June 28, 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.

U.S. university/college financing ‘stabilizing’

Image: © Moody, 2015

Image: © Moody, 2015

Unauthored (2015) Stability and Modest Growth Expected for U.S. Colleges, Inside Higher Ed, December 3

Lederman, D. (2015) ‘Stabilizing’ Financial Picture, Inside Higher Education, July 8

These two reports are for the record (i.e. to help me find the data when I need it for other articles). Nevertheless, they are still interesting.

These are reports of analyses by Moody on the financial status of universities and colleges in the USA. Lederman’s article is about a report released on the financial status of universities and colleges in 2014, and the more recent article is a projection over the next year to 18 months into 2016.

These reports are important, because for the first time since the great U.S. recession in 2008, there is actually overall growth in revenues, especially from state funding, even though tuition revenue is actually declining slightly overall. Nevertheless, the proportion of funding from the state is still considerably less than in 2004, and the situation is not even, with the less prestigious local/state universities still more likely to be in financial trouble than the larger, more prestigious land-grant and private universities.

‘Stabilization’ does not mean that the pressure to reduce the costs of higher education will ease, especially with regard to tuition fees, but it may mean that we will see less media hype about MOOCs and other technology innovations disrupting higher education. Getting costs under control while revenues stabilize will still remain essential, and the more local, less-selective institutions are particularly vulnerable, which is likely to lead to even less equity in the system: to those that have shall it be given.

Does distance education socialize students? A study from Québec

image ©www.ameriquefrançais.org, 2014

image © www.amériquefrançaise.org, 2014

Loisier, J. (2014) Socialisation des Etudiants en FAD au Canada Francophone Montréal QC: REFAD

REFAD (the Canadian francophone distance education network) has published a very interesting research paper on socialization and distance education in francophone Canada by one of its research consultants, Dr. Jean Loisier. If you can read French, and are interested in research on the extent to which socialization exists and the role it plays in online and distance education, this report is essential reading. (Because of the value of this report, I hope it will be made available in English so that it can have a wider market).

As well as providing a good review of theoretical issues around the subject of socialization in education, which takes into account  students’ use of social media, the report is based on in-depth interviews with 26 distance education leaders in the majority of francophone post-secondary institutions, and 121 questionnaires received from distance education instructors.

The report covers six topics:

  • characteristics of francophone distance learners and their mode of distance learning (individual, cohort, flexible);
  • technologies that support or discourage socialization;
  • teaching strategies that focus or not on collaborative activities;
  • phenomena associated with group activities;
  • the need for “social relations” between students;
  • actions taken by Canadian institutions to support the integration of distance students, and the importance these institutions give to different aspects of socialization in relation to educational goals, and the importance these aspects of socialization have in maintaining and strengthening ties within the Francophone communities outside Quebec.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize a 144 page report in French, but Loisier’s conclusions in particular are quite provocative (if I have translated correctly!). He notes that while most distance education leaders support the idea of collaborative learning and the socialization of students, in practice this does not happen often in distance programs, and in any case collaborative learning often conflicts with the desire of distance students for individual and flexible learning. Furthermore, socialization does not occur automatically online merely by putting students together in groups. Nevertheless, there are important educational goals that are best facilitated through collaborative learning, but careful planning and a framework/context  are needed that avoid the more affective or emotional elements of socialization, and focus more on the cognitive elements of learning in a group.

This is one of the most interesting, provocative and useful research reports I’ve read in a long while.

Top movers and shakers in corporate e-learning

Corporate e-learning 2

Image:  © Allen Interactions, 2014

[Note: there was a similar post on this site on January 6. The post was accidentally destroyed during site maintenance. This replaces it as a re-write.]

Bob Little (2104) The fifth annual, top ten e-learning movers and shakers Industry Today, January 2

It is interesting to note how the terminology changes over time. It seems that e-learning is now a term referring mainly to corporate training, while online learning is now more associated with k-12 and post-secondary education. How or why this has happened though beats me.

Certainly, this post is about corporate e-learning. I recognized very few names among the 70 or so writers and bloggers listed here (ones I do know are Elliott Masie, who was the top listed mover and shaker for the second year running, Harold Jarche, Jay Cross, Clark Quinn, and Donald Clark.)

This suggests I should spend more time following what’s happening in corporate e-learning, as I think both sectors can learn from each other, even recognizing that they are very different markets. For instance I suspect that corporate e-learning has far more experience in using simulations than would be the case for universities or even two-year colleges (high cost to develop, but high returns in performance). But maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?

Anyway, if you want to know what’s happening in corporate e-learning, Industry Today’s list would be a good place to start.


Innovative online bachelor’s degree from University of Washington

© Glenn Rikowski, 2012

Long, K. (2013) UW to offer first all-online degree-completion program The Seattle Times, March 28

Although many universities offer online courses at the bachelor’s level, and fully online master programs, whole bachelor’s programs offered fully online are comparatively rare from major public research universities (although much more common from for-profits, such as University of Phoenix).

The University of Washington program, which begins this fall, is a bachelor of early childhood education, based on ‘years of research done at the UW on the best ways to teach preschoolers.’ More details of the program can be found by clicking here.

There are several interesting features of the program:

  • designed mainly for students transferring in with already an associate degree or 70 or more eligible credits for transfer
  • focused on people already working in child care (preference to registered Washington state residents)
  • partnership with several local community colleges for credit transfer
  • uses video of ‘good’ examples of teaching practice (as well as televised lectures)
  • students make their own videos of themselves practicing those techniques in preschool classrooms
  • limited to 100 students initially, but possibly growing to 300 students a year later
  • aims to fill a major labour market gap in the state
  • much lower average cost for students: $160 per credit = $7,000 for full degree
  • supported by a grant, which with student tuition fees enables the program to be fully cost-recoverable without state funding

UW’s President stated that UW will ‘soon’ be offering several more bachelor degree completion and even some full bachelor’s programs fully online.


This online strategy appears to be particularly well developed. One major barrier to fully online bachelor programs is that students straight out of high school are often considered unready for online learning, given the self-discipline required and their perceived lack of independent learning skills. However, as this program indicates, not all people wanting a bachelor degree are 18 year olds. Many already have a college certificate or diploma, and relevant work experience.

I was also interested in the proposed use of video. The cost of making reasonable quality video has dropped dramatically, and although there is a long history of the use of video in teacher education, education is not the only field where practices and procedures can be demonstrated via video, both by instructors and by student practitioners.

Lastly, this is a public research university operating a different business model that not only lowers costs to students, but is self-financing without state funding. This is because the University of Washington received funding for this program from the Next Generation Learning Challenge program, which is funded mainly by the Gates and Hewlett Foundations. The NGLC program is having a  major impact across the USA in encouraging institutions to experiment with online and open learning in innovative ways (I was one of the many grant proposal evaluators – but did not evaluate this proposal).

We don’t have access to such grant programs in Canada, at least in recent years. This is a role perhaps that is needed from the Canadian Federal government, but this is unlikely to happen under the current Conservatives, unfortunately, as they wish to decrease rather than increase the federal government’s role in health and education. However, as this program indicates, the return on investment from such grants for the system as a whole is high. In any case, this model could help reduce at least student tuition costs, with state FTE funding being used to replace the philanthropic funding.

Over to you

Can you let me know of other fully online bachelor degrees being offered by public research universities or state universities?