OER futures and Universality, Inc. #altc2010

(these are my own views and not those of my employer, or of programmes and projects I am responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license)


In working with Sheila MacNeill, Li Yuan and Heather Price (nee Williamson) in preparing our workshop at ALTC2010 (slides) on trends and scenarios in OER, I was challenged to flesh out the following scenario:


“the radical change model in which a global university appears to serve the different needs of the learners through open access to course materials, learner support and assessment”


This was one of four, ranging from a status quo model in which OER was simply an adjunct to an institutionally focused model, on  to seeing OER as a means of facilitating institutional credit transfer, and (excitingly) to OER as a spur to widespread institutional collaboration. So clearly my scenario was on the neo-liberal nightmare edge of the spectrum.


Predicting the future is not the kind of thing I generally enjoy. I feel that I understand the present and the recent past so poorly that anything I could come up with is based more a hunch than the result of any proper analysis of trends and patterns. Unlike other future gazers, I admit this,


But I ended up with a business model that was both plausible and terrifying; contemplating “Universality Inc” where OERs are a primary means of learning alongside peer support and automatic formative assessment, with other “optional services” (like tutorials, practicals, examinations and qualification/graduation) available for a fee. Academics, in this nightmarish vision, were mainly paid to produce OERs to draw customers in to pay for other services, and employers had enough input into the curriculum to save on corporate training costs.


I frightened myself.  I stared in to the abyss and saw things that cannot be unseen.


The only thing to do seemed to be to make a pretend corporate video, featuring the range of fine acting talent you can find around the JISC offices on a Tuesday lunchtime.


Enjoy (and come along to the session in room ALTCT at 10:30 on Thursday 9th if you want to discuss).


(if anyone wants the raw materials from the video for reuse please leave a comment and I will send you anything you need. Oh, and please don’t build Universality for real. If you do, I waive the attribution part of the license. I want no part in this.)


Update: With thanks to Barbara Dieu, this video is now available with English and Brazillian Portugese subtitles

21 thoughts on “OER futures and Universality, Inc. #altc2010”

  1. you truly are an artist Mr K – great piece of directing given the resources you were forced to work with – some troublesome actors in your cast!

  2. How is that different to the open online courses Siemens et al have been running? A load of free stuff to get 10% to buy stuff from Athabasca U?

  3. Nice job! What I’m trying to figure out is whether you think that this perfect storm of disaggregation is all dark, because I don’t — the clearing operation that this tornado performs opens up new options. Your main concerns seem to be around academics now being valued only for business generation, while love of scholarship, research and learning for their own sake are left in the dust, or perhaps only for an R1 elite tier.I find the idea of content for free, with optional tuition and assessment for fee quite an exciting idea, and am not (yet) convinced that these necessarily bring with them all the downsides. What’s wrong with the emergence of talented tutors who have international profiles like the archeology lady?Simon

  4. Cheers Simon. I don’t know whether it is all dark, I just think this will happen (to a greater or lesser extent) and we need to enter this world critically and aware of the implications.I’d be delighted to see more open content out there, academics valued for their teaching and content creation activity. I’m not so convinced by the business-led and demand-led nature of this model (I think sometimes you don’t want to learn stuff but you need to), and I think (disagreeing with Newman) that teaching and research are both sides of the scholarship coin.I’m also a huge fan of the supposed inefficiencies and randomness of the institutions we have currently – I wonder whether a more profit-driven, demand-led, focus will lose the serendipity and collegiate nature that has been so powerful over the last 100 years?

  5. Interesting to reflect on the ‘full circle’ effect in that there are overlaps here between for-profit models and the land of MOOCs.

  6. Good piece and lots of food for thought. Would you send me the transcript? I’d like to translate it to Portuguese in Universal Subtitles 😐 so that the Brazilian OER community can reflect on it as well and react.

  7. Hello Barbara – many thanks for your comment! I’d be delighted to send you a transcript and will do so later this week

  8. @Barbara – full transcript below:—In 2030, one company – universality – controls 71% of all higher educationThis film documents what it is like to study at, teach at, and work with Universality.Universality – the singular college for the connected world.NARRATOR:”It is incredible to think how quickly Universality has changed the marketplace for higher education in the UK. Using OER materials and peer support, both of which are available to all for free – and coupling this with paid-for tutorials, practical sessions, and examinations and accreditation – it has offered students and employers the opportunity to benefit from Higher Education.””It has also completely changed the nature of academic employment in the UK. In this short film we will be talking to some of the key stakeholders”Our students… learning that fits the way I live my life…and the needs of my employer. I’m investing in my future. I pay only for what I need.SARAH, CHEMISTRY STUDENT:”It’s the flexibility that works for me, I only pay for what I use, and I get it when and where I want it. I’ve been studying chemistry mainly through watching the lectures and interacting with the materials – though I paid for a couple of tutorials too. I can’t afford the practical week though.””I’m saving up to take the level one exam next year. Formative tests are predicting a “B” for me at the moment, so I want to get a bit more work in. The other students have been really helpful in pointing me towards the right materials. And it will take me a year to save up the fee as well”Our associated employers… we employ graduates who can start work on day 1. We can access training and qualifications that directly meet our immediate business needs.SIMON HAZELL, HR DIRECTOR, BEACON MEDIA:”We’ve employed exclusively graduates for years, but we’ve always found we’ve had to retrain them in our way of doing things before they can start work. In business, we need to find employees that meet our immediate needs, but by the time we’ve retrained them for six months we might as well not have bothered – we need something else.””With Universality we have our corporate training built in to what the students learn, so they start with us and they’ve already got the skills and knowledge to do a good job, instead of a degree in something irrelevent. No more graduate trouble makers, just good workers ready to start their career with us”Our staff… I build my reputation and earning power through releasing open resources. I work with employers to make sure that that students have the right skills.DR HEATHER CAMPBELL, ANTHROPOLOGY TUTOR, UNIVERSALITY INC.”Working for Universality was a natural result of the popularity of my materials, one of my lectures had the highest student and peer satisfaction rating for over two years. Now I’m paid based on these ratings and I’m reaching millions of students every day.””At my level I don’t get involved with tutorials or student support, unless the student is willing to pay the premium. I do a lot of custom stuff for key business partners, it’s very well paid. There were some nice things about the old universities: the sense of commuity, the sense of being a part of history… and I quite enjoyed some of the research too. But these days I’m recognised as being a good tutor, and I’ve got a huge international profile as one of Universality’s rising stars.”The government… we are delighted by the way universality has invigorated the HE market. Universality awards accredited UK degrees.THE RIGHT HONOURABLE CAROLINE SPENCER MP, MINISTER FOR HIGHER EDUCATION”We all loved the Universality concept, but it still came as a surprise how quickly it became the dominant mode of teaching. Like Spotify did with music in the late noughties, it made most business models look antiquated. It’s hard to believe that in 2010 there were more than one hundred UK universities – these days 71% of undergraduate qualifications worldwide are awarded through Universality. We were hoping for something like this when we seperated degree awarding powers from teaching, back in 2012. Some people are worried about a monopoly, but why worry when so many students are learning so much that could benefit them in their career.”Our Chief Executive Officer… we use open educational resources and then charge students for support, testing, and to graduate. Our staff costs are low, and we make additional revenue via display advertisments and student fees.CHARLES VINCENT, VICE-CHANCELLOR/CEO, UNIVERSALITY INC”We’ve built a huge and profitable business, with millions of customers. It’s a huge step away from the amateurism of the old university sector. Tutor’s roles are now clearly defined, and we pay them for what they actually do and how much business they attract. And were an ethical business – we’re putting all our materials online for free for anyone to use.””We charge students for tutorials, for face-to-face activities, for exams and graduation , and the fees for the last two are reduced when they pay for other services. But even so, a third of our students just pay for the exams. Our Academics are paid to produce materials good enough to draw people in to paying for more services.””I’m delighted to be a part of this brave new world”Universality – the singular college for the connected world.NARRATOR: “this is only one possible picture of higher education in 2030. It might be that you wouldn’t choose to work for or study at universality. The quotes below, from Richard Hall and Jim Groom, might suggest some areas we may wish to consider if we have an alternative vision. We have a lot of thinking to do”(Richard Hall quote)“…we deliver practices that we claim are radical, but which simply replicate or re-produce a dominant political economy, in line with the ideology of accepted business models. So that which we claim as innovatory becomes subservient to a dominant mode of production and merely enables institutions to have power-over our products and labour, rather than it being a shared project … witness the desire for HE to become more ‘business-like’.”Richard HallDe Montfort University (Jim Groom quote)”What we have is an economy disinvesting its own workforce from the bottom up in the name of efficiency, cost cutting measures, and productivity—but in the end we’re all just fodder for profit-driven system that depends up the exploitation of the many for the wealth of the few.”Jim GroomUniversity of Mary Washington CREDITS:Universality, Inic.Available under a creative commons attribution license. Produced by David Kernohan.Based on a workshop by David Kernohan, Sheila MacNeil, Heather Price and Li Yuan at ALT-C 2010.Cheesy stock photography from the Microsoft Clip Art collection.Music by “This Economic Climate”The opinions expressed in this film may not be those of the organisations and individuals involved.Any resemblance to any people, companies or institutions, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *