Is there a business model for open learning in institutions?

How can institutions develop new business models to support open and flexible learning where content is free? How can we design and create interactive, responsive and pedagogically effective open courseware to support on-line and blended learning worldwide? How can OER be culturally, linguistically and pedagogically adapted and reused in different languages, cultural contexts and educational settings? There are growing issues and concerns related to the use and reuse of OERs and the implementation of open learning in institutions, as Tony Bates indicated in his blog post OERs: the good, the bad and the ugly.

A group of academics in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics (IEC) at the University of Bolton have been working on a small project to address some of those issues and explore new business models for developing and delivering online courses nationally and internationally through OERs and open learning approaches. They have recently collaborated with Chinese partner institutions to create an online course “Designing Learning for the 21st Century” which is primarily for Masters students who are studying educational technology in China. It is also openly available for anyone who is interested in this topic. In September 2010, this online course was piloted with students in Shaanxi Normal University (SNNU) as one of the modules integrated into their existing postgraduate degree programmes.

Through this course, IEC and its partners are exploring different working practices, and pedagogical approaches for online teaching and learning using a wide range of digital technology and open approaches. The aim is to develop new business models for online learning programmes that allow for differential pricing for support and accreditation options to students. Several themes emerged from this small-scale collaborative project that might be of wider interest to the OER community:

  • Localisation: there are many concerns about the use and reuse of OERs in different languages and cultural contexts. In this course, staff in the IEC worked closely with Chinese institutions to find out what resources were needed most and how to balance producing and reusing valuable OERs. The courses was subject to ongoing revision of reading materials and learning activities based on the feedback from the Chinese students and the local facilitators in order to make this course linguistically, culturally and pedagogically integrated into their context.
  • Producing and re-using OERs: although the course was created for Master students, some of the content has been reused by other Chinese teachers in their undergraduate Academic English courses. Inspired by the global OER movement and this open course, the local facilitator from SNNU not only used some of the content from the IEC open course in his undergraduate course but also developed an educational technology OERs collection. This collection brought together a large number of open courses in the field from UK, US and China.
  • Learning process rather than free content only: in this course, all of the learning activities, forum discussions, assessment and students’ assignments were available freely to anyone without registration. Face-to-face local facilitation and online expert inputs were provided to ensure that effective learning support is available for learners.
  • Disaggregating content, facilitation and accreditation: it is expected that a wide range of free to use learning resources will catalyse institutional innovation in teaching and learning practice, learning support and accreditation services. In this case, while course content was free, staff time was paid for and the cost of delivery was shared by through both the English and Chinese institutions through local learning facilitation and online expertise support. Students studying at the partner Chinese institutions can gain credits from their own institution after they finish the modules.

One key question which emerges from this small scale unfunded open course project is whether or not we can find a sustainable business model for open course innovations? According to Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation, it is possible for institutions to explore new business solutions and organisational strategies by launching new market disruption to target non-customer / non-consuming context. In this case, the open course made it possible for more Chinese students, including those studying in Chinese institutions or self-learners, to gain UK educational experience and if registered with a University also gain credits.

The next stage of the plan is to expand the course to several Chinese institutions and to set up a consortium through SSNU to share the cost of expertise input from Bolton. According to the IEC open course project leader, Prof. Bill Olivier “in this project, the ‘breakeven’ point comes when we have 200 students from the partner Chinese institutions”. The project is expected to continue next academic year in order to collect evidence for developing a cost framework for open learning institutions in the future.

With current funding pressures across the UK higher education sector and many previously funded OER initiatives coming to an end, finding a viable business model for open courses is one approach to sustaining the OER ‘project’. We need to think creatively about innovative approaches to support online teaching and learning practice through OERs. As with many other open learning initiatives, this small-scale open course project is only the beginning of seeking new ways to provide online learning nationally and internationally to reach more learners through an open learning approach. Hopefully, the Academy/JISC Open Educational Resources (OER) Phase 3: Embedding and Sustaining Change will provide a good opportunity for institutions to continue embedding OERs in teaching and learning practice and explore sustainable business models for low cost and effective HE provision.