oer,  open courses,  open models,  OU

A USB port for informal learning


I’ve been part of a team working on an unusual (and dare I use the word, innovative) course at the OU. It’s called ‘Making your learning count‘, and the unusual thing about it is that it doesn’t really set out to teach a particular topic. Rather it seeks to recognise the learning that people bring with them from informal means, such as OER and MOOCs. There are several challenges in this. Firstly, we can’t just formally recognise all possible OER, so we have to get students to do something to demonstrate their learning. But then secondly, having gone for this broad approach, as opposed to just accrediting a specific MOOC say, you then have to make any activity generic enough to cover people coming in from diverse domains.

The approach the team have taken then is to base it around 9 tasks. These focus on developing a learning plan, producing a means of communicating your learning to others, making interdisciplinary connections between subjects, and developing peer assessment and digital communication skills. They’ll be guided by their tutor in this, but I think it’s hopefully one of those courses where the diversity of knowledge people bring is a key benefit. You get to see connections between your subject and by explaining your own one to others, consolidate your own understanding. At the end of it students will then have converted their informal learning into 30 points of OU formal credit. Obviously we hope they go on to study with us further, but even if not, it helps legitimise that learning and hopefully make the prospect of formal study at some point less daunting.

At the moment it’s focused around OpenLearn as a pilot, but in its approach I see it as part of a solution to a thorny issue that has circled around OER, MOOCs and informal learning, which is how you help people make use of that knowledge acquired elsewhere. Approaches to this include challenge exams (as practised by Athabasca), more flexible degree programmes (for example the OERu’s first year free study), or giving credit for specific MOOCs (eg the OU and Leeds with FutureLearn). We’ve always had recognition of prior learning (RPL), but to be honest, this has often been so complex and costly to realise that you were better off just studying the courses.

All of these are valid approaches and I think we’ll see more of them. I see our course as the first of this type for the OU, and as well as allowing OER based study to come into the university context, it can be adapted for specific needs and projects. For example a version might allow recognition of sector training, corporate learning, as well as different levels, specific disciplines or providers. So, I see it as a big old USB port sticking out of Walton Hall, saying ‘insert learning here’. It’ll be interesting to see if it gets many takers as it’s still quite a difficult concept to convey, but one that will be increasingly useful I think.


  • Christine Wihak

    You would likely find it useful to talk with Alan Mandell at Empire State College (SUNY) in New York. They have been following a similar process for decades. At TRU Open Learning, we have a process for students to work with a coach to develop a portfolio that describe informal and non-formal learning against Eight Critical Competencies; these portfolios are then evaluated for elective credit towards formal credentials.

    I take issue with your statement that RPL is “so complex and costly to realise that you were better off just studying the courses.” At institutions like TRU, Empire State, Athabasca University, Thomas Edison, etc. the RPL process is student-friendly. We very rarely have a student say “I’d have done better to take the course.” I’m wondering if you’re aware of the CAEL study “Fueling the Race to Post-secondary success” http://ideasketch.tru.ca/documents/fueling-race-postsecondary-success on the long-term benefits of RPL in terms of credential completion, etc.?

    • mweller

      Hi Christine, thanks for all this, very useful. About RPL I probably should have said “we have made it so difficult” since it can be quite arduous at the OU. It’s ok if there is clearly accepted prior study/experience for a specific course, but difficult with say, OER based learning.

  • Mark Curcher

    My experience of RPL in various international contexts has been similar to yours Martin, in practice it ends up easier for the student to take the course.
    Great to read about your project at the OU and the information provided by Christine in the comments.
    I will follow this with interest.

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