A major landmark in open education was reached last week when University of the People was finally accredited by the Distance and Education Training Council, a U.S. Department of Education authorized accrediting agency. The online university with 1700 students from 142 countries has been in operation since 2009 with the objective of becoming "the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited online academic institution dedicated to opening access to higher education globally for all qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints." Until now students have not been entitled to academic hard currency in the form of full university credits but with accreditation now in order it is likely that UoP will expand considerably and also demonstrate to the world that this educational model is not incompatible with the academic establishment. Indeed the accreditation of UoP must have raised a host of academic eyebrows and an article in Inside Higher Ed, An Innovation Stifler? sees the decision as evidence that accreditation organisations may not be the barriers to innovation in education that they have often been accused of being.
"I have to say that with all the complaints, if they accredited us, they've paved the way to alternative models," says Shai Reshef, founder of University of the People. "We're tuition free, operate on a budget of $1 million a year, use only open learning resources and on a volunteer faculty and a peer-to-peer paradigm of learning -- we're as different as you can get."
UoP had to measure up to all the criteria a traditional university needs to fulfill and had to make several changes to their procedures to gain accreditation, for example introducing checks on students' English language ability. Previously the learning process in many study groups was impaired by many students' low level of English.
The interesting point in this for me is that an innovative organisation offering virtually free higher education explicitly to people in developing countries with a low-tech and low-cost model has been accredited and can now offer real credentials. Similarly there is the OER University partnership which has a different model but can also offer credentials to those who are unable for financial or geographical reasons to participate in mainstream higher education. These and several other open education initiatives are providing what the MOOC movement is supposed to offer but has so far largely failed to deliver. The majority of MOOCs do not lead to credentials and are often rather technology heavy, depending on high quality video and access to broadband connections. If this type of education is to have an impact in widening access to higher education it needs to offer layers of accessibility enabling even those without broadband access the chance to fully participate. Materials need to be offered so that they can operate on any platform and alternative materials must be provided that are low bandwidth-friendly.
The MOOC revolution is providing plenty headlines and is a fascinating topic to follow but it is sad that the spotlight is so seldom turned on other aspects of open education (in all its 50 shades of openness) because there is plenty innovation going on there too. Now it is even accredited.