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iTunes U and the OERu: two different ways to reach the world


This paper looks at two mass-use open practice initiatives: iTunes U and the Open Educational Resources university (OERu), as investigated by SCORE research fellows, Terese Bird and Gabi Witthaus of the University of Leicester. The projects were called SPIDER (Sharing Practice with ITunes U Digital Educational Resources) and TOUCANS (Testing the OER university Concept and Aspirations: a National Study) respectively.

At first glance, these two initiatives appear to be at opposite ends of the open-practice philosophical spectrum. iTunes U is Apple Incorporated’s channel of free learning material from worldwide universities, schools, and other educational institutions, and can be rightly referred to as “the corporate channel of free educational resources” (Bird, 2011). The OERu, which was initiated by Otago Polytechnic (New Zealand), the University of Southern Queensland (Australia) and the University of Athabasca (Canada), with the support of UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning, the OER Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation (Taylor, 2011 and Macintosh et al., 2011), may be seen as one of the most philanthropic of the open practice endeavours. Its 15 member institutions aim to offer full accreditation to students studying independently from OER, at a greatly reduced price in comparison to mainstream fees. iTunes U is already a well-established platform, whereas the OERu is still being shaped by its partner institutions, with the pilot being scheduled for September 2012.

Methods used in SPIDER and TOUCANS for data gathering, analysis and evaluation

SPIDER studied and described the iTunes U implementations of four universities – The Open University, University of Nottingham, University of Oxford and University of Leicester (which is preparing to launch iTunes U) – and investigated the use of open learning materials distributed by iTunes U. Data were gathered via interviews with selected representatives from the participating institutions, a survey that was widely distributed on the web and via workshops and conferences, meetings with academics and senior management at the University of Leicester (the ‘home’ institution), and via Twitter, which generated additional data from iTunes U users who tweeted about their experiences.

In TOUCANS, baseline data about the OERu were gathered via web-based research and interviews with 14 representatives of the participating institutions. These data were then presented to stakeholders in the UK higher education (HE) sector via the blog and at conferences. Responses were obtained from the sector via a survey sent out to members of OER programmes in UK higher education institutions (HEIs), and interviews with 11 selected ‘thought leaders’ at different HEIs. The data were analysed by being manually organised under thematic headings by the researcher, and in the final stages, a colleague with no previous involvement in TOUCANS or the OERu was asked to act as ‘reality checker’ – reviewing the findings in relation to the raw data.

Both researchers maintained blogs and presented regularly at conferences throughout the projects, and in this way elicited further discussion around the issues among colleagues in the open education community.

Key lessons were learnt in relation to mass models for OER

While participants in both the iTunes U programme and the OERu network are engaged in sharing educational content freely and openly on a mass scale, the OERu is a more demanding project on its partners, as it attempts to address the need for low-cost, mass-scale higher education assessment and accreditation. This necessarily brings with it more risks and fewer perceived advantages for participating institutions than iTunes U, which aims to enable the release of educational content for a mass audience on a multimedia platform, at no cost to users. It comes as no surprise then, that institutional participation globally in iTunes U is significantly higher than in the OERu. ITunes U is not without its own risks, however, and it requires a commitment from senior management to dedicate resources and effort to it.

From SPIDER, it is evident that capacity building, integration of IPR clearance procedures into the OER production process, considering the use of audio-only (rather than only audio-visual) materials, and not demanding perfectly polished material are the keys to institutional success in producing OER for mass-scale dissemination via iTunes U. Also, while the use of a commercial platform may seem counter-intuitive in the context of open education, it appears to have been also central to the success of the OER initiatives in the institutions studied, at least to some extent because of the perceived business benefits in marketing the institutions and recruiting students. A related key finding from SPIDER is that the marketing department has a crucial role to play in enabling the success of the iTunes U initiative in participating institutions.

From TOUCANS it was learnt that, while many stakeholders in UK HEIs are personally in favour of the aims of the OERu network, there are significant stumbling blocks for institutions, including regulatory requirements such as those from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). The timing of the research also coincided with the introduction of the new fee structure for English students in the UK, resulting in a general air of uncertainty and concerns about institutional survival, and limited interest in engaging in philanthropic activity at the present moment. There was, however, a great deal of interest in discussing possible ways to build on previous work done in the area of Open Educational Resources, with MOOCs (mass online open courses) and MITx-type certificates or ‘badges’ (i.e. less formal awards than those given in mainstream accreditation) being seen as an attractive way forward with potential business benefits. For the OERu, or any similar global initiative aimed at increasing access to accredited learning opportunities and wanting to recruit partner institutions in the UK, it is important to ensure that the risks do not outweigh the perceived benefits of participation.

This extract is from a case study by Therese Bird and Gabi Witthaus, published online at https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/system/files/mass_models_for_oers.pdf under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.