25 Years of OU – 2005: OpenLearn

Some Bryan Mathers magic

Around this time I was asked by my OU colleague Tony Walton to join the team preparing a bid to the Hewlett Foundation. They had funded MIT’s OpenCourseWare and we’d been in conversations with them about doing something similar for OU material – releasing it as OER. The thing about the early MIT stuff was that although it was open, it wasn’t that useful. A course syllabus, reading list and some notes is not a distance learning course that can be studied independently. The OU course materials are designed specifically for that purpose, and prior to open textbooks this looked like the best use of OER (it still is, I’d argue).

There was a lot of debate internally whether to go ahead with this, after all the MIT release didn’t really damage their business model – people still want an MIT degree on campus after all. But giving away all the OU content which is designed to be studied independently could damage the model, although we also know that the support offered by tutors and others is a vital part of that model. But a lot of prospective students think it is just the content (remember the “Content is King” mantra?).

What the proposal, which would become OpenLearn eventually settled on was the release of a certain percentage of OU content under an open licence. In 2006 the grant was awarded from the Hewlett Foundation (thank you!) and OpenLearn was established. Initially led by Andy Lane, then Andrew Law and now Patrina Law, this formed the foundation of what would be the Open Media Unit. This was a vital component in helping the OU explore new avenues and move beyond the broadcast only strategy.

Over the years OpenLearn has allowed the OU to develop content linked to BBC productions such as Frozen Planet, release OU material across all disciplines, commission bespoke content, run channels such as iTunes U and YouTube, provide a platform for collaboration and research projects, deploy digital badges and have our free, open courses. OpenLearn is still going strong with around 9million visitors a year, and is the main OER repository in the UK now with the closure of Jorum.

Although I didn’t have much to do with it after the initial grant was awarded, I’ve always kept in touch with the OpenLearn developments. I think it provided the OU with a platform to innovate upon based around its core principle of openness.

Covid 19 bit: Following the shutdown in March and the online pivot, the OpenLearn site has seen a significant increase in traffic. The team quickly compiled a set of resources helping people take courses online. But also as the content is openly licensed educators can take and adapt content in any discipline and reuse in their courses. The message is – you don’t have to create everything from scratch. This is actually quite a novel idea for many educators – textbooks are widely accepted third party content, but not much teaching content. My advice for those trying to create an online course that isn’t all Zoom lectures is to find some good OER, use that as the spine and focus on creating the pedagogic activity around it.

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