So what does “open” mean in terms of MOOCs?

I started out struggling to define (understand) the difference between the MOOCs I had participated in with George Siemens and Stephen Downes, with the different ones that David Wiley had offered and with the new model(s) promoted by Stanford and other leading educational institutions in the United States. I began by thinking I understood the difference between “open” and “free” courses and course materials.

“Free” courses were sometimes teasers to encourage you to enroll for a course. Free learning content was available through the Internet and involved a range of media. In many instances, free courses were all about promoting a school or promoting a particular person or even a company’s product line. “Free” usually meant non-academic and not recognized by workplaces or other schools. “Free courses” were traditionally structured and involved reading, watching videos or listening to podcasts. You might complete simple online quizzes but, in general, learning was one-way, linear and consumerist.

“Open” was all about access, remixing, sharing and being part of a worldwide learning community linked together through access to the Internet. “Open educational resources” were an improvement on “learning objects” that were usually confined to membership-constrained access. OERs were not only about providing access to good quality, free, learning materials that a learner could learn from but also that a teacher could use to enhance their teaching. “Open” meant free of cost and easily accessible through the Web. After the initial excitement, criticisms were leveled at the narrowness of access (i.e., required access to computers and connectivity) and to relatively high costs borne by philanthropic foundations and educational institutions to organize and support the range of course resources.  However, the availability of OERs was not entirely altruistic (what is?); OERs carried the brand of western educational leaders around the world and imposed ideas about knowledge, value and ways of learning on those who took advantage of the “open” materials.

OpenCourseWare” were freely available course materials and resources (MIT offered the first really comprehensive group of online, open course materials – thanks in great part to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation – and copyrighted the term) that allowed you to learn on your own, or, if you were an instructor, to potentially build a course to offer in your own context. Courseware was usually limited to a syllabus, copies of course assignments, lists of readings (sometime with electronic access available) and recordings of class lectures (often painful to watch!)

One type of “open courses” were those that were accessible to anyone who could pay the fee and participate online at specific times (e.g. vendor training) Sometimes “open courses” were freely accessible lecture videos from a course taught by a professor at a high profile educational institution (e.g, iTunesU, Youtube Edu)  Other “open courses” were free and accessible at any time and were supported on an open, online platform (eg. OpenLearn from the Open University in the U.K. and Connexions from Rice University in the United States) offered more than online resources; they provided an entire learning/teaching environment. As a student you could read course content, carry out online course activities, watch videos, etc. at no cost and without waiting for a particular start date or registration period. You could participate in learning in an open fashion – without direct contact with an instructor and without official credits at the institution. Some support was available as you could conduct discussions with other students online or post problems into a troubleshooting forum. The interesting aspect of these “open courses” is the open education model promoted a community of teachers who developed courses online, working with experts or other teachers from around the world, developing content that could be accessed through the online platform. A true open educational community.

David Wiley offered the first “massive” open online course at Utah State University in 2007 (see OpenContent wiki). He developed an online course for graduate students and decided to invite others to join without charge (but without the possibility of receiving credit). I was one of the group of 50 students from around the world that participated. It was an amazing experience but didn’t involve some of the connected learning activities that George Siemens and Stephen Downes experimented with the following year.

In 2008, George Siemens and Stephen Downes decided to work together to explore the possibilities of using the affordances of the Internet and Web2.0 and then social media to offer a widely open course that allowed students to express their learning and to share with others, developing their own personal learning networks.  Interest was surprisingly strong and the first offerings began to be known as a “MOOC” (massive open online course – coined by Dave Cormier).  A variety of others MOOCs followed but the focus of this first offering was to encourage students to:

  • participate
  • connect with others
  • collaborate
  • engage fully in the learning

MOOCs were supposed to be free, open, online and participatory; learning was to take place on the Internet in places where other people had free access to what each student was reading, reflecting on and have the ability to comment, interact, suggest, criticize, etc.  Although these kinds of MOOCs had a start and an end date, there were no formal assignments or online quizzes – students expressed their learning creatively or in intense, varied, distributed discussions with course facilitators and other students. The idea of openness meant that all work would be shared between all participants – no hiding anything in the walled garden of a learning or content management system.

Then some of the professors at Stanford decided to ramp it up. They promoted the openness of a new type of course; the headliner was the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence taught by Sebastion Thrun and Peter Norvig. With the support of Stanford, the professors worked all summer to produce videos specifically for the scheduled MOOC offering. They developed weekly quizzes to test knowledge but still be machine markable. They were also committed to maintaining contact with the class as it moved through the term. The sophistication of the online interactive platform kickstarted a firestorm of interest in MOOCs, although the characteristics of the Stanford MOOC did not include the critical differences of Siemen’s connectivist model.

In rapid succession during the following year, MIT launched free open courses through their MITx platform (that became edX as Harvard became a founding partner). Professor Thrun from Stanford left to form a new educational startup called Udacity. Two computer profs from Stanford formed another company (backed by Stanford) called Coursera.

These new MOOCs bear little resemblance to the open, participatory, personalized and networked learning model that George Siemens and Stephen Downes developed. The new MOOCs provide far greater access to great teachers and thought-provoking course topics and content. They provide higher education with an amazing corncupia of data to research how people learn online. They provide good press and promote recognition of different educational branding. And they provide an amazing learning opportunity for those who can practice the self-discipline and have the basic access to technology and learning skills to succeed. What is uncertain is what effect they will have on the stability of the higher education sector and what that will mean to access to more personalized and personal learning from actual interaction with teachers in the future. Not everyone can learn using this model; not all subjects can be effectively taught in a MOOC. No one has had a chance to measure the quality of learning, the retention of knowledge, the level of understanding. What is certain is that they have called into question the extremely high fees paid by students attending the brick-and-mortar campuses.


About Cloudsyl

Now a mid-Island observer of the Cloud
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