TRU a leading partner in online education initiative

Jessica Klymchuk, News Editor Ω

Representatives from most of the 26 member universities of the OERu were at TRU on Oct.31 and Nov.1 for working meetings and the launch of the open university. Jessica Klymchuk/The Omega

Representatives from most of the 26 member universities of the OERu were at TRU on Oct.31 and Nov.1 for working meetings and the launch of the open university. Jessica Klymchuk/The Omega

In the United States, tuition has increased at over five times the inflation rate for the last 30 years, student debt has doubled since 2007, student loans have reached one trillion dollars, 53 per cent of college graduates are unemployed when they leave school and 46 per cent of U.S. college students do not graduate.

How would education change if it became freely accessible and free of cost?

Sir John Daniel provided these statistics to show the crisis higher education is facing worldwide, and the steady failing of the current model.

But a new model is on the horizon.

On Nov. 1, TRU hosted the launch of the Open Educational Resource university (OERu), the virtual collaboration of 26 universities across the world who are dedicated to open education. The New Zealand-based Open Educational Resources Foundation is coordinating the development of the OERu.

Since 2010, TRU has been one of 15 founding anchor partners of the OERu. It will provide free online courses to anyone with access to the Internet, who can then pay reduced fees to be assessed and receive academic credit. On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, TRU hosted representatives from most of the 26 institutions for the launch, as well as working meetings.

Members hail from universities in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, the U.S., Canada and the U.K.

“The challenge which the OERu is addressing head-on is to combine the credentialing responsibilities and capacities of the ‘old dispensation’ of higher education with the ‘new dispensation’ of open education that gives people better and cheaper routes to the knowledge required,” Daniel said.

Daniel, with his more than 40-year career in open learning, also holds 31 honourary doctorates from universities in 17 countries.

Open education essentially takes learning materials and makes them available online. TRU director of innovation Brian Lamb said this also includes making those materials licensed in a way that allows them to be re-used and customized.

“It allows us to share what we do,” Lamb said. “We are a publicly-funded institution. If we think that learning is a public good and it doesn’t cost us very much or, anything, working in the open can actually reduce our costs. For example, we can incorporate resources that other people are making and do that to improve our quality and make education more international.”

Lamb said each university of the OERu is currently dedicated to providing two courses that align with a general studies degree, not unlike TRU’s general studies degree offered in open learning.

“That’s where it’s going to start,” he said. “I think over time as institutions join and as the institutions put more and more courses online you will start to see a more diverse offering of programs.”

The meetings at TRU included discussion of how to credential such courses, which Lamb said is largely a work in progress. It included nine sessions targeting strategy and operation initiatives, such as aims of the partners, assessing of prototypes, operational planning and assessing priorities.

But open education poses as many challenges as traditional education, the first being a threat to higher education in general.

“A lot of people have talked about some of the new open online environments being what Napster was to the music industry,” Lamb said.

But he insists universities can’t avoid technology, and that no university in North America is ignoring what is going on. Open education offers universities the opportunity to take advantage of technology as well as direct the future of higher education.

OERu joins TRU in partnerships and alignment along with other universities that are taking a leading role in accessible learning.

Lamb said open universities will have a hard time replacing the on-campus university experience, which will in turn challenge universities to define what those qualities are.

“It’s a very exciting time to be in higher education,” he said.