Open Education Around the World: Speaks with The Open University

By Megan Driscoll

The Open University Open University (OU) has long been a pioneer of offering open access to distance learning education and degrees. However, your main course offerings are separate from your open learning materials. What's the difference between being an enrolled student at OU and a self-learner using OU's open learning materials?

Professor Andy B. Lane: The Open University describes what it offers to its enrolled student body as 'Supported Open Learning', whereby it adds a wide range of support services (for example information, advice and guidance, tuition, assessment, credit rating, credit transfer, specialized hardware and software for disabled students) around the specially developed educational materials that students need to study.

There are four types of support which are built into all its programs in different mixes:

  1. Pedagogic support built into the educational resources, such as exercises and activities that challenge students and enable them to assess for themselves the learning they are achieving (examples of these can be seen in OpenLearn units);
  2. Personal support through encouraging self-reflection and guidance within some of the in-text activities, which is underpinned by a broad range of guidance material on study skills and the recording of learning and achievements in e-portfolios or learning journals (examples of which are also on OpenLearn);
  3. Peer support providing mutual reflection and guidance created within tutorial groups that can meet physically or virtually (every taught module has associated electronic conferences run by tutors or specialized moderators, but the OU Students Association also runs separate conferences just for students for each module, for each program and for other purposes--similarly each unit on OpenLearn has an associated forum);
  4. Professional support, the expert reflection and guidance provided by subject tutors available through face-to-face meetings, telephone calls or an online conference, and the guidance provided by support specialists whether individually or collectively through comprehensive online systems. Indeed, new technologies have greatly facilitated the mobility of support so that the supporter and supported do not need to be in the same country or communicate at the same time.

For OpenLearn, the OU is using as much of the first three approaches as possible, while for registered students it adds the fourth. Even so, there are still significant limits to what OU staff can achieve through information and communication technologies when students or potential students cover vast geographical areas.

For this reason, we have long recognized in our formal programs, and expect it to be the same for the non-formal Open Educational Resources (OER) on OpenLearn, that local intermediaries are essential for ensuring successful participation. Such intermediaries can vary widely, ranging from employers and unions to local charities, non-governmental organizations and various professional and interest-led associations, all of whom provide different types of support and encouragement to their members or the groups they seek to serve.

So, in summary, users of OpenLearn get to see some of the content of our modules and be able to use their own skills and communicate with others to assist their non-formal learning. There is no summative assessment or credit gained from studying OER on OpenLearn unless included within an APEL module. What inspired you to begin offering some of your course materials for free for open learning?

AL: Ever since it started teaching students in 1971, some of the educational content produced by the OU has been openly available and accessible to people within the U.K. For example, all the television and radio broadcasts have been aired through free public channels run by the BBC so that anyone could watch them.

Since joining the OCW/OER movement in 2006, inspired by MIT OCW and the feeling that OER fitted with the OU mission, the OU has been making more of its full range of educational content openly available and accessible through OpenLearn and proprietary channels. On OpenLearn this has been full extracts of self study multimedia materials, while on other channels this has tended to be rich media assets only. What is the philosophy that drives your participation in open education, and how does it relate to the primary mission of OU?

AL: Principally, as noted earlier, our initiative arose as a direct extension of The Open University's mission. It is an action research program, the major planned outcomes of which were:

  1. Enhanced learning experiences for users of OER
  2. Greater involvement in higher education by under-represented groups and empowerment for various support networks that work with them.
  3. Enhanced knowledge and understanding of OER delivery, how it can be effective, and the contribution it can make to further development of e-learning.
  4. Enhanced understanding of sustainable and scalable models of OER delivery

We cannot claim that any one of the above aspects of our initiative is unique but we believe it is the combination and configuration of them in one project that is. (This history and philosophy has been explained in much greater detail in Gourley, B.M. and Lane, A.B. (2009) Re-invigorating openness at the Open University: the role of Open Educational Resources, Open Learning 24(1): pp 57-65, ISSN 0268-0513 print/ISSN 1469-9958 available online.)

The OU regards the OER movement as a key opportunity to better fulfill its mission to open up education, drawing upon two significant factors that the Open University can brings to the Open Educational Resources field - scale and experience.

Scale in terms of the quantity and quality of the educational material available that can be repurposed in varying degrees for online dissemination and reuse, and also in terms of developing robust systems (both technological and pedagogical) that provide a meaningful learning experience to large student populations.

Experience in terms of creating distance education material that is designed to be studied by independent learners who often have competing demands on their time, and a range of needs and experiences.

In this respect the OU differs from many of the other OER providers whose educational material was created on the assumption of face-to-face use or at best blended use. OpenLearn is increasing our understanding of the impact on users of materials developed specifically for distance learning. What types of materials do you offer for free?

AL: We have created three interlinked websites that offer different users the opportunity to variously engage with OER and with other users of the sites, recognizing that different people will visit the site for different reasons and needs.

First, the main OpenLearn website contains bite-size chunks of educational content and topical articles and aggregates listings of all types of content on our own and proprietary sites.

Second, we are progressively placing a wide selection of pedagogically structured study units (typically 10 hours study time) derived from OU taught courses or teaching projects in a LearningSpace website. Each study unit of material is self contained and they include a range of media.

The linked LabSpace site is where creators of courses can construct a wider range of learning experiences for their students. The LabSpace has a support tool collection for learning management and community building and is much more dynamic in the way that resources are developed and used by a very committed and well educated set of communities. You're an English-language institution with international reach that offers some course materials in other languages. Do you ever plan to expand your translated options? If so, to which languages?

AL: We do not formally translate our OER although other people do so and we are happy for them to do so (in contrast, we do translate full courses under agreements with third parties that are teaching using our courses under license). At the moment we do not have any plans to translate our OER ourselves or by formal agreement with a third party. If somebody is interested in the latter arrangement then they should contact the University for further advice. What are the demographics of your primary users? Do you track their countries of origin, age group or other information, and if so, can you share it?

AL: Much of the content on OpenLearn can be viewed and downloaded as a browsing user - you only need register if you wish to use some of the communication and collaboration tools. This means that most information comes from analytics since we collect very little information on registration. We do have a significant research and evaluation track which has done more qualitative research to match the quantitative analytics.

Here is some quantitative data:

  • Over 14 million browsing visits from 11 million unique visitors and 40,000 registered users in 220 countries and territories since launch in Oct 06
  • Over 300,000 visitors a month with 52% from outside the UK
  • Over 4,000 FM public video conferences booked (many international) with over 27,000 replays
  • Over 8,000 Compendium software downloads and 16,000 Compendium map downloads
  • About 15,000 study units printed per week
  • About 5,000 study units downloaded on one of six formats per week
  • Some user translations into Catalan, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese
  • Over 2,400 sites worldwide a month (over 5,000 in total) referring people to OpenLearn
  • More than 100 study units created by individuals, groups and projects in LabSpace Are there any other current or in-development initiatives at OU to promote free and open education?

AL: During the first 2-3 years of OpenLearn we were working on ensuring that maintenance operations went smoothly. That transition was to ensure that OpenLearn itself was an active and updated site and the processes were in place so that the OU could carry on making OER versions of course material openly available at minimal cost and effort as a by product of activities for students.

Since then, there have been a number of internal actions and grant funded projects to develop OpenLearn. For example, we launched an iTunesU channel and a branded YouTube site.

The Open University is also involved in some initiatives in Africa that involve the co-development of bespoke OER for use by African institutions to improve educational provision and outcomes in key professions. The most advanced one is the Teacher Training in Sub-Saharan Africa initiative, which is being followed by Health Education and Training in Africa in its early stages of development. Both activities also gain from external grant and philanthropic funding.

We also have almost a dozen research and development projects under way. These include SCORE, an effort to publish OER more widely and share best practices, and POCKET, a now-completed project investigating the potential to migrate open content approaches in a range of disciplines across a number of higher education institutions.

The Open Learning Network is a project that aims to gather evidence and share methods about how we can research and understand ways to learn in a more open world.

The OU is participating in many other research initiatives on the use and improvement of open education. You can read more about OU research on our website. Finally, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about OU's OpenLearn program.

AL: Research during the grant funded period of the OpenLearn initiative identified a range of benefits (McAndrew et al, 2009) including:

  • Enhancing the reputation of The Open University.
  • Extending the reach to new users and communities.
  • Recruitment of students from those who come to see OpenLearn.
  • Supporting widening participation.
  • Providing an experimental base of material for use within the university.
  • Accelerating uptake and use of new technologies.
  • Acting as a catalyst for less formal collaborations and partnerships.
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