With a daughter applying to university, we’re wondering why we should be spending $40,000 a year for four years, when great learning materials are available free online.
The Open University in Great Britain has just started OpenLearn, which will provide free university level online learning to anyone. This month’s PILOTed interviews Patrick McAndrew, Director of Research and Evaluation for Open Content Initiative at The Open University.
The OpenLearn initiative could have a huge impact on how universities operate. And maybe, my daughter’s daughter will have very different options.
First, could you give a little background on The Open University?
We are a public university, founded in the late 1960’s with funding from the government as part of an approach to open up the university sector to those who have little access to a university education. We have no education requirements, which is part of our mission of openness. We were originally called University of the Air, with a strong partnership with the BBC, and that partnership still exists today. We offer a complete range of degrees, and we allow people to take their time to accumulate credits. We try to reach out to people who wouldn’t always go to a university; they have to pay fees, but the fees do not meet the full cost. A typical course would cost around £400, which is around $600. The rest is made up by government grants. We have around 2 million alumni.
What is the difference between the Open University’s OpenLearn and MIT’s Open Courseware? I’ve seen two characterizations, "MIT Open Courseware, but with pedagogy" and "MIT Open Courseware without the completeness," would you say those two basically sum up the differences?
Both have a certain amount of truth. Completeness is a great thing about MIT. Working hard, we hope to get 5% of our courses on OpenLearn. All OpenLearn material is designed for distance learning. We are selecting curricula that can make sense for small units of independent study. Units have to be tweaked a bit so that they make sense in this context. MIT was really ground breaking and we do not want to minimize the contribution they have made. And are making.
What was your goal in creating OpenLearn?
The overriding goal is to learn more about how to operate in this open way. This is an experiment. Does it really work when we separate a unit from the tutor? Does someone use it to offer accredited courses? How expensive is it to create and maintain? How well do people learn? Will people create tests based on the materials? OpenLearn is part of an experiment, but also possibly a change of how we work, to separate out the support, accreditation, and the materials. We are doing the materials.
How people use the materials is not understood. Part of what we are doing is to set up partnerships, where we can work with particular groups, possibly disadvantaged groups, and see how they can benefit.
One of the listed goals for OpenLearn is to create "nonformal learning communities." What is one, why is it desirable, and how do you go about encouraging them?
A learning club is one, where people get together similarly to book clubs, and go through a course together. There are two areas of OpenLearn, the LearningSpace and LabSpace. The OpenLearn LearningSpace is fairly clear about what people can do with it, that’s where the materials are, but has limited tools to draw people together. LabSpace has a number of extra tools, and new ones are being created at the same time that the existing ones are being refined. There are tools that allow you to see who else is learning at the same time, and IM them. There is a video conferencing tool. There is a tool for producing your own view of how the material hangs together.
We have already seen some interesting things. In a few cases, people have posted reorganizations of the materials, with their own descriptions. People have run their own video conferences and posted them for others to see using our FlashMeeting tool. It enables people with a web cam and microphone to put together a meeting with up to 20 participants, though 2 or 3 is more typical. The meeting is automatically recorded, which also helps us to research what is going on.
I saw in your goals, "draw on the world as a resource?" What did you mean by that?
When we produce our own materials, we do all the work ourselves. Wikipedia is an indication of what can happen when you open up to the world. In LabSpace, people can change our materials and put them back up again. We are going to add the ability of people to put up their own materials. Currently, you have to be pretty competent to do this, you have to know xml, but we are working on other ways to allow it to be easier.
We are also moving to open source for tools, using Moodle as the backbone for Open University and OpenLearn. We were using a range of in-house tools. Going to Moodle was a really good decision. Our developers feel more part of a world-wide community. Moodle has proved to us to be a better decision than a closed platform. That’s not to say it isn’t painful to move from our own custom platform. There is an adjustment. For example, conferences work differently from what we are used to. Also, there are a lot of new features that have been tempting people to try to use them, but we’ve had to hold back to make sure everything works.
What new technologies will you be testing?
It’s quite an interesting challenge to research this area. We want to understand how people use tools remotely. We want to find out how people use FlashMeeting. We are going to put in a stronger content management approach, making changes to the tools we have out there. We are looking to figure out how to capitalize on the usages of folksonomy (a non-formal way of classifying information, where the users of that information create the classifications, or tags, as they use the information.) that are out there; we will be working over next few months about how to let people tag things themselves, and see what people do.
Is there a goal in OpenLearn to cooperate with other institutions/universities? And if so, how?
It is a single institution project, funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The foundation organizes meetings to share information. We are very interested in how to exchange with other projects. For example, the connections project created an authoring environment. It is interesting to see if that would help us. We are also interested to see if other institutions regard OpenLearn as a good place to put their own content. Others could use us as a place to share their materials.
People have been approaching us about joint work. For example, producing multilingual versions of our content.
There is also joint work needed to look at ways to gather together and index and catalog all the courses and open information that is out there. Google is looking to publicize approved open education areas.
Using Moodle means that other people can take our materials and use them in their own locations and modify them for their own use.
How do the users add value? Is there a way they add lasting value?
At this point, we don’t expect students to be doing this, we expect other educators to do this. If you want to produce a custom course on OpenLearn, the process is obscure; only two examples have happened so far. One person has written been able to make modifications to make an existing offering available in a social network portal (an Open University person). The course looks different, but it is same underlying material. Someone else added a link to Wikipedia info to a course, to extend the way it references materials.
I can say that it is possible, but right now, it is not easy to customize content. The course customization tool was the feature we put the least priority into when trying to launch. We need some better models for how it happens, and also we are working on improving the existing tool.
Why only 5% of the curriculum?
It’s an involved process, at least right now. We ask our faculty to think about the courses they’ve got, and pick a part that works on its own, and that we’re very proud of, that they would like to see on OpenLearn.
We have to check and clear rights, which takes time. We have to check that all of the outcomes make sense. Even though drastic change is not happening, it takes a lot of time. We’re learning how to get things through the system faster.
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation made a grant in the neighborhood of $7 million in order to help you start OpenLearn. How did you go about procuring the grant?
The grant was for $4.45 million and we expect the two year pilot to cost in the region of $9.9 million. I wasn’t involved in proposal phase. There were discussions going back a couple of years, about how could the Open U be brought into their mission. They initiated the conversation; they recognized that we have the content and track record. We’ve been quite protective of our content, seeing it as part of our value, now we’re seeing that the content is just part of the value.
How do you look at the value of the Open University, then?
There are different ways of looking at our value. One way of looking at value is to classify four elements:
1. content, which is what we are providing in OpenLearn
2. supportyou give people (partly there in the OpenLearn environment, but it is also the people support, tutor groups, facilitators; tutors are a very important part of getting people to complete)
3. assessment(check to see that what you are doing is right, we know from research that if you assess something then more people will do it and understand it; when we put something really interesting into the courses and then make it optional, people are less likely to do it and they are less likely to be satisfied.)
4. accreditation(giving people a certificate and getting them toward a degree)
Those other three things we are not doing; there is the opportunity for OU or other groups to do this.
How is the curriculum going to be kept up-to-date?
In LabSpace, there is a versioning mechanism in place; we can create new versions of courses. In the next phase, we are putting some material in LabSpace that is not up to scratch, and invite the world to make a better version of it. We are going to see if things that are in need of updating get updated. We have a course Law and the Internet. It’s a great course, but it needs some updating. Perhaps we’ll post it in LabSpace to see if there is enough interest that we’ll update or if someone else updates it.
We are not going to instantly put updated versions back up to the LearningSpace. This is where a lot of complications lie in how does it actually work. But, that’s one thing we hope to learn.
A good part of the grant is for you to evaluate the program. How are you going to be evaluating? What would be considered success?
One success criteria is that we know more about the process. We would feel successful if a lot more students are coming to the OU. That we’re part of this worldwide community, that there are great materials flowing in, that we are helping some disadvantaged group (returning to the widening initiative) and that it is taking them somewhere, that we are linking up to help the developing world, in areas where they just don’t have the teachers to teach those specialize subjects. The real plan is that we actually know more about open education.
Have you seen any results so far?
Results so far: we’re wading through the info we’ve got. We’ve seen people going from one section to another. Getting good usage, especially considering that we’re at the stage of having launched but not driving people to the site yet. We’re getting 4,000 to 5,000 unique visitors per day, which is about 1/8 of what MIT is getting. We’re getting some good discussions started. People are coming forward to take part in the research. These are all good early indications.
What question do you most want to be asked?
"How can I get involved?" For example you might ask, "How can I take my idea about a learning club forward in association with OpenLearn?" I want questions where I can answer, "Yes you can do that, and here is how."
How do you see the role of textbook companies or education publishers changing in light of Open Educational Resources? Or, is there a role for commercial educational publishers in the new educational order?
There is a whole mystery of how web economics works. You can see free books and info driving the sales of printed books. You can see some of the moves that are happening; some publishers are offering published versions of their material online, or sections online free. In one of our units, we have chapters of published books published with permission. To many people, that whets the appetite to purchase the book. That could push more books. Amongst students, they like the print resource best, so seeing a web version may prompt them to go and purchase a print version. As we move to more being available under creative commons, there is going to have to be some adjustment from the publishers.
Thank you Patrick. If you want to learn more aboutOpen University or
OpenLearn by clicking on the links.