I had the pleasure of attending a day of presentations and activities at the Open University, UK last Thursday as the closing of the annual Open Couseware Consortium Global Meeting in England. Open University was founded over 40 years ago to provide open access to higher education for those who wanted to earn a degree but lacked qualifications or could not attend in-person full-time due to jobs, family obligations, or disabilities. Its enormous success lead to many other open universities throughout the world. It continues to be a leader in distance education and we met some of their staff and faculty who make it all possible.
The Open University logo
We arrived at the beautiful modern campus in Milton-Keynes about 40 minutes by train north of London. Most students take their courses online and do not attend in-person although advisement can be completed over the phone, email, or in-person if physically possible. Several of the buildings meet the European standards (BREEAM) for environmental sustainability and had many windows for natural light. Professor Andy Lane, director of the Open Learn Initiative was our host for the day.
We heard from the Learning & Teaching Solutions team who actually build the highly interactive modules that compose the courses and the process they use for design. Their model has changed from warehouses of print materials twenty or more years ago to primarily online but with a new focus on modules maps and scaffolding to help students navigate the modules implemented in Moodle. In the last year they have been converting all interactive modules from Flash to HTML5 to fully support mobile learning.
Simon Buckingham-Shum from the Knowledge Media Labs talked about the different research projects at OU around technology and changes from the early days of radio/tv delivery to today’s delivery methods with support for synchronous and asynchronous online learning and assessment. One promising technology is the intelligent formative assessment that analyzes students’ essays to make formative feedback more efficient and lower costs. Another new initiative is social learning + open learn which combines a user’s existing social online identities with open learning content and includes special outreach to open university alumni. Learning analytics is another area where open university is leading as they begin analyzing learner data including student registration, assessments, and feedback with automatic detection of deeper learning.
Next we heard about the effectiveness of the Learning Space project (originally funded by Hewlett Foundation) and how it became a tool for creating awareness and engaging potential students by letting the public interact with introductory openly licensed portions of modules to better understand what the courses are all about. Up to 8% of visitors who visit learning spaces follow up on registering for an open university course.
Our mid-day speaker was the very dynamic, vice-chancellor Martin Bean, who finds education exciting in these times of shrinking budgets. Seeing a strong interest in learning from the public, he believes that universities and colleges must make learning more meaningful in people’s daily lives by linking with popular media and making content available on the mobile web, iTunesU, as well as through the open university portal. Content is being deprecated but teaching, learning, and pastoral care remain more important than ever at Open University(OU).
We enjoyed visiting the OU labs with Chris Pegler and other staff for an overview of how their modules are designed and verified for engagement, usability, accessibility, and mobility. Demos of the eyeTracker software showed us the movement of a viewer’s eyes as they studied a web page indicating areas of greatest attraction. We learned about usability and accessibility testing that records students performing tasks ensure that modules are easy-to-use and work with screen readers, alternate keyboard devices, and other assistive technology.
After lunch we learned about the important role of over 7000 tutors (associate lecturers) at Open University that are assigned to the 250,000 students as courses advisors and tutors. Most of the student advisement is done over the phone or email on a weekly basis these days but in-person visits can be arranged if schedules allow it.
The director of library services engaged us in the how librarians can assist faculty and students with finding and evaluating open educational resources to enhance their modules and learning at lower costs. They have developed information literacy level frameworks for students at all levels up to masters’ program on open repositories, tagging data, licensing options, and technical considerations of production. I plan to share more of this in a future posting.
The day ended with an overview of how OU gets feedback from its students both at the module level and annually to evaluate the effectiveness of it instructors, courses, and overall services to students. Particular attention is paid to students who do not complete modules to understand the causes and try to re-engage them. Employability of students who have completed courses and degrees is a developing area as OU asks students and employers to evaluate their programs with respect to effectiveness in finding jobs and performing job skills.