Open University 2016: the global learning mentors

How the OU powered its Associate Lecturers to the next level: a short story

In the glorious wisdom of hindsight, looking back to 2013 it all makes perfect sense now. But it’s amazing how controversial it was at the time, and how few people understood how the ground was shifting beneath their feet.

But try and forget it’s 2016, and cast your mind back…

All around us were the signs of change, and you didn’t need to be MI5 to join the dots. No, we’re talking 11 on the Richter scale — tectonic shifts in the learning landscape — but not on glacial time, it was monthly. The prizes were going to those agile enough to see the new spaces opening up.

Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Oxbridge and just about every other big hitter were catching up with Open: Open Content, Open Data, Open Science, Open Communities, and the last bastion to fall, Open Accreditation, pioneered through initiatives such as OpenBadges. The Open University had been doing Open for 40 years and had the coolest domain name for anyone in the learning business — — but others were starting to steal the headlines, and the OU had to think and move fast. Being a veteran can cut both ways: wisdom and big picture thinking, or with your laurels round your ankles.

Everywhere we saw the new DIY university options, the appalling value for money provided by top institutions, the startups sprouting up each week, the accelerated pathways to accreditation, the amazing impact of free, open online learning resources, and the dissatisfaction that employers had with the calibre of school and university graduates. The old guard bemoaned the loss of the good old days. Those with vision demonstrated that inspiring learning, deep thinking and critical scholarship are not intrinsically tied to paper, bricks and mortar.

The OU had always known that it was its Associate Lecturers (ALs) who personalized the student learning experience, provided the emotional support, the challenge to stretch, and the friendly bullying that all learners need and welcome from time to time. But in late 2012, the OU realized that this was a USP that could scale through ‘Open ALs’. ‘Out there’, on the net, there were millions of people with an unquenchable thirst to learn — a need that could only be met by a decentralized, self-organising network of all the Opens (see above) — but critically, with skilled mentors there to help learners navigate, filter and prioritise their activities in what was otherwise an overwhelming ocean of options. Those learners ranged from unaffiliated individuals trying to earn their way out of poverty, to affluent Ivy league students dissatisfied with the level of tutor contact they were getting, to professionals on public and private sector trajectories.

Since the beginning of course, many ALs had been freelancing for numerous employers, including the OU’s competitors. Indeed, sensing that change was coming, some entrepreneurial ALs had already self-organised into a network offering their services. However, for many ALs, the idea of setting up an online business and ‘marketing’ oneself was alien, and somewhat scary.

The OU made a key move, and helped its ALs do this by providing an ebusiness platform for them to set up shop, build their expertise profiles, set their fees, administer financial transactions, and begin to engage the global audience. ALs could display authenticated OU Accreditation which gave them an edge in a marketplace where there were many cowboys.

They could license and configure their favourite online  learning tools in the OU and other cloud computing services, without worrying about the techie details. Social learning, video-conferencing, climate simulations, molecular modelling, mind-mapping, structured debates, inquiry projects, blogging, wikis — mentors chose the best of breed, OU or otherwise, and wielded their expertise to get the most out of them. They built track records through the ratings and endorsements their clients shared, and deployed their own learning resources and methods, which they could share for free or fee. They developed, shared and competed with each other — with all sorts of freemium models being experimented with. Some were happy to engage with learners on an ad hoc basis, as and when they were most needed, while others specialized in getting learners through particular courses or professional development pathways. Some formed and disbanded ad hoc consortia when there were bigger jobs. When there was an unexpected spike, the OU’s relationships with its ALs was critical to rapid response.

Yes, looking back it was all so obvious, but it needed a crisis, and someone like Amazon to show the way: provide the trustworthy, value-adding platform for myriad small businesses to reach a global audience (often selling cheaper than you!), but you’re still laughing from the commission on all transactions, and the small entrepreneurs are happy to be punching way above their weight.

Naturally, there are now loads of copycat platforms. Good job no-one else seized the moment before us.

(Provoked by the OU’s internal Comms conference today)

2 Responses to “Open University 2016: the global learning mentors”

  1. I wonder whether a support mechanism may evolve around the lines of personal coaches/independent financial advisers, who blend a course selection service with delivery support for a commission fee

  2. Absolutely — such developments will be an natural evolution when ecosystems like this are architected.

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