Thursday, August 15, 2013

Lessons for MOOCs from the Open University

Recently I was browsing the shelves of the education section of the Australian Defence Force Academy Library (ADFA) in Canberra. I came across the book "The Open University: History and Evaluation of a Dynamic Innovation in Higher Education" by Walter Perry (1976, also published in the UK as "Open University: A Personal Account by The First Vice-Chancellor", Open University Press, 1988).

Perry was the first Vice Chancellor of the UK Open University, which was originally to be called "University of the Air". The university set out to provide a low cost education, with no academic limit on entry, using the information technology of its day (broadcast TV). Debates over completion rates and educational standards were essentially the same as those now about MOOCs.

Over the decades, the Open University evolved an approach to education, which later incorporated the use of the Internet. I was trained in a evolved version of that approach to on-line education, used by the Australian Computer Society for teaching masters level professionals and attended on-line courses in a similar technique used by the University of Southern Queensland. I now use at the Australian National University and get good results (with student feedback scores of 5 out of 5 for satisfaction with the course).  I stopped teaching in a classroom in 2009 and now regard on-line education as routine.

What I find surprising is that much of the current debate over MOOCs has not been informed by decades of research and experience with on-line courses. The debate should not be about if MOOCs are better than classrooms, but what is the value of this new, and slightly different form, of on-line distance education.

Perry mentions several distance education institutions as having helped shaped Open University. These include University of South Africa, at the time the largest distance education university in the western world. Also mentioned is the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia.

Perry's book provides a fascinating first hand account of the top-down creation of a university.  Rather than dealing with the minute detail of courses, it starts with the idea, the political debate and securing funding. Chapter 3 "Early Problems" has a two page PERT Chart, showing the interrelationships between the tasks needed to set up the university. Some tasks, such as building facilities and hiring staff, have a long lead time and had to be started while the details of what was to be done was still unclear. The book progresses to discussion of degree structures, course creation, accreditation, what might be the student demand and distribution of materials.

Looking back from the 21st century, some of the challenges of the OU seem irrelevant. As OU had to produce materials on paper and post them to thousands of students. Use of computers was in its infancy and the idea of supplying all the course material on line was a distant possibility. Video materials were produced by professional BBC TV staff, edited using reel-to-reel videotape and distributed by broadcast TV or film (no computer editing or downloading).

Some challenges of distance education (and education generally) have not changed. OU required a team approach to the creation of quality course materials and a long lead time for development and testing. Being able to distribute materials on-line has cut some weeks off the production process for distance education, but developing courses still takes considerable time and effort, which is not understood by educators used to ad-hoc live lectures.

The issue of credit exemptions is one which remains alive today. Universities remain reluctant to grant credit for courses undertaken elsewhere. The issue of recognition of prior learning remains contentious for the more elite universities.

Funding of courses remains a perennial issue for universities. OU's budget depended on economies of scale from large numbers of students using standardized materials and this is one of the ideas which todays MOOCs are based on.

What I find curious is that while I have been learning and teaching e-learning for several years, there has been little mention of the Open University's experience. On the shelf next to Perry's work there were several other books from Open University authors about the development of courses. One which caught my attention was on the costing of courses, an important topic which was not addressed in any of the higher education courses I have undertaken.

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