OERu/Assessment and formal accreditation of open digital learning through community service approaches

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Project summary

Brief problem statement

A major function of the university is to credentialise learning by conferring qualifications and degrees. As organisations, universities are well equipped and experienced to assess the quality of learning for formal academic credit. Digital media are transforming the ways individuals create, share and learn from creative materials available on the open web. The problem is that learners who access digital learning content on the World Wide Web and acquire knowledge and skills either formally or informally cannot readily receive appropriate recognition for their efforts.

This project will research the existing international protocols and practices leading to formal academic credit for non-traditional learning pathways to assess their transferability and applicability for the assessment and credit of informal digital leaning on the open web. Existing organisational and policy barriers will be identified incorporating proposals for a conceptual framework to overcome these barriers ultimately widening access to post-secondary education in ways which are more responsive to the diverse and changing needs of future learners.

The core mission of a modern university is to contribute to society as a community of scholars through the pursuit of education, learning and research. Many universities incorporate the mission of community service as publicly funded institutions to serve the wider interests of the communities in which they operate by sharing expertise and scholarship for the benefit of society. The open web provides unprecedented opportunities for access to digital learning resources and informal learning. Consider for example:

  • The OpenCourseWare Consortium has indexed 4105 high quality university level courses [1];
  • The OpenLearn website hosted by the British Open University provides free access to over 8,000 hours of learning materials;
  • The FlexiLearn website at Indira Gandhi National Open University provides free and open access to course materials of the University;
  • The London School of Business and Finance provides free access to an online MBA course with accreditation options provided by the University of Wales;and
  • The burgeoning phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) (see for example: Fini 2009[2], Parry 2010[3]) which utilise the open web and social media to offer courses to large student cohorts comprising both for-credit and non-credit students in the same course, frequently registering more than 1,000 learners.

The practice of prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) is well established and is a recognised process used by colleges and universities around the world to evaluate learning outside the classroom for assigning academic credit, thus providing an existing framework and evidence-based practice for credentialising work experience, corporate or military training for formal credit. However, there are very few established mechanisms and processes to provide formal credit for learners utilising the growing number of free online learning opportunities and courses accessible on the open web.

Project activities

Project outputs

The key project outputs are informed by a number of key research questions in the following areas:

  1. International qualification frameworks in a digital world
    • What generic models are used internationally for managing graduate profiles, qualification frameworks and credentialisation of qualifications within national systems.
    • What generic approaches are used for credit transfer and articulation of qualifications at national and international levels?
    • What international initiatives exist to harmonise credit transfer and articulation of qualifications across international boundaries?
  2. Open digital learning
    • Which providers in the post-secondary sector base qualifications and credentials on OER or open access learning materials?
    • What is the extent of the international practice of allowing non-credit learners to participate in courses with for-credit learners?
    • What is the extent of the international practice of providing free access to course materials with options for students to register for formal courses at a later date?
    • What are the conversion rates of learners who use open access course materials before formal course registration?
  3. Operational practices and issues
    • What generic approaches are used for recognising "in-course" assessments (e.g. essays, mid-term tests, portfolios etc.) as a component of the final summative assessment in formal online and/or distance learning courses?
    • What alternatives for "in-course" assessments would be appropriate for open digital learning or non-credit participants in open access courses who may want to pursue formal credit at a later date?
    • What generic approaches are used for final summative assessments (e.g. challenge examinations, portfolio assessments etc.) for credentialisation in formal online and/or distance learning courses?
    • What generic models of online identity verification are implemented in summative assessment scenarios, particularly when "in-course" assessments do not require physical identify verification?
  4. Community service issues
    • What generic approaches are used internationally for opening scholarship and teaching under the community service mission of universities?
    • What is the international practice and relationship between community service, continuing education and formal academic programs?

Primary research outputs

These guiding questions have been consolidated into four core research ouputs:

  1. Map the existing universe of projects and initiatives exploring the the integration of open digital learning into formal assessment and accreditation in post-secondary education globally.
  2. Classify the existing and potential approaches to formal assessment and accreditation to open digital learning, comparing and contrasting such uses with more traditional approaches.
  3. Document lessons learned so far from key initiatives in this area, proposing tentative guidance for policy makers and various stakeholder groups in this area.
  4. Propose a conceptual framework and way forward for further analytical work to aid in the documentation and rigorous analysis of impact-cost and impact- assessment for the formal assessment and accreditation of informal learning through the open web.


  • Enhanced curriculum and improved public policy through more efficient credit transfer and articulation of qualifications incorporating pathways for digital learning on the open web.


  1. Open CourseWareConsortium
  2. Fini, A. 2009. The Technological Dimension of a Massive Open Online Course: The Case of the CCK08 Course Tools. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 10(5): Online
  3. Parry, M. 2010. Online, Bigger Classes May Be Better Classes: Experimenters say diversity means richness. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 29 August 2010.