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May 16, 2008

Teach online to compete...

An article in Tuesday's Education Guardian, Teach online to compete, British universities told, caught my eye - not least because it appears to say very little about teaching online.  Rather, it talks about making course materials available online, which is, after all, very different.  To be fair, Carol Comer, academic development advisor (eLearning) at the University of Chester, does make this point towards the end of the article.

The report on which the story is based is "a paper for the latest edition of ppr, the publication of influential thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research".  I'm not sure if the paper is currently finished - it doesn't really look finished to be honest - the fonts seem to be all over the shop but perhaps I'm being too picky.  Or perhaps the Guardian have got sight of it a little early?

The report suggests that the UK should:

  • establish a centralised online hub of diverse British open courseware offerings at www.ocw.ac.uk, presented in easily-readable formats and accessible to teachers, students and citizens alike
  • establish the right and subsequent capacity for non-students and non-graduates to take the same exam as do face-to-face students, through the provision of open access exam sessions
  • pass an Open Access Act through Parliament, establishing a new class of Open degree, achieved solely using open courseware
  • conduct a high-profile public information campaign, promoting the opportunities afforded open courseware and open access examinations and degrees, targeted at adult learners, excluded minorities and students at pre-university age

OK, I confess that I found the report quite long and I didn't quite get to the end (err, make that beyond halfway).  I'm as big a fan of open access as the next person, probably more so, so I don't have a problem with the suggestion that we should be making more courseware openly available.  I'm just not convinced that anyone could get themselves up to degree level simply by downloading / reading / watching / listening to a load of open access courseware - no matter how good it is.  The report makes reference to MIT's OpenCourseware and the OU's OpenLearn initiatives.  Call me a cynic, but I've always suspected that MIT makes its cousreware available online, not for the greater good of humanity but so that more students will enroll at MIT?  OK, I'm adopting an intentionally extreme position here and I'm sure people at MIT do have the best of intentions - but I think it is also the case that they don't see the giving away of courseware in any way harmful to their current business models.  The OU's OpenLearn initiative (treated somewhat unfairly by the parts of the report I read) is slightly different in any case since the OU is by definition a distance-based institution - or so it seems to me.

So, I should probably stop at this point - having not properly read the report fully.  If you think I've been very unfair when you read the report yourself, let me know by way of a comment.


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The main principals behind the paper are outlined at http://opentlc.blogspot.com/2007/12/open-access-introduced.html which I found more readable. The paper itself literally gave me a headache - some of it didn't really seem to make sense (the author notes in another blog post that "There are a couple of editorial slipups in the article I had published in Public Policy Research" - so this may have coloured the Guardian's coverage).

I don't think it is cynical to think that MIT have ulterior motives for making material freely available - I suspect that MIT simply 'got' the idea that the net changes how we need to approach things such as the distribution and sharing of content (in a way that most publishers have not yet got their heads round). It clearly remains to be seen whether this works in the longterm, and as Paul Walk pointed out in a tweet yesterday, not everyone is MIT, and what works for them may not be applicable to others.

Hi Andy

I've been pondering on this report for the past few days too, and I'm in general agreement for you. It also kind of scares me to to see sweeping statements about passing acts of parliament that don't seem to take into account the need for teaching. We (still) have massive literacy problems in the UK and the types of resources referred to here are pretty much text based and presume everyone can access the internet.

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