ADAPTING TO CHANGE, REINVENTING FOR THE FUTURE
"All failure is failure to adapt, all success is successful adaptation."
English author Max McKeown wrote this in his 2012 publication The Strategy Book, and it is an excerpt that I think is suitable to start off some necessary self-reflection.
Where open universities currently are can be pinpointed to a critical moment in our open and distance learning (ODL) history. The dust seems to have finally settled on Covid-19, and with this post-pandemic clarity we have to acknowledge that online learning is no longer exclusive to open universities. These days, most conventional universities and even big-tech firms like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, and Google are running online courses and programmes of their own.
More than three years since it was first used as a worldwide emergency strategy, online learning has become ordinary, commonplace, routine.
This reality raises important questions: If open universities can no longer claim privilege over online provision, what, then, is our value proposition? How do we attain relevance in the evolving educational landscape? What will our future look like?
Adaptation and reinvention
If we take McKeown’s words to heart, then adaptation is something that needs to be prioritised as we negotiate our way through the potential answers.
As I reflect on this formidable task, I am reminded of how Tony Bates, in a 2022 address, urged open universities to reinvent. A founding member of the UK Open University, Bates advised that nimbleness and constant innovation will be imperative in this context.
If open universities can no longer claim privilege over online provision, what, then, is our value proposition?
Adaptation and reinvention are not things to be taken lightly, and I think whatever approach we adopt must remain faithful to OUM’s core purpose outlined more than two decades ago when the university was established as the first ODL institution in Malaysia.
OUM started out with the aim of providing a second chance to working adults who, for some reason or other, missed the opportunity to obtain higher qualifications when they were younger. For many years, this unique segment made up the success stories at OUM, and many such individuals continue to study with us today.
However, a subtle demographic shift has emerged in recent years. Today, a big portion of our learner pool comprises people in the younger age bracket (in their early 20s and 30s) who are opting to study part-time as they commit to full-time jobs. As digital natives, they rely on gadgets and apps for all their lifestyle needs.
With this change in demographics comes new priorities and approaches at OUM: study arrangements have been made more flexible, our learning platform now comes with a mobile-friendly complement, and there’s an increasingly wide variety of academic disciplines and study resources to choose from. All this makes it possible for someone to complete their studies at OUM entirely online.
Nevertheless, recognising that we and other open universities are no longer the only institutions offering online learning, I propose that our adaptation and reinvention strategy must involve efforts that would give learners more than just run-of-the-mill study options.
Shaping up to become a digital university
Of late, OUM has strived to live up to the label ‘digital university’. Now just two short years to our silver anniversary, we are working towards offering something more than the standard online learning experience. As a first step, OUM is focusing on adding value to our programmes, diversifying the means for people to gain access to them, as well as introducing new academic disciplines that would better suit contemporary needs.
Thus, in the OUM pipeline are micro-credential courses (a flexible and scalable approach that will provide training in targeted, job-specific areas), additional industry certification and recognition for some of our top-rated programmes (think occupational safety and health, psychology, counselling, and a few more), and new offerings in, among others, logistics and supply chain management, family counselling, and data science.
Also within our sights are learner profiling, AI-powered learner support systems, and more modules structured around HTML5, which would make them more interactive and engaging, and make content easier to retain.
Reinvention, on the other hand, is something that warrants deeper thought. As we try to look at ODL with fresh eyes, we have a chance to imagine an optimistic future despite the challenges that lie ahead. We will need to tread cautiously, even if there are lofty goals we should aspire to, such as that of turning universities into open knowledge institutions (OKIs), proposed in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press book published in the early months of the pandemic.
OKIs, one might be interested to know, are “oriented toward the coproduction of knowledge with and for broader communities” and function as agents of societal change. OKIs would belong in a visionary higher education landscape in which “the concept of excellence no longer relies on particular publication brands (e.g., high-ranking journals or presses). Instead, the value of scholarship is tied to the difference it is able to make in a life, community, nation, or the world. Advancement occurs as a reward for connectedness and usefulness, not for elite recognition.”
the technology we use in online learning is not our sole consideration, nor is any ‘digital’ label we employ an allencompassing representation of our values.
If we are to make any significant inroads towards such goals, I believe we need to continue to build and sustain worthwhile relationships with other open universities or ODL-relevant institutions. My recent visit to China to take part in the launch of the ASEAN-China Digital Education Alliance and sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Open University of China is OUM’s latest effort to collaborate on programmes, policies, publications, and research with universities from around the world. We see this as a chance to unlock new opportunities and enhance the study experience for learners everywhere.
OUM will remain steadfast with its online learning provision. This will be incontestable for many years and decades to come. Nevertheless, I would like to emphasise that the technology we use in online learning is not our sole consideration, nor is any ‘digital’ label we employ an all-encompassing representation of our values. Of course, in this day and age, technology is necessary. Platforms, tools, and devices are essential to online learning, but at OUM, we will continue to focus on the teaching and learning experience, the content and curricula of courses, and finally, the skills and knowledge learners gain from them.
Only time will tell if OUM could one day live up to the idealistic and noble expectations of an OKI. In the meantime, we will do our best to navigate these challenging times by remaining true to our original motto, “University for All.”
My best wishes to all readers for the rest of this September semester.
Prof Dr Ahmad Izanee Awang