A visit last week to the Open University in Milton Keynes, England reminded me of an alternative to some of the challenges faced by higher education. Right now, traditional higher education differs substantially from the Open University, and higher education without some substantial change is facing many who question its future. Traditional higher education is under attack from those who question the value and payoff from academic degrees; it appears at times to be threatened by for-profit institutions’ growth in enrollment, and it is being squeezed by limitations on its revenue growth with higher costs for faculty, laboratories and debt services. At the same time, there is a waning willingness among the public to pay for continuously rising tuition or to provide greater subsidies from already stretched state and federal budgets.
As a Professor Emeritus of Management, I have watched salaries in the business disciplines rise as student enrollment has expanded. I have watched as well as the size of introductory course classes has increased. No longer are the sciences the only discipline on traditional campuses with very large introductory classes. Introductory economics classes and introductory business classes in management and marketing are of similarly large size, but mostly without the smaller recitation sections or laboratory experiences of the sciences. Although universities are proud of the quality of their faculties, there has been significant erosion in the proportion of classes taught by permanent, tenured and tenure-track faculty. The latter are just too expensive in light of increasingly limited school and university budgets, and they have been moving in that direction for more than a decade.
The Open University chose an alternative model for instruction and instructional design years ago, one that appears to be providing an alternative to the higher tuition prices of many traditional institutions. With the growth in digital learning resources and the documented quality of online learning today, the opportunities for the Open University are evident. Rather than using the traditional approach of a lone faculty member designing a course for a single class and having responsibility to update it, the Open University uses an instructional design team to create a course. The team can include many people, but it usually has at least a learning technologist, a media specialist, and assessor, and, of course, one or more subject matter experts (i.e., the faculty). This instructional design model is not cheap with its multiple human resources along with the digital infrastructure required for the development and delivery of the course with the support of tutors working with smaller groups of students. But with relatively large enrollments, its financial viability is evident even at lower tuition prices.
The traditional model for education is one that I valued as a student. But the Open University’s model has a number of attractions, especially in light of the growth in university enrollments and the widespread desire for and availability of higher education. The model increases accessibility, and it offers smaller classes, admittedly taught by tutors in less frequency than traditional classes. It takes advantage of students’ growing ease with digital media and their appreciation of it. And the model responds to the threat of rising costs of traditional education’s tuition and the inadequacy of large introductory classes. The Open University’s model also takes advantage of the significant changes that are coming to education (see my blog: Digital Learning Day). It cannot replace the research university for its value in creating new technology, but it has much to recommend it, especially today.