An alternative perspective on the meaning of ‘open’ in Higher Education

With the rise of MOOCs there has been much speculation about the meaning of ‘open’, particularly with respect to the Higher Education business model.  It is clear that ‘open’ can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

In relation to MOOCs the term ‘open’ relates principally to open access, i.e. anyone can attend – there are no entry requirements. This could apply to face-to-face courses, as when University lecturers welcome members of the public to attend their lectures, and to online courses, where anyone with an internet connection and the appropriate technology can attend the course.

‘Open’ is also often associated with ‘free’, as in open resources on the web which can be freely downloaded and according to the creative commons license can be ‘customised’ to suit the user’s purposes.

Perhaps most significantly for Higher Education, ‘open’ can be associated with transparency, which involves a way of ‘being’ or a ‘state of mind’. Martin Weller has raised awareness of the need for scholars to be ‘open’ in his book ‘The Digital Scholar’,  and ‘open research’ and ‘open journals’ are steadily gaining momentum as a way of working.

Open access and free courses in which all learners and teachers freely share their expertise is thought by followers of many MOOCs, particularly the original cMOOCs, as the means to democratize education (See Fred Garnett’s blog post for further thoughts about Building Democratic Learning).

Will this mean the end of Universities as we know them? From the work that I do with different Universities, not just in the UK, but also around the world, I don’t think so, at least not yet. Some institutions are still struggling to get lecturers to work online at all, never mind be ‘open’ online. It may be that we have to wait for this generation of lecturers to retire before we have an entire population of University lecturers who are ‘open’ scholars. Although technologies are developing at a speed inconceivable a few years ago, and the number of MOOCs being offered is daily increasing, things tend to move slowly in Higher Education.  The recent Horizon Report on Higher Education sees openness and MOOCs as key trends, whilst at the same time stating that ‘Most academics are not using new technologies for learning and teaching, nor for organizing their own research’.

So, if the adoption of ‘openness’ is going to be a slow process, what are the alternatives? In recent work that I have done on the development of  ‘closed’ online courses/training packages, which are paid for, it has been interesting to realize that maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open. It’s a long step away from ‘open’ as advocated by the first MOOC in 2008 (CCK08), but it’s a beginning.  This approach also keeps the money coming in, as exemplified by the following two projects I have worked on:

  1. A government funded project to develop training materials to be delivered to schools across the country. This project used the funding to bring together 7 regional groups to collaboratively work on developing the training materials, which to date have been delivered to 9700+ people. At their most basic level these training sessions and materials are free, but schools pay for more advanced training and materials.  This project not only developed high quality training materials, and in monetary terms provided a return on investment, but through adopting a collaborative approach, developed an online network/community which would continue to share expertise.
  2. A project initiated by a publishing company to develop online courses for Higher Education, through a highly collaborative international and cross institutional approach. Purchase of the courses is required up front in return for the opportunity to influence the authoring and development process, the possibility of customizing the courses to suit the individual investing institution and implementation support from the publishing company. This collaborative approach also promotes networking and open sharing between institutions within countries and across the world.

These are just two examples of how apparently ‘closed’ developments within Higher Education are becoming more open.

So perhaps institutions that are struggling to get their heads round how to become more ‘open’ whilst at the same time preserving a viable business model, could think more in terms of increasing national and international collaboration and cooperation.

19-04-13 Postscript

Stephen Downes has responded to this post as follows:

Jenny Mackness proposes, “maybe a ‘step’ towards an understanding of the meaning of openness is through collaboration across institutions and countries. Whilst this does not address ‘open’ as in ‘free’ nor ‘open access’, it does begin to address ‘open sharing’ and what it means to ‘be’ open.” I don’t know. I’ve observed collaborations across institutions for decades, without a corresponding increase in openness. It could be that such collaborations (and the fund-seeking that preceeds them) actually distracts from openness.

I have to say that ‘I don’t know’ either – or whether such collaborations might distract from openness.

My thinking in making this post was around the question of how to reach or convince people who resist ‘openness’ of the value of and need for ‘openness’, and what a possible approach to the business model issues might be.

24 thoughts on “An alternative perspective on the meaning of ‘open’ in Higher Education

  1. pindham April 17, 2013 / 9:12 pm

    Jenny, thanks for this insight. I too often am blinded by the huge steps taken by cMOOCs and become impatient with those schools who don’t see the light as soon as I want. But schools are learners, too, and all learners have to start from where they are, usually with little steps, especially if we are trying to teach them to walk a new way.

  2. Lucas April 18, 2013 / 9:50 am

    Yesterday I attended a VC about Multi Campus Education. I’m discovering here the same thought.: working together is the issue. But I confirm: “It may be that we have to wait for this generation of lecturers to retire before we have an entire population of University lecturers who are ‘open’ scholars. “

  3. Phil Tubman (@philtubman) April 19, 2013 / 4:40 pm

    Hi Jenny, I’ve been thinking about what open means in education, and how this relates to ‘open source’ in the software development communities.

    So my question is: is it possible to have an open source course?
    What would one look like?

    Well open source software is basically code that is free to access, download, change and improve. Moodle is a great example of a community of users working together in a free and open way to develop things that are useful to them, but then ‘contributed’ back to the community for inclusion into the core code of the future, or a potential ‘fork’ of the software for a specific purpose.

    So how does open source software get developed? What is the ‘version control’? This is the cool bit. The code is available for free, and is downloaded by users to modify. Any user can modify the content and suggest a ‘commit’ to the code for its continual improvement. If different users suggest the same commit, then the open source version control system (github) will know this and make the development controllable.

    But how does this map onto courses, or MOOCs? honestly I’m not sure, but I think we need to have open research so content is not behind paywalls, and courses need to be packaged in some way that the content can be downloaded for free and re-used in the same or slightly modified format.

    Is the the same as JORUM?
    No, because JORUM is for specific learning objects. there is no narrative/ context to the object, and no way to commit changes or modifications back into the system.

    I think we need a system like github, where whole courses are distributed for free with open access to all content, and all the ‘forks’ are visualised and described for new users.

    Crucially, for an open course, we need to give it away for others to use, and be happy that they are using your content to potentially offer a new service (an online college). Thats how value gets added to open source software (through innovation and empowering normal people to use the software to further their own (communities).)

    Would be interested to see how you thnk this relates to your concept fo open collaboration in HE


  4. jennymackness April 19, 2013 / 9:29 pm

    Hi Phil – great to be in contact again and thanks for your comments and questions. Since we have worked together in the past, you will know that I am sometimes (if not always!) technically challenged ☺ – which of course is why it is great for me to work with people like you. So the ‘open source’ movement is not something I have been heavily involved with – but I think the question you have raised is a very interesting one.

    I interpret your question as being whether we can lift a whole MOOC from one institution and use it in, or customize it for another institution. Have I understood this correctly?

    In terms of the technology, I really don’t know. Hopefully someone else will chip in here.

    But I am wondering whether you are thinking in terms of xMOOCs rather than cMOOCs. A principle of cMOOCs is that they work on distributed platforms – and these platforms can be, but are not necessarily, open source. Another principle of cMOOCs is that the resources within the MOOC are ‘open’ in the sense that they can be downloaded, re-used, re-purposed. So I have seen people lift pages/resources from one MOOC and put them in another with the appropriate attribution – which makes sense. Why reinvent the wheel?

    So – yes – my understanding of the meaning of open collaboration in HE would include the possibility of using courses/resources from other institutions. But my experience is that academics probably won’t be keen to do this, mainly because academics need to feel ownership over their own teaching materials. It’s not that academics can’t or won’t use open education resources, but that teaching involves developing a special relationship between teacher and learner, which is in part related to the way in which the teacher uses and interprets the learning materials/resources. I remember that when MIT opened access to their teaching resources, they said that what the learner really needed was not the resources, but the expertise of their teachers– so people would always need MIT, not just their resources (or words to that effect).

    So I suppose what I am saying is that you can give away the entire course – but you can’t give away the expertise that is individual to the teacher. For example, I can’t imagine that the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) MOOC would have been as successful without Prof Al Filreis.

    My interest in ‘open’ is not so much in ‘open source’ or in OER – although I recognize the importance of both – but in the openness of individual teachers and learners and how this relates to their identity. In other words the step between making the resources/course/materials openly accessible and the individual academic acting/working in an open way.

    Does this in any way answer your questions Phil? Please get back to me if I haven’t understood you.

    Thanks for your comments and questions and making me think! Jenny

  5. keith.hamon April 19, 2013 / 10:28 pm

    I particularly appreciate Phil’s comments. I think cMOOCs are analogous to open source projects in several ways. The MOOC concept itself is somewhat like the Linux operating system: it has been shared on the open Internet with no restrictions by its creators (unfortunately, Siemens and Downes do not receive the same measure of credit that Torvalds received, as many in the popular press appear to believe that MOOCs began with Stanford and Harvard, but …). Any and all are free to access, download, change and improve, as Phil says, the MOOC platform.

    Individual cMOOCs (Couros’ recent etmooc, for example) seem analogous to open applications created to run within Linux, and again, others are free to access, download, change and improve from that specific MOOC.

    Moreover, a community is developing to teach people how to do their own MOOCs (see here and here, and here, for example).

    As with Linux, some are finding ways to commercialize the open MOOC platform. This should not be surprising.

    What MOOCs do not have is an open source version control system, a github> that helps systematically manage changes to the platform. I’m not sure that MOOCs would benefit from such a system. It seems to me that the MOOC community is doing a fine job as it is of sharing useful innovations of the platform.

  6. jennymackness April 20, 2013 / 7:24 am

    Many thanks Keith for chipping in and for the links you have posted. Very helpful 🙂

  7. keith.hamon April 20, 2013 / 4:12 pm

    Curiously enough, just hours after I posted the above comment, I saw this announcement for Ignatia/Inge de Waard’s new eBook entitled MOOC Yourself.

  8. Phil Tubman (@philtubman) April 22, 2013 / 11:10 am

    @jenny @keith I’m finding it hard to express what I mean here – perhaps I mean several related things rather than one idea. You have certainly picked up on some of what I’m trying to say…

    After writing the post I started thinking about what drives the open source movement, other than the free access to the source code, and I think it is the process of value creation that keeps things moving. People are free to use OS software to create businesses and this leads to further development and ‘forking’, all of which is embraced. I don’t want to reduce this to teaching resources (or the ‘content’ part of xMOOCs) although I can imagine a virtual play-(class)-room-(VLE)-(github) where teachers can mashup and share resources.

    I think the important thing is about the free-by-default approach taken by the programmers and the fact that all changes are embraced, which means that people are free to add their own value at any ‘fork’. And this means its the LOCAL context that drives value creation. That means that it is not institutions sharing courses (or resources) with each other (as we’ve seen a lot of in FE), but any individual in the world being empowered to customise some knowledge to the local context and use it to create a positive change through education.

    But I said I don’t want to reduce this down to resources only, which conceivably can be traded in my way; as you rightly point out it is the personal relationship between tutor and student that of value in most pedagogic situations. I think this is where the academic acting in an open way (for example keeping a blog) can bridge the gap between ‘resources’ and ‘p2p’ contact in online teaching. Its about putting YOURSELF on the web in a way that can relate to the open resources to mashup into a open source course that is free to give value at point of delivery.

    Perhaps that makes it clearer (as mud) but there you go. I’ll have a go at refining my ideas at some point I’m sure.

    As an aside, I think the HE sector should see dissemination of resources (whether its video lectures, or open access to research) as a social responsibility which ‘seeds’ the content of open source mashup (x)MOOCs. In the virtual world this cements reputation, although it looks at first glance like giving your value away (thats the open source paradox) 🙂

  9. Phil Tubman (@philtubman) April 22, 2013 / 1:32 pm

    OK, apologies for hiijacking your blog Jenny, but here’s another go…

    1. Learning is facilitated by a series of transactions
    2. Online courses are facilitated by series’ of transactions (p2p, tutor to student, student to resources)
    3. Online transactions are by definition digital assets
    4. These transactions in a MOOC are by definition open

    If each transaction had its own ID that connected it to any larger system (they may just be a blog with a hashtag, or a discussion on a forum), then aggregation and sharing of all content (not just the ‘resources in xMOOCs) becomes more possible.
    ie it is not possible NOW (without manual copy/paste) to take these out of one context and put them in another. ocTEL has a ‘reader’ app which cleverly aggregates the content starred by the user, but does not facilitate the sharing.

    So my question then becomes:
    Can you imagine giving a unique ID for each ‘transaction’, (which is also a digital asset in online/ MOOC education), and relating that ID back to a larger system which can aggregate and mashup these IDs into courses in the same way as github does for OSS?

    Is this totally crazy?

  10. jennymackness April 22, 2013 / 3:40 pm

    Hi Phil – thanks for these fascinating comments which are very relevant to me as Oxford Brookes University has just asked me to do a presentation/run a live session on ‘open academic practice’ for their FSLT13 MOOC – so all this is very much on my mind.

    In your first comment you have written:

    >Its about putting YOURSELF on the web in a way that can relate to the open resources to mashup into a open source course that is free to give value at point of delivery.<

    My recent thinking has been to try and disentangle the 'what you do' in the name of 'open' from 'who you are' in the name of 'open'. My interest in open academic practice is much more in relation to identity issues than it is to technology issues – so I would see the technology as being necessary, but not sufficient for openness. David Wiley addresses this in part in his TEDx talk – and Carmen Tschofen and I tried to address this in our paper Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience – David Wiley also says in his talk that you can share your knowledge/expertise without giving it away, which is interesting and might help to placate those who are sceptical about open sharing.

    But whereas I am interested in 'the step before the transaction', if I have understood you correctly, you are interested in how to make transactions even more open than they currently are, so that, for example, everything that is shared in a MOOC can be easily accessed, aggregated, remixed and repurposed. Is that what you mean by a unique ID for each transaction?

    Perhaps Keith can comment here.

    Thanks for hijacking my blog 🙂

  11. Phil Tubman (@philtubman) April 22, 2013 / 4:35 pm

    @keith for UK Readers here is the Amazon link to the ‘MOOC yourself’ eBook on

  12. keith.hamon April 23, 2013 / 2:43 am

    Thanks for the invitation, Jenny.

    I think Phil has a most useful insight into online education. The ability to capture transactions has great practical implications for open education, and for closed, because one of the keys to harnessing the collective wisdom of crowds, as Surowiecki has popularly shown, is being able to aggregate the independent decisions of the crowd. Each click, tweet, post, and text is a decision, and those who can aggregate those digital assets and label them in useful ways can know things that even the participants will not know about themselves and their discussions. There will be those who will want to own and commercialize the ability to aggregate and analyze digital assets, much as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others are doing now, but I think that in the near future, the technical means for aggregating and analyzing digital assets will be available to most anyone who wants it. Moreover, I think the next iteration of the Internet will generate the meta-data about transactions that make aggregation and analysis much more effective. This ability, of course, puts us in the realm of big data, but soon the cost of storing and analyzing terabytes of data will be available to most anyone. The key issue is to preserve an Internet where access to the digital assets are available to all. Currently, strong commercial and governmental groups, including universities, have a vested interest in controlling who can access those digital assets and what they can do with them. This is not likely to be a fair or pretty fight.

    But for me in this conversation, it’s important to remember that aggregating digital assets is key to understanding online communities and that it can lead to great knowledge and power. However, it does not necessarily lead to open education. It could as easily lead to closed education as vested groups try to own the digital assets, not unlike the way some are trying to own genes.

    And this brings me to Jenny’s point about identity issues. We like to think that we create our own identity, both real and virtual, and that we are largely in control of that identity, but I think that big data is showing that we are not in as much control as we think. With their constant collection of our every click, Google, Facebook, and Amazon know many things about us that we do not know about ourselves. They have the ability to watch how we behave on very different time, space, and virtual scales than we can manage, and they can usefully (mostly commercial) measure us against other scales and populations that we are not even aware of. Just now, much of that data is not available to us. Through much learning analytics, schools are aggregating data and learning things about us that we don’t know. I want access to that big data about myself. I want to know me as well as Google, my government, or my school does.

    This may sound alarmist, but I don’t intend it to be so. We should be sober, however. Big data is here and will only grow; thus, it must be open, not closed. Big data must be part of the commons. Open, it holds the promise of incredible knowledge, ubiquitously distributed. Closed, it holds the threat of tyranny.

    For me, openness in the Internet age hinges on access to digital artifacts and to the technical means and knowledge to understand those artifacts. We can start with hashtags and blog posts, but we have to move far beyond those crude markers. Google already has.

    This isn’t exactly where I meant to end when I started, but here I am.

  13. jennymackness April 23, 2013 / 6:32 am

    That’s a great response Keith and addresses Phil’s concerns much more closely than I have been able to. It is interesting that you think, if I have understood you correctly, that we can only really know ourselves if we have access to the big data about ourselves. I will really have to think about that. I’m immediately wondering about the parts of my identity that are not marked by clicks, tweets and posts. Many thanks for your comments.

  14. Phil Tubman (@philtubman) April 23, 2013 / 12:24 pm

    thank you for your insightful comments Keith. You have articulated this in a much better way that me, but essentially i agree with everything, especially the underlying requirement to keep things open. I often say that if the original internet protocol was not made open, we would have an ‘apple web’ and a ‘MS web’ and a ‘Amazon web’. To some extent this looks like it may be happening with mobile technology, but I think the Android (open source) movement will rescue this from its closed source trajectory into an Apple web.

    The race is on for big data however, and this includes our learning analytics. Perhaps this will be opened up to the average user sometime soon.
    Thanks both for helping me articulate my ideas!

  15. keith.hamon April 23, 2013 / 3:22 pm

    Thanks for the wonderful conversation, guys.

    Jenny, I need to correct the implication that I think “we can only really know ourselves if we have access to the big data about ourselves.” This is not quite what I meant to say. Big data is not the only way to know ourselves, probably not even the best way—we’ve been knowing ourselves in various ways for millennia—rather, big data is a way of expanding what we can know about ourselves. It is a technology that helps us to see more, more clearly. In this sense, it is like our telescopes and microscopes that allow us to look at Reality on very different scales (the very large and long to the very small and brief) than our eyeballs in their day-to-day reality can afford us. Understanding this data from these different scales (learning that the Earth circles the Sun, that we are not the privileged center of God’s Universe) profoundly changes our images of ourselves.

    And of course, digital assets are not the only data we humans generate and leave behind. Until the mid-twentieth century, we left mostly analog assets: a footprint on an ancient shore, a pyramid, a folio of sonnets. Watch a TV crime show to get a heightened sense of the kinds of forensics that we have developed to collect the analog artifacts (hair, DNA, etc.) left behind at a crime scene. We are getting better at aggregating and analyzing even analog data.

    Now, however, we are increasingly creating and leaving digital assets. These digital assets afford views of ourselves that we did not have before—both more granular and more global views of any digitized slice of Reality. Consider this TED talk by MIT researcher Deb Roy, who “wired up his house with videocameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son’s life, then parsed 90,000 hours of home video to watch “gaaaa” slowly turn into “water.” Astonishing, data-rich research with deep implications for how we learn.” 90,000 hours of home video is really BIG data, the kind of data that we simply could not get before. Mr. Roy knew his son before he aggregated all this data, but now he knows him more—perhaps better. He also knows something about how babies develop language that was available before only to those with a highly sensitive, well-trained intuition about such things.

    Maybe this is what I want to say: digital assets make more of Reality explicit to more of us. This more of Reality carries with it power, and when that power is unevenly distributed—available to some and not others—then it creates unfortunate power structures in the world—at least, I think they are unfortunate. Google, Apple, and Government likely see the uneven distribution of knowledge as a fortunate, useful opportunity.

    I think, though, that access to digital assets has implications more profound than power structures. The presence of this expanded knowledge domain not only sharpens and expands our images of ourselves, it also changes our images of ourselves. We become different people in front of a mirror, and with our digital technologies, we are creating a Universe of mirrors through which we echo and morph.

    Well, I’ve slipped into science fiction. I really don’t know how the presence of all this Big Data, this unrelenting mirror, will change us, but I’m confident that it will.

    Thanks again for the wonderful chat. We’ve created some fine artifacts here.

  16. jennymackness April 23, 2013 / 5:59 pm

    Hi Keith – many thanks for clarifying that – it all makes sense to me, even though the management of ‘big data’ would need to be made really simple and intuitive for someone like me to be able to use it.

    Thanks also for the link to Deb Roy’s Ted Talk. I think what he has to do now is to further unpick the meaning of the data that he has gathered, particularly in relation to the long-term effects that this might have on his son’s identity and how his son perceives/understands/learns about himself – which would be an ongoing longitudinal study and of course in the meantime the technology would have moved on.

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks so much for sharing – and to you too Phil for ‘opening up’ this conversation.

  17. keith.hamon April 23, 2013 / 8:12 pm

    Jenny, Big Data is already becoming “really simple and intuitive”. You likely know that Google has digitized millions of books. They’ve also built and shared a little tool called Ngram Viewer to explore those billions of words. Basically, Ngram tracks the occurrence of words or phrases from 1800 to now in all those books.

    For instance, I used Ngram to decide which was the bigger rock group: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. The Beatles won handily, so now I can win beer arguments with those unenlightened souls who favor the Stones. I remembered, however, that John Lennon had said that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, so I added Jesus to the mix. It was Jesus by a landslide. At no time did the literature ever mention The Beatles more than Jesus. Not even close.

    On a more serious note, I just looked for the phrase “open education” from this post, and found that it had no use until 1970, peaked about 1975, and has been declining since. If I’m doing research on open education, then that might be of interest.

    This example is almost trivial, except that it points out that big data can be made accessible to all (you can download at least some of Google’s data for your own experiments) and tools can be created that are useful to all. Enjoy.

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