Blog Post

open University


Earlier in this essay I referenced Peter Abelard and now I must skirt along the edges of a philosophical argument between nominalism, conceptualism, and realism as they apply to an Open University. The question then is: does the term “open university” represent a singular specific idea? Or does it perhaps exist as a category describable by the sum characteristics of those institutions which identify themselves as such?


I would argue for the latter for a number of reasons. First, part of an Open University is the flexibility and agility to respond quickly to needs. Such an institution cannot be framed in a box—a truly out of the box institution is one free to move, not one which is simply in a different box. Second, just as I argued above for a diversity of intellectual ideas, there must also be a diversity of institutions and institutional cultures. A university should be the sum total of its community, their knowledge, and the ideas they develop. As there are open universities around the world, all serving the nation and culture in which they exist, there must, of course, be differences.


Universities were founded as scholars did not wish to be autonomous business units—and they were business units charging fees to learners. They retained their idea of being autonomous intellectual and academic units while the institution administered the finance, logistics, etc. The scholar was then free to focus specifically on their scholarship. In a networked world that is no longer true; there are multiple business models available for learning as a business—for profit universities represent only the tip of the ice-berg of what is possible. Just as Sun Microsystems once said that the value is not in the computer but in the network, the same is true of faculty today. The strength is in shared resources and their network. It is only by developing these value propositions that an institution can remain financially viable. The challenge in Higher Education has been to determine what business we are in, and how do we effectively perform in that area (Clougherty 2008).


When those early universities were first founded, as with today’s MBA programs that scholars in some disciplines turn their noses up at, the original idea of the humanities was as professional training—one needed to take minor orders to secure work as a clerk. In short, for a well-paying job, that degree was essential. Just as universities themselves have wandered away from Abelard's original definition and conception, we have lost sight of the professional need universities were ultimately designed to fulfill. In the United States the origin of the R-1 (a.k.a., “Land Grant” universities) comes from the Morrill Act which in itself focused on professional degrees. According to the specification of the act, each state should found “at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” (7 U.S.C. § 304). Ironically, state universities were founded as institutions designed to teach in practical arts. They have, however, morphed into institutions committed to research. That is not bad, quite the contrary, the benefits are innumerable. It does, however, leave vacant the mission for which these institutions were first designed to fulfill. For that reason the graduate school of an Open University, in fulfilling professional needs as a teaching institution, not only fulfills the need, but frees up other institutions (and in a system like SUNY, the other institutions within the system) to fulfill that vital and critical research agenda. Terry Anderson (2010) said it best when he wrote: “Organizational structures should help us to surf ‘at the edge of chaos,’ not function to eliminate or constrain the creative potential of actors engaged at this juncture.” I am not meaning to imply that an open university does not perform research—quite the contrary; however, it involves different forms of research (such as action research) and methodologies (such as the authoring of case studies).


Likewise, moving beyond the graduate level research role into the graduate level teaching responsibilities, the open university differs from the traditional in the types of degrees it offers as well as the nature of its capstone projects. In terms of the nature of degrees, the graduate school of a traditional institution focuses on first graduate degrees for individuals looking to pursue strongly disciplinary careers at the entry point of a first career—as such it is responsible for providing many basic academic, life/maturity skills, etc. The graduate school of an open university, on the other hand focuses on second degrees—those that are achieved after one has entered into a career—this degree can be used either for advancement within the existing career, broadening of an existing career, or for career change. In each instance, the graduate school of an open university designs programs with this realization. That means that all programs assume that an individual comes equipped with basic skill sets as well as specific professional experience outside of a strictly academic environment which can be applied to an academic setting.


There are examples of each at SUNY--Empire State College. The MBA program is designed for individuals looking for professional advancement. One of the entry requirements/ recommendations, is that students arrive with 3-5 years of management experience (the reality, however, appears to be that the average student arrives with 8-10 years of experience). The students are expected to bring their experience and share it with their fellow students. The graduate experience becomes one where an individual’s experience becomes transformed by learning about what they have learned and learned how to take that experience and knowledge to the next level. In the field of degrees to broaden a career, our Policy programs often bring in students involved in specific areas of social issues who seek to expand their skill set into policy implementation. In this case, as opposed to managing a program, they can now take new policy—be it new requirements or legislation or grant criteria—and be able to apply that in their work environment. In that way, their comprehension has not taken them deeper into what they do, but has expanded what they can do within that field-in this instance for individuals who have be trained in other fields who need this realm of their professional career developed. Finally, our MAT program is designed for career changers who it is assumed have a given specialization (in this instance their content field) and as a cohort, they need to develop a secondary skill set—in this instance, teaching skills at a level sufficient to become certified teachers. Each of our new degrees and certificates falls into one of these areas.


In the capstone of a graduate degree from an open university, as the degrees are professionally focused, the research based thesis does not bring the appropriate experience, both as the research focus is outside the dimension of the professional degree. Second, the nature of such, as they are currently practiced, is based upon values of an open university discussed above (see OPEN EDUCATIONAL RESCOURCES, OPEN ASSETS, and OPEN SCIENCE). Likewise, in an open university, the assessment criteria and expectations must be clear to the student at entry—i.e, to borrow a phrase from Barbara Lovitts (2007), on capstone experiences, graduate schools, in approaching capstone experiences, need to “make the implicit explicit.”[1]


The capstone for graduate degrees in an open university can fuse with the commitment to Open Educational Resources as the capstone should meet the criteria of Open Educational Resources, Open Assets, and Open Science. While this is theoretical in that the author knows of no institution currently practicing such in a graduate education, the capstone experience could involve a three step process: to embody open science, the development and study notes (while research fits best here, it is being avoided to minimize confusion) could be posted in a blog or wiki; the professional experience would be posted as a case study for study by others and, therefore, an open educational resources; finally, the student could write a reflection of the experience of developing the project which could become an open asset. In short, the advancement of the graduate school as reflected in its repository of open materials would be enhanced by its student, and true to the practice of adult learning, learners become participants in a learning community and are able to learn from one another.


While some may believe that the distance nature of an open university somehow compromises it, when, in fact, it simply makes it more agile and able to evolve and change more quickly. As Porter, Blythe, Grabill, and Miles (2000) note, universities are “rhetorically constructed human designs (whose power is reinforced by buildings laws, traditions, and knowledge-making practices) and so are changeable.” An open university recognizes itself for what it is—a discourse community focused on learning—it does not hide its identity in the structure of buildings—which, as noted, are there to reinforce power as opposed to serving as part of the discourse, and the use of open learning, they alter the knowledge-making practices.


While a graduate school in an open university not only can be, but must be, selective, the current wall of in and out is both artificial and unethical. Because someone is not fully admitted to the degree and assessment process (or chooses not to be because they have other needs) does not mean that they should be fully shut out from a university and its benefits; as Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) note: “Rather than force participation, successful communities ‘build benches’ for those on the sidelines.” Everyone should have access to the content and knowledge generated by the university. In a not-so-modest proposal, I would argue that given the multiple functions of a university (content creation and delivery, communication and interaction, assessment, and certification), that individuals should be able to register and participate at the level of their needs.


Perhaps more importantly, the larger role which students are allowed, and the more they are treated as valuable resources, the more they will respond by becoming valuable resources. (This runs parallel to testers in a Linux environment who serve the dual role of tester and developer ((Eric Ray Stevens Cathedral and Bazaar)).)


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