Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Open University Going Digital by Design

The Open University UK (OUUK) has announced a "root and branch review of every aspect of its operations", with  "major savings and reinvestment plan" for a university "digital by design". The  Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, gets a poetic proposing to  “... transform the University of the Air ... to a University of the Cloud ...". But the media release "The Open University outlines plans for radical reinvention" (14 June 2017) is vague as to what exactly intended.

Athabasca University, Canada's open on-line university, recently released the results of an independent report into the institution's financial viability. In 2014 UBC released a Flexible Learning Strategic Vision. These, like OUUK, discuss addressing life long learning in a flexible way, but are vague on exactly how to do this and even vaguer on how to attract students to it.

OUUK was a pioneer in how to design and deliver cost-effective higher education programs. Most of the on-line programs of other institutions (and MOOCs) are an adaption of OUUK's approach. It will be interesting to see how, and if, OUUK can improve on its current techniques. It may be that this is not so much about how to design or deliver courses, so much as identifying what the student needs and getting just that to the student, when they need it (an approach emphasized in Vocational Education).

OUUK proposes to "to enhance its reputation as a world leader in lifelong and distance learning". However, I suggest this may make the situation worse, not better, driving away students, not attracting them. As the Athabasca report notes, many conventional universities are now offering on-line distance courses.

I suggest that OUUK, Athabasca, and similar open on-line institutions, have an image problem. Open and distance universities are seen as less prestigious than traditional campus based institutions. Students do not attend an open on-line university because they prefer it, they do so because they do not have a good alternative. By emphasizing lifelong and distance learning these institutions are making themselves less attractive to students.

Perhaps OUUK needs to adopt the marketing approach traditional universities are applying to their on-line courses: emphasize high academic standards and a traditional on-campus experience. As an example, MIT have experimented with on-line courses with optional attendance. Most students will never take up the optional attendance, but will be comforted it exists. Students do benefit from interaction with other students and with an instructor, but this need not be face-to-face, or on campus.

This on-campus dream/off-campus reality is similar to the way automotive companies market off-road vehicles to consumers who never drive them off-road. The companies know that their customers would be better off with a safer, more fuel efficient, lower cost family wagon, but that this is not attractive. The buyers know they are never really going to drive along a beach or across a desert, but the dream is very powerful. Similarly, the dream of attending an ox-bridge style campus is a powerful way to sell on-line courses.

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