By Jeff Calareso
Through his presentations, research and teachings, Ray Schroeder is a leader in the field of open education. His work in open education has been recognized consistently for more than a decade. We spoke with him about how he sees open education changing the way we learn today and where he sees this field heading in the coming years.
Q. Could you briefly describe the goals of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service?
A. The Center for Online Learning, Research and Service supports faculty members at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) in fulfilling their three-part mission of teaching, scholarship and service. This includes providing support for both original scholarly research and the dissemination of results; building synergies between discovery research and the enhancement of current online education practices; informing, empowering, assisting and supporting the faculty of UIS in the delivery of courses, degrees and certificate programs through the Internet; and, finally, reaching out around the globe to build exciting new online collaborations among educational institutions, government agencies and businesses.
Q. What type of student is utilizing open education these days and how has that changed over the past decade? How do you think it will continue to change over the next decade?
A. At UIS, the average age of the online student is 35 at the graduate level and 34 at the undergraduate level. We offer 17 degree and degree-completion programs to some 1,400 students residing across the U.S. and in ten foreign countries. Our students are commonly mid-career professionals, though many are either younger students seeking to complete their degrees while working outside of a campus or older, more senior students seeking enrichment and later career or volunteer experiences.
We are seeing a surge in students who begin their academic careers at community colleges while working in their home communities. They transfer to UIS Online to complete their degrees in a flexible way that works around their schedule.
I recently delivered the keynote address at the e-Cornucopia conference at Oakland University in Michigan on the open future of higher education. I used a Venn diagram in which I graphically describe the three major forces coming together to promote open online educational resources:
The higher education 'bubble' has grown quite large. We are likely to see a growing number of students seeking more affordable options than the traditional path to a college degree. Online learning certainly offers a reduction in commuting costs and college residential costs. Open resources such as open textbooks offer a reduction in the average of $900 that college students pay for texts each year.
Over the next decade we may see the advent of the OERu - a model in which students take open college courses freely available on the Web and then seek academic credit through credentialing of their learning at a university which provides assessment, validation and academic credit at a cost lower than formal classes.
Q. Are open educational resources primarily focused on self-paced learning? How do faculty members currently engage with students in an online environment and how do you think this could improve further?
A. Many open resources are designed for self-paced learning, but the research tells us that much of the knowledge-building takes place in the interaction and engagement of students with each other, with the instructor and with the discipline. Generally, we encourage faculty members to engage often with students. In a class with 25 students, my discussion boards commonly include more than 2,000 postings by the end of the term. In open learning, I would suggest that mentors facilitate discussions and engage students as they progress through materials.
Q. Do you think that free online universities and open educational resources could burst the higher education bubble?
A. I am an incrementalist. I believe that a variety of changes may help to address the escalating cost of higher education. First, open textbooks and using online resources may save students considerably - the average U.S. student is said to spend some $900 a year on texts. Second, the taking of online classes can save students from expensive commutes to campus. A student commuting 20 miles each way to a class, three times a week, would save more than a thousand dollars a semester at the rate of $0.55/mile. Students who choose to begin their college careers at community colleges may save enormously on tuition and fees. Compared to a university that charges $350/credit hour, a $100/credit hour community college could save a student $15,000 over the first 60 credit hours. Those steps alone - taking the first 60 hours at a community college online and accessing open texts - would mean some $25,000 in savings, not to mention dorm and food service costs that are higher at college than living at home. Further savings would be realized by completing the degree online.
Certainly, open educational resources could open the door to further savings, but one would want to closely evaluate the value added by engagement and interaction with an instructor and fellow students.
Q. How can students be sure that the open resources they use carry accurate, valid and up-to-date information? Who validates these resources?
A. If one pursues an OERu model, some envision that 'academic volunteers' would become open learning enablers. Also, those who evaluate the learning will want to assess some of the open resources and recommend updates and changes. At this point, sustaining the open resources remains an unanswered question. Participating universities would provide assessment and credit for a fee lower than that which is associated with traditional tuition and fees.
Q. How do open resources implement best practices and educational research? Are new best practices or research needed?
A. Certainly, many in our field advocate openly sharing knowledge and tools as much as possible. Information should be free. Yet, research shows us that learning takes place best in a community environment where students, the instructor and resources of the discipline are encouraged to engage and interact. In an open environment the instructor role is less certain. Students may interact with one another and with materials, but an instructor may not be fully engaged.
Q. Has the perception among professors changed with regard to students using online resources like Wikipedia?
A. Well, one has to begin with the fact that Wikipedia is, after all, an encyclopedia. I believe that the perception is that it is no better or worse than other encyclopedias and is likely more current. But professors are commonly looking for students to seek out more academic sources for their research than encyclopedias. Current journals, books and authoritative databases are the currency of college-level bibliographies.
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Q. In your opinion, what motivates a prestigious institution like MIT, Harvard or Stanford to put their courses online? How does this benefit the school?
A. Opening course materials to the world is an expression of commitment to the concept of providing access to information. It also serves, in at least a small way, to stimulate interest and awareness of quality teaching and high-level expectations of learning at your institution. While there is a public relations benefit, I do not believe that the Ivy League schools are doing this merely for raising public awareness. They are giving back to the academic community at large.
Q. Do you think the increasing ubiquity of open educational resources will inherently challenge classroom-based learning? Or will there always be a prominent role for live, in-person education?
A. I believe that self-paced and self-directed online learning best serves training purposes. Deeper learning and true engagement in the topic thrives best in an environment with a skilled and active teacher who can challenge each learner to build personal knowledge that will meet their individual needs and expectations, whether it be asynchronously online, synchronously online or face-to-face. Open educational resources can provide valuable tools and learning modules that can be used by a skilled teacher to enhance a course.
Q. Are there fields or topics that require traditional courses and aren't well-suited to the online environment? If so, what characteristics do they have?
A. I am aware of no field or topic that cannot be taught at a distance. Virtual labs are well established and widely available with simulations or direct distant control of experiments and monitors (just as they commonly are in industry); public speaking is successfully taught online at a hundred or more institutions; even dance and theater are taught at a distance. With two billion people online, we have increasingly become an online world. Tools and techniques are advancing daily. The addition of 3-D technologies will add much to the study of biology, art, dance and other such fields.
Q. Looking ahead, who would you describe as the future creators of online knowledge?
A. This is an exciting aspect of the field. In the past it was money and access to resources, such as publishers and distributors, that held back the distribution of knowledge. In less than half a century, we have collectively constructed a worldwide repository of resources and communication that is available to nearly everyone and regularly accessed by one-third of the population of the world! And, it is rapidly growing every day! While it was limited to a tiny fraction of humanity - the privileged few - when the Beatles emerged in Liverpool, broad access to current knowledge is now instantly and economically available even in the far reaches of third world countries. Equally important is that the creators of the knowledge on the Internet are everyone. Creators are not limited by culture, location, class, money, education, language. When in the history of our species have we had such unfettered access? And, who would have imagined even a dozen years ago that access to the Internet would be asserted a 'human right' worldwide? It has become part of the fabric of human society.
Q. What's the next horizon in open education? What changes or advancements would you like to see in the next decade?
A. The horizon is wide indeed. There is much to be accomplished in the near term in technologies and bandwidth. The $25 network computer is not far away. Terrific 4-G bandwidth is spreading across continents at increasing rates. Ubiquitous access is soon to be within our grasp. There is much to be addressed in making information and knowledge-building processes broadly available and 'findable' online. The semantic web - as described by Tim Berners-Lee - remains an unfulfilled goal that we may approach over the next decade.
Q. Finally, is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers about the current role and future of online educational resources?
A. The Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at UIS is launching a Massive Open Online Class (MOOC) on 'Online Learning Today, and Tomorrow.' It will begin June 27, 2011 and run for eight weeks. It is totally open, free and collaborative. It can be totally asynchronous, or those attending can join in weekly panel discussions with experts in various aspects of the topic. Those attending are invited to view the schedule and register with only their name and e-mail address so they may be given access to all materials and begin building their own personal learning network on the topic.