Open content

In defence of openlearn

Donald Clark weighs in with some heavy criticism of the Open University’s openlearn project. Some of his criticism is valid, but a lot isn’t.

It’s really no more than a repository of old OU print documents with some tools on top.

This is a naive view of just how much effort it takes to convert existing material. These aren’t simply PDFs of existing units. The trouble is with taking legacy material and converting it – often there are cross references that don’t make sense, outdated historical references, and mention of the overall course context (e.g. ‘In your assignment’). The openlearn team thus needed to create a system for ‘scrubbing’ material to make it contextually independent and then putting it online.

To be honest I think I could have published this lot using free software in less than a week or two.

Believe me Donald, you couldn’t, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

Moodle is famously free, but dwell on the fact that the OU have spent a cool million in development time for this ONE implementation. Perhaps the most expensive free lunch on record.

Here he is confusing the spend on adapting, implementing and improving Moodle as the OU’s central VLE, ie for use on our courses, and not for the openlearn project, which is just a side project. Is it just me or is there some anti-open source sentiment underlying this?

As I sampled many of the courses it struck me how weak much of the content was in terms of academic credibility. Like many course notes written from within an institution, rather than published text, it has the feel of being cobbled together by good experts, but not the best.

Here we are coming from different backgrounds. The material was written for independent studiers, who are isolated and at a distance. It may not be exciting, but it does work academically. This is why people study rather than just reading airport business books.

Interestingly, not a single lecture online.

Here he is showing his ignorance of the OU. We don’t do lectures. We’re a distance education university.

It’s only 5% of the OU output but the course choices do seem a little odd.

The choices have been made in order to give a coverage across all subject areas, and sometimes expediency has won out – e.g. which courses can be converted quickly. Much of the project has been about establishing a set of systems so that future content can be delivered.

The levels of interaction are abysmal and there’s no real assessment

The aim of openlearn was always to take existing OU material and make it freely available, NOT to develop new material specifically for the project. But this is where I begin to agree with him, interaction is low and informal assessment could be better.

I still love the OU and all it stands for, even if it is dragged down by the desire of its academics to mimic every other university.

I simply don’t understand this catty comment. In what way are OU academics trying to mimic every other university?

Seb Schmoller takes a more reasoned response:

The impression you get is that there was internal pressure from those saying "but we depend on people to pay for our courses, we cannot risk putting some of the ‘top sellers’ into Open Learn".

I was involved in the initial phase of openlearn, and why I can understand Seb saying this, it isn’t actually the case. We were quite keen to explore the business implications and not make it just a ‘taster’ site. I think the choices have been driven more by which academics have come forward with courses, what are available, what can be converted, etc.

I think that if the OU does not use OpenLearn to showcase its best stuff, the OpenLearn initiative risks being judged as some rather pedestrian content sitting in a (possibly) innovative environment. That would be a major missed opportunity.

I think there is something in this, openlearn is worthy, and useful, but it could be more. The team have focused hard on getting some of the boring stuff done which isn’t sexy, but does set the framework for a sustainable model of opening up content. Now the challenge is to do more with it. In case he is too modest to do it I would point to the work Tony Hirst has done in taking openlearn content and mashing it around as a good model.

I think overall openlearn has been guilty of veering into a traditional, university type model (top down, quality assured, proper processes, etc) rather than a more radical 2.0 approach, but in both content and intent it represents a huge step forward for both the OU and UK Higher education. After all, I don’t see Epic releasing all their courses for free.


  • Sarah

    I think you make some good points in your defence of OpenLearn, Martin – but I still think that the key weakness comes from putting online materials which weren’t meant to be studied as a stand alone experience, and without the overall guiding structure / motivator of assessment which comes from studying the whole – but he does raise some valid issues.
    It’s a strange old mix of reference and resource… but despite having been a distance learning student for many years OpenLearn just doesn’t inspire me. Is it designed for a different type of learner? Is it designed simply as an exercise in open content? Who is it being aimed at? Who actually uses it? I feel a bit ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’. I just can’t see what’s so good about it (although I do appreciate what’s gone on in the background in terms of technical transformation of material)… and I don’t know if it’s just me… but I don’t really get it. What and who is it really *for*? It doesn’t seem to have found its true purpose yet.
    Sarah (probably not coherent as she’s trying to concentrate with a Thomas the Tank Engine DVD playing in the background!)

  • Laura

    Hi Sarah,
    Who is it for? is the first question I asked when I started on the project. And we are still discovering the answer as we find out more about the people who come to the website. You’ll see some of the stories of how learners and educators are using OpenLearn at
    The intention of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in supporting open educational resources is to equalise access to knowledge.
    Some uses we’ve seen include advice and guidance to introduce learners to HE materials, to help OU students and others decide what courses to progress to, to provide an extended curriculum for gifted and talented students in schools, as a resource for students in HE to support their current studies, for use by organisations such as the U3A who self organise study groups and are looking for good quality structured online learning materials, as a resource for small and medium sized enterprises who can’t afford to offer training programmes, learning programs in prisons, people who want to study formally but can’t currently commit to a course for financial or personal reasons…
    We’ll soon be publishing more research on who our users are and we can give some detail from interviews and questionnaires and a broader overview from the data from our web analytics. You can find OpenLearn research at the Knowledge Network at

  • Steve Godwin

    What do users think? – just a taster…
    Of a survey of registered users (n = 1274) Less than 2% of surveyed users said “I don’t think OpenLearn will be useful to me” with more than 60% saying they felt that ‘OpenLearn looked like a very useful resource’ (based on check box responses). More than half of those who had spent more than 30 minutes on the site selected ‘I have learned something new from OpenLearn’. A large choice of content was the most highly ranked feature of OpenLearn (1st) from a list of 10 options including interactive content (3rd), audio and podcasts (7th). Further data is being processed and qualitative data shows that for many users OpenLearn is a very valuable resource and very highly valued.

  • simonfj

    “I still love the OU and all it stands for, even if it is dragged down by the desire of its academics to mimic every other university”.
    I simply don’t understand this catty comment. In what way are OU academics trying to mimic every other university?
    I don’t think “mimic” is the right word here. Perhaps “take the same approach” is a better way of putting it.
    The basis of the new learning paradigm is that it is global and forms around the interests of GLOBAL groups (or peers), most of whom gather around a particular tool.
    But the inhabitants of established .edu institutions don’t abide by this model. OCWC’s global groups start by segmenting themselves into the old boxes. So while some (like OU) have invented some great tools (and content), they are “delivered” only from one server farm and one institutional web site. Their global groups might be collaborating but, like this peer member’s blog, their communication is scattered around different domains.
    To a learner this presents an insurmountable challenge. If the inhabitants of national universities aren’t seen to be collaborating with their global peers, and comparing and remixing their courses in attempts to constantly improve them, how might they get/give a relevant education in a globalizing world?
    If institutionalists only ask questions of the people who enter ‘their’ site, while their professional peers in their own domains do the same, and then (at times) present their research to one another, how can they adapt to (innovate) the laws of the new model?
    The new paradigm has already presented evidence of its existence in the tens of millions flocking hopefully to attractive tools. By definition, it is a parallel development, not an evolutionary one.
    So when you say “The team have focused hard on getting some of the boring stuff done which isn’t sexy, but does set the framework for a sustainable model of opening up content”. I just have to disagree. The new model, I have to believe, is based on producing one (or fewer) better quality course(s), or more generally, media objects. For that to happen communication between institutional groups must (be seen to) take place.
    That being the case “the framework for a sustainable model” is something no uni has even attempted yet. It’s not the content which needs “opening up”; that’s happening in every OCW institution. Its the framework (of media flowing) between institutional groups which needs opening up. Or “getting above the radar” as some would say.
    Content produced by this communication’s perspective is just an effect. You say “interaction is low”. I’d say “it can’t be seen to be going on”. But maybe you’re right. Maybe teachers are too busy debating to have any time to learn.

  • Peter - aka Neo

    If I may I’d like offer my response to this open discussion here too.
    From a user’s perspective –
    I use OpenLean almost every day and I love it. As an online learner I love it for what it has taught me and as an online teacher I love it for what it has allowed me to do with its content.
    In my view OpenLearn is the best working model of OCW with added learner community building tools yet available. The key to getting the best from OpenLearn is to engage with its content, researchers and developers and work with the learner networking features such as the profiles, blogs, forums and communication tools. Do so and OpenLearn will respond. Questions get answered, developers seek to resolve issues and participant OpenLearners feel they are not alone when seeking to learn collaboratively online.
    As an online teacher currently building a community of online learners of English drawn from over 70 countries the downloadable Moodle modules have proven a godsend. Within weeks of finally finding affordable Moodle hosting facilities Native English Online has been able to augment its chat, audio and video conferencing web toolset with free to use and generously provided content from a trusted brand. We now have something substantial to discuss to replace the ‘Hi & Bye chit chat’ more usual in the lively online world of language learner exchange. For example – one group I worked with over a period of several weeks included a woman from Gaza City, a Moodler from Kazakhstan, two enthusiastic learners from Slovakia and two people from the UK. As a collaborative exercise in using OpenLearn’s tools and material it was instructive and rewarding but the greater reward was that 6 people from quite different backgrounds and cultures made the effort, found common ground and took the opportunity to test their opinions and learn from others.
    My fear is that as the philanthropic funding dries up the project may falter especially as, in my experience, 99.5+% of online learners are content to take and give back nothing in exchange. For example I have an contact in India who constantly complains that although his ESL support costs him nothing he wants more – he wants a certificate.
    I’ve worked and taught with computers for over 30 years and spent much of that time in the City of London as a systems analyst programmer on major global banking projects. To me, at least, OpenLearn will be seen as good value for money once its users stop taking it for granted and start to appreciate its potential. If there is better expertise in e-learning than the OU is offering it must be time for it to step forward and offer leadership. We, the learners, will prove to be delighted disciples.
    Thanks and bfn 🙂

  • Tony McNeill

    Hi Martin,
    Sorry to weigh in with more anti-OpenLearn comments but I found the resources very disappointing. My impression is of lots of texts which look adapted from print-based materials. None of the great animations and expert interviews that you get in OU videos (remember Modern Art and Modernism?).
    To give one example, the resources on war memorials/commmoration – – rely far too much on text and too little on imagery for such a resource. I’ve doubts about the intellectual level of the argument/analysis too. Not sure if u/g – hopefully not.
    I produced a small resource for a JISC project that, trumpet blowing aside, looks a richer experience for the learner –
    Sorry to be critical – it’s just we’ve high expectations.

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