Open Eye: Making a difference in the USA

Multimedia and student support score across the Pond, says Yvonne Cook
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Thirty years on from its birth in the UK, the OU is crossing the Atlantic. The Open University of the United States, USOU, launches formally next month.

From May the USOU will be offering one of the most popular OU business courses, The Capable Manager, to a pilot intake of American students from the corporate sector.

In autumn the pilot will be expanded to include a Bachelor of Science (Computing) and a range of undergraduate courses, leading to a Bachelor of Arts with majors in European Studies and International Studies

By next year the USOU plans to offer an MBA and a Masters in Computing, and is also looking at post-graduate-level short courses in specialist professional computing areas. More short courses and flexible starting dates are likely to be a feature of the USOU.

"In its first year of operation in the UK, the OU had 25,000 students," said USOU's newly-appointed Interim Chancellor Richard Lewis. "It won't be like that in the USA. We plan to start small and build up."

The USA is potentially a huge market, he points out. "The USA has 250 million people. If the USOU occupies a couple of reasonably small niche markets, it will be successful. The important thing is to be flexible enough to respond to demand."

The courses on offer will be essentially the same ones studied in the UK, although with some cultural adaptation for the American market. The familiar OU system of supported open learning will be imported and the USOU is recruiting American staff and tutors.

Predictably IT will play a bigger role than in the UK, with every course having its own website and all students expected to use electronic communications.

"We will maintain some element of face-to-face teaching, although it is unlikely to be a monthly tutorial in a local study centre," Richard says.

Setting up a legal structure to function effectively in the United States has been the first hurdle to overcome. The USOU is not a subsidiary of the OU but a separate institution, a private not-for-profit American university, using the OU's methods and materials and paying royalties to the OU.

It has just received recognition as a 'candidate for accreditation' from one of the USA' s six higher education accrediting bodies, the Middle States Commission, opening the way for it to accept its first students.

Who will they be? In sharp contrast to the UK, where you can sign up for an OU undergraduate course without academic qualifications, the USOU will expect students to have some background in higher education.

Richard explains: "In the American system students do a four-year college degree of which the first two years, freshman and sophomore, are known as the lower division, and the next two as the upper division. USOU will operate, at least in the first instance, in the upper division."

This fits in with the more mobile attitude to higher education in the USA, where students often migrate from one college to another during the course of their degree. Most American graduates have credits from more than one institution on their degree transcripts.

America doesn't have a history of welcoming foreign imports with open arms. Why should Americans choose to study with an institution which, albeit American, is based on a distinctly British model? Distance education has been around in the States for a very long time, says Richard, but the OU system of supported open learning is something new. The factors he singles out as distinctive to the OU system are strong student support, and the use of multimedia.

The structure of the US higher education has militated against the adoption of an OU-style approach. To produce its high-quality course material, the OU depends on the successful collaboration of a course team, pooling their different skills and roles. "The more individualistic nature of the American higher education system makes this difficult for American institutions to achieve," says Richard.

The reaction from the Americans to this British invasion has, so far, been positive, he says. "Those Americans who know how we work, and what we can achieve, can see that we can offer a new and different choice to students in the United States."