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.


  1. Oh dear, we've gone from not being mentioned at all in the history of MOOCs to be overly attributed. You're right what we offer aren't MOOCs - I ran an online course with 15K students in 1999, so it was (kinda) massive, online and a course, but not open. It was open _entry_ which is one of the opens that has been forgotten in the rush to equate open with 'zero cost'. In fact they can't be because our supported open learning model places human tutors as a vital component in helping distance educators succeed. These people need paying and are by far the biggest cost.
    I don't think I agree with your point that we "fail to enable is the distribution of content and interactions across a network of locations (as opposed to centralizing all on a single location)."
    What do you mean by centralizing on a single location? Do you mean geographically or in terms of a network node? Both interpretations are incorrect - the SOL approach scale both as a network and geographically. But you are right that there is a central core of course content, which has been designed to be studied at a distance.
    Also "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" - the tutor costs are variable in that you need more tutors as you get more students, but we don't really need to "pile on" more resources apart from that. So in theory (assuming you can get enough tutors) it's as scaleable as MOOCs.

  2. For the record, I have never ignored the OU in my own work, and have always been clear about their role in the history of online and distance learning.

    But the main point is this: what you offer are not MOOCs. So you are agreeing with me.

    Again, on the meaning of 'open', I have again not forgotten in my own work the meaning of 'open' as 'open admissions'. You can find quite a number of my papers where this is clearly stated. So it's not me 'forgetting' this.

    You state, "our supported open learning model places human tutors as a vital component in helping distance educators succeed." So does ours. The difference is, your model requires that these people be vetted, hired and paid for by a central administrative source. Ours doesn't; it depends on self-organizing networks of participants.

    You ask, "What do you mean by centralizing on a single location?" Then you set up a straw man. Then you state "you are right that there is a central core of course content, which has been designed to be studied at a distance." That's what I mean by "centralizing on a single location."

    Similarly, with scaling. Sure, if you don't count increased tutoring and content hosting costs, then OU courses scale without cost. But the difference is that MOOCs scale even if you count such costs. "We don't really need to "pile on" more resources apart from that." But you *still* need to pile on resources!!

    So, "oh dear", once again something I've written has been misread and misrepresented by a commenter.

  3. Erm, you've completely misinterpreted my comments as a personal attack Stephen. My 'oh dear' was aimed at the way the media have ignored the OU and then attributed too much to us. Not you. I didn't set up a straw man, I asked for clarification which you have now given.
    I was having a conversation here, it's a shame you've chosen to interpret it this way.

  4. And for the record, I was agreeing with you - I meant the media have ignored the OU and then attributed too much to us, not you. And I wasn't setting up a straw man, I was asking for clarification so I could understand your point. That's called conversation.

  5. I'm not sure that it's correct to say that the UK OU doesn't use ANY open educational resources. Of course, that depends on how you want to define OER. They certainly do use the Moodle learning management system, which constitutes a OER IMO. And, I strongly suspect that at least on some occasions they do use open educational resources as well.

    But the above is just a semantic debate. However, I enjoy semantic debates. So, in fun I guess one could argue that since the Open University came into existence long before the MOOC acronym, and since they meant "Open" to mean open access (in the same sense that many community colleges have an open access policy), then using second "O" in MOOC to mean "free" is incorrect! So, in jest, I could argue: The British Open University owns the word "open" and therefore they and they alone get to decide what it means.

    Aside from the semantic kidding around, I do agree with you Stephan: The UK OU certainly does spend a lot of money on their courses, and they do charge for their courses. One reason they do charge for their courses is that their students are entitled to access rival resources (e.g. human tutors and physical learning centers) that cannot be replicated at virtually no cost. Another reason for charging is that they spend around 40% of their budget on content development and maintenance. Could they reduce the amount of money they spend on content development and maintenance by making better use of OER? IMO, yes. Are they heading in this direction? Once again, IMO, yes.

    There are two big questions here:

    First, could they and would they be willing to release ALL of their content under some creative commons license if they were funded by one or more government bodies either in the UK or elsewhere - once again, IMO, yes.

    (I have no idea what they think about the alternatives: CC-BY, CC-BY-SA, CC-BY-NC-SA, etc)

    Second, should government grant programs (e.g. the TAACCT fund the development and maintenance of content at an institution such as the UK OU - one where content development is their core competency? Or, should they spread the funding around to tens, hundreds, thousands of schools. IMO, the answer to this question depends on whether you're taking about the "big bulge" of higher education, or the long tail.

    Big bulge courses are the ones that are near and dear to the heart of the commercial textbook industry. They have very large enrollments and are often taught in very large lecture halls. IMO, the government should fund an institution similar to the UK OU to develop content for the big bulge courses. Other schools could treat these courses like online textbooks and internally finance customization of the content.
    I describe how they could do so in my blog post:

    Persuading Faculty to Select Open Textbooks

    When it comes to funding the development of content for the long tail of higher education (i.e. everything other than an big bulge course), then I think the government should spread the funding around.

    Finally, I think many faculty will continue to author commercial textbooks, and offer them up for sale. Many, however, will also set up MOOCs to help drive the sales of their commercial textbooks. They may or may not require students to buy the commercial textbook. (I certainly prefer the latter.) This is yet another way to fund both the big bulge and the long tail of higher education. My guess is that we will see a lot more of this, regardless of what the US or the UK governments do.

  6. Hmmm...OU "Owns" the word open, like Blackboard "owns" the concept of learning management systems.

    I still think the definitive distinction between MOOCs and other forms of online, open(variously defined), massive courses is captured in the expression related to xMOOC and cMOOCs -- "In an xMOOC you watch a video, in a cMOOC you create a video".

  7. Hi Martin - it was not clear at all that you were referring to the media in general in your comment, and given the context I think it is reasonable to assume that it referenced, at least in part, my own coverage of the OU. And to the degree that it referenced my coverage at all, it would have been inaccurate and unfair. Since I had no idea at all who was writing, I read the post as someone simply lumping my work in with the rest of all the media coverage on MOOCs, and attributing to me the errors described in the first paragraph. I'm sorry I sounded defensive, but I think when you look at it in this light you might see the basis for my reaction.

    With respect to the "clarification" that you sought, it was contained in a paragraph that began "I don't think I agree with your point that..." and proceeded to disagree with the point on which you then asked the question. This was the basis on which I felt you were setting up an argument (ie., defending your position) rather than simply engaging in conversation. As a defense of your position the alternative definitions would indeed constitute straw men, as I was surprised to see them raised (especially the point about location).

    And I still don't understand the point that was, essentially, an argument that "it's scalable without cost so long as we don't count the costs of scaling." Even in the friendliest of conversation, you could not expect me to react to that with anything other than a mystified "huh?"

  8. Ok Stephen - sorry it was unattributed, I thought it would pick up my Google id. I apologise if it came across as attacking, I think if you read it as I now suggest you can also see that it wasn't meant that way.
    Re. clarification I did really mean "I don't think..." ie I wasn't sure, which is why I was seeking clarification.
    My point about costs was it is a scalable model (I didn't say without costs). An argument has been made (not by you) that MOOCs are the only way to scale education. That is not the case. You can scale with the traditional model. My point was that you can split costs into variable and fixed. The fixed costs don't really get hit by scale.
    There is a separate argument about whether the supported open learning model or the MOOC model are more suitable for different types of learners. I would argue that it's good to have more than one model now. Some learners will like MOOCs and some won't, some will need supported model at some stage and unsupported at others. I certainly wouldn't argue that either one is 'better' than another, they will meet different needs.
    But on the main point, yes we didn't invent MOOCs, and we wouldn't claim to have. We probably did invent modern distance open education (although you can trace elements of this back to medieval times, so saying who invented anything is tricky). And MOOCs owe some influence to that, as you (but not many of the xMOOCers) have acknowledged. But they also have their roots in a lot of other places too, so we shouldn't overclaim the OU role.

  9. Saying who invented anything can indeed be tricky. My introduction to distance learning was via a documentary about Australia's School of the Air, which opened in 1951, 14 years ahead of Open University.

    I still don't really agree with you about scaling. Your description is similar to what Tony Bates wrote in Managing Technological Change. It is essentially an argument that distance learning becomes more efficient at scale. Which is doubtless true. But anything that increases cost as it gets larger has limits on scale.

  10. Is this a productive conversation? The OU has never seriously claimed to 'invent' MOOCs, and it's not as if MOOCs (in all their incarnations) are of earth-shattering importance. They are a phenomenon of considerable interest, especially to autodidacts, but they may also be an unrealisable fantasy for those who want academic qualifications 'for nothing'.
    what the Open University has done IS earth shattering, because it has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in its relatively short history; it has set a new standard of quality for teaching and learning in higher education; it continues to experiment and FutureLearn is one such experiment; and, most important, it is truly 'open' - open to people, to places, to methods, and to ideas. It is open to time, in ways that conventional, campus-based universities cannot be, because the great majority of its 250,000 students study part time and are in employment as well.
    And it was OU materials, freely available on BBC radio and TV, or printed content in free public libraries and other university libraries, that perhaps suggested an early kind of MOOC, without the online bit. The online access came with OERs and the OU's OpenLearn, and continues today.
    The millions of people who viewed or listened to OU-BBC programmes from the 1970s onwards may have been inspired to rejoin education, at the OU or with other HEIs - but it is almost impossible to calculate this effect.
    I am very proud of my 33 years working in the OU and regard the university as the greatest educational revolution of the twentieth century - a massively ambitious, accessible and cost-effective model of HE.
    A few years ago I had a long conversation with Mary Wilson, wife of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, whose 'University of the Air' project in the 1960s became the OU. As I said goodbye to her, Lady Wilson said:
    "The Open University was the best thing my Harold ever did!"
    And I agree with her, too!


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