Open education the sustainable way in the knowledge age

Global demand for tertiary education is forecast to rise to an extra 100 million places over the next 15 years, equivalent to building four new universities for 40,000 students every week. But that’s not going to happen. The only way to sufficiently and cost-effectively widen access for the impending avalanche of additional learners is through open education – not commercial MOOCs using closed resources – says Dr Wayne Mackintosh, director of the OER Foundation.

Mackintosh is a global expert in open educational resources, or OERs, who is leading creation of the OERu – OER Universitas – an international partnership with accredited tertiary education institutions around the world that aims to widen access to affordable education for all. The OERu is headquartered at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand.

“We are not a Silicon Valley start-up, nor do we want to be a Silicon Valley start-up when we grow up,” Mackintosh told University World News. “We care about access to high quality, credentialed education.

“If there is one thing that characterises the OERu network, it is the rigour of our planning. That is one of the main reasons for the success we’ve had thus far. We don’t have huge numbers of students yet, we don’t have a huge body of courses, but we are working one step at a time in building a model that is going to work, be sustainable and be acceptable.”

Mackintosh will be a keynote speaker at the International Council for Open and Distance Education’s 26th ICDE World Conference, being held in the mega-resort Sun City, north of Johannesburg, from 14-16 October and hosted by the University of South Africa, or UNISA. The theme is “Growing capacities for sustainable distance e-learning provision”.

HE growth and sustainable development

The fundamental problem around sustainability is that the world is running out of planet, said Mackintosh. “Any strategy based on a model assuming perpetual growth where resources are scarce is not sustainable in the long run and is doomed to fail.” Examples are fossil fuels and food production.

“What we need to do is get smarter in terms of the production and consumption of resources. And the only way we can get smarter is through education. The secret to sustainable development is educating for sustainability that doesn’t presume perpetual growth in a world of scarce resources.”

However, most models – including in higher education – are based on the presumption of perpetual growth. “The fact is that an open education is both a sustainable and a renewable resource when compared to closed resources.”

Sustainability challenges

There are two major problems with the global higher education system in terms of sustainability, Mackintosh continued.

The first is that in most parts of the industrialised world over the past two decades, tuition costs for students have increased above the inflation index. “That is not a sustainable system.”

The second challenge is soaring growth in demand for tertiary education. Taking population growth into account, agencies such as UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning, or COL, conservatively estimate the need for an additional 100 million student places to be created in the next 15 years, over and above existing capacity.

There is probably not a country in the world that will be able to establish the number of new conventional institutions that will be required to meet this demand.

“Similarly the traditional single mode distance education model, which has been extremely successful in widening access to cost-effective education in the industrial age, is not a model that will scale well in the knowledge age using closed resources which restrict reuse. Particularly when the marginal cost of replicating digital knowledge is near zero,” said Mackintosh.

“So we need to find more cost-effective ways of widening access to learners who will not have the privilege of a tertiary education – for whatever reason, whether it is lack of funds or lack of provision in the home country. The only way that we can widen access to these additional learners is through an open education model. OER becomes more sustainable when institutions are required to release the education materials funded by public money under open licences.”

Sharing knowledge

Mackintosh describes himself as an open educator who has dedicated his life to widening access. “The notion that the reason why we teach is to share knowledge freely. I joined the education profession for that reason. The OERu is an extension of that value proposition.”

A graduate of the University of Pretoria in South Africa with a PhD from Britain’s University of Bath, he was the founding project leader of New Zealand’s e-Learning XHTML editor project and founder of WikiEducator

Previously, he has been an associate professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and for 11 years he worked at UNISA. This year he resigned from holding the UNESCO-COL Chair in OER, to focus full-time on implementing the OERu.

The serendipitous origins of the OERu, said Mackintosh, were at an open and distance education event in New Zealand when he met a fellow keynote speaker, Australian Emeritus Professor Jim Taylor. He was speaking about open scholarship and Mackintosh on OER.

“We realised that these two concepts should be working together.” They shared ideas around the OERu and decided to host an open meeting to test the idea and concept in February 2011. UNESCO provided funding to an initial webcast and meeting where Taylor and Mackintosh proposed the OERu concept.

“It was decided that this was a great idea and needed to move forward. The OER Foundation had signed up partners, and by November 2011 the founding meeting of OERu was held with 13 partners. “So it’s still a very young initiative.”

After a prototyping phase, there was a soft launch of OERu in October 2013, officiated by open education guru Sir John Daniel and held at Thompson Rivers University in Canada, one of OERu’s partners.

The OERu way

“We are moving forward at ‘academic speed’,” Mackintosh said.

“I say that tongue in cheek, but the reality is that for better or for worse, in tertiary education the environment is very conservative, as it is in the economy and society. Radical change within higher education will not be palatable because it is the token value of degrees and credentials that society and the economy respect."

The OERu aims to widen access to affordable tertiary study for learners excluded from formal education. It is a designated project of the UNESCO-COL OER chair network, and coordinates a partnership of accredited tertiary institutions worldwide.

The OERu provides pathways for students to obtain credentials for courses based solely on open education resources. In these early days, it offers some courses but does not confer degrees – the first general arts degree is currently being developed.

Learners study courses for free. OERu partners with institutions that provide assessment and credentialing services for a fee to finance the cost of assessment services. Students who want credentials pay, on average, 20% of what they would have for a credential via the traditional route at the partner institution, which offers the service on a cost-recovery basis.

The network currently has 35 contributing partners from six regions of the world – Africa, Asia, North America, Oceania, Europe and the Middle East – an interesting mix of contact and open and distance learning institutions.

Last December the OERu produced its first graduate. Michelle Aragon, a Canadian open learning student with Thompson Rivers University, enrolled in and successfully completed a “Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific” course created by OERu partner the University of Southern Queensland, using only open educational resources.

“This demonstrated that the model works,” Mackintosh said.

Open resources versus MOOCs

Open education advocates do not believe that commercial MOOCs provide a sustainable way to widening tertiary access. “There are significant points of difference between the commercial MOOC provider model and the OERu model,” Mackintosh said.

“First, we provide real academic credit towards real credentials, whereas commercial MOOC providers do not provide formal academic credit.

“Second, commercial MOOC providers will not be able to compete with the cost efficiencies of the OERu model, where courses are based entirely on open access resources.

“Most MOOC providers base their course materials on “all rights reserved” copyright, which is creating false scarcity from a resource that is abundant – digital knowledge and information. False scarcity is created by applying all rights reserved copyright and limiting reuse and student access.”

For instance, learning materials on the Coursera MOOCs platform cannot be accessed without registering for a password. “It is a gated community. You can access any course materials through the OERu without the need for a password.”

Third and most exciting, said Mackintosh, is that the OERu is a network that respects the autonomy of its partner institutions. In the OERu, individual partners confer credentials, not the central entity, while MOOCs platforms need to retain control over access and credit.

“As a non-profit, the OERu does not generate revenue by restricting access to reuse content – we widen access to disaggregated education services from our partner institutions. The OERu is nurturing the development of a scalable OER ecosystem for mainstream adoption of open education.”

“We leverage the network effect, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, in ways that closed systems can’t do.”

Building capacity within open education

The main focus of Mackintosh’s keynote address at the ICDE conference in October will be the capacity development of tertiary education staff in open design.

“We’re at a very interesting juncture of the OER movement. We’re a decade old, but we’re now at a point that we need to cross the chasm from sharing to learn, to learning to share.”

While most academics and higher education institutions understand and appreciate the need to share materials to support student learning, most still have to learn how to share the process and knowledge required to do open education effectively.

“There’s a huge skills gap among academic staff the world over in this area.”