I participated in an interesting meeting of the Athabasca University Academic Council (our senate equivalent) this morning and the most contentious item concerned our option for ‘challenge for credit” alternative, that is offered in most of our undergraduate programs.
By way of background, Athabasca undergrad programs are offered as continuous enrollment and mostly self study programs that follow the old correspondence model. We offer support from an individual tutor, a study guide (that roughly serves as an interpretation of the study materials), a FEW interactive options (little used) via Moodle and a course pack that typically consists of a reading package and a text or two.  Students are given 6 months (can be extended with $$$ to a year), as much access (phone and email) as they want to an assigned  tutor, tutor marked assignments and an invigilated exam. We have recently been offering ‘optional’ networking and support via our elgg based social networking system (the Athabasca Landing) but the take up by tutors, faculty and students has (to date) been modest.
Credit for challenge (as opposed to seat time or completion of course activities), is an old idea first institutionalized by the University of London in the 19th century. In this model the university produced a course syllabus and allowed students to contract with any number of (or no)  tutorial or instructional resources to prepare for an exam (or two) and if they were successful – they were offered credit leading to full degrees. This model is becoming increasingly interesting and relevant with the expanding number of  of Open Educational Resources (OERs) from many educational institutions. The problem is that students are very instrumental and deserve to, want to, and need to get credit for the learning in which they show competence.
Athabasca has been a founding member of the OER University, which seeks to open and facilitate this model. The OER University has a nice diagram which illustrates the role of OERs (from anywhere) coupled with accreditation from participating institutions. This coupled with our provision for Prior Learning Accreditation and Assessment (credit for real life learning), outside of formal education, should position Athabasca as a world leader in innovative 21st Century learning and education.

The problem is as Clay Shirky aptly notes “Small decreases in transaction costs make businesses more efficient, because the constraints of the institutional dilemma get less severe. Large decreases in transaction costs create activities that can’t be taken on by businesses, or indeed by an institution, because no matter how cheap it becomes to perform a particular activity, there isn’t enough payoff to support the cost incurred by being an institution in the first place.” (Shirky, 2008).  Credit, without going through the ‘normal’ process is a challenge and potentially disruptive with significant economic and institutional effects from this alternative way to accreditation.

Giving credit without jumping through the normal hoops is very challenging. If students don’t choose to contact their tutors, should they be penalized? What is the value proposition of these ‘extra’ services if students don’t choose to access them?  Should our challenge exams question specific content based on the course content and/or activities or can we devise generic learning objectives that transcend particular course ideas, readings or activities??

Like all Universities, Athabasca has a surplus of divergent views on this and other academic issues. Some argue that this is just a way to bypass (and thus threaten) our ‘normal system’.  Like all open universities, we are constantly under scrutiny for the ‘academic integrity’ of our programming and credentials. Thus, this challenge ‘short cut’ is looked at with suspicion by many. Further, it challenges the value of our individualized tutorial system and further begs the question of what the ‘value add’ is for students  enrolling as regular students who get (for increased $$$) – if they can just challenge the course.

The issue came to a head after a 4 year review (university time!) of our challenge policy. As in any academic governed university, the challenge policy made its way up through various committees and surfaced at Academic Council this morning. The original proposal stated that students wishing to ‘challenge’ must first talk to the course coordinator and of course pay a fee (which in my opinion is too high). The original proposal also stipulated that challenge students are not able to acquire (for free or purchase) the course materials (as described previously). The policy was amended  to read:

Students registering for challenge for credit will have access to AU learning resource materials, limited to textbooks and readings at full cost.  Challenge students will receive no tutor or faculty member support.Any fees assessed for learning resource materials are not refundable.”

So, students can get the course readings (minus the course guides from the course author), library access and of course to our social networking system.

Thus, a small improvement from the origional proposal and a small step forward.

As I noted in the meeting, Athabasca has both opportunity and challenge to be a world leader in a world that values competence and knowledge  – however that is acquired. I hope we rise to this challenges and get beyond seat time or particular learning activities and continue to tackle (and accredit) real learning.