Internationalising online programs/International Campus

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United States Open University

Description of Activity

In 1999 the Open University UK opened a US campus called the United States Open University (USOU). Three years later, with a total of 1,500 students it closed. I was involved with the USOU as “Tutor” but this example is taken from literature that recounts what happened to the USOU.


In spring 1999, the Open University (OU) of the United Kingdom created the U.S. Open University (USOU). During this period of time a number of foundations, particularly the Sloan Foundation was sponsoring large scale asynchronous online learning projects at major US University, a number of companies were entering into online learning (Harcourt, university of Phoenix, Kaplan, etc), and online learning was being experimented with in corporate training. The USOU’s first chancellor, Richard S. Jarvis (previously chancellor of the University and Community College System of Nevada), began hiring U.S. staff and opened an office near Denver, Colorado in a retired airbase. The OU had significant international profile, decades of experience, a highly regarded mix of programs, enthusiastic leadership, and significant resources to bring to the program

Meyers (and others) have asked why, then, did the U.S. Open University close three years aster it opened, in June 2002? And what lessons can be drawn from its closing?

Lessons Learned

Based on Meyer’s interviews with key leadership at the USOU, she identified some lessons learned from the SOU experience. These might be lessons that we can consider more general as they apply to opening international universities and branch campuses.

  • First, an influential advocate is important to an enterprise, but advocates sometimes leave. It is better to ensure wide support for the enterprise across the organization’s leadership and sponsoring organizations.
  • Second, new educational enterprises need a thorough understanding of their potential customers’ needs, wants, and expectations. These factors should guide the development of appropriate curricula and services.
  • Third, an educational enterprise, like any other, needs a careful business plan that is continuously updated and revised as the organization learns more about its customers and market. An appropriate business plan should guide development and the choice of new projects. Sufficient funding is needed to help the organization survive bad economic times.
  • Fourth, accreditation must be in place early. Accreditation boosts an educational enterprise’s reputation and ability to attract students and can mean the difference between success and failure.
  • Fifth, sometimes things happen that no institution can easily foresee: a softening economy, a sudden change in leadership, a budget cut for the institution and/or its partners. Any of these factors can cripple a new and vulnerable enterprise.


These points can be mapped back to t the framework we are using. We might ask, how well the USOU fit into the mission of the OU, how could they have prepared better and been more “ready” to sustain this effort, and what would be the critical and necessary success factors that were not in place?


Katrina A. Meyer, The Closing of the U.S. Open University, Educause Quarterly, Volume 29, Number 2, 2006. [1]