Interview with Anka Mulder, Vice-President for Education & Operations, TU Delft, the Netherlands
Interview conducted by: Chahira Nouira, Research Associate, United Nations University, Germany
How did you start with open education at your Institution?
It goes back to when we heard about MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) and when the Consortium was set up. We realized that OCW was very much in line with how our university works.
I always link open with online Education. We are very much in favor of open research and open education but, at the same time, we do not have a specific open strategy. However, we do have an Open and Online Education Strategy. If you don’t mind I will connect both online and open in our conversation.
I remember when other people at the University and me were invited to join the OpenCourseWare Consortium and the Board of Directors. There were many discussions about open education and very often people would ask, “Are we not giving away our materials for free?”
But, in fact, the Internet was gaining momentum even in education so we hardly had any discussion about this question at our university. I think that most people who work at our University are idealistic; they want to reach as many students as they can. There was not really a big discussion as to whether we should embrace openness or not.
What are the most important open initiatives at the University of Delft?
MOOCs are part of our Open and Online Strategy and we are very proud of our recently launched MOOC. We started a pilot with our Masters Program on Water Management. There are also online modules on Aerospace Engineering and Technology and Policy Management. Both are accredited. We have recently started to develop a complete blended Bachelor Program on Technology and Policy Management. I am very proud of all of these initiatives.
MOOCs are very important. They boosted developments in online and open education but they are not the final stage. The same is true for Open Courseware. It was very important right from the start because OpenCourseWare Consortium helped to raise discussions at the government level and also at universities. So, I think it was also a boost for online and open movement.
What were your reasons for embracing open and online education?
One of the reasons was idealism. This idealism was there at the level of the Executive Board but also at the level of the individual teaching staff. We have very good Education and we want to teach as many people as we can. We can’t do that on our campus for everyone, hence it is really great that other people, who are not on campus, can use what we have developed as well. Therefore, idealism is one very important reason.
Reputation is the second reason. It was really great for us to join this network of 300 universities worldwide all having in common the will to innovate in education. This was and is good for our reputation we thought. It also meant that the degrees of our students would increase in value. Today, we are members of the edX initiative. The fact that we were active from the beginning helped a lot and that is why we were invited to join the other 28 top universities and schools from all over the world.
The third reason is innovation. We believe that innovation is not only what you do in research. At our University innovation is on top of the mission statement. To innovate in education is very important for us.
Quality is the fourth reason. We believe that when you use materials from other top universities or when you are developing your own education online for the world to see it, it will automatically lead to even better educational materials.
Those are the four reasons why we believe that having an Open and Online Strategy is very important.
How would you describe the level of commitment of your faculty, students, and administration?
If you look at the administration, the Executive Board and the support staff they all have been really supportive right from the start 8 years ago. As for the faculty, some people were immediately enthusiastic about the possibilities of open and online initiatives. But for other staff it took some time. They thought “Online is not as good as face to face” or “what will happen to the University?”
We actually started with those who were enthusiastic and people who were not interested, well, that was fine with us. What we see now is that the interest in what we do online is growing rapidly. So many people want to have MOOCs or use online materials in their Education. On the faculty level, we are doing quite well.
As for the students, I remember in the beginning that there were of course some enthusiastic students but most were quite reluctant. We went through a phase of black and white discussions. There were questions and statements such as “Is everything going to be online?” “Online is not good as we can’t meet professors”. Today, I notice that when you discuss this with students they see more opportunities than problems. They see that we still have Education on Campus; they see that we want to use online materials to improve Education on Campus.
As a whole, if I look at the commitment of the university over the past 8 years, the start was already good but now I see that most people are happy about the possibilities offered by open and online education.
What are the challenges that still need to be overcome in the context of open education at your University?
I think that my University is a warm supporter of openness. However, at the same time, we have to make ends meet. We have to find a business model for online and open Education. I still have to pay staff or rent of the buildings. Things cost money. This is a big challenge. What we can’t do is to have our registered students on campus pay more to make it possible for all other students, from around the world, to get Education for free. We have to find a good business model.
What keeps you going and motivates the whole Institution to continue with open and online education?
It is great to see how many people are enthusiastic about what is happening now. The enthusiasm is really encouraging and keeps you going. The fact that we have 75, 000 participants registered for our MOOCs but also when I see our teaching staff who put a lot of time into preparing all this and they are still very happy.
The other thing that is absolutely clear to me is that open and online education will have a tremendous impact on higher education. Even if we are not clear what these effects will be exactly in the future, I think that it is clear that something will change and my University wants to be there, at the forefront of these changes.
What is the impact of openness on your University?
It is an impulse for quality of our teaching materials. If you teach 75, 000 students online you have to think how you plan a course. It has to be didactically very smooth.
What we do online is starting to be used in the classroom on campus. For the first time, professors are starting to think about concepts like flipping the classroom and applying it. Although they don’t use the word it is still what they are doing. That is one important impact.
People who are involved in this movement are working hard. It is an extra effort they are making. It is different than teaching 200 students in a classroom.
How do you see the future of open education in the next 3 to 5 years at your University?
That is a good question. We develop a 3 years strategy every six months. The online education world is changing so fast. We don’t know where we will be in 3 years, but we also notice that every six months we have to speed up otherwise we are not going fast enough. What we are now discussing is that open continues to be very important for us but we also want to have a better online program for our students. We want to better use online materials in our regular Education and we want to offer our program to lifelong learners (LLL). Our universities in the Netherlands are not doing this well enough and it is one of the biggest challenges. We want to offer modules and programs online for those who can’t afford to study on campus or do not have the time to work and live in the Netherlands.
If you had to describe open education at your institution in 5 words, what would they be?
Access to higher Education, Innovation and Quality
Interview conducted on November 21, 2013