The Open University biennial widening access conference is one of my favourites –not just because it’s a home fixture but because it continues to ask challenging questions and prompt creative thinking. (The social side tends to be pretty good as well but that’s for someone else to blog about).

One of the strands in next April’s event addresses a very contemporary issue which has the potential to get to the heart of why we are opening access, and to what. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their off-spring, Badged Open Courses (BOCs) promised to disrupt higher education markets by offering alternative, ostensibly inclusive and widely accessible courses of study. Of course, although they might be free, the currencies of prior knowledge, digital literacy, access to digital devices and broadband networks are limiting factors. What we have seen is that take up has largely been by professional or graduate users, looking to expand their skills and interests in new areas. One might argue that this has opened up access to post graduate study but demographic data suggests that the increase in progression at this level is not really broadening the diversity of that student body.

But, given that many people (at least in the developed world), whatever their background, do have access to a digital device such as a phone or a tablet and are avid consumers of social media, can we legitimately ask whether informal learning can widen access to HE? Indeed, could we go further and ask, does it have to be informal learning via online courses – could it not be learning from the workplace or from volunteering?

In my view, yes and no. Yes, because it is quite possible to map informally acquired knowledge and skills against learning outcomes of formal courses of study or event to set Challenge exams, either for entry or for HE credit. But, no, because – and I aim to be controversial – the culture in higher education is such that only a gold standard academic course of study (preferably studied in a sixth form and even better at public school) is deemed acceptable for entry.  And only courses designed and taught by university academics can be eligible for credit lest standards are compromised. Indeed, given the reluctance to accept academic credit from other institutions at face value I sometimes wonder why we have an external examiner system in the UK at all.

I exaggerate to make a point, of course. There are many initiatives aimed at greater flexibility of entry, pathways and awards. We would welcome papers which address some of these schemes or highlight the barriers to Recognition of Prior Learning and how they might be overcome. Will the University of the Future be a more open and inclusive place and will employers be more imaginative in how they view qualifications and credentials? Can informal learning democratise higher education – and even wider society? Thoughts welcome!

Visit the conference webpage for details on how to submit a paper and register.

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