Monday, 2 December 2013

Meet the MOOC executives - An interview with James Bell

With initiatives such as Open2Study, Australia is at the forefront of the MOOC ecosystem. The University of New England has also launched its own ambitious platform, uneOpen and is the first Australian university to offer credits for MOOC study.
The Good MOOC interviews uneOpen CEO James Bell to find out more.





  • Can you introduce yourself?


I fell into education a few years ago while I was doing my undergraduate studies, starting off with some tutoring for students who had learning difficulties. Over the years I’ve worked in most sectors within the industry including community development for children and teens excluded from traditional schools, study abroad, international education and specifically in online education over the last couple of years.





uneOpen is an initiative of the University of New England, a regional university in Australia, and pioneered teaching to off-campus students via distance education and more recently online. uneOpen was established as a response to how online education has evolved over the last few years, and in particular the rise of open online courses, and a way for the university to prototype new ways of unbundling degrees and offering these online. What we do is take existing subjects from within the university and offer these in various formats on our platform, and we freely share these courses. What makes our courses different is that we also offer the students to convert their studies into credit in degrees with UNE, via a Challenge Assessment which students have the option to book and pay for. This opens up access to university education as it offers students a low cost, low risk path towards a degree. We’re very focussed on helping more people access a quality university education and saving on the cost of investing in education.
Since we launched our prototype in July, we have offered subjects from Bachelor and Masters degrees in the areas of Business, Health, Sociology, Criminology and Law.



  • Where do see higher education going in the medium to long-term future with open resources, MOOCs and free tools?


MOOC’s continue to grow in popularity, and there will be a point at which a critical mass is achieved and online education becomes commonplace for people to pursue their educational and career goals. If we look at the Australian landscape, distance education and online education for degrees achieved a broad level of acceptance some time ago, recognised under the national regulatory framework.
I believe there are some truly transformative possibilities offered for universities to improve the quality of education and start moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to getting a degree. Open online education and the use of technology and the internet can help universities lower the costs associated with delivering degrees and by passing these costs savings onto students make education more affordable. uneOpen is exploring ways to ‘unbundle’ education and allow students to pick and choose what knowledge they want to learn, via the means they are best suited to learning from and at a price they are willing to pay for investing in their education.



  • There's a fair bit of online learning skepticism out there... Do you have anything to say about that?


First, let me apologise for the length of this reply, but it’s a question I’ve been asked a lot recently. I think having the broader debate about open online education is a positive move, as it’s forcing universities to move with the times. When it comes to some of the criticisms about MOOC’s the argument about retention rates is one of the least positive discussions as it’s focussing on the wrong issues. Applying traditional measures associated with quality assurance in higher education fails to acknowledge that open online education for most students is not about getting a degree, and measuring against degree-as-outcome, which we normally would do, limits the ability to really see what is really happening.
Let’s say we have a student who is really keen to learn only one topic from an open online course – they create an account, login to access the content they want, perhaps copy the material that’s relevant to their own device and never touch the course again. How can this be a negative outcome? The student achieved exactly what they set out to do, learn the knowledge that they wanted. We know that a large number of students doing MOOC’s and open education already have a degree, so the outcome that they value is the measure by which we should be measuring our own performance. It goes back to my earlier point about universities adopting a ‘one size fits all approach’, it doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s actually happening.
In the case of uneOpen, we know we have students interested in picking and choosing what they want to learn like the example above and this is great as we get to freely share our knowledge with these students. We also know that some of our students are interested in finding an alternative pathway towards a degree and by sitting our challenge assessment can use their result to get credit and advanced standing in a degree with UNE. We’re very proud of our students who went through our first challenge assessment period, as they achieved a 100% pass rate! So obviously some of our measures are different to other open online providers, it’s a matter for organisations to work out what measures best suit their students and what they are trying to achieve.



  • Which are you favorite online learning experience so far and why?


Having undertaken a lot of distance education and online learning I’m really glad we’ve moved beyond pdf’s and heavy textbooks. I’m not sure where to start – but I can say that I now pretty much will go straight to Google or Youtube to search for something I’m looking at learning as my first point of call. A good video can get across in less than 5 minutes exactly what I need to do and how to do it which saves me a great amount of time.



  • Can you please elaborate on your 'business model'?


We are approaching this as a learning opportunity and while we are still within the prototyping phase, we are exploring a number of elements including pedagogy as well as strategic approaches. The core of the business model is a freemium approach, whereby we freely give away the knowledge but offer optional premium services for a fee. This is still a new area for the university, but we are determined to have a go at open courseware and unbundled education.



  • What's your view on the Australian MOOC platform Open2Study and their very short format MOOCs?


I think it’s great for students to have a range of choices to suit their preferred learning approaches, whether it be short courses, vocational certification or more rigorous full degree subjects. Obviously at uneOpen we are focussing our efforts on where we believe we have something unique to offer which is full university level subjects that provide a clear path towards degrees. It’s a low cost, low risk way to experience what it’s like to study at university.





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