identity,  MOOC,  open courses,  openness

What sort of open do you want?

29/52 choice paralysis

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I've been thinking about openness in education a lot recently (my plan is to write a book on this, more on that later). And I've slowly, probably years after everyone else, come to the conclusion that it's a mistake to talk about openness as if it's one thing. There may have been a time when it was, when all the forms of openness blended easily into one indistinguishable lump, but that's not the case now. Not only are there different aspects of openness, but I'm beginning to feel that some may be mutually exclusive with others, or at least prioritising some means less emphasis on others. 

What do I mean by this? Well I could list the different types of openness in education: OERs, MOOCs, open access, open scholarship, etc. But instead it's more useful to consider the motivation for openness, why has someone adopted an open approach in the first place? Here are some possibilities:

Increased audience – you want as many people as possible to be able get at your resource, be it an article, book, course, video or presentation. The main aim here is to remove barriers to people accessing it. This means it has to be free, easily shareable, online, and with easy rights.

Increased reuse – related to the above, but slightly different, you want people to take what you have created and combine it with other elements, adapt it and republish. The same considerations are required as above, but with an extra emphasis on minimal rights and also creating the resource in convenient chunks that can be adapted. Whereas the first motivation might mean releasing your song online, the second motivation might lead you to sharing each of the tracks that constitute the song separately under a CC-BY licence.

Increased access – this is different from the first motivation in that you want to reach particular groups who may be disadvantaged. You have open access in that you do not require formal entry qualifications. You may decide that free is also the best way to gain increased access, but that may not follow. If you want to work with learners who often fail in formal education then simply making a resource free doesn't really help. What they need is material aimed at this audience and specific support. Open access is not just about price.

Increased experimentation – one of the reasons many people adopt open approaches is that it allows them to do different things. Whether that's use different media, create a different identity, or experiment with approach that wouldn't fit within the normal constraints of work, an open method allows this. If this is your goal, then the emphasis is on getting an audience that will feedback on this and maybe participate in this experimentation.

Increased reputation – being networked and online can help improve your, or your institution's, profile. Openness here allows more people to see what you do (the motivation of increased audience) but your main aim is to enhance your reputation. If you were an academic who really wanted to be on the keynote circuit then operating in the open, publishing openly, creating online resources, being active in social media and establishing an online identity might be a good way to achieve this. Here openness is a method by which you realise a different goal, but it could be anything. The emphasis here then will be on networking and using openness to establish identity.

Increased revenue – while we may have suspicions about open washing and using openness as a route to commercial success, it's true that an open, or part-open model can be an effective business model. The freemium approach works this way, where a service is open to a large extent, but some users pay for additional services. If this is the goal then openness works by creating a significant demand for the product.

Increased participation – you may need input from an audience, but can't pay to access them. This could be crowdsourcing in research, or getting feedback on a book or research proposal. Being open allows others to access it and then provide the input you require. Openness here can be quite targeted, you want to reach a particular audience and get them involved, not necessarily as large an audience as possible.

Let's take an example in education and consider it from these different motivations. Let's imagine your university (or a university you know) wants to create a MOOC. They've heard all about them and think they should be doing something in this area (this actually covers about 90% of university's approach to MOOCs). They seek your advice, so you go around to a bunch of different stakeholders and you ask them "what is the aim of the MOOC? What do you want from it?"

Now, the person from marketing says they want to increase the university's online profile and reputation. From this perspective you propose a MOOC in a big hitting subject, featuring a big name academic. The subject will be "Life on Mars". It'll be expensive, high end production, acting as a showcase for the university and getting it in the press.

When you speak to the Dean of the Science faculty they say they are concerned about student recruitment on their post grad course. They want it to bring in high fee paying overseas students. The model that might work here is one that makes the first 6 weeks open, and target a specific audience, who can then sign up. You suggest offering badges and allowing people to build up to taking the full masters.

You then speak to an academic who is really keen to try a student-led approach. They feel frustrated by the customer-led focus of conventional teaching and see in MOOCs an opportunity to try some more radical pedagogic approaches that they have been blocked from implementing. They don't see it as particularly massive in terms of audience, but it will be a rich learning experience for those who do it, as they will be creating the curriculum. You propose a MOOC based in WordPress, and featuring a range of technologies with learners co-creating the content.

Later you have a conversation with a funding council who want to bring under-represented groups into science. They will need a lot of support, but they are willing to fund the provision of mentors and support groups in the community. You suggest a MOOC based on adapting existing materials, with carefully targeted support and minimal technical barriers.

And so on – you can see that from each of these perspectives the resultant MOOC would be a very different beast. It would be open in each of these scenarios, but with a different emphasis on the form that openness should take.

So, now that openness has to a large extent won out as an approach, the question is no longer 'do you want to be open?' but rather 'what sort of open do you want?'. 


  • Stuartbrown

    Hi Martin.
    Interesting stuff. I wonder if there is another which is increased flexibility or increased utility. This is implicit in a number of the others but seems most fitting to some of the stuff I’ve been involved with.
    For example on we publish stuff from around the OU as linked open data. All of the stuff we share in this way is made publicly available by the OU in other places but is in a format according to the databases/systems which serve specific applications/purposes (and the data is often therefore difficult to work with).
    Anyway, course data such as or presents info about the course as well as stuff form other datasets that is related to this course. This doesn’t directly lead to increased reuse (since developers here and externally will muddle through with what they are given to some extent), but it does enable them to be more flexible in what they do.
    Maybe it’s just that our use case falls into Increased Reuse and Increased Experimentation.
    Nice new theme on the blog btw 😉

  • Sukainaw

    Thanks for the post – it allows the open argument to be more nuanced – you don’t (have to) make any judgements on whether one type of open is ‘better’ or ‘more valid’ than another.
    So true on the MOOCs example: ‘what sort of MOOC do you want’ (have you been hacking my emails :-))

  • mweller

    Hi Stuart – I think I get what you’re saying. And yes, that does apply, certainly to open standards, and so a lot of the educational standards that the IMS tried to implement. I’m trying to think how what you suggest applies in a less techy way, ie for the educator what does it mean? What would be the impact say in my MOOC example?
    @Sukaina – yes, absolutely, I don’t like the idea that there is one ‘right’ way to be open. And yes, didn’t you know, having been an H817 student I now have access NSA-like to all your emails?
    @Ben – hi, thanks for the link to that report, I’ve been reading it today, it’s really good, well done. I think you’re right also – there are degrees of openness in each of these motivations too, and to reiterate Sukaina’s point, it’s not that one of these is right.

  • Stuartbrown

    Hi Martin. WRT to what does it mean to your MOOC – it means tools such that described in this post (can’t find the link to the tool ATM) can be built. The idea is that you paste in a bit of content which is representative of what your MOOC is about and you can get results from past OU course material that is about the same or similar things. You can then reuse or adapt these (rights permitting).
    For an idea of how the STELLAR tool works you can try with any text (of more than a few words). It will return OU content under an open license that is about the same/similar stuff to the text you pasted in.

  • Sheilmcn

    Hi Martin
    A really useful set of classifications, thanks for that. In my new institutional role I’m finding that open is still a very unknown category. There are elements of understanding and use but not a common understanding, but equally there are elements of very strong resistance. Explaining different types of open and of course context of use, is going to be increasingly important for me over the coming months. I think I’ll be pointing lots of people to this post.

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