Open, higher education courses are a boon to adults who don’t have the time, money, or confidence to enroll in traditional college courses but want to further their education for work or personal satisfaction. OERu is a great option for these learners. It allows people to take courses assembled by accredited colleges and universities for free, using open textbooks, and pay for assessment only when (and if) they want to apply for formal academic credit.
I spoke with Dave Lane, open source technologist at the Open Education Resource Foundation, which is OERu’s parent organization, to learn more about the program. The OER Foundation is a nonprofit organization hosted by Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand. It partners with organizations around the globe to provide leadership, networking, and support to help advance open education principles.
OERu is one of the foundation's flagship projects. (The other is WikiEducator, a community of educators collaboratively developing open source materials.) OERu was conceived in 2011, two years after the foundation’s launch, with representatives from educational institutions around the world.
Its network "is made up of tertiary educational institutions in five continents working together to democratize tertiary education and its availability for those who cannot afford (or cannot find a seat in) tertiary education," Dave says. Some of OERu’s educational partners include UTaz (Australia), Thompson River University (Canada), North-West University or National Open University (ZA and Nigeria in Africa, respectively), and the University of the Highlands and Islands (Scotland in the UK). Funding is provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. These institutions have worked out the complexity associated with transferring academic credits within the network and across the different educational cultures, accreditation boards, and educational review committees.
How it works
The primary requirements for taking OERu courses are fluency in English (which is the primary teaching language) and having a computer with internet access. To start learning, peruse the list of courses, click the title of the course you want to take, and click “Start Learning” to complete any registration details (different courses have different requirements).
Once you complete a course, you can take an assessment that may qualify you for college-level course credit. While there’s no cost to take a course, each partner institution charges fees for administering assessments—but they are far less expensive than traditional college tuition and fees.
In March 2018, OERu launched a Certificate Higher Education Business (CertHE), a one-year program that the organization calls its first year of study, which is "equivalent to the first year of a bachelor's degree." CertHE “is an introductory level qualification in business and management studies which provides a general overview for a possible career in business across a wide range of sectors and industries.” Although CertHE assessment costs vary, it’s likely that the first full year of study will be US$ 2,500, a significant cost savings for students.
OERu is adding courses and looking for ways to expand the model to eventually offer full baccalaureate degrees and possibly even graduate degrees at much lower cost than a traditional degree program.
Open source technologist's background
Dave didn’t set out to work in IT or live and work in New Zealand. He grew up in the United States and earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington. Fresh out of graduate school, he moved to New Zealand to take a position as a research scientist at a government-funded Crown Research Institute to improve the efficiency of the country’s forest industry.
IT and open technologies were important parts of getting his job done. "The image processing and photogrammetry software I developed … was built on Linux, entirely using open source math (C/C++) and interface libraries (Qt)," he says. "The source material for my advanced photogrammetric algorithms was US Geological Survey scientist papers from the 1950s-60s, all publicly available."
His frustration with the low quality of IT systems in the outlying offices led him to assume the role of "ad hoc IT manager" using "100% open source software," he says, which delighted his colleagues but frustrated the fulltime IT staff in the main office.
After four years of working for the government, he founded a company called Egressive to build Linux-based server systems for small businesses in the Christchurch area. Egressive became a successful small business IT provider, specializing in free and open source software, web development and hosting, systems integration, and outsourced sysadmin services. After selling the business, he joined the OER Foundation’s staff in 2015. In addition to working on the WikiEducator.org and OERu projects, he develops open source collaboration and teaching tools for the foundation.
If you're interested in learning more about the OER Foundation, OERu, open source technology, and Dave's work, take a look at his blog.