University has always been a rite of passage; a period of your life devoted to study and network building before entering the world of employment. If you attend for three years you get a batchelor's degree and if you stay a year or two longer you get a master's degree. The focus is on the time spent on campus and the intangible assets of "student life" that can only be gained by being there. This time-based institution has therefore great difficulty accepting that some people can learn the same things without physically uprooting themselves and living on or around campus for the allotted time. No matter how well online students perform there's always suspicion that they have not gained the full benefit of higher education and that off-campus learning can never match "the real thing" (see my last post for more on that topic).
However, as university fees soar in many countries there are more and more new paths to higher education (MOOCs, for-credit online courses etc). The rite of passage aspect is also less relevant, especially for the growing ranks of lifelong learners who need small and regular injections of higher education but have no interest in actually attending a brick and mortar institution.
An article in the New York Times by Anya Kamenetz, Are You Competent? Prove It.
Degrees Based on What You Can Do, Not How Long You Went, discusses the demand for credits for experience and the concept of fast-tracking a degree for people with extensive experience in the subject area. Some colleges are offering students the chance to complete courses as fast as they want and get due credit for validated practical workplace experience.
College leaders say that by focusing on what people learn, not how or when they learn it, and by taking advantage of the latest technology, they can save students time and lower costs. There are 37 million Americans with some college but no degree, and political leaders at the local, state and national levels are heralding new competency-based programs as the best way to get them marketable diplomas.
We need to develop credible systems for giving talented people recognition for work experience and informal learning without having to return to campus of take on crippling loans. This is a potentially massive new market for universities but is viewed with extreme suspicion since it means offering credit to students who haven't attended the college in the traditional sense. One institution that is working on this is the University of Wisconsin who are offering flexible courses that can be completed at the student's own pace. According to Kevin P. Reilly who's in charge of the university's flexible initiative:
“It’s scary for faculty,” Dr. Reilly says. “There’s a continuing sense that students can and do draw on so many sources of information that are now available at their fingertips. They don’t need to come to the monastery for four years and sit at the feet of the monks.”
This week saw the long awaited official launch of OER University which offers a serious alternative to the hyped xMOOC consortia. OER University are a partnership of 37 universities and organisations under the auspices of UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning that offer truly open online courses using open educational resources and learners can get their learning assessed for real credits at a fraction of the cost of attending campus. Students need to pay a fee to get their learning and experience validated and credits awarded but it's a fraction of the cost of the full campus experience.
The rite of passage campus experience is not going to die out. It's still attractive for many but is only possible when you're between 18 and 25 and if you can afford it. For everyone else we need to offer other paths that may not give you that all-round learning experience of campus but are more practical and give recognition for the skills and knowledge that people gain at work and in leisure time. Will universities dare to award credentials to someone else's students? The members of OER University say they are willing and let's see who joins in.