During the expansion of higher education in the 90s & 00s it was all about getting more bums on seats. In the UK the Labour government set a target of 50% of 19-22 year olds going in to higher education. The aim then was just to attract as many students as you could.
But now we're in a period of reduction in student numbers, the drive is less for pure numbers but for students who will stay the course. It is very costly to universities to go through the enrollment process and for a student to then drop out. And it's often a damaging experience for the student as well, so it's in the interests of both parties to ensure that learners are really ready and suited to the course they want to study. We want bums on seats still, but we need to make sure they're the right bums on the right seats.
This is one of the hidden benefits of OERs and MOOCs I think. For instance on the OER Research Hub project we found that lots of users of OER are using them as tasters before committing to formal education. So they're seeing if they're ready for the level of study, and also the subject area they are interested in. And once they're in study, lots of learners are then using OER to complement their formal study to help them get through a course.
The OU backed FutureLearn MOOC platform launched today, and our Vice Chancellor Martin Bean has suggested that MOOCs act as a shop window for universities. I think this is a sound model – if learners get something for free and then some sign up for formal study, both parties win. This makes it a sustainable model, without the need to make a profit for venture capitalists.
But what I think may be as interesting as its recruitment function is the filtering function of OERs and MOOCs. If as a result of having studied open content the subsequent students you get into formal education are then less likely to drop out then it represents a huge benefit for both unis and learners. It would be a difficult figure to quantify, but I think improved retention savings would be worth looking at.