open degree,  open education,  OU

Flexibility as a key benefit of open

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I was at a posh event in London last week, hosted by the Open University (I even wore a tie, people!). It was launching an OU report “Bridging the Digital Divide” which looks at some of the skills gaps in employment and how education can address these. It’s a good report, which avoids the trite “60% of jobs haven’t been invented yet” type statement and builds on some solid evidence.

As I chatted to Dames and Lords and fiddled with my tie, I reflected on that what is needed for many of these future employment scenarios is flexibility. This comes in various forms, and people often talk about personalisation but it is more about institutional and opportunity flexibility that is important. And this is where open education in its many guises has a lot to offer. I am not falling in to the trap of suggesting that the sole function of education is to gain or improve employment, but it is one aspect of the purpose of education. So, let me count the ways in which open education provides flexibility:

  • Mode of study – obviously one of the big innovations of the OU was to create a distance education, part time model that worked. Being able to study anywhere, and at your own time makes the whole prospect of study much more flexible. This is within some constraints, eg course start and end dates, assignment submissions, some collaborative activities. Complete flexibility may not always be advantageous but, this type of flexible mode opens it up to people who need to work or care and study simultaneously.
  • Pattern of study – as well as being able to study a course in a flexible manner, the period over which this occurs can be flexible in an open model. You can pause study, or just take one or two modules as you need. It is not a 3 year degree or nothing. However, if economies want this type of flexible learning then fee structures need to accommodate it, and our current UK fee system and associated metrics (eg TEF) is heavily geared towards the complete degree.
  • Degree structure – another aspect of openness is the Open Degree, whereby students can create their own degree structure, by selecting the modules they wish to study. In a shifting job market having a broad range of skills could well meet the needs better than specialisms.
  • Elements of learning – open education realised through MOOCs, OER and informal learning allows for a greater flexibility in what we recognise, different size chunks, and quicker responses.
  • Course production – use of OER & open textbooks to create courses, or accrediting MOOCs allows institutions to be more flexible in the courses they can provide, to suit changing needs.
  • Learner needs – while I am dubious of many of the claims for personalisation in learning, having multiple ways to approach a topic for many learners is undoubtedly useful. It has been prohibitively expensive to do this when you are creating courses from scratch (why produce three times the amount of content you need?), but entirely possible when you utilise OER.
  • Context – by using open content, it can be adapted by learners or specific communities to their context, which may well suit the needs of employers.

There are of course, many other reasons to study, and many other reasons to adopt open approaches, including learner satisfaction, performance, ethics, ownership, identity, dissemination, etc. However, if we constrain ourselves in this instance to look at the employment perspective then open ed makes a pretty good claim to being the route through which the type of flexibility we will need can be realised. In the new vein of open education however, the first three of these don’t really get mentioned, which is why I think we need to bring the strands of open ed together.

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