Colleges should consider accrediting web-based programs offered at free or low-cost online schools, making higher education more widely available to populations with little access to post-secondary classes, a former official from the United Kingdom’s Open University told a gathering of technology advocates Nov. 6.

Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of The Open University from 2002-2009 and a longtime advocate for education’s role in social justice, spoke to hundreds of IT professionals at the annual EDUCAUSE conference in Denver, which ran from Nov. 3-6.

Gourley, who became South Africa’s first female vice-chancellor in 1994, stressed that colleges and universities that cannot afford to launch web-based classes should evaluate courses offered at ventures such as The Open University and allow students to take the class for school credit.

"Especially in these economic times, we have to find a more optimum outcome to balance with financial necessities," she said, adding that the global economic slump should spur campuses to look for alternatives to expanding course offerings as college enrollment spikes. "It may well be more sensible to accredit particular courses offered elsewhere than to provide them in house."

Gourley warned against trimming back college offerings as campus operating budgets shrink and endowments dwindle, reminding IT officials gathered at EDUCAUSE that this could be a chance to bolster online education that would keep campuses financially afloat and serve non-traditional students whose schedules don’t allow for on-campus lectures.

"I don’t think these . . . times should be some kind of excuse for putting that on hold while we sort something else out," she said. "Exactly the opposite. … If your strategic thinking of technology isn’t combined in your holistic strategic thinking, I think you’re in trouble."

Closely tracking informal web-based communities of researchers and potential students, Gourley said, should be a priority for online schools and brick-and-mortar institutions.

"What we see on the web are all sorts of people creating communities of interest," she said. "We must not underestimate the sophistication of those learning communities. … What we need to do is [understand] how we harness that energy and recognize some of that learning."

The Open University’s history can serve as an example for expanding web-based learning, she said. The idea of a distance-learning program in the 1960s drew scorn and criticism from officials in higher education and government, Gourley said. But accessible education proved popular once it was introduced in Britain and eventually, to other European nations.

The school now has 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 graduate students, about 70 percent of whom have full-time jobs. Most Open University classes require no previous qualifications, and students must be 16 or older to begin a course.

Gourley said the social and political tumult of the 1960s contributed to a desire for non-traditional forms of education — an idea that gained acceptance in official circles in the 1980s and 1990s.

Civil rights battles and the Vietnam War "fed a yearning for a different order," she said.

Gourley said a wider embrace of education technology — especially among the oldest, most well-established universities — will require a dramatic shift in the traditional roles of professors and students.

"We need to go from teacher-centric to student-centric," she said. "The teacher is no longer the sage on the stage but rather the guide on the side."

Links:

EDUCAUSE 2009

The Open University


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