The Open who?

The Open University

I was at the Hewlett OER meeting, and then the Creative Commons summit last week in Toronto. I’ll blog about that later, but for now (and to mark the OU’s 48th birthday today), here is a short post about the Open University. I was surprised at how often during those two meetings I would say I was from the Open University, and it be the first time the person had heard of it. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, I don’t expect everyone to have heard of us, but in two meetings that are largely about open education, it was telling. The follow up conversation would then be along the lines of ‘are you a proper university?’, ‘how do you make money?’, ‘what do you do?’.

My take on this is that open education, at least in this context, has become something quite distinct from open education as it was defined by the OU, and subsequent distance ed universities. What it means here is something like ‘openly licensed education’, or ‘OER education’. When I was in these conversations, it became clear that the model people had in mind was a foundation, NGO or ed tech start up, not a large scale, national university. I have no evidence for this, but my sense is that this would not have been the case 10 or 15 years ago. But open education is, like ed tech, a field people come into from elsewhere (and that diversity of experience is one of the reasons I like it). What this does mean is that their interpretation of open ed is shaped largely by immediate experience, and not a canon of foundational work (I’m NOT getting into the ‘should it be a discipline‘ discussion here again :).

In the Battle for Open, I suggested that there were three ‘parents’ for the current interpretation of open ed: open universities, open source and web 2.0. These merged together into a set of coalescing principles. But I wonder if we are witnessing a divergence now. If you go to conferences such as EDEN or ICDE, these were borne out of the distance ed movement, and here someone from Lumen learning (say) may get the same response I had at these other conferences, whereas everyone knows them at these two I attended.

I think there is, however, real benefit to both sides in maintaining overlap and dialogue between them. For the open universities, there are practices which are relevant. I have often remarked that we struck lucky with the title “The Open University” as it is still a very applicable, resonant name now. But we have very carefully and strategically worked with new definitions of openness in education – adopting open source Moodle as our VLE, setting up OpenLearn to be part of the OER movement, and FutureLearn to engage with MOOCs. Similarly there are current developments in the ‘new’ open education movement we might take advantage of, including open textbooks, open pedagogy and open business models. The reverse is true for the OER-related open ed movement, they are often times creating approaches that look akin to the OU model (I remember the excitement in the MOOC field when it rediscovered the idea of face to face study groups – we ruffled its hair and said “that’s nice”). We can provide years of experience and research in pedagogy, course production models, support, student profiles, etc.

So on the OU’s birthday this is a note to make sure we maintain on both sides that cross over. And also slight *ahem* – it’s why having a research team such as the OER hub that spans both communities is worthwhile. Anyway, happy birthday OU, 48 is a good age, I’ve been there for 22 of them, and I hope I’ll be here for a few more yet.


  1. David Wiley says:

    Thanks, Martin. There is indeed much for us to learn from the OU… Thank you for helping us remember. And happy anniversary!

    1. admin says:

      Thanks David – and just in case, I used Lumen as my example not because they didn’t know who the Ou was, but rather as a case where at Eden say, our roles might be reversed – everyone knows the Ou but some might not know Lumen, and at Toronto the reverse was probably true.

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