Clearing a Path to Education

A Croatian friend asked me the other day if I knew anything about postgraduate courses being offered by a UK university. He had stumbled upon an ad for Work Based Learning courses being offered by the University of Middlesex.

He is unable to attend a regular university course due to work and family commitments. He lives in a city which does not have a university offering the kind of course he requires. He’s interested in obtaining a degree from an overseas institution. And he does not have an enormous budget. An initial look at the Middlesex programme suggested that all of his requirements might well be fulfilled here.

The Future of Learning

The University of Middlesex is not one of the UK’s prestigious ancient or red brick universities, but its history goes back to the 19th century. It became a polytechnic in 1973 and gained university status in 1992. Since then, it seems, it has been transforming itself into an agile centre of learning entirely in step with the requirements of the modern student.

Work Based Learning enables people to gain recognition for the skills and knowledge they have accumulated through their work and facilitates their further development in their fields. Educators, students and employers work together to structure for each student a programme that takes into account academic rigour, the student’s needs and the requirements of the workplace. In this way students can integrate their studies into their daily work, gain knowledge meaningful for their workplace and equip themselves with the skills they will need in the future. This seems like a great way of bridging that pesky skills gap and is fully supportive of the concept of Lifelong Learning.

What Middlesex has done is harness technologies that allow us to communicate with people at remote locations and to make remote learning a rich and engaging experience. Rather early on, they realised that this enables them to tap into a global market eager to access higher education. Middlesex’s Work Based Learning project was launched in 1992. By 1995 a range of validated programmes from certificate to Masters level had been developed, and the first five students had graduated.

The Middlesex Empire

In 1996 the university won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its role in integrating formal education and employment. In 1997 the first Centre for Work Based Learning Partnerships opened in Athens, the fruit of the strong relationship forged between the university and the Greek community in North London. This was followed by centres in Cyprus, Hong Kong and Ireland. Middlesex opened its first overseas campus in the United Arab Emirates in 2005, followed by Mauritius in 2009. In 2007 there were more than 1,100 people registered on Work Based Learning programmes, including 200 doctoral candidates. Plans were reported in 2010 for a new international campus in India.

Let’s study our way out of the crisis

Obviously, Middlesex is only one of many institutions worldwide offering distance learning solutions, but I was somewhat aghast that as a Brit myself I was not aware of the great strides being made by this UK institution in reaching out to potential students across the globe. As former Prime Minister Gordon Brown clearly laid out in his opening speech at the 2010 Learning and Technology World Forum, not only do we have a wide open opportunity before us to use technology to offer to every human being on this planet the dignity and liberty afforded by education, it is an imperative for the health of the global economy.

What I have talked about so far is all very well, but we have not touched upon the question of people who do not have the financial resources to access education at all. Obviously, some people have access to grants and scholarships, but for those that don’t there is progress being made as well.

Open Learning and Open Courseware

One example of such progress is the Open Learning Initiative. This project is based at Carnegie Mellon University at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and funded through donations from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (as in Hewlett-Packard), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. It entails the development of interactive study courses, and platforms for the delivery of those courses, that can either be studied independently at no cost or are supplied to educational institutes as the basis for a curriculum for a small fee. The Hewlett Foundation is also a supporter of Open Learning initatives at Yale, MIT and the University of California at Irvine.

MIT’s OpenCourseWare project offers access to almost all MIT course content online at no cost, Open Yale Courses has provided a selection of course materials for free online use while UCI’s OpenCourseWare site offers access to collections of course materials, including in Spanish and Portuguese languages. These three institutions are members of the Open Courseware Consortium, which is committed to providing free and open access to university course material in digital form. This is another Hewlett-sponsored organization which has hundreds members worldwide. To delve a little into the list of members will be an enlightening experience, and I’m sure will provide ample material for future posts.

Wherefore diplomas?

What these courses cannot yet do, as far as I can see, is provide recognized qualifications following the completion of studies, although I am sure that this is the logical development of what’s already happening. I have to stress that I am no expert in this area, I beg forgiveness for any oversights, and we would gladly receive any information you might have through your comments. However, what is clear to see is that truly Open Learning is one of the many directions in which the whole concept of free and open access to information is pushing.

For now, the fact is that if you didn’t finish school and you want to complete your education, there are ever more ways that you can do that. If you are prevented from attending study courses by lack of time, your location or disability, increasing opportunities are opening up to you. If are not so concerned by the prestige of a qualification but you are keen to gather knowledge, there are wonderful resources you can access, and you can even follow graded interactive courses online. So excuse me while I head off download Yale’s Financial Markets course to iTunes.

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