3 takes on open universities

Science&People event in Berlin explored different approaches to this emerging phenomenon

Speakers (left to right) Sönke Knutzen, PhD, Ada Pellert, PhD, and Deborah Schnabel, PhD, with moderator Volker Meyer-Guckel, PhD, Deputy General Secretary of Stifterverband; and article author Sebastian Horndasch (Photos by Daniel Staemmler, PhD)

“Openness” has become a recurring theme in the debate on the future of education. Open science and open educational resources are regarded by many as means to bring higher education to the next level.

Commonly, the term “open university” has been used to describe a system of distance education which enables non-traditional students (e.g., those who study extra-occupational subjects or those who are on family leave) to improve their academic skills in a flexible manner. In recent years though, people are looking into whether a new notion of openness in universities can help address societal challenges.

The third issue of the Science&People debate series, at the Digital Eatery in Berlin, aimed to shed light on this question. Three speakers were invited, each realizing their own vision of the open university: Dr. Ada Pellert, President of Fernuniversität Hagen; Dr. Sönke Knutzen one of the founders of Hamburg Open Online University; and Dr. Deborah Schnabel who started the Creative Learning Space.

Science&People events are held in an informal setting in the Microsoft Digital Eatery café in Berlin. Here, participants settle in before the presentation on open universities.

Catering to non-traditional students

FernUniversität Hagen, Germany’s largest university in terms of enrollment, is to some degree the German equivalent of the Open University in the UK. Founded in 1974, it creates openness in education by providing long-distance program that cater to the specific needs of non-traditional students. In her new role as president of FernUniversität, Dr. Pellert said she sees openness as one of the keys to quality education. She explained that by embracing students with different backgrounds, by opening up research and by opening the institution to cross-sectoral partnerships, universities can create synergies that help to fulfill the mission.

In her talk, Dr. Pellert pointed out that openness is not a new ideal in higher education but one which has to be frequently re-evaluated and adapted to new social and technological developments. Therefore, she said, an open university should not be an end in itself but should serve the university’s mission: to foster logical and critical thinking.

Addressing societal challenges

The Hamburg Open Online University (HOOU), a newly established cooperation between all public universities in Hamburg, takes radical steps in bringing openness into Hamburg’s higher education landscape. Instead of offering a fixed curricula, the platform focuses on projects that address societal as well as academic challenges, ranging from engineering projects to local history and supporting refugees. The projects are not only open to students from different disciplines but to anybody – inside or outside of academia – who wants to learn new skills. The platform promotes the use of open educational resources within the projects. To Dr. Knutzen, one of the initiators of the project, the platform as such is already a good example what can be achieved through institutional openness.

A space for creative problem solving

With more and more manual work being automatized, creative problem solving becomes a crucial skill in the working environments of the future. This fact is nevertheless being widely neglected in many of today’s higher education institutions, as Dr. Schnabel pointed out in her presentation. She therefore founded the Creative Learning Space. Based on the inverted (or flipped) classroom principle, the lab aims to foster project-based creative social learning.

Many routes to open learning

What became clear throughout the evening is that there is not the open university, but rather multiple ideas that are related in many ways. The three projects that were presented were a good representation of how the open university can be approached from different angles: Universities such as FernUniversität Hagen are challenged on different fields to achieve “openness.” Projects like the HOOU can foster collaboration between institutions and even help lower the barriers between academia and the general public. But creating a truly open university requires a specific mindset. Innovative approaches in teaching and learning, as provided by the Creative Learning Space, can help to realize the real potentials of learners.

What also became clear throughout the evening is that the debate on what is behind the term and how the ideal of an “open” university could be achieved is already fruitful as such and should be continued.

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The next event is November. Learn more on the Science&People website.



Written by

Sebastian Horndasch

Written by

Sebastian Horndasch

Sebastian Horndasch is program manager at the German Forum for Higher Education in the Digital Age (Hochschulforum Digitalisierung). He coordinates the working group New Business Models, Technologies and Lifelong Learning and manages various studies and events that take part within the forum. Previously, he worked as project manager for Wikimedia Germany. Sebastian studied economics and political science in Erfurt, Madrid and Nottingham.

Written by

Fabian Spoerer

Written by

Fabian Spoerer

Fabian Spoerer supports the project managers in the German Forum for Higher Education in the Digital Age (Hochschulforum Digitalisierung) as a student assistant. He is a master’s student at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) at Heidelberg University. His research interests include the influence of technology on civil society and the idea of social impact. Previously, he worked on developing a crowdfunding-platform for environmental-protection projects.

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