Alternative Ways to Earn Your Degree: Discussing OER University with Rory McGreal

Imagine you're out learning 'in the wild' - picking up skills from the multitude of free, online resources available from MIT, Yale, Carnegie Mellon and other institutions. Wouldn't it be great if you could get recognizable credit for your self-directed learning? OER University is the game-changer you've been looking for, and learned from open learning chairperson Rory McGreal that plans are underway for a range of degrees.

By Polly Peterson

Rory McGreal unveiled plans for OER University at the 2011 Open Education conference in Park City, Utah. As a professor at Athabasca University in Canada and the UNESCO Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources (OER), Dr. McGreal is committed to providing global access to education via the Internet. We're all here to talk about open education. What does that mean for you?

Rory McGreal: To me, open education means making education accessible to anyone who wants it. As the UNESCO Commonwealth of Learning chair in OER, my mandate is to promote its use institutionally, nationally and internationally, particularly in the developing countries of Africa. I'm working with the UNESCO chair of OER in Holland, Fred Mulder, and we have two major projects: to create an international Ph.D. in studying OER policies and pedagogy and to create a knowledge cloud of research papers and reports on OER. We also want to map all the organizations around the world that are doing things with OER. The big thing I'm working on is the OER University (OERu). Can you talk a little about that? How will the assessment and credentialing system work for OER learners?

RMc: First of all, OERu is actually an international consortium of institutions. There are now ten schools involved, two of them from the U.S. Three of them are community colleges, and seven are universities. Consortium membership is open to any postsecondary institution that has government accreditation. Accreditation is essential because we want to make sure that quality (and perception of quality) is there from the beginning. We know that when OERu takes off (and it's going to) there will be a huge backlash from traditional institutions, and the big thing they'll try to push is that we don't have the same quality. We want to show that we do. Will OERu programs be based on traditional degree programs?

RMc: Yes, we're going to identify a demo project to test out the concept. We're looking at a first-year university certificate, an associate degree and a bachelor's degree in general studies, so it'll be very general at first. From there, I expect we might go into business programs, but the first thing is to get the first certificate program up and possible. To do so, we've partnered up with institutions with challenge exams. You pay to take an exam and get credits when you get a passing score. Do they pay the same price they would for taking the class on campus?

RMc: No, we're aiming at about one-quarter of the price. I believe that we can get it lower than that and still make the institutions money. The overhead's lower and we'll attract tens of thousands of more students. So everything will be virtual. How will students know what to study?

RMc: That's our role. We identify pathways for certificates and degrees. The general principle is that students will study using OER - or even proprietary material if they want to buy it. What we're going to do is identify - not create - pathways. For example, you can use these OER, and you'll get this certificate, and you'll be able to take this exam to show you have knowledge equivalent to this course and you'll get three credits for it. How are the school's exams different from CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) exams?

RMc: Well, if you get credit from a CLEP exam, you still have to use it at a particular university, right? We would accept CLEP credit at Athabasca University. That's one of the routes. Besides Canada and the U.S., what other countries have member universities in OERu?

RMc: There's one member university in Australia, three polytechnic schools in New Zealand, the University of South Africa and one in India. Do you have goals for trying to get more universities?

RMc: Ten is the critical mass we need to get started. Others will come in. We're cautious about growing too quickly, but at the same time we're concerned about the sustainability of the organization. The more institutions that come in, the more sustainable OERu will be and the more credibility it will have.

Some people think American educational institutions are imperialist, and that's a concern. We want to get more international partners. We don't have one in Europe yet. We're sticking to English-language courses at the beginning. Do you eventually expect to have online automated assessments?

RMc: That's a big issue. I'm looking into ways to monitor standardized test takers in remote locations lacking testing centers. Some test-takers are currently taking the tests at their local police station! It's interesting that you're taking the idea of learning 'in the wild' and creating a structure that fits into the traditional model.

RMc: Some people throw the baby out with the bathwater. I'm more structured. But there's nothing in the way OERu does things that prevents people from learning how they want.

We have to come up with a sustainable system that works, and I don't mind if it's for-profit or not-for-profit. We've got to look at it from a business perspective. Critics are trying to paint the OER movement as socialist. I don't agree. This is free-market capitalism at its best. What's socialist is allowing big publishers to control everything and have us pay again and again for the same textbooks every year.

We cannot work with proprietary material. The world is going online, it's going to tablets. Textbooks are going to be digital, and the DRM (digital rights management) digital textbook environment we have now has so many restrictions. It's a laughable scenario that's real. People don't realize what they're getting into. We don't have a choice as educators. We have to go to OER.

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