The Fallacy of USYD’s Open Learning Environments

Tim Livingstone breaks down OLEs and their effective contribution towards degrees

In March 2016, the University of Sydney’s 2016-2020 “Strategic Plan” was released, a document introducing the University’s direction for the next five years. Details of the curriculum changes which took place at the beginning of last year were enclosed and with them, the first mention of the Open Learning Environment (OLE)  — a program providing units of study designed to teach students “generic skills”.

These skills were to include entrepreneurship, cultural competence, and digital literacy among others. It was also announced that students completing Arts, Science, Economics, and Commerce degrees would be mandated to complete 12 credit points from the OLE pool which could be up to six different units. That means some OLEs are merely two credit points — a third of of a full unit load. What’s more, these OLEs would never be counted towards a student’s major, rendering them a sort of mandated elective, if such an oxymoron can be used. All this puts doubt into their effectiveness.

To justify this radical change in the way students organise their degrees, the Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence appealed to maintaining the “relevance” of university qualifications, a word which seems to have driven every change in educational curricula for the last few decades if not beyond. An op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald from 1987 notes a “responsibility” being imposed upon educators to form a “relevant curriculum” through “open learning environments”.

What was so irrelevant about the University’s graduate qualifications pre-2018, was our lack of  “employability”. According to the Strategic Plan, OLE units will offer skills which “contemporary employers require”. While a laudable aim, this process reflects a growing belief that it is up to educational institutions to teach skills that were previously gained in extra-curricular experiences through structured coursework. Before, a graduate might have learned public speaking through involvement in debating or student politics. Volunteering work done during their degree might have improved said graduate’s cultural competence, ethics, or even business skills. Now, OLET2138 will teach you public speaking and  OLET2111 teaches ethics, regardless of whether you already have or want these skills.

Prudence Wilkins-Wheat, a 3rd-year student, fell into the OLE programme because she transferred to a Law degree in 2018.  Wilkins-Wheat was forced to give up on her film studies minor in place of OLE units. She says that OLEs have “taken up space in my degree I could be using to advance myself in an area where I actually want to establish myself.”

While the importance of contemporary professional skills in graduates can be argued for, a further look at some other OLE units weakens the claim that these skills are being taught. Some units appear more like crash courses in topics of cultural interest rather than professional skills, such as OLET1105 Cultures of Food: Europe and OLET1137 Australian Perspectives: Rugby League.

Furthermore, the mode of delivery for the more serious OLE units presents a problem in its own right. Some OLEs are completed almost exclusively through online quizzes and online discussion, which can hardly be an effective way of discussing intricate issues such as global ethics. While online and in-person learning is largely mixed in most OLE units, they are structurally very different to a traditional university course, relying on only five hours of face-to-face learning for the whole semester in some instances.

Gen Couvret, a 2018 Arts/Law transfer, found her OLE units “so short [that the courses weren’t] a genuine exploration of the subject.”Indeed it is hard to believe that students can gain an understanding of the Arab world, for example, that is anything but superficial if they only study it online and at the intensity of one-twelfth of a full time semester load.

The Open Learning Environment offers this reality: students are forced to sacrifice 12 credit points of academic coursework from subjects ranging from genetics to criminology. Individuals who never intend to become entrepreneurs or public speakers are coerced into learning such skills. Students who do need and want such an education are only able to do so through brief and shallow courses whose educational effectiveness is yet to be proved to match that of regular full-time teaching. In either case, students’ agency and opportunity to participate in academic study is reduced, while the proposed aims of the Open Learning Environment are still far from being achieved.


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