By Wayne Mackintosh

The OER university: Kiwi ingenuity leads a low cost, low risk but high impact solution for open education futures worldwide

The OER university (OERu) will provide free learning opportunities for all students worldwide using courses based solely on open educational resources (OER) and open access (OA) materials with pathways for learners to earn credible degrees. The OER Foundation, headquarted in New Zealand, is leading an international innovation partnership of accredited universities, polytechnics and community colleges committed to providing more affordable education for learners currently excluded from the formal higher education sector.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are materials used to support education that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared by anyone (Downes 2011). Creative Commons licenses are enabling an international network of accredited universities and polytechnics to widen access to more affordable degrees. The OER Tertiary Education Network, the driving force behind the OER university (OERu) collaboration have adopted the Free Cultural Works approved licenses (CC BY and CC BY-SA) as the default for OERu courses.

With OER, the marginal cost of replicating digital learning materials is near zero and sharing development costs improves cost efficiencies. Consequently, an international network of accredited institutions would be able to leverage significant savings in the cost and time required for the assembly and maintenance of OER courses combined with significant efficiency gains when operating at scale. Moreover, OER provides a viable solution for education institutions to respond to their educational mission of social inclusion.

The scale is guaranteed because of the unsatisfied global demand for higher education. Researchers at UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning conservatively predict that over the next fifteen years, the post-secondary education system will need to provide for an additional 100 million places. The conventional model of higher education provision is simply not able to respond to this level of demand for education.

The confluence of these economic and digital technology enablers provide fertile ground for designing a sustainable open education ecosystem whereby institutions can provide free access to learning opportunities. Building on Professor Emeritus Jim Taylor’s 2007 ideas to provide assessment on demand, the OERu concept was conceived.

Individuals are free to learn from digital materials hosted on the open web. The problem is that learners who access digital OERs on the web and acquire knowledge and skills either formally or informally, alone or in groups, cannot readily have their learning assessed and subsequently receive appropriate academic recognition for their efforts.

OERu learners will gain free access to high quality courses that are designed for independent-study using OER. OERu learners will receive student support through a global network of volunteers and peer support using social software technologies. Students can be assessed for a fee by participating institutions and earn a credible credential. Using OERit is possible to build a parallel learning universe to provide more affordable education for learners currently excluded from the formal education sector.

With a healthy dose of our Kiwi “can do” attitude which favours pragmatism above pretence, in November 2011, the OER Foundation convened an open meeting of founding anchor partners to plan the practical implementation of the OERu. With funding support from UNESCO, this landmark meeting was streamed live on the Internet modelling open participation and collaboration on a global scale. Five tertiary education institutions in New Zealand have embraced their responsibility to ensure more sustainable education futures, by joining the OERu network as founding anchor partners. Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, NorthTec the Open Polytechnic, Otago Polytechnic and the University of Canterbury are the New Zealand institutions who are leading open education futures in New Zealand. The OERu network, now numbering 20 contributing institutions will be able to accredit OER learning on five continents mapped to the credentialing frameworks of 20 different countries.

The vision of the OERu collaboration has now turned into reality with the recent announcement of the the launch of the first OERu course,  Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific (AST1000) developed by the University of Southern Queensland. Professor Jan Thomas, Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) noted that: “USQ is proud to give students worldwide, the ability to access university level courses and where cost has been removed as a barrier to learning”.

University leaders and administrators are concerned with how to ensure sustainability of OER initiatives on campus. Indeed, if OER projects are managed as an add-on to existing operations, the sources of funding to sustain OER projects can be a challenge. However, the strategic solution is to embed OER development as an integral component of business as usual.

From an investment-decision perspective, participation in the OERu does not require new money, but rather a reallocation of existing staff time to releasing selected development outputs under open content licenses for the OERu network as part of mainstream operations. The OERu model anticipates that no more than 1% of existing budget time would be required for release under open content licenses. The institutional costs of assessment and credentialisation services are recouped on a cost-recovery basis from student fees and/or other sources.

Consider for example that the average tuition fees for a 4-year bachelor degree at a public university in the United States is US$26,312, excluding accommodation and textbook costs. At Otago Polytechnic, the full tuition cost of a 4-year degree equivalent is approximately US$19,452. The summative assessment and credentialing services for the first OERu prototype course would equate to a 4-year bachelor degree costing US$6,759. As the OERu network grows and begins to leverage economies of scale, it is feasible that further cost reductions can be implemented.

The OERu network has succeeded in shifting the strategic focus of open education from how to achieve sustainable OER projects to how institutions will remain sustainable without the mainstream adoption of OER.

The OERu model is inspired by the concept of “smart philanthropy”. While the OERu is primarily designed to widen access to learning in higher education through the social inclusion and community service agenda, our approach encourages member institutions to reintegrate the lessons learned into mainstream operations. Tacit knowledge and capability gained through the OERu’s open design and development model can be reinvested back into the core business operations to improve effectiveness of the higher education sector and generate new business opportunities now possible with the OERu model. The OERu network is an exemplar for low cost, low risk, but high impact innovation.

For more information:

5 Things you should know about the OER university network plan

OERu Founding Anchor Partners

Athabasca University (Canada); BAOU (Gujarat’s open university, India); Empire State College (State University of New York) (USA); Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology (New Zealand); NorthTec (New Zealand); Open Polytechnic (New Zealand); Otago Polytechnic (New Zealand); Southern New Hampshire University (USA); Thompson Rivers University (Canada); University of Canterbury (New Zealand); University of South Africa (Republic of South Africa); University of Southern Queensland (Australia); University of Wollongong (Australia); OER Foundation (International); BCcampus (Canada).

OERu Anchor partners

Excelsior College (USA); Open University of Catalonia (Spain); Thomas Edison State College (USA); University of Glamorgan (United Kingdom); University of the South Pacific (Representing 12 Pacific Island Nations).

Dr Wayne Mackintosh is the founding director of the OER Foundation and is Commonwealth of Learning Chair in OER at Otago Polytechnic. Wayne is the founder of Wikieducator. He is also a member of the Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand Advisory Panel.

Share Button