Commonwealth of Learning
Ebene CyberCity, Mauritius
20 May 2011
Tertiary Education: How Open?
Sir John Daniel
Commonwealth of Learning
Honourable Ministers, Excellencies, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is a great pleasure for my colleagues from the Commonwealth of Learning and me to be in Mauritius again. We are most grateful to the Government for agreeing to let us hold this meeting here and I am sure that our colleagues from across the African continent will be stimulated by their contacts with this dynamic country.
For me this is a special milestone because my very first assignment for the Commonwealth of Learning was here in Mauritius 22 years ago.
It was in 1989 and COL hired me as a consultant to prepare a report for your Government on Distance Education for Human Resources Development in Mauritius: The Way Forward. I have very good memories of that visit, when I stayed part of the time in Cure Pipe, which was cold and wet and part in Flic-en-Flac which was warm and dry.
The Minister of Education at that time was Mr Armoogum Parsuramen, who was, I believe, the youngest minister of education in the Commonwealth at the time. We did not know it then but our paths would continue to intersect throughout our careers.
When I moved to UNESCO as Assistant Director-General for Education in 2001 Mr Parsuramen was Director of UNESCO’s Bureau regional pour l’éducation en Afrique, where our Vice-President, Professor Asha Kanwar, worked during his mandate.
He then moved to UNESCO HQ in Paris and later to his present post as Director of UNESCO’s Cluster Office in India, which has a most constructive relationship with COL’s unit in New Delhi, the Commonwealth Educational Media Centre for Asia, CEMCA.
This is but one example of the strong relationship between COL and Mauritius. Your country was, and continues to be, a major architect of the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth. We are particularly grateful to Ricaud Auckbur, who has a longstanding association with the VUSSC as a member of its Management Committee and to Kaylash Allgoo who chairs the committee that manages VUSSC’s Transnational Qualifications Framework.
Indeed, the development of the TQF owed much to the expertise that you have here in Mauritius in your own Qualifications Authority. I must also mention that the very first of the course development boot camps, which have been a defining feature of the development of the VUSSC, was held here at the University of Mauritius in 2006.
So you could say that the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth has Mauritian fingerprints all over it!
And I must add our thanks to those, such as Mr Dansangani who have strengthened the links between COL and Mauritius by being good friends over many years.
Thank you for the invitation to give this public lecture during my visit. My title is Tertiary Education: How Open?, which I have chosen, first, because you are slowly setting up an Open University and, second, because opening up tertiary education to wider audiences is a key trend all over the world.
It was not always thus.
I well remember, during my first visit to Mauritius in 1989, thinking how closed the system was. The primary role of the Ministry of Education seemed to be that of a gatekeeper whose function, and I exaggerate only a little, was to prevent people getting to the next rung on the educational ladder. I remember being particularly shocked to learn that someone returning to Mauritius with a degree from the UK Open University, which now ranks 5th among UK universities for the quality of its teaching, would not have been employable in your public service at that time. How times have changed!
Now your aim is to help people fulfil their potential and to rise as far up their career ladders as their talents can take them. Yesterday Minister Jeetah of Tertiary Education told us that Mauritius was aiming to have one graduate per family by 2020.
But openness is not only about formal education. I was particularly proud to take part in the launch yesterday of the programme of Lifelong Learning for Woman’s Empowerment that COL is a partner in.
This is the background to my remarks today. We are trying to make education more open.
For example, one area where a number of countries are actively seeking COL’s help is in the burgeoning field of open schooling. Although we hear most about the huge open schools in large population countries, such as India’s National Institute for Open Schooling, open schools are also important to small countries like Namibia, where the Namibian College of Open Learning, NAMCOL, accounts for 40% of secondary pupils.
Moreover, countries like Trinidad and Tobago, which can claim to have achieved universal secondary schooling by conventional means, have created open schools to cater to the children who have dropped out and to adults who need more education but cannot return to the school classroom.
Last year I published a book about this phenomenon last year called, Mega-Schools, Technology and Teachers: Achieving Education for All, I pointed out that open schooling can be a most useful complement to a national education system if it is integrated with the other elements of that system. It can help to break down the often unhelpful distinction between formal and non-formal education, it can throw a bridge between knowledge acquisition and skills development, and reduce the educational inequalities which are a growing problem in most countries.
In summary, I argue that an open school can be a vital component of a 21st century educational ecosystem because it strengthens its capacity to adapt to the future. Not least, open schooling can provide some people with a good bridge to tertiary education. I am delighted to learn, therefore, that the Mauritius Open University, which is about to become a reality after seven years of discussion and planning, will include an open schooling unit.
What else can we do to open up tertiary education? In the days when gate-keeping was a major function of education, entry to tertiary education was closely controlled and provided free to those who squeezed through the gate. Now countries aim to have half of their citizens engage in tertiary education at some time in their lives, and since no country can afford to support such wide participation from public funds alone, costs are being shared between the state, the employers, and the individuals who benefit.
Two years ago UNESCO’s World Conference on Higher Education identified massification as the major trend and the numbers are staggering – particularly here in Africa. Nearly one-third of the world’s population (29.3%) is under 15. Today there are 165 million people enrolled in tertiary education1. Projections suggest that that participation will peak at 263 million2 in 2025.
Accommodating the additional 98 million students would require more than four major universities (30,000 students) to open every week for the next fifteen years. What are our assets in facing up to this responsibility?
One asset is technology. Technology can help us to offer higher quality education to more people at lower cost.
The iron triangle
In some parts of the world I am best known for my iron triangle made up of the vectors of access, quality and cost. The aim, of course, is to increase access and quality while cutting the cost so that we can afford to educate more people.
The basic point is that with conventional classroom education you have little scope to alter this triangle advantageously because extending one vector will make the others shorter. Pack more students into the class and quality suffers. Offer better learning materials and the cost goes up.
However, technology is able to stretch this triangle so that you can achieve the revolution of wider access, higher quality and lower cost. Many institutions have done this, especially the open universities, so this is not news.
The challenge is that we have achieved this revolution with the traditional distance learning technologies of the industrial era.
We are the daughters and sons of Adam Smith and we have put to good use his industrial production principles of division of labour, specialisation, economies of scale and the use of machines and media. But we now have a new generation of digital technology, which even an intellect like Adam Smith might have difficulty defining in a snappy way, although the concepts of networks, connectedness, collaboration and community capture elements of it.
The crucial question is can we combine production and digital technologies in distance learning in ways that are scalable? Sadly, few people have yet done so. The economies of scale associated with production technology have tended to go out of the window as people have leapt on the bandwagon of eLearning.
But what can digital technology do for openness if we use it well?
Dimensions of openness
Let me approach this question with a brief historical review of the dimensions of openness.
One hundred and fifty years ago the University of London launched its External Studies Programme on the principle at it did not matter how people acquired knowledge provided they could demonstrate mastery of it in examinations.
In the century and a half of its existence five London External graduates have won Nobel prizes, so no one can call it a Mickey Mouse programme. I am sure that over the years many citizens of Mauritius – and of Africa generally – have benefited from the London programme. Over the years more and more teaching was offered to help people prepare for the examinations, either by third parties or by London itself, but today the original ‘examination-only’ concept suddenly looks very modern, for reasons that I will come to in a moment.
A century after London University the UK Open University, which has embedded the term ‘open’ in the vocabulary of higher education, set out to be open in two ways. First, it abolished all academic pre-requisites for admission. Second, it operated at a distance.
Its evolving mission is to open to people, open to places, open to methods, and open to ideas. Openness to methods was clearly required by the decision to carry out distance teaching at scale, and openness to ideas reflected a desire to use its scale and intellectual muscle to re-think the orthodoxy in some disciplines.
Nevertheless, the Open University curriculum is closed in the sense that the programs and courses were defined and developed by the University – students can take them or leave them although they have great flexibility to mix and match courses.
However, at the same time as the UKOU opened 40 years ago, the State University of New York set up Empire State College with the aim of opening up the curriculum by allowing students to invent their own courses of study according to their interests and needs. Its slogan ‘my degree, my way’ captures this perfectly.
These dimensions of openness: open admissions; distance learning at scale, and open curricula remained the principal expressions of openness for the next thirty years.
The first two dimensions were widely copied and there are now millions of students in open universities around the world. In 1996, in my book of that name I identified 11 mega-universities each enrolling over 100,000 distance learners. That number has now multiplied considerably and at least three of the mega-universities, those in China, India and Pakistan, now have over a million students each.
The possibilities of opening up universities on several more dimensions became clear a decade ago when the Internet burst into the public consciousness in the dotcom frenzy at the turn of the millennium. The good news was that the dotcom frenzy alerted universities to new opportunities – the bad was that some got carried away into ill-fated ventures.
This is nicely documented in Taylor Walsh’s book Unlocking the Gates, in which she records how universities such as Columbia, Chicago, the London School of Economics, Oxford, Yale and Stanford thought they could make serious money by offering non-credit courses online. In the event they all lost serious money before the ventures they established were ignominiously closed down.
Other universities learned the lesson and in the next wave of eExperimentation, led by MIT, universities put materials associated with their credit courses on the web for free. However, in this case the subtitle to her book is misleading. MIT was not ‘opening up access to its courses’.
MIT Open Courseware lets people look at some of the materials used in its courses, and millions do, but they explicitly do not offer interaction with MIT faculty, still less the possibility of obtaining an MIT credential. In this respect a cynic might regard such operations as patronizing gestures that let a few intellectual crumbs fall from the master’s table to show the rest of the world what it is missing.
The materials on MIT’s and similar websites are called Open Educational Resources, or OER. Open educational resources are a game-changer. A growing corpus of OER, which we can now use and adapt to our own needs with confidence, is available on the web. This is already changing institutional behaviour.
For example, colleagues at the Asia eUniversity in Malaysia say that once they have agreed on course curriculum outlines they do not need to develop any original learning materials because they can find good quality material on the web for all the topics they require and adapt it to their precise needs. Other distance teaching universities, such as Athabasca University, will not approve development of a course until proposing department has shown that it has done a thorough search for relevant open material that can be used as a starting point.
But some want to go much further. Last year Paul Stacey, of Canada’s BC Campus, outlined the concept of ‘The University Open’. He pointed out that the combination of open source software, open access publishing, open educational resources, and the general trend to open government creates the potential for a new paradigm in higher education.
Similar ideas often occur in several places at once and in Europe we saw the development, under the leadership Germany’s Ulf-Daniel Ehlers and the UK’s Grainne Conole, of the notion of open educational practices built around the use of open educational resources.
I must confess that until recently I had tended to dismiss Open Educational Practices movement as unrealistic for two reasons. First, I have always remembered the injunction of Lord Walter Perry, the founding vice-chancellor of the UK Open University, that if you innovate in too many ways at once you will scare off students. Second, I believe that radical innovations in tertiary education must be accompanied by particularly robust frameworks of accreditation and credentialing in order to attract a broad public. 150 years ago the External Programme had solid foundations in the University of London; 40 years ago Empire State College had all the gravitas of SUNY behind it; and the UKOU had a Royal Charter just like the older UK universities.
The Open Educational Resource University
However, recent developments have made me more supportive of this movement. I refer particularly to a meeting that was convened in New Zealand in February by former COL colleague Wayne Mackintosh who now heads the Open Education Resource Foundation. The purpose of the meeting was to operationalize what they called the Open Educational Resource University, a concept developed from Paul Stacey’s The University Open and ideas from the Open Educational Practices movement.
The idea, and this slide comes from Jim Taylor of the University of Southern Queensland who is one of the thinkers in the movement and an academic leader with a strong track record of successful innovation, is to have students find their content as OERs, get tutoring from a global network of volunteers, be assessed, for a fee, by a participating institution and earn a credible credential. Such a system would reduce the cost of higher education dramatically and clearly has echoes of the University of London External system that I mentioned earlier.
As regards the first step in this ladder, open educational resources are certainly being used. We know that already literally millions of students and informal learners are using the open educational resources put out by MIT, the UK Open University, and others. Those already enrolled as students are looking to find better and clearer teaching than they are getting in the universities where they are registered; the informal learners are exploring domains they would like to know more about.
The 32 small states of the Commonwealth are working together the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, with the strong involvement of Mauritius, to develop open educational resources that they can all adapt and use. The interest is considerable. The UKOU’s OpenLearn site has 16 million users and hundreds of courses can be downloaded as interactive eBooks. Furthermore, with 300,000 downloads per week the UKOU alone accounts for 10% of all downloads from iTunesU. I have parts of its Beginners’ Chinese course on my iPhone. And we must not forget the worldwide viewing audience of millions for OU/BBC TV programs.
Martin Bean, the Australian-American who moved from Microsoft HQ to become vice-chancellor of the UK Open University last year, argues that the task of universities today is to provide paths or steps from this informal cloud of learning towards formal study for those who wish to take them.
Good paths will provide continuity of technology because many millions of people around the world first encounter the Open University through iTunes, its TV broadcasts or the resources on its OpenLearn website. The thousands who then elect to enrol as students will find themselves studying in similar digital environments.
So where does all this take us. I suggest that the institutions best equipped to make a success of the Open Education Resource University are institutions in the public sector that already operate successfully in parts of this space and award reputable credentials.
Furthermore, the UKOU’s performance in national comparative assessments of teaching quality is impressive. The last time comparative assessments of teaching quality were published the Open University placed above Oxford, where I once studied. Moreover, in national surveys of student satisfaction conducted with a very large sample of students the Open University placed third out of a hundred institutions last year and came first in earlier years. Empire State College consistently ranks number one for student satisfaction in surveys across the sixty campuses of the State University of New York.
Let me take you back to Martin Bean’s remark about leading learners step by step from the informal cloud of learning to formal study and juxtapose that with Jim Taylor’s representation of the steps in the Open Education Resource University. We can be confident that the first step, namely access to open educational resource learning materials will be increasingly will be increasingly solid. The pool of OER is growing fast and the means of finding and retrieving them are getting better and better.
I have already suggested the solidity of the top step, credible credentials, depends on the involvement of existing, reputable institutions with longstanding accreditation that resonate with this approach. Empire State College and the UKOU are examples.
What about the three intermediate steps? For the first, student support, these two institutions have all the skills necessary. Both are skilled at managing extensive networks of tutors or mentors. Empire State College has unique skills for this task given that students will often not be working with material created by the institution but resources they have discovered for themselves. Its mentoring model is well suited to this.
Jim Taylor envisages the emergence of a body rather like Médecins sans Frontières or Engineers without Borders, which he calls Academic Volunteers International. That may work in some places, but having students buy support on a pay-as-you-go basis would make for a more sustainable model.
It is also important to recognize that social software is greatly enriching the possibilities for student support and interaction. For example the UKOU’s OpenLearn website is not just a repository of OERs but a hive of activity involving many groups of learners. Digital technology is breathing new life into the notion of communities of scholars and learners, because social software gives students the opportunity to create academic communities that take us far beyond the rather behaviouristic forms of online learning that give eLearning a bad name.
Some of this social learning activity involves various forms of informal assessment that can be most helpful in preparing students for the formal kind.
When we come to step three, assessment, it seems to me that payment is essential but this is well travelled territory. It takes us back to the University of London model with the difference, again, that some assessments would be based on curricula developed by the student. With credible assessment by reputable institutions the next step, the granting and transfer of credit, is straightforward and leads to the top step of credentials.
Implicit in my own vision for the Open Educational Resource University is that it is not an accredited institution, but rather an umbrella organization for a network of participating accredited institutions. There is a good analogy with the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, which is not a new institution but a collaborative network that allows 32 small countries jointly to create courses as open educational resources that each can then adapt and use to extend and strengthen the offerings of its own tertiary institutions.
No institution is likely to adopt the Open Educational Resource University model for its core operations in the foreseeable future since the revenues – as well, of course, as the costs – would be much lower than we are used to.
When the meeting on the Open Educational Resource University in New Zealand in February generated this headline in The Australian newspaper, Jim Taylor faced some questions from his president at the University of Southern Queensland when he got home! However, USQ has a long and strong track record in open, distance and blended learning and intends to test the waters by offering studies on this model initially as part of its community service function. That seems a sensible approach.
Experience at Empire State College shows that today’s students like to mix and match. Rather than go for an entirely open educational resource degree, students are likely to combine this type of study with some regular online courses and even some attendance in class.
Let me end by relating this to Mauritius. Your long-awaited Open University is about to begin operations and will include an Open School. I urge you to explore an association with the Open Education Resource University because, at the very least, it will make you part of some cutting edge thinking about the future of tertiary education.
In talking about the OER University I have focussed on the accreditation of degree level work and conventional higher education credentials, but opening up tertiary education goes much wider than that. In today’s knowledge society people of all ages will be attracted to learn about a wide variety of topics.
We had a nice example of this in Mauritius yesterday when we launched the programme of Lifelong Learning for Women’s Empowerment with a first learning activity focused on alphabétisation juridique. This is a joint programme of the Ministry of Gender Equality, Child Development and Family Welfare and the National Productivity and Competitiveness Council. COL is very proud to be associated with it since it is inspired by our Lifelong Learning for Farmers programme that is successful in a number of countries.
Beginning with Legal Literacy the programme here will lead the participating women, who will number in thousands, into learning about starting and running businesses, credit management, and related topics. The aim is greater prosperity through empowerment.
This exciting new programme recalls elements of the Open Education Resource University because its materials are available on the Web and as CDs. It is open in another very important way since the materials are in Creole.
So in closing I suggest that you explore how this and similar programmes might be brought within the aegis of your new Open University and Open School so that the women who take part will get some formal recognition for their achievements that can become part of each one’s learning portfolio.
It seems to me that the strong reputation of the Mauritius Qualifications Authority and the good work that you have done on the recognition of prior learning you have all the elements in hand to become world leaders in opening up this aspect of tertiary education.
You have to decide how open you want tertiary education in Mauritius to be. But if you are to achieve the ambitious goals for the country that Minister Jeetah outlined to our group yesterday, the answer has to be ‘very open’.
So I wish you well in fostering learning for development in Mauritius.