and online learning. Those top tier research universities though are going to miss out on this, by sidelining their online learning to a peripheral, continuing education activity.
  • don’t forget the politics: There’s just been a presidential election in the USA. A number of corporate leaders and some in the Republican party want to privatize the US higher education system. Anything that will undermine it is heavily promoted. MOOCs to some extent have been a tool in the hands of the media for suggesting that education need not be expensive and could be ‘free’, or at least much lower cost, if left to business. This fits the agenda of the right.

Having said all this, I believe that there is a future for MOOCs, but that’s for another post, my outlook for 2013, which comes in January.

In the meantime, there were, believe it or not, several other interesting developments in online learning, but before exploring those as well, let’s see how right I was in my outlook for 2012.

What I predicted

  1. The year of the tablet: 99% probability
  2. Learning analytics: 90% probability
  3. Growth of open education: 70% probability (depending on definition of open education)
  4. Disruption of the LMS market: 60% probability
  5. Integration of social media into formal learning: 66% probability
  6. The digital university: 10% probability
  7. Watch India
  8. The great unknown: 10% probability

Well, not a great record at prediction. I suppose you could include MOOCs within ‘growth of open education’. But look at what I actually wrote:

open access to high quality (all right, highly qualified) instructors is likely to be limited to idealistic volunteers, or to limited events (e.g. a MOOC), mainly because of a mis-match between supply and demand. Too many people want access to what they may incorrectly assume to be high quality instructors at elite institutions, for instance. This is partly an institutional barrier, as institutions try to protect their ‘star’ faculty, which is why this form of openness depends largely on individual volunteers.

Not actually wrong, but it certainly didn’t capture the mania that would develop around MOOCs in 2012.

Although there have been lots of interesting individual uses of tablets, particularly in k-12, they certainly haven’t taken off to the extent to which I predicted, at least in post-secondary education. However, so much in prediction depends on timing – maybe it will happen this year. For instance, mobile learning, one of my predictions for 2011, certainly expanded in many institutions in 2012, and will certainly continue to grow in 2013. The use of data analytics definitely increased, but still in a minority of institutions, in 2012, but learning analytics are still being used by a very tiny minority. The technology isn’t quite ready yet. (Again, this depends on definition – I’m talking about the hope that learning analytics will help instructors to achieve better learning outcomes, or put another way, will help students to improve their learning.)

What you read

Another way at looking at 2012 is to see what you chose to read. There are just over 1,800 posts on the site. Here are the top 14 posts in 2012, with the number of hits. (If you missed one, just click on it.)

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning


What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs


e-learning outlook for 2012: will it be a rough ride?


New technologies for e-learning in 2012 (and a little beyond)


A short critique of the Khan Academy


Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance?


What Is Distance Education?


Why learning management systems are not going away


E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research


A personal view of e-learning in Saudi Arabia


A student guide to studying online


10 types of plagiarism (and why I’m pleading guilty to at least one charge)


Daniel’s comprehensive review of MOOC developments


Designing online learning for the 21st century


The numbers of course are skewed by their date of  posting. Those posted early in the year have more chance of being accessed than those posted later. Timing also matters in terms of external events. Despite all the hype about MOOCs, only two of the top 14 posts were specifically on MOOCs (although there were several others posted). I am though surprised at the amount of interest in prediction, especially given how bad I am at it!

The inclusion of ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ at no. 6 is really interesting. This was posted originally on July 5, 2009, but it has sustained a long discussion that is still active today. I was also pleased to see that designing online learning for the 21st century squeezed in, as this was about design of online learning. I’m glad there’s still at least some interest in this issue. There is also evidence that the site is being used by  a lot of online students (or potential students), which is very gratifying. I need to do more posts targeted to students next year.

What I did

Since I’m not free and open (except here), this is some indication of what institutions were interested in this year (at least enough to pay me for it).

Site visits for consultancies or discussions with faculty/staff on strategies or designs for online learning

  • Mexico City: to develop a business plan for a national Mexican virtual university
  • Edmonton: Campus St-Jean, University of Alberta: informal review of online learning activities
  • Université de Sherbrooke, l’université Laval and Université de Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Québec
  • Vancouver Community College, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and University of British Columbia, BC
  • University of Manitoba, Winnipeg
  • EFQUEL conference, Granada, Spain
  • COHERE conference, Calgary, Alberta

Online consultancies

MOOCs and Webinars

  • planning and managing online learning: participant in #Change 11 cMOOC
  • costs of online learning: guest instructor for University of Maryland University College/University of Oldenberg, Germany
  • Elections Canada: online course design

Institutional site visits and reports on gamechanging institutions

  • Western Governors University
  • Open University, UK
  • Open University of Catalonia, Spain
  • London Knowledge lab, Institute of Education, London, UK.

It can be seen there was a great deal of interest in:

  • strategies and management,
  • new course designs,
  • design and organization of online institutions,
  • the costs of online learning

during 2012. These issues are not likely to disappear next year, either.

Politics and economics

In 2012, there were major developments in both the politics and economics of online learning. Governments in the USA and Europe accelerated cost cutting in post-secondary education. Nearly one billion dollars has been cut from the community college system in California alone since 2008. Student tuition fees have risen dramatically over the last five years in both the USA and the U.K. Even in Canada, provincial governments are facing the need to constrain public funding.

In Ontario, Canada’s largest province, the government threw down a challenge to the post-secondary institutions. Enrollments will need to increase, quality must be obtained, but there will be no new money. What can the institutions do to increase productivity through innovation? It’s a good question. Business cannot go on as usual. There is surely room for improvement and change in our institutions.

This theme is likely to continue into 2013. Governments, parents and increasingly students will be looking to online learning to increase productivity: better learning outcomes for less money. Are we up to the challenge?

Goodbye, 2012

I asked the question last year: will it be a rough ride? It’s certainly been a fast ride and quite bumpy at the same time. I don’t know how you feel, but I feel I’m hanging on, but only just. It’s good though that it’s exciting, stimulating, infuriating, and frustrating. It means that online learning is alive and well, growing in both breadth and more importantly depth.

So to all my readers, thank you for coming along for the ride. Have a great break, merry Christmas, happy Hanukah, or just have a good time, whatever your religion or beliefs. And I look forward to sharing my outlook for 2013 in the new year.


1. What pleased, surprised or disappointed you in 2012 with regard to online learning?

2. What do you think was the most important development in 2012 for online learning? Obama’s re-election? MOOCs? New course designs? Or something else?

3. Are we up to the challenge of using online learning to increase productivity through innovation? If so, what would that look like?

The global attack on public higher education


Revolution in the streets

Two days of my holiday were spent in the lovely city of Madrid. We witnessed there, just outside our hotel, the now daily mass demonstrations against the austerity cuts in Spain. Spain is no Greece, but it has been hit particularly hard because their banks over-extended themselves in silly, unsecured loans that drove mainly the construction industry. Now public servants such as teachers, civil servants, and health workers are being told their salaries and pensions will be cut, and there will be reduced funding for post-secondary education,  in order to pay off the massive debt the government has occurred in bailing out their banks. As Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas says in ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’: ‘This is the perfect solution: privatize the profits and nationalize the losses.’

Change the rules

Meanwhile, the British government, having increased undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000 ($14,000) a year resulting in a 30% drop in enrolment applications in England and Wales, is also planning to make it harder for children to pass the school exams, thus reducing the ‘demand’ for higher education even further (under 40% of a cohort in Britain currently go on to post-secondary education – Ontario is currently at 63% and aiming for 70%). I care about this because I have four British grandchildren, and a son and daughter-in-law who are professors in a British public university.

Don’t pay taxes

Then I read the following:

National Science Board (2012) Diminishing funding and rising expectations: trends and challenges for public research universities Washington DC: National Science Board.

The NSB ‘supervises the collection of a very broad set of policy-neutral, quantitative information about U.S. science, engineering, and technology.’ It found:

  • State support for public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010, after accounting for inflation and increased enrollment
  • Ten states saw support fall 30 percent or more
  • State funding has fallen from 38 percent of university budgets two decades ago to 23 percent now
  • Many are losing their best faculty to private institutions
  • Tuition increases in response to the budget cuts threaten the affordable access students have enjoyed
  • Private universities increased spending on teaching 25 percent over the same period, and now spend more than twice as much per student on teaching as their public counterparts
  • Revitalizing public research universities requires action from a range of players — more funding from Washington, more autonomy from states if they won’t maintain funding levels, and more productivity from universities themselves.

Of course, if you refuse to pay for or vote for state taxes, then the state can’t support public universities.


Book review: Quality assurance in distance education and e-learning

© Insights, 2012

Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge

What the book is about

There is relatively little in the literature about QA and accreditation in distance education and online schooling, college or university education, non-formal adult and community education or workplace training. Drawing on international theory, research and the experience and expertise of the contributors, this book shows why and how these are applied across the globe, considers the lessons learned, and suggests frameworks and guidelines for their implementation.’

What’s in it

The book is essentially a collection of 23 chapters by invited contributors, with a foreword from Sir John Daniel, President of the Commonwealth of Learning. The chapters fall into roughly three groups:

  • three chapters that provide an overview of the main concepts and premises behind quality assurance and accreditation
  • seventeen chapters on quality assurance in distance education and e-learning in different regions or countries around the world, or in specific sectors, as follows:
    • Asia
    • sub-Saharan Africa
    • USA and Canada
    • United Kingdom
    • Europe
    • Australia and New Zealand (including a separate chapter on Open Universities Australia)
    • open universities
    • Indonesian Open University (Universitas Terbuka)
    • University of the South Pacific and the University of the West Indies
    • Palestinian Al-Quds University
    • Commonwealth of Learning
    • open and online schooling
    • workplace training
    • telecentres
  • three concluding chapters, one on competencies and quality assurance, one on learners’ perceptions, and a concluding chapter.



This book provides comprehensive coverage of the practice and applications of quality assurance in distance education and some elements of e-learning around the world. The articles are in general well written and authoritative. The book is comprehensive in the sense that it covers the main issues and ways in which quality assurance has been applied, particularly in distance education. It will be of particular value to those working in particular areas of the world where distance education is still not accepted, and there are still many countries where this is the case.

What I liked

I very much liked the foreword by John Daniel, who provides an extremely succinct overview of the book and the issues arising.

This book really brings home the struggle that distance education and online learning still have to prove their legitimacy, despite the sometimes extraordinary lengths that they have gone to demonstrate their quality. Frequently, the issue of double standards arise, whereby distance and online programs have to meet standards or criteria that are never applied to campus-based programs.

The book also brings home how widespread the QA movement is in distance education, and how many countries and regions are struggling with similar issues.

I also enjoyed reading many of the individual chapters on what’s happening in countries and regions as diverse as Indonesia, Korea, the European Union, Australia, Asia and North America. It reinforced particularly the peculiar mess that the USA has got itself into with regard to accreditation and quality assurance. Although a better system of accreditation would surely help, I doubt that greater attention to QA processes is the answer to their growing problems in post-secondary education.

Lastly, I particularly liked Insung Jung and Colin Latchem’s concluding chapter, which pulled together a number of important QA issues which are worth summarizing:

  • focus on outcomes as the leading measure of quality
  • take a systemic approach to quality assurance
  • see QA as a process of continuous improvement
  • move the institution from external controls to an internal culture of quality
  • poor quality has very high costs so investment in quality is worthwhile.

What I didn’t like

I said earlier that the book covers ‘some elements of e-learning’ because the book does not touch on the greatest area of application of e-learning, which is in the traditional campus-based universities and two year colleges. It is a pity that this issue has not been addressed. First, besides being a huge area, the issues around quality assurance are somewhat different from those of open and distance learning institutions, or even the dual-mode institutions, because most of the campus-based institutions moving for the first time into e-learning are already accredited as campus-based institutions. Some traditional institutions develop very high quality e-learning, while others (particularly for example in the US college system) fail to follow best practices and as a result often deliver very poor quality e-learning. More than any other, it is the traditional campus-based institutions that have moved into e-learning that need to put in place policies and procedures that assure quality in online learning, yet there are no examples of what is being done is in this sector in this book. However, Insung Jung and Colin Latchem’s chapter on competencies and quality assurance should be required reading in such institutions.

It could of course be argued that these institutions anyway follow standard QA processes for all their programs, but the standard degree quality assurance process does not adequately cover the specifics of e-learning or online learning on campus-based institutions, although some quality assurance boards (such as the QAA in the UK and PEQAB in Ontario) have put in place specific ‘benchmarks’ for online courses being offered in certain sectors (but not all). As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the e-learning elements of programs will become even more important. However, this is probably another book, and should not diminish the value of this book.

Some general points

Despite this book, I still have very mixed feelings about the quality assurance movement in post-secondary education. Yes, there are enormous differences in the quality of online and distance learning providers, and some of the more elite institutions are the worst culprits in terms of a quality online or digital learning experience. But ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is plenty of evidence of what works and what doesn’t, such as regular and challenging interaction between instructor and students, efficient student administration, interactive and well structured materials, etc. We don’t need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of calling institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching.

Also, QA when applied rigidly can stifle innovation in online teaching and learning. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so we can experiment with and evaluate new approaches.

But my main reason for harbouring doubts about the QA movement is that QA doesn’t really address the need for more differentiation in our educational system. Distance education organizations are not the same as elite traditional universities and shouldn’t try to be. This means that different types of institution will and should evaluate quality differently. Of course, this also requires greater sophistication amongst potential learners and even more so, governments.

There is a famous put-down in an Oscar Wilde play when an aristocratic lady comments on a bourgeois woman’s attempt at ‘class’: ‘She tries so hard, doesn’t she?’ QA doesn’t really deal with the issues of elitism. Yes, Oxford University has QA procedures that meet the external QAA requirements, but does anyone believe that this is the reason why it has its cachet of ‘quality’? Sometimes I think that distance education institutions in particular try too hard to establish their quality credentials, when what they should be emphasising is their differences, and especially the different purposes they exist to meet. I really would look for different measures of quality in the Open University, for instance, than in Cambridge University. Neither one is necessarily better (depending on what you are looking for), but the learning experience will be different. In the meantime, let’s pay much more attention to what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, innovating and evaluating?

Having got that off my chest, let’s come back to the book. This is an important book, especially for distance educators, but will also be useful for administrators from conventional institutions that are moving into hybrid and fully online learning. It provides the current state of the art on quality assurance in this field and as such I highly recommend it.

New white paper on the English higher education system

Cable, V. and Willets, D. (2011) Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills

This paper sets out the British government’s plans for higher education, including allowing students to obtain government-funded loans for new for-profit institutions, reducing existing quotas allowing elite universities to accept more students with high entrance grades, and ‘rewards’ for institutions that  set tuition fees below $7,500. The policies apply only to England; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems.

I need more time to read the document in full. However, it is interesting to note that the ministry of Universities and Science in England is a branch of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, and that naming a document that sets out a policy based on students paying annual tuition fees of $14,000 a year as ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ smacks somewhat of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s ‘1984’. Surely it should have been called ‘Students as the Wallet of the System’.