MOOCs versus Open Educational Practice

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) should be evidence of open educational practice in an institution. But are they? It depends on one’s definition of open.

Image by Eleni on Flickr
Image by Eleni on Flickr

The Capetown Open Education Declaraion said about open education: “open education is not limited to just open educational resources. It also draws upon open technologies that facilitate collaborative, flexible learning and the open sharing of teaching practices that empower educators to benefit from the best ideas of their colleagues. It may also grow to include new approaches to assessment, accreditation and collaborative learning.’ (Cape Town Open Education Declaration, 2008)

I’ve been looking back at the OPAL project, the Open Educational Quality Initiative, which was funded by the European Union in 2010 and 2011. It focused on open educational practices and produced a set of guidelines to help institutions recognise and frame their commitment to open educational practice. Reading through its final report and the guidelines, I could see how much the open education scene has changed since 2011. OPAL described the situation then as that of universities and other groups focusing on the production of open educational resources (OER), but there was not a great amount of takeup and use of OER in teaching practice yet.

Fast-forward to 2015. Many of our UK universities are launching MOOCs, but many of these universities doing the launching would not identify the MOOC with open educational practice or OER, and possibly are not even familiar with these terms. For many, MOOCs are something experimental to try, a first foray into offering online learning of any kind. For many universities, MOOCs cannot be said to be the product of an intentional open educational policy or strategy. MOOC materials are not usually offered under Creative Commons copyright, and are often locked into the MOOC platform so that they cannot be taken out and reused or repurposed for other teaching. And so they do not really measure up to the test of being open materials. It is almost as if the scene described in the OPAL report is exactly reversed: instead of too many OER and not enough takeup, with MOOCs there is a great amount of takeup but they are not OERs.

But isn’t there something open about the underlying ethos of the MOOC? The materials may not be CC-licensed, but they are free. And they are open to whoever wishes to sign up; there are no prerequisites (ordinarily). So they are open in the sense that they are available to all, as long as they have the technology and internet access. As for the ‘learning architecture,’ as in the Open Educational Practice Matrix from the OPAL project below, many MOOCs do try to foster social practices such as collaboration and sharing, which are in the High section in the upper left. To my observation, MOOC providers would like to design in more collaboration among students but they are constrained by the platform and by the challenge of providing tutors for many thousands of students. This might threfore locate most (UK FutureLearn) MOOCs in the section of A or B below.

Open Educational Practices Matrix, OPAL

Open Educational Practices Matrix, OPAL

On reflection, maybe MOOCs are more open than I’ve been thinking recently. What would really locate them in C above, in the area of High OER usage, would be if the materials provided in MOOCs were themselves repurposed OER. Another open practice MOOCs could try would be for one institution to explictly incorporate MOOCs created by a different institution. (This idea was suggested to me by Melissa Highton, my fellow SCORE fellow, when we met in the Speakers’ Lounge at the BETT Show yesterday. But I digress.) I remember reading of such a case in the USA, where a college offered a university-created MOOC in a computer programming language as part of the college’s degree programme. Cases of open practice and institutional collaboration would be among the most forward-thinking and would put them in realm of interest of the eMundus EU project. And that, my dear reader, is for another blog post.

Terese Bird, University of Leicester


Cape Town Meeting Participants (2008) “The Cape Town Open Education Declaration,” [online] Available from: (Accessed 31 October 2011).

Stracke, C. M. and OPALmembers (2011) Open Educational Quality Initiative (OPAL) Final Report, [online] Available from: (Accessed 24 January 2015).


2 comments on “MOOCs versus Open Educational Practice

  1. Hi Terese,

    Very interesting post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as they are developing. You make some interesting observations about MOOCS and open practices more generally. I found particularly interesting what you say about collaborative learning. It is definitely not an easy task. My PhD research is in the area of open education and I am looking particularly at aspects of collaborative learning in open cross-institutional collaborations.

    At MMU, within CELT, we already have opened up a number of postgraduate units which are also available as open courses to the wider community. We have informalised formal development but also provide opportunities to formalise informal development recognising engagement in open offers among others. Very happy to discuss further if you are interested.

    It was lovely seeing you earlier this week in Nottingham.


    Liked by 2 people

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