Saturday, December 15, 2012

A new layered model for education

CC BY-NC-SA Some rights reserved by Sanctu
This week saw the emergence of yet another player in the MOOC market as a group of 12 UK universities under the leadership of Open University formed a new company called  Futurelearn (UK universities embrace the free, open, online future of higher education powered by The Open University). They plan to offer a range of massive open online courses starting next year and thus offering an alternative to the US-based established trio of edX, Coursera and Udacity.

Once again the media is full of enthusiastic quotes from academic leaders and politicians praising this move as revolutionary and it certainly opens up new avenues in higher education particularly in light of the sharp rises in student fees in England and Wales over recent years. However, sometimes it feels as if online learning has only just been invented with the arrival of all the MOOCs of the past year and that there is now only one model in town. The diversity of online learning is seldom discussed and the fact that plenty excellent online education already takes place as part of established universities' regular portfolios. Does the advent of heavyweight MOOC consortia mean that participating universities will transfer existing online courses to the MOOC world and keep their core business of traditional campus teaching under their own roof?

Instead of seeing all this as some kind of conflict between the the old and the new I think we are seeing the establishment of universal access to education. There is an unprecedented global demand for education that schools and universities cannot ever hope to meet since the actual buildings of these institutions can only accommodate so many students. Even if we could build new institutions every week they could never hope to cope with the global demand for education. By making educational resources freely available on the net we can make education accessible to all even if there are major infrastructure problems in many countries. With the help of internet cafes, libraries, learning centres and smart mobiles educational resources can be accessed even by the millions without any hope of owning a computer or mobile.

What is now being established is a free basic layer offering universal access to learning resources and organised course models. This content is provided by institutions (such as the MOOC providers) as well as millions of teachers, students and experts who share their knowledge under Creative Commons licenses. On top of that foundation we can augment the free material with service layers such as teaching, tutoring, guidance, collaboration opportunities, quality assurance, assessment, feedback and examination. These services may be offered by one institution as in the traditional campus university or by various organisations and the student is able to pick and mix from many providers. These add-on layers will be organised in many ways: free, for-profit, high status, bundled, certified, professional, peer-driven etc.

The key is that the foundation layer is freely available for all. Some people will have the skills to learn in peer groups using this material with the simple goal for learning for the sheer sake of learning. Others will be willing to pay for extra tuition and many will be able to pay for examination and certification. There may be low-cost or free certification schemes such as open badges and there will be high status certification at a cost. Some will want the whole experience under one roof and will continue to attend campus universities since they provide all layers in one package and with credible credentials at the end. Others who cannot afford the campus university will need to find a package that suits their learning needs and their financial situation.

So maybe instead of seeing the present trends in open education as a disruptive we should see it all as the establishment of a new educational ecosystem with this layered model emerging. Where access to learning resources is a fundamental right but with many options for interacting and benefitting from them.


  1. You conclusion is spot on!

    One of the most exciting aspects of online learning is that it makes learning and education accessible to all. Opening availability of courses, sharing knowledge and inspiring many onto a path of lifelong learning is, I think, a win-win situation for us all!

  2. Thanks! I think if we see the foundation as a free an open repository of learning resources with a number of layers on top then institutions and companies can offer one or more layers - free or for profit.