Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The next best thing

The demand for higher education in the world far outweighs the availability of places in established universities. That is clear from studies and statistics from organisations like UNESCO, OECD and Commonwealth of learning. Low cost or even free online learning using freely available open educational resources and based largely on student-centered collaborative learning or self-study offers a feasible model for offering higher education to all.

I've written many times about the growing list of open education providers such as University of the People, Peer 2 Peer University, OERuniversityMITx, Stanford's MOOCsFaculty Focus and Ubacity and a recent article in Times Higher Education, Cap and gown learning on a shoestring budget, outlines the issues facing the higher education establishment and the challenge of the open education movement. At present few established universities are even contemplating validating or awarding credentials for studies in the informal sector but the question is whether it is so wise to ignore this movement. A new tier of higher education is being formed and whilst it does not have the status and credibility of the formal system it may well prove to be good enough for the millions who need access to education but cannot afford it. The next best thing could well become the mass market and why should education be an exclusive commodity?

In the THE article Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, says:
"This is a period of significant transformation," she says. Broad sees higher education approaching a point at which people will be able "to snap modules together or link them in ways that produce what are sometimes called stackable credentials", including credits from, say, community colleges, universities, life experience and other sources, including open courseware. "There certainly is, I think, going to be competition, and by and large I think competition is a good thing," 

CC BY Saylor.org
I've just discovered another important player in the mushrooming open education market; namely the Saylor Foundation who today offer a wide range of free online university level courses and programmes at Saylor.org. They too build courses around open educational resources and  self-study but by combining this with student communities like OpenStudy you can form your own online study group to help you through the course.

"Saylor.org is a free and open collection of college level courses. There are no registrations or fees required to take our courses, and you will earn a certificate upon completion of each course. Because we are not accredited, you will not earn a college degree or diploma; however, our team of experienced college professors has designed each course so you will be able to achieve the same learning objectives as students enrolled in traditional colleges."

Saylor offers a wide range of courses in most academic fields and they even offer whole programs of study. You can study for example a full arts program including core courses and then a wide range of elective courses. Of course you don't earn "real" university credits for your efforts but as more people choose this form of education the interest in converting the results into some kind of educational hard currency (degrees or maybe badges) will increase. In the end new types of credentials will emerge and alternative paths to education will become accepted.

The formal university system isn't going to disappear but there's going to be a lot more competition. In the past there was competition from rival universities, then came the for-profit universities and now the open education providers. The problem for open education is that it often relies on the free availability of material and the willingness of dedicated enthusiasts to keep things moving. However the fact that some of the richest and most reputable universities in the world (MIT, Stanford) are also moving into the field shows that this is not just a niche for idealists and enthusiasts.

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