This was an annual one-day event run by the Research in Distance Education (RIDE) exploring new directions and developments in distance education and technology-enhanced learning. The ‘Open’ thread running through many of the presentations brought to the fore the tension between fidelity to the original ethos of openness and the pressures for monetisation. In order to look at the sustainability of MOOCs and open education, it is worth giving some airspace to the morning keynote, Strategic Challenges for MOOCs today by Simon Nelson, the CEO of Futurelearn. And then to the afternoon panel on OERs.
Futurelearn is the social learning platform and first UK-based provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs), owned by the Open University. Simon Nelson could not have been clearer about the need for a sustainable business model for the platform and for the provision of MOOCs in general.
Reservations were voiced throughout the conference about marketization of the open model in FutureLearn’s approach but it’s fair to remember that Open University also offer Open Learn , a provider of free online courses and content.
Founded in 2012, FutureLearn are now a little way off from breaking even financially with a positive trajectory for 2017 onwards. The business model they are developing has more to do with a customer led flexible and customisable educational experience than open and free access to all. A range of upgrades and certification provide revenue. Currently ,they are exploring certified Continuing Professional Development short courses, fully online paid degrees (in business, management, teaching and digital skills) or transferable accreditation towards other degree awards. They are also introducing payment pathways into degrees offering free entry level and then pay-as-you-go modules.
Other kinds of access to MOOCs that are being developed include a blended model where existing MOOCs are embedded into traditional programmes (“bringing the world into the classroom”). In terms of professional development the ethos is to make learning easily accessible in the workplace, enabling professionals to benefit from a social and flexible learning experience where they can either interact with others at different levels across the world or work in closed groups with colleagues.
FutureLearn’s ‘build once use many times’ strategy for content is smart; you might develop content for an OER re-use for a short course and then as part of a degree. Another interesting move is to use the expertise of Alumni to help deliver some of the learning for current students, especially in workplace learning.
Universities thinking about a more flexible model of provision and to make the most of the learning resources produced by their experts may want to consider some of the strategies employed by FutureLearn. As their name suggests, this could be the direction of travel for Education! However, it’s clear that in order to secure a revenue stream through MOOCs, patience and creative thinking seem to be the key to success.
Open Educational Resources (OERs)
A panel discussion in the afternoon looked at OERs from a range of perspectives.
History of OERs
Vivien Rolfe (also presenting at OER17), proposed that OERs were nothing new. Indeed, European anatomical theatres that opened their practice to the public from 16th to 19th century were a form of open education. She also reminded us that in the 1970’s, open education was a core learning philosophy in primary school education in the United States.
The advent of Creative Commons licensing in the early 2000’s enabled content creators to release their material to a worldwide audience and to select the type of reuse restrictions they wanted to apply. The flourishing of CC content on Flickr, YouTube and WordPress, for example, bears witness to its success.
Despite the lack of investment, the OER scene is thriving. In US and Canada, Higher Education institutions are making entire student textbooks freely available online. OpenTextbook will be piloted in UK very soon.
In terms of dissemination of research and materials OER is a fruitful mechanism. Analytics show that popular and useful resources are embedded into other institutions websites and VLEs and are being translated into numerous languages.
Embedding OER practice in HE context
Simon Thomson, Head of Digital Pedagogy at Leeds Beckett talked about Unicycle, an OER project which involved making 360 credits worth (the equivalent of 3600 hours) of learning materials locally and publically available. People from each school contributed. There were restrictions due to ethical considerations, for example, on some programmes. The resource documentation has now moved to the Jisc website: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/open-educational-resources.
There is no OER policy at Leeds Beckett but by embedding into all aspects of the university this becomes a sustainable exercise. Simon teaches OER as part of staff development on the PGCertificate and it is included in curriculum design.
Simon stressed that ‘open’ does not mean one thing. It is a continuum, with a range of practices across it. Some practitioners will only use open content whilst others make all their content available as OERs. Staff who are wary of the idea of OERs might be introduced to it by using OERs rather than producing it, or by using a mixture of open and non-open content. Students also need to understand the concept of openness as part of their digital literacy.
Participatory design model for productin of OER reusable learning objects
Heather Wharrad is responsible for Helm open a repository of Re-usable learning objects. These are short resources on particular areas of curriculum, ‘chunks of learning’. They were made through a participatory design principle with academics and practitioners involved in co-creation and peer review. The reason these were made was to give easy access to all students. Some excellent resources that could benefit a wide range of users were often hidden away on VLE pages and only seen by a minority. The impact of the project showed that the resources were widely used with a global reach. Public funding was used to develop the project and so Heather thought that the outputs should also be public.
Although now there are a large team of learning technologists and media specialists supporting the scheme, it started off small, using a teaching and learning grant to demonstrate value and how it linked scholarship, research and teaching.
In all three cases there was no institutional drive or support for their initiatives. Instead they started from the ground up and proved the value of OERs through research findings and analytics. Simon Thomson also said that he convinced his university that content is worthless. Content is everywhere nowadays and easily available for free. It is the staff, students, the teaching, support and learning experience that are valuable. How information and ideas are linked together and how they are understood is the cornerstone of teaching – not the bare content.
Finding relevant quality OERs
I thought about how my own research practice has changed in recent years. In the past I would look to subscription only journals which I could access via Shibboleth and so on. Now I tend to first of all search for freely available content. I will avoid searches behind paywalls or password protected catalogues unless there is something specific I desperately need. There are sometimes limitations, of course, in terms of the quality of freely available content both academically and production-wise. It is here that the user needs to have the skills to be discerning. Searching for quality Open content is an issue but can be navigated by using repositories recognised by learner communities such as:
- Jisc app store
- BBC – Research Education base
- Merlot (not completely open)
- Humbox (humanities)
- Khan Academy
There are also discipline specific repositories that can be searched (under ‘Open’) which many of us may already use.
A last tip from the panel: although it is desirable to ensure accessibility, you may not always be in a position to do this with freely available content. If you are creating open resources it’s wise to include a disclaimer saying that you cannot guarantee 100% accessibility of all content (one university was heavily penalised for material not meeting accessibility guidelines). And there may be vulnerability in platforms. The advice is to put content onto 2 platforms so that you can mitigate for one disappearing.
If you want to follow up on any of this Audrey Watters is an excellent commentator on OERs. What do we mean by open education?