OU,  OUEdTech,  Presentation

A journey through open education

On the 19th Feb I gave my inaugural lecture (rather belatedly, having become a Prof about 15 years ago), as part of the Open University’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Given the delay it was something of a mix between an inaugural and a valedictory, as I chose to trace the changing nature of open education through the personal narrative of my own involvement in projects at the OU. My pitch was that up until the 90s, ‘open education’ roughly equated to the open university model – there were some variations, but it was largely focused on access to higher education. The advent of the internet, and wide spread popularity of the web, both deliberately ‘open’ systems, changed this.

Here are the projects or related bits of work I listed:

  • Open source teaching project – towards the end of the 90s my colleague John Naughton got a few of us together to explore the idea of adapting the open source model of code development to education. We didn’t really persevere with this, which is a shame as others such as David Wiley and Stephen Downes were independently coming to some of the same conclusions. Here the open, online aspect of the internet began to touch upon how we created courses.
  • T171 – I chaired the OU’s first major online course in 1999, which I’ve mentioned on here several times. The key here was that by creating a purely online course, which was hugely successful (around 15K students per year), we demonstrated that the traditional supported open learning model of the OU could be transferred online and at scale. Large scale online learning, who ever thought that’d be a thing, eh?
  • VLE – around 2004 I became the OU’s first VLE director, at a time when we had a collection of 3rd party, in house, and sometimes cottage industry systems across the university. I proposed a service oriented architecture, and Ross Mackenzie who superseded me led the adoption of Moodle. Here we have an open source platform providing an enterprise system to around 200K students.
  • OpenLearn – I was part of the team that won a grant from Hewlett in 2006 to develop OpenLearn. This was our foray into OER, and has since gone on to be very successful, with around 8M visitors a year. Openness here is providing the OU with a new way to realise its public education mission.
  • OEP – around 2006 I started blogging and later using social media. Here the interest turns away from institutional systems to individual practice, and how open education can change the manner in which educators operate.
  • MOOCs – through blogging I met people like George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and experimented in some early MOOC output. In 2012 Martin Bean launched FutureLearn, and we have also developed Badged Open Courses on OpenLearn.
  • OER research – in 2012 we got a grant from Hewlett to set up the OER Hub and research into the hypotheses around OER benefits. As part of this we developed an evidence hub (under an open source licence) which has gone on to be used in other projects. I also made the point about researching in the open.
  • Open Access – I’m co-editor of the Open Access journal JIME, which is operated by Ubiquity Press, and through a small grant from the OU we cover the APCs so it’s free to publish. I’ve also published two (soon to be three I hope) open access books, and since around 2009 I made a vow to only publish open access.
  • Open Textbooks – we have just completed a project examining the potential for open textbooks in the UK. I made the point that open textbooks are a very OU thing and something we have the experience, expertise, systems and reputation to be leading on (but aren’t currently).
  • Open pedagogy – we have only really touched upon this in the OU, but there is room for development.

The conclusion to all this was that it turns out ‘The Open University’ is a really good name, and still current. Much of the interesting and innovative activity in higher ed happens around the concept of openness. My pitch was that the OU should focus on innovating in this area, and that it has a good story to tell. There is a strong narrative of change and adaptation in the list above, and yet last year when we were going through some of our ‘tough times’ there was often the public perception that the OU needs to ‘get digital’. The closing point I made was that the story we tell about ourselves isn’t a luxury, and the OU needs to get better at telling the type of story set out above.

You can see the lecture here:


  • Frances Bell

    Hi Martin.
    I listened to your inagural and really enjoyed it so thanks for making it avaailable online and blogging it afterwards. I’m wondering if I missed a bit because the first bullet point jumped out at me when I read your post now.
    I winced a bit when I read about “the idea of adapting the open source model of code development to education”.
    Why did I wince? Look at/listen to this podcast What if Women Built the Internet? https://irlpodcast.org/season4/episode7/
    Here’s a quote “Firefox is open source and driven by a community of volunteers and contributors. However, in the past decade, representation of women in open source has inched up merely 1.5 percentage points to a shockingly low 3%. Read about the importance of — and efforts to realize — open source gender inclusion.”
    We are thinking about and working on this stuff at femedtech 🙂

    • mweller

      Hi Frances,
      thanks for the link, I haven’t listened to that. I have followed some of the blatant misogyny in OS communities, particularly relating to some of that movements ‘heroes’. I deliberately didn’t reference them, the point was more that the OU course model production was analogous to conventional, proprietary software production. In the 90s it was a revelation that an alternative model, based on community and distributed could produce high quality end product. So if it worked in software, could this general model be applied to course design? I still think that’s an interesting question. I don’t feel (but maybe I’m wrong) that there is anything inherent in the distributed, community model that is misogynistic. I was also cramming a lot in so didn’t really have time to go in to the politics of OS, it was more as a metaphor, but I understand why it may have caused a wince.

  • Frances Bell

    Thanks for replying. I listened to the podcast and it’s very thought-provoking. As to whether “there is anything inherent in the distributed, community model that is misogynistic” I can’t comprehensively answer that. But what has worried me for many years is that existing structural inequalities like race and gender seem to be reinforced on steroids in tech environments. And the figure from OS projects is shocking. I have found that reading Programmed Inequality by Mar Hicks see https://podtail.com/podcast/the-women-in-tech-show/programmed-inequality-with-mar-hicks/ and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly (also on film).

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