A personal reflection on Open Education


The third annual Open Education Week takes place from 10-15 March 2014. The purpose of Open Education Week is  “to raise awareness about the movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide“.

Cetis staff are supporting Open Education Week by publishing a series of blog posts about open education activities. The Cetis blog will provide access to the posts which will describe Cetis activities concerned with a range of open education activities. My contribution to the series covers:

A personal reflection on Open Education

Two years ago, Lou McGill developed an Open Educational Resources timeline which reflected on the involvement of Cetis with learning technology and OERs over the past ten years. I found it very interesting and thought provoking. In this Open Education week, I would like to share some thoughts and reflections on Open Education through my personal learning journey and some of the work that I have been involved in with OERs, Open Online Learning and MOOCs.

1. Back in 1985, I signed up for a Self Study Higher Education Programme when I worked as a school teacher in China. Since the 80’s, China has built the world’s largest Open Education system to meet the needs of people who are not be able to attend a college or a university face-to-face. The programme is open to everyone regardless of age, previous education or qualifications. They can choose to study any subject that they are interested in (from a total of 21 subjects), either self-taught or study with peers and tutors at local learning centres. Those who pass examinations gain qualifications equivalent to a college degree. More than 3-million Chinese students have obtained university degrees via this programme over the past two decades. When I was half way through the programme to gain the degree in Chinese, I was offered an opportunity to study at Beijing Normal University. As a result, I didn’t take all of the examinations, but the two years of self–study did add great value to my life at that time and it continues to this day. In this example, it is very clear to me that although the self-study programme would have advanced my career, the four years of study at Beijing Normal University changed my life and career direction completely.  Learning for the sake of learning is a luxury that few can afford.  In the case of MOOC students, research suggests that most of them are already well-educated professionals. For many learners undertaking tertiary education, gaining a degree qualification is the prime motivation as they believe it will enhance their career opportunities. Open education involves not only access to course materials, but also appropriate support and guidance. Therefore, how to make university education more accessible, valuable and meaningful to learners is a challenge that universities cannot ignore.

2. I have been very lucky to be involved in shaping and supporting the UK OER programme since I joined Cetis in 2008. This has given me a unique opportunity to work with UK institutions and the wider OER community to understand the opportunities and challenges of OERs from an institutional perspective. In the UK, more than 80 universities have been involved producing OERs and making teaching and learning material searchable, sharable and reusable globally. One question that all funders, institutions and educators would like to answer is: how might OERs be shared and reused by others? We can celebrate the success of funded OERs projects but we must also question the sustainability of these initiatives after their initial funding runs out. There are some individuals who are inspired by the global OER movement and who spend their time and efforts promoting OERs. These grassroots OER projects are, I think, more sustainable in the longer term. For example, here is an OER/Open Course collection created by Dr Ma, a scholar from a Chinese University. He and his students gathered a large number of OERs and Open Courses in educational technology produced by universities from the UK and US. At present, these courses have been translated into Chinese and reused by Chinese lecturers who teach relevant courses to students who are studying educational technology. Some lecturers from Chinese universities have also started to use this platform to make their courses open and to share with educators in other universities.

3. The rapid development of MOOCs, highlights the question about business models again and again. Commercial startups, such as Coursera and Udacity have been experimenting with various revenue streams and recently have focused on professional training, credit-bearing courses and international markets. It seems an obvious question for institutions: what is the business model if the course is free? In 2010, my colleagues and I at Institute for Educational Cybernetics developed an Open Online Course for Masters students, who were studying educational technology in China and delivered it in partnership with a Chinese university.  We used a blended learning approach with a local facilitator. This course helped us gain a better understanding of language, cultural, pedagogical and access issues in other education contexts. It also gave us an opportunity to explore some ideas on how to scale up to make open online courses financially viable for institutions. Institutions will need to identify a particular market niche that differentiates itself from its competition and makes the courses sustainable over the longer term. With expansions of MOOCs, students can start looking at different degree programs at different universities around the country or around the world. Institutions will need to think beyond MOOCs. They need to design and develop high quality open online courses to enable students to study online or blended courses in their home countries. These courses need to be affordable, accessible and flexible to meet the different needs of learners globally.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a new Europe-wide initiative, “Open Education Challenge” has been launched to encourage innovations in education through funding educational startups in Europe. I am currently involved in preparing a bid to address some of challenges in open education and help institutions develop new models for sustainable open online courses. Hopefully, this initiative will give educational practitioners and innovators a new opportunity to work together and bring about a substantive change in education worldwide.