My answer to Quora question about the UK and US education systems.

How the educational system designed in UK ? I did a lot of research but it is not comparable to us but where are the differences

Here’s my answer:

There are many different kinds of colleges and universities in both the US and the UK. So, it might be better to narrow down your query to ask, for example, how research universities in the US compare with research universities in the UK.

Also, institutions of higher education differ in enrollment size. For example, the British Open University is a mega-university. It’s best know as a national, publicly funded distance education program – one that’s large enough to develop all of its own online courses and textbooks. Although essentially it is a distance education program, it does have around 300 “teaching centers” scattered around the UK. They have teaching faculty who work out of these centers. Also, they have a headquarters in Milton Keynes England where they employ senior faculty to develop and maintain online course content.

The US does not have a public, national, online university (i.e. something analogous to the British OU), but maybe we should. When it comes to a discussion of tuition-free public higher education, I’ve argued on my blog that the US should create a national online university similar to the British Open University. However, the putative US Open University would be tuition-free. Also, to bring down the cost of textbooks, the US Open University should put its course content in the public domain so it can compete with expensive commercial textbooks.

Going back to your question about how the US higher education system compares with that of Britain, consider the following. Below, I’ve contrasted the British Open University’s way of doing things with that of a “traditional” face-to-face institution in the US. I worked at UC Berkeley for twenty years as a member of the EdTech support staff. I’m less familiar with the CSU system or the community college system, but in all three cases these are institutions that focus on face-to-face instruction. The faculty at these institutions do create content, but they generally use what Tony Bates describes as the Lone Ranger approach to content development.

So, here are a few comparisons.

Governance Structure

Here are two ways the governance structure of a mega-university (i.e. one that was big enough to develop its own content) would be different from a traditional college or university in the US:

  1. Different employment contracts for faculty who develop content

In the UKOU senior faculty have been specifically hired to develop and maintain content. Content development and maintenance would specifically be within the “course and scope of their employment contract.” (A USOU would want to do the same.)

In the US, on the other hand, faculty at almost all colleges and universities think of content development and maintenance as being “outside the course and scope” of their employment contract with their school. If they develop a textbook, they generally cut a deal with a publisher, but the school is not a part of that deal.

  1. Different employment contracts for faculty who select content for the courses they teach

Furthermore, teaching faculty at the UKOU (i.e. the ones who work out of the learning centers) have an obligation to use the content and lesson plans developed by the senior faculty who generally work at UKOU headquarters in Milton Keynes England.

However, UKOU senior faculty don’t just “throw the content over the wall” to the teaching faculty. The latter do get to participate in content/lesson_plan development (refinement) teams. So, they do have input. Nevertheless, the senior faculty do head up the development team efforts.

In the US, on the other hand, faculty at almost all colleges and universities think of textbook selection and lesson plan development as being under their jurisdiction.

Notice that this creates a big risk in the US for those who want to spend a lot of money on the development of high quality content: If you spend a lot of money to develop it, they may not come.

But big distance education mega-universities such as the UKOU have a governance structure designed to avoid this risk.

How do they do that, you ask: Their teaching faculty are obliged to use the content developed by their senior faculty.

The Professional Development Team Approach

David L. Kirp on the British Open University

Quotes from Berkeley Professor David L. Kirp on the Open University UK

From: Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: the Marketing of Higher Education (2003)

Chapter 10. The British Are Coming – and Going: Open University

“… the [British] Open University … has set the international gold standard in distance learning.” (p. 185)

“But Open University is … an institution with intelligently conceived and well-packaged multimedia courses – nearly 200 year-long undergraduate courses ranging from biology to business, and almost as many graduate courses.” (p. 186)

“Dropouts are the biggest problem at OU, as in distance education generally. Learning at a remove requires self-discipline, since without the stimulation of the classroom, it’s all too easy to lose interest, and for part-time students, the demands of quotidian life make studying a challenge.” (p. 189)

“The Open University is most famous for the quality of its courses, and rightly so. Although there have been many imitators, no other place is so rigorous in the design of its courses, so attentive to the complementary and clashing possibilities of different media, so willing to submit draft curricula to outside critique, or so concerned about the usefulness as well as the jazziness of its teaching materials. What’s more, no other place spends so much, which is why its course readers are the most thumbed-through material in many universities’ libraries and its course materials are regularly pirated for use by faculty elsewhere.”
(p. 190)

“When a new course is to be designed, a battalion of experts gathers at Milton Keynes; during the next year and a half, this group turns out draft syllabi, visions, revisions, evaluations, paper topics, and examinations. OU’s professors take the lead: the nine hundred faculty members, many of them recruited from similar posts at other British universities, are expected to be pedagogues as well as scholars. The team also includes senior tutors, who supervise instruction when the course is in the field; text editors, who sharpen the prose of books specially written for the course; TV producers; software designers; test and measurement specialists; library consultants; outside assessors, who critique what’s being prepared – as many as forty people working together on a single project. A “caretaker course team” does periodic updates, and after eight years the course is entirely rebuilt.” (p. 190)

“The cost of producing a single course is comparable to the price tag for a low-budget Hollywood movie. The Pacific Studies course, which includes four books and five half-hour TV shows (scenes were shot on three continents), cost $2.5 million, and other courses have cost as much as a million dollars more.” (p. 190-191)

“Course preparation is OU’s biggest expense, accounting for about 40 percent of the university’s budget. But the mega-enrollments, which enable the university to publish its own books as well as manufacture its own cassettes and science lab kits, make this approach financially feasible. In 2000, the year it was first taught, a course called “Understanding Social Change” drew nearly 13,000 students.” (p. 191)

“Group tutorials in the foundation courses, where dropouts are most likely, as well as individual tutorials for the advanced courses, are conducted weekly, at thirteen regional offices and 300 study centers scattered across the country, which also serve as recruiting stations.” (p. 193)

For more on the British Open University see:

The Lone Ranger Approach

Tony Bates on the Lone Ranger Model of Courseware Development

Many traditional universities use what has been described as the Lone Ranger model of courseware development. Tony Bates provides an excellent description of this model, which is appended below.

In addition to reading what Tony has to say, it may also be useful to contrast the Lone Ranger model with the team-oriented, project management approach used at the British Open University.

… here’s what Tony Bates has to say in his excellent book:

Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders (2000)
by A.W. (Tony) Bates

Chapter 3: Planning and Managing Courses and Programs

Laissez-Faire Planning, Lone Rangers, and the Autonomy of the Faculty

In most countries, tenured faculty have considerable autonomy with regard to teaching. Especially in research universities, there is a long history of faculty writing grant proposals for research purposes, and this model has been extended to cover innovative approaches to teaching. Consequently, the most common approach to encouraging the use of technology, at least in universities in the United States and Canada, has been to provide funding for a part-time graduate student and some equipment or software.

Thus, technology-based materials are increasingly being initiated and developed by faculty through what I call the Lone Ranger and Tonto approach. Tonto is the computer-skilled graduate student who does the HTML markup and scanning and generally tries to keep the professor out of technical trouble

Advantages of the Lone Ranger Model

Using small grants to encourage faculty to use technology has several advantages. It can get a wide range of faculty started on using new technologies for the first time. It provides opportunity for experiment and the development of faculty skills in using technologies. It can help faculty understand the potential of the technology and thus lead to innovative ideas about how to use the technology in a specific subject area. It allows graduate students to develop computer skills that can be applied to their area of subject expertise. It avoids having to make difficult decisions about the long-term investment in technologies that may prove ephemeral; “winners” can emerge. Finally, it maintains the autonomy of faculty to decide on the teaching method that best suits them, thus fitting in with the prevailing university and college culture.

Using grant monies to support individual proposals from faculty could be considered a laissez-faire, or bottom-up, approach to planning. A laissez-faire strategy creates an environment that encourages experimentation. From a management perspective, it also enables successful practice to be identified from the bottom up and the resources needed to support such innovations to be more easily identified. Faculty are likely to support a policy of using central funds to provide technical support to individual professors. As already noted, a laissez-faire approach fits well with the culture of universities and colleges, where faculty have considerable autonomy and are used to operating on a small-grant basis for research.

Disadvantages of the Lone Ranger Model

There are also many disadvantages to this approach. On most university and college campuses, as a result of Lone Ranger funding models and laissez-faire approaches to the use of technology for teaching and learning, amateurism rules in the design and production of educational materials.

A characteristic of many Lone Ranger projects is that often there is never a final product. The site is constantly under construction or not developed as a full teaching resource available on a regular and reliable basis. This is because the project drags on, being constantly upgraded or improved, or has to be redesigned as a result of inappropriate or outdated technology decisions in the early stages. The initial funding is often inadequate to complete the job, and much effort is spent seeking additional funding to continue the project.

Often the graphics and the interface are poor compared with commercial products with which students are familiar, and the potential for high-quality learner interaction with the materials and other students is often missed. Finished products have limited applicability because their graphics and interface are not of high enough quality or because they are insufficient in volume to become commercial products or be used by other teachers in the department.

The most valuable resource in a university or college is the time of the professor. The problem with the Lone Rangers is that they often spend a lot of time doing technical work, such as designing Web pages or animation, that a professional could do much more quickly and much more effectively. …

For the extra cost of using technology to be justified, it needs to be accompanied by the reorganization of the teaching process. This requires moving away from fixed, scheduled group instruction to more flexible and individualized modes of learning, and to more strategic use of the materials, in order to support a variety of teaching and learning contexts.

Another disadvantage of the Lone Ranger approach is that dissemination of knowledge gained from the experience is often poor or haphazard. Only “successful” projects get known, and even then the practices that led to success may not be shared. Unsuccessful projects just fade away, and equally important lessons about how not to do things are lost. Therefore, other projects that fall into the same traps continue to get funded.

FMB comment on the Lone Ranger Approach to Content Development

This blog post discusses the traditional method of developing and maintaining content. It’s what you find at most traditional colleges and universities. IMO, most traditional colleges and universities do NOT see themselves as really being in the business of developing and maintaining course content. For the most part, faculty at these institutions are academically free to develop textbooks, or not. Also, if they do develop content, they assert that they own it. Therefore, they are free to sell their content to textbook publishers. Their employer – i.e. the college or university – really has no say in the matter.

So, I would argue that in these cases (which are most cases) the college or university in question really isn’t in the business of developing and maintaining course content. Of course, this creates serious problems if the school does want to go into the business of offering online courses. What is their business model for developing and maintaining said content if faculty are academically free to walk away from maintaining the content?

2 thoughts on “My answer to Quora question about the UK and US education systems.

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