Person at base of tree path, each leaf is a person. Text reads choose the path of greatest interest
open degree,  open education

Open as in pathway

Open education is a term that has many interpretations. We mapped eight areas in this work, based on citation analysis. A lot of our focus tends to be on the individual module, for example, open pedagogy, open textbooks, OER, MOOCs, all operate at the level of the individual course. Other aspects, such as the Open University’s open entry to degrees, and open access policies operate at the institutional level. We have macro and micro levels of openness, but perhaps an absence of meso- level ones.

I’ve blogged about this before, but one aspect that I think is overlooked is openness at the curriculum level. On the open degree, we allow students to construct their own pathway, choosing from over 250 different modules. Given that the order in which they can be studied can vary also, then the possible permutations for degree pathways is considerable. There is a broad, thin spread of these – very few pathway selections with lots of students, but many with just a handful of students.

What this demonstrates to me is that we can never predict the choices that students want to make, and that are meaningful to them. And nor should we. Yet, we do this almost without question. There are of course good reasons for doing it in named degrees, building on foundations and further specialisation. Even with relatively free choice, there are restrictions – it is not helpful to set students up for failure by letting them take a 3rd level maths course if they haven’t studied any maths previously, say.

Increasingly however, there is a requirement for people with varied skills, and students want to create degrees that are meaningful to them. There is usually a good deal of administration and governance to negotiate if an institution wants to create a new named degree, in say, cryptocurrency. But an open approach to degree construction means such degrees can be constructed almost endlessly within a given qualification architecture. You are simply naming a pathway of existing modules.

For students it means flexibility to go beyond the usual narrow range of free choices, to step outside disciplinary boundaries, to construct degrees that they think will be relevant to their career or interests. They’re often ahead of the game here and can create these quicker than universities can construct formal degree offerings.

The whole degree is the unit that is most widely recognised in society. Although you can list different modules, employers are generally looking at the degree. But it is the area in which we generally offer the least amount of openness. This is partly a logistical function, the tyranny of the timetable means that if you are offering synchronous teaching, you cannot offer courses that rely on people being in two physical places at once. But online and hybrid learning is eroding the edges of this limit.

I think it also arises partly because of a fetishisation around named degrees and specialisms, and also a lack of trust in students to choose wisely. Although I love a named degree and specialisation, they are not the only show in town. And we trust students to take on a lifetime of debt to study, so maybe we should trust them to choose also?

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