by Paul Bacsich, 14 May 2006
Historical analyses of e-universities seems to be just like buses down Oxford St [cultural reference: London, England] – you wait ages for one, then two come nearly at once. Shortly after the news came in about the analytic report on BCOU and Tele-U in Canada, along comes this EDUCAUSE article about the rather longer-dead USOU – the US branch of the UK Open University, which flourished from spring 1999 until summer 2002. The article is written by Katrina Meyer. Some in the global audience may not recognise her but in the US she is a regular author and speaker on e-learning topics (including those of interest to us) and is heavily involved in WCET including having presented at most of the recent WCET conferences. (I went to several WCET conferences in the 1999-2002 era, which were excellent.)
As her methodological basis, Katrina decided to interview the first (and only) Chancellor of the USOU, Richard Jarvis. He has had a long and distinguished career in the higher reaches of university management – as his CV shows – and seems therefore to have the confidence to talk about one of the presumably less satisfactory episodes of his career.
Based on her interview with him, Katrina makes five key points about reasons for failure (which can as usual be inverted into critical success factors when applied to other institutions):
Loss of key advocacy and support from the base organisation (i.e. the UK OU)
Challenges of the US marketplace
Lack of accreditation
How do these stand up? Declaring my interest, I worked at the UK Open University for many years until 1996. Thus I was not at the OU in the critical period for her study, nor do I have any inside information from that era. However, I feel I had a pretty good understanding of how the OU really worked, and remained in contact with the OU on various projects up to around 2004, including on other projects in the e-learning space, the UK e-University in particular. From the US standpoint I was involved with various US agencies including TLT Group and the Steering Committee of WCET during some of the critical period. So I believe I have something to add.
In terms of her five points, she personalises point 1 to some extent, noting that John Daniel left the OU and this led to a loss of top-level support. I am sure that this is true, but even before he left the OU, my observation from the US standpoint was that the OU were not necessarily putting their best people into supporting the USOU project. (Note that by summer 2001, in addition to any economic downturn issues referred to, the OU had a major e-learning distraction much nearer home base, the e-University – more of this later.) There were also some odd technical decisions that the USOU made, such as to not use the main e-learning system deployed at the OU (FirstClass, as then used in many UK, and many US providers) but rather to use Prometheus (which was shortly after taken over by Blackboard and discontinued – not much vision there).
In terms of points 2, 3 and 4, I feel that she is in general accurate. However, I think the point about the OU curriculum is perhaps overdone. Even when I left the OU in 1996, it had spent many years on internationalising its curriculum and had many areas (mathematics, science, computer science) where the differences between English-speaking countries would be in any case rather less.
However, there is a valid issue over the MBA, as Jarvis notes. Like most UK MBAs, the OU MBA was “European” in approach, rather different from the US approach to MBAs. Thus it would have been considerable work to adapt it for a US audience – and would they have accepted it without a US university partner being involved? In that era, I am sure that a US audience would not have accepted the existing OU MBA in any large numbers.
But on the issue of accreditation, I am surprised that the USOU did not try to finesse this issue in the way that several US providers (Phoenix etc) have done, by providing a range of non-accredited programmes; or as many UK distance learning providers have done by providing a range of MSc programmes (not MBA) where the (local) accreditation need is less.
On business planning, the OU is a cautious animal and the paradigm has not really changed since its founding. Indeed, it might be argued that the OU-Manchester alliance and the OU’s drive to open content are the first two major business model changes in the OU’s existence.
Likewise her point about student services is rooted in the issue that the OU has taken a (to some) rather leisurely approach to fully online learning – on the other hand, it is still in business whereas several of its “pure-play” rivals are not, and the pendulum (at least in the short term) has now swung back to rather more face to face than purists would like.
Inevitably when only one person is interviewed, however senior, I was left with a feeling that we had not heard a rounded story. It would be good to have the views of former colleagues, opinion-formers and also of key OU staff involved. In this context the study of Darby et al is a useful guide. This might be coupled with a documentary analysis of material referencing the USOU, such as speeches from John Daniel.
So what other factors might a follow-up study look into? From my own work on failed e-universities, I suggest the following:
the role of the CEO in e-learning start-ups
the views of US regulatory agencies and other opinion-forming bodies (such as WCET) on the USOU – and any sense of whether it was viewed as an “intrusion” (one has regularly seen such defensive reactions in the US in the last few years against various kinds of non-US commercial incursion)
the reasons for and against the specific location of the head office (location of HQ is a lesser-known but crucial factor in the success of distance teaching organisations)
what market research was done and (equally importantly) what was acted on
the impact on USOU of the fact that the OU had a local e-learning competitive situation to deal with at home base, namely the UK e-University, announced in spring 2000, with many studies, negotiations and contracts in the next two years, several of which involved the OU (someone else can draw the necessary historical parallel with the Roman Empire – is this the place to admit that I am reading Romanitas?)
But all in all, I commend Katrina Meyer for “breaking the silence” on this so-far neglected institution as a case study of virtual university failure, and look forward to more on the topic.
On a subtler note, keen students of Richard Jarvis’s CV will note that his first degree was in geography. Insiders to the UK e-learning scene will note the signifance.