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National CrossTalk Summer 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

News
2 of 5 Stories

A New British Invasion?
Open University struggles in the United States


By William Trombley
Senior Editor

Tallahassee, Florida

  Florida State University has adopted some of the British Open University's distance learning methods but has purchased few OU course materials. Photo by Oscar Sosa, BlackStar, for CrossTalk
  Florida State University has adopted some of the British Open University's distance learning methods but has purchased few OU course materials.  
THE BRITISH OPEN University, widely praised for expanding postsecondary educational opportunity in Great Britain and some other countries, is finding it hard to gain a foothold in the United States.

Some of the reasons can be found at Florida State University, the 31,000-student football power whose campus stands within a political shout from the state capitol.

Five years ago, when Florida State President Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte and Sir John Daniel, vice chancellor of the British Open University, exchanged visits, hopes were high that the two institutions would work closely together to fashion distance learning programs for Florida.

Indeed, the official seals for both institutions are mounted side by side at the entrance to the Center for Academic Support and Distance Learning, on the FSU campus.

But five years later, Florida State has decided to go its own way, for the most part, as it expands distance learning opportunities for both undergraduates and graduate students. Some Open University procedures have been adopted but almost no British course materials are finding their way into the new programs.

"There was some expectation early on that we might be able to take advantage of their work," Alan Mabe, dean of graduate studies and point man for Florida State's distance learning efforts, said in an interview. "But we decided it was just as easy to start from scratch and put together our own programs."

Open University dealings with the 22-campus California State University system have followed roughly the same pattern.

Cal State officials were looking for a way to speed up the credentialing process for the 14,000 California elementary school teachers who now have only emergency permits. Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed and Sir John Daniel thought the Open University's teacher certification approach might be the way to do it.

But the program that has evolved, "CalstateTEACH," which starts this fall, borrows some Open University ideas but uses none of its course materials. The Open University was paid a $750,000, one-time consulting fee but has no ongoing contractual relationship with Cal State.

In both California and Florida, there was objection to the length of Open University courses, which typically run an entire academic year and are not divided into the three- and four-credit-unit segments that are common in this country.

There also were complaints that the course materials rest too much on examples from the United Kingdom that would not be understood here.

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In addition, faculty reluctance to use courses developed by anyone other than themselves has proved to be an important barrier in both Florida and California, as it is likely to be elsewhere.

"The 'not invented here syndrome' is very real," said Jennifer Preece, who is developing a distance learning master's degree program in information studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Faculty are normally quite protective of their courses. They tend to be independent and often quite egotistical."

The Open University's search for U.S. partners is not fueled entirely by a desire to spread the good word about non-traditional, off-campus instruction. A 1993 change in the way the British government finances higher education led to sharp cuts in the Open University's budget, creating a need to generate new revenues outside the United Kingdom.

The large English-speaking, college-going population in the United States seemed an obvious target, but productive partnerships have been elusive.

Last November, the Western Governors University, a largely electronic "virtual university" that operates in 18 states, announced formation of a joint venture with the Open University. Called the Governors Open University System, it was described in a news release as "an unprecedented new distance learning initiative for students throughout the U.S. and its territories."

However, the announcement was premature. Negotiations broke down and no agreement was reached. "We're still the best of friends but we haven't set up housekeeping together," said Richard Lewis, interim chancellor of the United States Open University, which is what the British Open University is calling its American effort.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County's master's degree in information systems might be offered jointly with the Open University, but Jennifer Preece said, "We're still in the negotiating phase."

Lewis and other Open University officials are talking to community college districts and to individual two-year colleges in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas about possible "two plus two" programs, in which students would take lower division work from a two-year college, then complete a baccalaureate with the Open University.

Plans appear to be most advanced at the ten-campus Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix, Arizona, whose Vice Chancellor for Student and Educational Development Alfredo de los Santos, Jr., said, "We intend to work with the Open University to provide a ‘two plus two' option for our students."

 
  Owen Gaede, a distance learning professor, communes with his laptop computer in the Florida State University football stadium.  
The degrees are most likely to be offered through Rio Salado, a "college without walls" within the Maricopa district, which already has "two plus two" agreements with several four-year institutions.

"I feel I have a moral responsibility that my students have opportunities for affordable, flexible ways of getting a bachelor's degree," said Rio Salado President Linda Thor. "And I'm impressed by the very high quality of standards and the very student-centered approach of the British Open University."

Before the United States Open University can offer baccalaureate degrees, however, it must be accredited. Toward that end, the institution has been incorporated in the State of Delaware, and has applied for accreditation through the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

While awaiting accreditation, the Open University will offer its first undergraduate courses in this country this fall -- in European studies, international studies, computing and combined studies -- as well as the first courses leading to a master's degree in business administration or computing.

Like their British counterparts, American students who enroll in Open University courses will receive many boxes of materials -- textbooks, audio and video tapes, CD-ROMs and more.
Each group of about 20 students will have a tutor, most of whom will be faculty members at U.S. colleges and universities who will "moonlight" one course for the Open University. There will be one important difference, however. Most of the tutoring will be done by e-mail or telephone, not face to face, as is generally done in the United Kingdom.

Since personal contact between tutors and students is seen as an important reason for the success of the British Open University, some question whether electronic tutoring can be as effective.

Asked how many undergraduate students are expected to enroll in this first year, Lewis, the interim chancellor, replied, "We're being very cautious…we're talking about hundreds of students."

Lewis is more hopeful about the popularity of the MBA program, which will be offered through corporations as well as universities. He said the Open University is the largest provider of MBAs in Europe and the United Kingdom but acknowledged that competition will be fierce in the United States, where a great many traditional and non-traditional institutions already offer the degree.

Lewis said Open University will continue to try to develop partnerships with American colleges and universities but is pinning most of its hopes on developing the United States Open University as a separate entity.

"The other things are important," he said, "but our main objective is to create a new university, starting with upper division and graduate students."

Experiences like the one at Florida State probably have led Lewis and other Open University planners to follow this path.

Open University had hoped to be a major supplier of course materials for the new distance education programs Florida State is planning. These include master's degrees in distance learning and in criminology as well as "two plus two" ventures with 18 Florida community colleges, in which students will take their first two years at a community college, then complete the baccalaureate with upper division distance learning courses from Florida State.

Faculty members and administrators from the two institutions exchanged visits, and boxes of Open University materials were shipped to Tallahassee.

"Originally, we thought we would take their course work and adapt it for our purposes," said Susan Fell, an administrator at the Center for Academic Support and Distance Learning at Florida State.

But faculty members complained that the materials were, as one said, "too British -- they even used examples from cricket. How many Americans are familiar with cricket?"

Some believed Florida State was more advanced than Open University in the use of technology. "They're very print and audio-oriented," said Alan Mabe, the dean of graduate studies. "There's not enough use of the Internet."

  The United States Open University will offer its first upper-division and graduate courses this fall, says Interim Chancellor Richard Lewis. Photo by Oscar Sosa, BlackStar, for CrossTalk
  The United States Open University will offer its first upper-division and graduate courses this fall, says Interim Chancellor Richard Lewis.  
Although President D'Alemberte was enthusiastic about engaging in joint ventures with the British institution, some other Florida State administrators were not, according to several faculty members who have been working on the project. "They seemed to see these as glorified correspondence courses," one said.

And there was some faculty resistance to using materials that had been developed by others.

So far, only three Open University courses have been converted for use -- all in the master's degree program in distance learning. None have made their way into the new "two plus two" undergraduate offerings.

"We were impressed by their course development approach and we thought we could save both time and money" by using Open University materials, said Owen Gaede, former acting director of the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State, but, unfortunately, the faculty's ‘not invented here' syndrome overcame such considerations."

Negotiations between the two institutions also were marked by "contractual problems" and "philosophical differences," Gaede added. "Some people in the Open University's worldwide division were not very pleased with us…they thought we would be a cash cow."

Earl Morrogh, former assistant director of the Center for Academic Support and Distance Learning, said, "I think they saw us as a client and we saw them as a partner."

However, Florida State has adopted many of the British Open University's distance learning procedures and attitudes, even though few materials have been purchased.

New courses are being developed by curriculum teams, as they are in Great Britain. Tutors, called "mentors" at FSU, will be available to guide students through the material, although most of the contact will be electronic. The community colleges that are taking part in the "two plus two" program will serve as regional centers, providing student services and proctoring exams.

Most important, said Jamie Murphy, a research associate at the Center for Academic Support and Distance Learning, "We have absorbed the Open University concept that we're here to service the students; the students aren't here to feed our egos."

Florida State expects to continue its relationship with Open University. OU faculty members visit the Tallahassee campus frequently and one of them, David Hawkridge, was named the campus' first (and so far only) "MCI Eminent Scholar in Distance Learning."

Future courses might be developed jointly by FSU and Open University faculty.

"Logically, we feel there must be a way to work together to develop courses that will work for both of us," Owen Gaede said. "What didn't work was trying to convert their courses for our use."

"I believe there is still some sense of collegial feeling between us," President D'Alemberte said, "but there has been a shift in the relationship, partly, I think, because the Open University people are struggling with just what their role should be in the United States."

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