The fact that numbers of part-time students are decreasingly enormously is neither new news nor contested. Much soul searching has gone on in many quarters to establish the reason, commonly attributed to the increase in fees for part-time students. I'm sure that's true. However, the Times Higher Education carried a letter in its March 31st issue under the title 'OU soul-searching' in which the writer suggests that the falling demand for part-time study is easily comprehended by the fact that the OU was created when less than 7 per cent of adults had degrees and there was real demand for university-level education from skilled and semi-skilled workers as well as those in careers that were to become professionalised via accreditation. Comparing that with the almost 50 per cent of 18 year olds now going to university he/she suggests that far more of the general population now in their middle age have university degrees than in the 1960s when the OU was founded, hence there is necessarily less demand.
This is an interesting and relatively commanding observation. One that I had not thought of before, and one I find hard to refute. However...
The suggestion is premised on the fact that what the OU was providing and what a high proportion of the adult population wanted and needed was: a) a degree; b) from a university; and c) that contributed to the professionalisation of a career or employment sector. It may be that (c) too is now virtually redundant since many professions - nursing is a high profile example - now require their new recruits to have a university degree and have well established academic pathways to enable them to achieve that.
But does this mean that the falling demand for part-time study is inexorable and inevitable? Should the OU (and other major providers of part-time study such as Birkbeck and Edge Hill) just give up now?
No. Of course not. It's true that their tried and tested market and corresponding pedagogical model(s) may be on the wane, but it certainly doesn't mean these providers have no future, nor does it mean that the demand for part-time learning is on the wane. It does mean that part-time providers need to be astute and to read the signs of the times. In my view they are better placed than many campus-based and residential universities to respond to emerging needs, identify new opportunities and seize the future. In many ways they are already doing this through MOOCs. Research indicates that MOOCs are most commonly studied by already well qualified adults, generally employed and whose reason for enrolling on a MOOC include their own professional development. Admittedly the fact that they are free of charge is an attraction, but the world is now seeing hundreds of thousands of learners enrolling on part-time study through MOOCs. The demand is there. What makes the difference?
First, MOOCs generally run for a much shorter period of time than conventional undergraduate study. A traditional part-time degree can take as much as eight years to complete. MOOCs run for between four and twelve weeks. No, they don't offer accredited awards (yet). No, they don't lie at a specified and validated level of study (yet). Yes, they are free of charge (for the moment). Yes, they are hugely expensive to develop and run and some institutions view them as a type of loss leader: a means of attracting new recruits at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels for their more 'conventional' programmes of study. But these are not necessarily deterrents and many, with a little creative and flexible thinking, can be resolved.
Second, MOOCs are well-placed to meet people's CPD needs in a more innovative fashion and in a way that meets the needs of employers and learners alike. MOOCs have the potential to fit into a 'flipped classroom' model very easily. Learners would work through a MOOC, part-time and alongside their employment, then attend a residential week, perhaps specifically organised with a global employer who is keen to internationalise their staff. Then back to another MOOC, and so on.
Third, MOOCs can offer individuals considering a career change the opportunity to learn something about the new direction they are considering. Such a 'taster' doesn't need to require a full year of study, and combining MOOCs in a flipped classroom approach might allow them to go on and get a qualification.
This is, of course, the traditional PG Taught constituency. Learners who need a taught Master's degree, either part-time or full-time, to advance their existing career or allow them to move to another. However, this model offers something that many PGT courses don't: flexibility in allowing learners to choose what, when, where and how they study.
MOOCs may offer a window to the future that institutions such as the OU are well placed to step into quickly and efficiently. Here's my thinking.
1. Like it or not (I'm ambivalent) we seem to be moving towards an age when even learning needs to take place in shorter bursts. There are advantages and disadvantages, but an advantage is that 'chunking' learning into small segments increases the possibility of flexible study and may provide greater opportunities for a greater number of learners, worldwide.
2. MOOCs allow a genuine flexibility of pace, permitting learners who want to, to progress far more quickly than others.
3. MOOCs offer the possibility of seamless intersection with employers, who themselves are increasingly moving towards flexible working.
4. MOOCs can target a specific employment need or area of study.
5. MOOCs are mobile. They can be studied anywhere.
I'm realistic enough to acknowledge the finances are still the number one challenge to solve. But my sense is that a MOOC model, even if it requires learners to pay, may yet prove to be a way forward for institutions like the OU, not least because they are flexible enough to fit alongside a world that itself is both becoming more flexible and requiring greater flexibility from its higher education institutions.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.