Thinkses Around Open Course Accreditation

What do P2PU, the University of Mary Washington (UMW), and a joint venture between the National Research Council of Canada (Institute for Information Technology, Learning and collaborative Technologies Group, PLE Project), The Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University and the University of Prince Edward Island have in common? The answer is that they either have, or are about to, run open online courses, at undergraduate level, for free, on the web.

In the case of P2PU and the Canadian joint venture, the courses were run without credit. At UMW, the DS106 Digital Storytelling course ran for the first time in 2010 as a for credit course for registered UMW students, albeit largely in public. In 2011, it has run as a course with loose boundaries, open to all whilst at the same time providing a recognised course offering within UMW itself. In each case, the course duration was of the order of 10 weeks.

With HE in the UK going through a phase of soul-searching around the question of “where’s the money going to come from”, it could be argued that we need to start doing some work around business model innovation. So here’s one of my starters for ten… (I have floated this internally, and no-one’s picked up on it, so I feel as if I’m not giving away anything away by posting it here…)

The idea is simple: a recognised award offering body offers a module or course container that will allow participants in online courses to receive recognised academic credit points based in part on their participation in an open, online course, in part on their reflections about what they learned on the course.

What follows are initial (probably naive) thoughts on how it might work…

The module is inspired in part by the International Baccalaureate’s CAS (Creativity, Action, Service) component as well as HE level course modules developed to recognise work based or prior experiential learning; it provides a means by which paid for assessment may be decoupled from course delivery. To try and address concerns, the proposal in the first instance is that the container be used to award credit for students who have freely participated in one of a recognised number of open educational units, for example from the OU’s OpenLearn website or one or more courses offered by P2PU (subject to agreement).

OpenLearn Courses: participation in these courses is based on individual engagement with the course material, informally supported by one or more forums or social spaces open to all. This model allows us to explore the extent to which purely independent learning within a controlled open courseware context provides an appropriate context for accredited independent study.

One or more OU Uncourses/Learning Journey Courses (or open, online courses run by academics in other institutions): a significant part of the original course material drafted for the Relevant Knowledge short course T151 Digital Worlds was authored over a 15-20 week period on a public blog hosted on The materials posted combined elements of personal learning diary as the OU author explored the subject area, as well as learning devices borrowed from the OU’s tutorial-in-print style of writing (in-line exercises, self-reflection questions, and worked through tutorials, for example). By running one or more new “learning journey” courses, such as in areas where material is being drafted for fully fledged future OU courses, where material is timely (for example, in response to a BBC series or short term skills gap (such as the opening up of data in central and local government)), or where there exists considerable vendor produced third party training material albeit in a poorly structured form as far as course design goes (for example, Google tutorials around Google Apps, or Google Analytics, or the Yahoo User Interface libraries), we can: i) pilot the open course container model; ii) create useful open resources “for the common good”; c) draft course materials for possible formal (paid for) OU course offerings.

P2PU Courses: P2PU runs 10 week courses for small cohorts starting throughout the year. Learners engage with each other as well as the course resources and course instructors. Recognising participation in this sort of course allows us to explore the extent to which an open accreditation module can be used to recognise participation in semi-formal courses. Recognising participation with P2PU courses also provides an opportunity for the OU to develop ties to the Mozilla Foundation, who support P2PU and are keen to see it develop a range of semi-professional courses based around the open web and open software development.

How the Container Works

The container awards credit based on the fulfilment of several criteria:

– demonstration of engagement with, or participation in, a recognised open, online course; this requirement means we know that learners were at least exposed to a certain of content we recognise;

– a reflective assessment component; this may take the form of a reflective essay, or piece of project work arising from the course and a critical review of that work.

– optionally, results from quizzes provided during the course. These not only demonstrate engagement with the course, but also provide some means of demonstrating a particular level of attainment in particular topic areas through computer marked assessment.

In the first instance, accreditation is offered for independent study based on participation with one of a limited number of pre-identified open online courses. In this way, we could artificially limit the range of subject areas and course models engaged with by the initial batches of learners to a know set of approved courses. This approach allows us to mitigate the risks involved with a prove the model and allow the course model to develop in a carefully controlled way.

The OpenLearn Context (2011I-2011L)

To a certain extent, the idea is based on a particular vision of how we might go about assessing participation in open online courses run outside the OU. However, I think it might also be used to provide a way in to formal study for students wishing to take formal OU awards based on prior engagement with OpenLearn materials.

By accrediting engagement with two OpenLearn based units derived from current Technology short course/Relevant Knowledge programme courses, we can compare achievement levels across formal and informal presentations of the material. For example, if material from Relevant Knowledge short courses in the their final presentation are released to OpenLearn immediately prior to the final presentation, we can engage learners around course material that is concurrently being offered in a supported fashion as an officially recognised OU course through the VLE, and informally via OpenLearn. As such, we can explore the extent to which an open course container might: i) extend the life of a course; ii) provide alternative pathways to credit and assessment models for students interested in a particular topic area but not necessarily interested in “named credit” for a course.

The Uncourse/Learning Journey Context

As institutions such as the OU continue to innovate in the areas of informal and semi-formal education through OpenLearn and emerging practice in Digital Scholarship, the uncourse/learning journey, originally inspired, in part, by the notion of “misguided tours”, provides a framework for digital scholars to record their learning journey through a new subject area as a learning pathway that others might follow. By employing writing devices that well are proven in the delivery of “tutorial-in-print” style learning materials, the learning diary becomes a piece of instructional material in its own right. Through openly recording the learning journey, and ideally engaging with other learners interested in the topic area, the author should also remain free to negotiate the future direction of the learning journey (hence its declaration as an ‘uncourse’) and so discover a curriculum that fairly reflects the learning needs of its participants.

The P2PU Context

If, as seems likely, ad hoc open online courses continue to emerge as a consequence of: a) the increasing availability of high quality content that can be put to use as a learning resource, even if not originally designed as one; b) the growth in online social networks and an apparent desire and willingness for learners to come together and participate in semi-structured learning directed activity, there will be a growing market for recognising participation in such activities and acknowledging it in some way. Through recognising participation in P2PU courses in certain areas, it may be possible for HEIs to develop closer ties with the Mozilla Foundation and engage with open courses in areas complementary to formal offerings (e.g. in the OU’s case, the Web Certificate, Open Source Tools and Linux courses). Such engagement provides opportunities for using P2PU courses as a marketing channel similar to the way in which OpenLearn units may be used, as well as providing a continuing education context for alumni in areas where an institution may not provide courses. P2PU may also provide a slightly more structured context than is offered by the uncourse/learning journey model for the developmental testing of formal course materials as they are being developed for fully fledged distance online courses.

What’s in it for folk offering online courses?
An obvious argument against the above approach is that folk running courses may get upset that someone else if offering (for a fee) accreditation around their course materials. (I always thought non-commercial could be a Bad Thing ;-) However, a couple of benefits come to mind.

Firstly, the institution offering the accreditation may pay to advertise on the site offering the course. (Yes, I know this might seem as if it’s a way for an institution to essentially outsource its course production and delivery, and in a way it is… But if open courses take off, and if they offer educational benefit, and if there’s value in proving to someone else you have taken an open course, and if HEIs don’t start offering certification around open courses, then someone else will. Such as an organisation like Pearson…

Secondly, by accepting that participation in a course can be used as partial fulfillment of requirements for the receipt of formal academic credit, it reflects back some of the authority of the award offering body on the course, showing that the course has something of educational value to offer.

Isn’t the Audience Limited?
Open educational courses aren’t for everyone; they require some element of motivation on the part of the learner, they are often best followed in a social way. At times they may lack structure, and instead focus on resource investigation activities, which can be hard for learners who prefer very heavily structured courses with linear narratives and “teacher” leading from the front. But if you want to develop skills and a model of learning that helps you exploit the power of the web, then open courses may help you on your way…

Err, that’s it… ;-)

Related: Massive Open Online Courses – All You Need to Know…