Thursday, February 13, 2014

The OU Did Not Invent MOOCs

Responding to Fred Bershears, who writes:

Here are some quotes from Berkeley professor David L. Kirp on the British Open University. They were offering MOOCs long before the term was coined in the US. But for this university, it's not a sideline - it's their core competency.

Since they typically charge students to take their courses, I guess you'd have to say that they aren't "open" courses. However, they have started to make some of their course materials available through their open learn website at:

I would say that charging tuition fees for online learning automatically disqualifies them from saying they were offering MOOCs. When the materials - and all the discussion, community, etc., are behind a paywall, the course loses most of the affordances found in actual open online learning.

In particular, what closed courses fail to enable is the distribution of content and interactions across a network of locations (as opposed to centralizing all on a single location). This has an impact on the cost and ease of scaling the course (since the OU needs to pile on resources as the course gets larger) as well as on the autonomy and freedom to interact (or, often, freedom from unwanted interaction) for members of the course.

And, significantly, they don't use open educational resources. That's why we see, eg., "The Pacific Studies course… cost $2.5 million, and other courses have cost as much as a million dollars more." In the MOOCs we developed originally, the bulk of the material was openly licensed, or at the very least, openly accessible, which we linked to and encouraged discussion around (having a distributed course means never having to combine materials into one single site or course package). Even counting staff time, our development costs were a few hundred dollars, not millions.

So it's simply incorrect to say that the Open University was offering MOOCs long before the term was coined. Certainly massive courses were offered before MOOCs. Even massive open online courses - I have described in the past examples of massive email courses offered in the 1990s. But the idea of a course developed to operate over a network of distributed sites and services, a course that scales by expanding to more sites, rather than by making one site bigger, a course that makes use of OERs more so than simply making them - that's what became new with MOOCs.

I am not denying the importance and the influence of the Open University. It is there and obvious for all to see. I am also supportive and encouraging of their attempts to increase access to learning and learning materials through the OpenLearn and FuitureLearn projects. There is no question that OU has continued to innovate. But they did not create MOOCs, and they have only recently begun to offer limited types of MOOCs.