25 Years of OU – 2000: Open Source Teaching Project


Towards the end of the 90s, the viability of the open source approach to software development gained credence. I’ll address the issues with open source later, but at the time it was a significant challenge to conventional, capitalist thinking that software which was as good, if not better, than commercial products could be realised through a community driven model. Like Wikipedia versus the Encyclopedia Britannica, it made no sense that this approach could produce such robust, reliable, functional outputs – and yet it did.

The cultural change since then is interesting. At the time the open source approach was seen as almost unassailably positive, set against the evils of corporations such as Microsoft. Since then though, sexism and lack of diversity in open source has come to light as a major issue. It’s too often a tech bro playground. This is not an inevitable outcome of the open source approach, and people who understand the culture better than I have been proposing more equitable models. But I do think an element of hero worship is a problem in the open source approach, and how the community starts is very significant, so it needs careful setting up to develop an equitable community. For instance, Linus Torvalds was being tongue in cheek with his call for participation at the start of Linux, when he posted:

Do you pine for the nice days of minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? Are you without a nice project and just dying to cut your teeth on a OS you can try to modify for your needs? Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on minix? No more all-nighters to get a nifty program working? Then this post might be just for you 🙂

But the result is that it gathered lots of dudes around him who then created the type of culture and what is valued in that culture, so that later it became an often hostile environment for women.

But to return to our project, at the time what was interesting was a radical new model for creating complex products. Distance education courses are not unlike pieces of software: they require multi-disciplinary teams, testing, iteration, are comprised of different interacting components and are ‘used’ by a wide range of people who will do unpredictable things with them. The OU had developed a robust model for developing these courses which was analogous to the software product development team in a commercial developer such as Microsoft. The open source model offered a different analogy to draw from.

Led by John Naughton, Tony Hirst and Stewart Nixon, the Open Source Teaching project at the OU sought to develop a course production model based on this analogy. Tony did an excellent job of writing up the project back in 2001, with the process being:

  • educators will submit educational materials to a depository. Community review of these materials will check their quality, a model loosely based on the peer review.
  • Once the quality of the material has been assured, it may be promoted to the resource bank. The promotion process requires that the item being promoted is marked up with appropriate metadata
  • Materials in the resource bank may now be extracted by distributors

The model is summarised below:

The project never really took hold, for a number of reasons, partly because it was too difficult to overcome existing practice and the rewards for sharing weren’t viable enough. This might be an example where the OU was too cautious, and could have pushed on this, before MIT launched Open CourseWare a couple of years later.

What is interesting, I think, is that a number of different people were independently thinking along the same lines. This found realisation in learning objects and then later OER. But we’ve still not really cracked a community based production model for learning content.

Covid 19 bit: Now that ALL unis are going online to an extent, the argument for community based production models becomes relevant again. I’ve written about the pain of learning objects often enough not to advocate their return, but when we’re still stuck in basically a proprietary model of content production, then now might be the time to consider more cooperative models. OER and open textbooks have shown how this can be done, but there may be other approaches that can be made to work at a national level.


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