Open Education Around the World: Study.com Speaks with the University of Southern Queensland

Mar 23, 2011

In the pursuit of increasing access to education, Study.com has recently launched an interview series with OpenCourseWare (OCW) providers around the world. These institutions are at the forefront of the blossoming open education movement, which provides free educational resources to any student or self learner with an Internet connection. Read on to learn about OCW opportunities at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia from Professor Jim Taylor.

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By Megan Driscoll

Professor Jim Taylor USQ

Professor Jim Taylor

Study.com: When did the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) begin offering free course materials online, and what inspired you to join the OCW Consortium?

Professor Jim Taylor: The University of Southern Queensland's vision is to be recognized as a leader in open and flexible higher education. So when we joined the OCW Consortium late in 2007, it fitted very much with the University's vision and mission.

We've been involved in distance and online education for many years. The University has offered distance learning for 40 years, and we currently have 75 percent of our students off campus. So getting involved in OpenCourseWare was a natural step for USQ in terms of its history and culture.

Study.com: Are those off campus students primarily in Australia or do you have a lot of international students as well?

JT: About 25 percent of our students are international. Overall, we've got about 25,000 students and the percentage on campus and off campus varies between 20-25 percent. So we've got a significant representation of international students in online learning from over 100 different countries.

Study.com: Is there a particular educational philosophy that drives your participation in open education?

JT: Yes - the University has been very much involved with drivers of access and equity and social inclusion. What we've found is that distance education attracts many working adults. We have a majority of mature students between the ages of about 25 and 45 who are in career shifts. Many of them are also second chance students who may not have gone to a university immediately after they left high school. So open education's philosophy of increasing access to higher education and creating opportunities, especially for students who missed the opportunity earlier, is essentially the philosophy that guides our entire institution.

Study.com: Your site notes that you're 'committed to flexible learning, both on-campus and off-campus.' Can you describe the ways in which your OER site works in concert with your goal of providing flexible education opportunities?

JT: I think the main contribution from our open educational resource (OER) site to the University is that it gives students an opportunity to test drive the course materials. We put total packages on our OER site, so the students who are thinking about higher education and may not have the confidence to move forward have got the opportunity to work through the materials of their interest.

University of Southern Queensland

University of Southern Queensland

Study.com: What percentage of USQ's course materials have made it onto your OCW website and what types of materials do you offer - course syllabi, exams, video or audio lectures. . . ?

JT: We've only got a small percentage on the site, probably less than one percent of our active courses. But we do offer complete courseware packages that were originally designed to cater to students who are off campus and are made for students who could become independent self-directed learners. This includes a whole range of materials, including complete course specifications and past exams.

We typically include video and audio lectures in order to engage students as active learners, although we also value the contributions of more conventional approaches. We believe that in order to really have an impact, open educational resources have got to move towards more interactive engagement in some manner and create opportunities for students to gain actual college credit.

Study.com: You recently participated in a meeting to develop an OER University. Please describe what an 'OER University' would be, and how it would be distinguished from conventional universities.

JT: The model that we're developing is to give students the opportunity to access the OER courseware with student support. We're developing a group called 'academic volunteers international.' We envision a parallel system emerging where students will not only access the OpenCourseWare materials, but can also tap into a network of volunteer support online so they can interact with academics and other students.

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Eventually, OER students will reach a point where they will be able to ask to be assessed in parallel with mainstream students in order to earn actual academic credit for the work they've done. They will pay a small fee for assessment only because there's a cost there to the universities and we have to retain the credibility of any credit that emerges. But the fee will only come into play if they ask to be assessed and will be kept low, just covering the institution's costs.

Study.com: In your description of the OER University, you note that it would combine the mission of education with the mission of community service. Please elaborate.

JT: At USQ we have a community contribution mission that aims to support Australia in becoming a more inclusive society and progressing toward regional, national and global sustainability.

We see higher education sustainability and affordability as dependent on finding a new model. The potential for the existing infrastructure to meet the growing demand for higher education is a major issue - there are several studies that demonstrate that's just not possible on a global level.

So the OER University acknowledges that most universities have community service as part of their mission and supports this by giving students access to credit through open educational resources. What we believe is that if a number of universities put up less than one percent of their courses and subjects through this model, it will significantly change access to higher education for people in developing countries and for people all over the world who are excluded for financial reasons from their existing system.

Study.com: What are the demographics of your primary users? Do you track their countries of origin, age group or other information, and can you share this data?

JT: We haven't checked out on a regular basis but when we did, we found that it tended to mirror the demographics of regular USQ off campus students. Those are primarily mature age working adults from a wide range of countries.

It could well be that some of our existing students are looking at the OER options when they're selecting courses or our prospective students tend to have a look at the materials.

Study.com: Are there any other current or in-development initiatives at USQ to promote open education?

JT: We've recently opened our social preparation program to open access students. The program serves students who haven't met the matriculation requirements for the University, but want a pathway to higher education. It offers test preparation and coursework designed to get people up to the foundational level of university entrance, and we're just starting to add some of those courses to our OER site.

USQ also runs the Australian Digital Futures Institute, which is working on an open pedagogy designed to advance learning literacy for a digital age.

Open pedagogy is the basis of our OER University initiative as well. We believe that teaching in the digital age has got to be significantly different from conventional pedagogies. It has to put the learner at the center of the resources that are readily available. We're working on foundation courses that will enable a shift in the pedagogies across a range of disciplines.

Study.com: Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about USQ's OER program.

JT: As an institution, USQ is very committed to open education. We see open educational resources as having a major impact on higher education in the coming years.

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