This week I’ve been in Lisbon at the EFQUEL Innovation Forum 2011. EFQUEL is the European Foundation for Quality in E-learning and the theme of this year’s conference was Certifying the future. There is a vast range of learning resources freely available on the web and a bewildering assortment of courses at all levels that use these resources. The problem for everyone involved is creating trust and authority and this is essential for the acceptance of open educational resources in mainstream education.The conference focused on how to create quality assurance and credibility in e-learning.
Wayne Mackintosh was one of the keynote speakers and took an active part throughout the conference. He presented the ideas behind the OER University initiative that is soon to start offering courses based completely on OER but leading to recognized university qualifications (read an interview with Wayne on the background to OERu). He repeatedly stressed that credible certification is the most important concept in the OER movement today. Can we offer higher education to more people at very low cost without compromising on quality?
He identified two misconceptions about OER that are often used as evidence against open education. The first is that if universities give away content for free they will go out of business. The value of a university is not in created content but in reputation, context and validation. The fact that many universities already “give away” their courses and at the same time keep growing and attracting students (Open University, Athabasca, MIT etc) seems to bear this out. The second red herring is that OER are not important due to poor quality. Indeed there are an awful lot of poor OER but since OER are produced by qualified educators it is up to all of us to make sure that the resources we produce are of high quality. Better tagging and quality assurance are essetial here.
The idea of the OER University is to offer learners access to course material based solely on OER, provide open student support and learning communities leading to assignments that can give real academic qualifications. However you don’t have to follow any set course to get qualifications. You can learn however you want and if you can fulfill the university’s criteria you will get a qualification. The vital part here is that there should be no compromise on the standards set by the university but how you get there is your business. In the near future I am sure we will see more institutions that concentrate on validating and certifying competence gained elsewhere.
OER University is, however, not trying to set up a new university. The qualifications will be awarded by one of the participating universities in the partnership (at present Athabasca University, Empire State College, Nelson-Marlborough Institute of Technology, OER Foundation, Otago Polytechnic, Thompson Rivers University, University of South Africa, University of Southern Queensland) so that you will have a certificate from a recognized and reputable university. This scheme is designed to reach out to students who would not otherwise been able to participate in higher education and is therefore not aiming to cannibalize on the universities’ main student base.
There is no real investment needed to be part of the OER University partnership, just a new way of looking at higher education. Wayne threw out the challenge to European universities to join the venture since no institution from this part of the world has so far shown interest. It will be interesting to see who will step forward.