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.


Cetis White Paper on ‘Beyond MOOCs: Sustainable Online Learning in Institutions’

It is now six years since the advent of the first MOOC course, and 2012 is widely identified as the year that the hype surrounding MOOCs reached its peak and in 2013 began its path into ‘trough of disillusionment’. The key questions for institutions are what lessons we might learn from the MOOC experiment and how this may help institutions to develop a more strategic approach to improve the quality of teaching and learning and open up access to higher education?

Following the well cited Cetis white paper ‘MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education’ (BIS, UNESCO, Universities UK), this new report looks beyond the current debate on MOOCs to understand the potential of open online learning for learners, educators and institutions from pedagogical, financial and technological perspectives.

In this Beyond MOOCs white paper, we discuss key concepts emerging from the MOOC development that may have significant impact on future HE, these include openness, revenue models, and service disaggregation of HE provision. We also identify the areas that institutions may consider to explore with open online provision through the lenses of technology options, pedagogical opportunities and learner choices. In conclusion, we provide a decision-making framework to address questions of what form or forms of online learning provision would be appropriate to meet a particular organisation’s business needs.

Hopefully, this report will stimulate further discussions and debate on exploring the opportunities developed by MOOCs and to experiment with new forms of provision that go beyond HEI’s existing markets. We would welcome opportunities to continue discuss and explore ideas around open online learning in higher education in future workshops and seminars. If you are interested in discussing the implications of this paper for your institution, please contact Li Yuan at l.yuan@bolton.ac.uk, Stephen Powell at stephenp.powell@gmail.com or Bill Olivier at B.Olivier@bolton.ac.uk at Cetis (http://www.cetis.org.uk).

MOOCs and Higher Education: What is next?

I gave a presentation on “MOOCs and Higher Education” at the SCONUL annual conference in Dublin last week. In the presentation, I examined the potential of MOOCs as a disruptive innovation and an emerging technology in higher education, and explored the concept, business model and trends of the MOOC phenomenon. The full presentation is available at here.

The Gartner Hype Cycle has been widely used to illustrate the processes of maturity, adoption and applications of emerging technologies in society. A question I posed in my presentation was, will MOOCs fall into this pattern of technology adoption?


If we take the Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford in 2011 as the starting point for the hype cycle, then 2012 was, ‘The Year of the MOOC’! This was manifested by the rapid spread of media coverage and the elite institutions forming partnerships to launch online courses shown as the upward trend of the graph moving toward the “peak of inflated expectations.” In 2013, less optimistic news and research findings have been appearing, e.g. the recent announcement from Coursera, which deflated expectations of MOOCs shown as the downward trend of the graph line.

Some questions:

  • Are MOOCs beginning the short journey into the ‘trough of disillusionment’?
  • Is the time approaching for MOOCs providers and universities to figure out what works and what doesn’t work?
  • Sometime in the future, if and when MOOCs enter the ‘slope of enlightenment and plateau of productivities’, will they then have a real impact on the delivery of higher education?

The answers to these questions remain to be found in the future!

To MOOC or not to MOOC

The question to MOOC or not to MOOC has perhaps been discussed in many institutions’ committee meetings recently, such as this tongue-in-cheek one on Tony Bates’ blog! While some leading universities in North America and Europe have joined Coursera to offer MOOCs, a recently published report from Queen’s University in Canada, which made recommendations about the institution’s policy and strategic planning on online learning, suggested that “Queen’s does not become involved in MOOCs until and unless there is greater support for online learning (within the university)”. It has also been reported that some institutions have been denied the opportunity to offer MOOCs through Coursera because, as a company policy, it only works with ‘elite institutions’, e.g. the ‘top five’ universities in countries outside of North America. No doubt discussions on what institutions should do about MOOCs will continue until the hype cycle has passed.

Coursera recently announced that it made $220,000 profit in the first quarter of 2013 by charging for verified completion certificates and receiving revenue from Amazon through learners buying books suggested by the professors headlining MOOC courses. This ‘brand + content = revenue’ model seems a win-win business proposition. Students pay for certificates from elite universities and the professors sell more of the books they’ve published to a mass audience, publicised via recorded lectures on their MOOC courses. In this case, many would argue that online learning should be considered a pedagogical choice (e.g. cMOOCs) rather than a cynical money making approach to education.

Whether institutions have been involved in MOOCs or not, it is clear that the development of MOOCs has re-focused institutional attention on how to provide effective online learning in order to gain competitive advantages in a global educational market. As the Queen’s University report suggested, the university needs to have “a plan that sets clear goals for online learning, identifies the resources needed, and makes the necessary organizational and structural changes”. Institutions will need to rethink their organisational structures and business models to make teaching and learning more effective, pedagogically and financially, either via face-to-face or online. Following on from the recently published CETIS MOOCs report, we believe that there is a need to make sense of the new pedagogical approaches and business models around MOOCs and other forms of online courses, and produce an analysis to help inform about institutions’ policy and strategic planning with regard to online distance learning.

CETIS white paper on “ MOOCs and Open education: implications for higher education”

The rapid development of MOOCs has generated significant interest in the new form of online learning model from governments, venture capitalists and institutions, due to their key attractions of scaled up ‘massive’ open access to online courses for anyone, anywhere in the world. It has also created a great deal of debate around how MOOCs will have impact on conventional HE providers and whether it will disrupt existing business models in Higher Education.

The phenomena of MOOCs has surfaced many questions about the role of universities in society and has challenged traditional views about teaching, learning and assessment. A key question surrounds how institutions can develop a cohesive strategy in responding to the opportunities and challenges posed by MOOCs and other forms of openness in higher education.

The CETIS white paper on “MOOCs and Open Education” seeks to raise awareness of MOOCs in higher education institutions. It offers a framework for thinking about MOOCs issues and challenges as disruptive innovations and for stimulating future thinking on open education. This report was largely informed by various commentators’ and practitioners’ thinking on MOOCs from their blogs and press releases, with additional intelligence from openly available reports. It has also been shaped by various activities that CETIS have been involved in, for example in promoting openness and supporting innovation in UK institutions.

The report is written from a UK higher education perspective and takes into account current changes on funding and fee structures in the UK higher education and the desire for more accessible, cheaper and flexible HE provisions from traditional institutions and private providers. We hope this report will help decision makers in institutions gain both a better understanding of the phenomenon of MOOCs and trends towards greater openness in higher education and a framework to think about the implications for their institutions.

eBooks in HE institutions – are we ready yet?

eBooks is one of technologies that many believe will have significant impact on education; and indeed will change the way of teaching and learning in schools and universities. In essence, both eBooks and printed books are very similar in as much as they allow people to do the most important thing – read a book. However, compared to traditional books, eBooks offer new ways to distribute and interact with information. Take, for example, the eBook produced by the Oxford Internet Institute, “Geographies of the World’s Knowledge”, a research report on where and how knowledge is distributed across the world. Readers can select pieces of the pictures in this book to zoom in on and to glean further information as they wish. They can navigate to particular pages via interaction with the visualizations.

The rapid development of E-readers, tablets and mobile technology in recent years, such as Kindles, iPads and smartphones makes buying, downloading and reading eBooks more popular and easier. As a result, more and people are reading routinely on their electronic devices. In particular, the younger generation, reading is the tool for much social activity and experience through the sharing of notes and comments instantly. With these social networking developments, it is clear that there will be increased demand from learners for eBooks within academic contexts. Education will need to change to provide a more interactive learning experience and access to content anytime, anywhere as promised by using eBooks.

However, despite all the hype, eBooks have remained on the fringes of higher education. For institutions, eBook technology is still new. There are many questions needing to be answered in order to embed eBooks in teaching, learning and research. For example, is eBook technology mature enough for education? Is it time to invest heavily in e-textbooks in institutions? What are the technical and cultural challenges we are facing and how can eBooks be best used in academic contexts? We don’t know the answers to all of the questions, but it is clear that we need more information and knowledge about eBooks to make well informed decisions.

Hopefully, the newly published JISC Observatory TechWatch report on “Preparing for Effective Adoption and Use of Ebooks in Education” will help decision makers, IT managers, librarians and educators to gain a better understanding of current issues and challenges in adopting eBooks in institutions. In this report, the author, James Clay, introduces the history and key concepts of eBooks and discusses the technical, cultural and legal challenges that need to be addressed for the successful adoption of eBooks in education. Furthermore, it offers scenarios illustrating the effective use of eBooks in libraries and in teaching, learning and research in institutions. It also provides us with useful insights into the future directions of eBook development.

“Open Higher Education”, a scenario from the TEL-Map UK HE cluster

At the “Emerging Reality: Making sense new models of learning organisation” workshop at the CETIS conference 2012, Bill Olivier from Institute of Educational Cybernetics at the University of Bolton presented a scenario of “ Open Higher Education” which was developed by a group of participants from the UK HE sector. Having been involved in the UK OER programme, looking at the trends and development around OERs and open education in HE, it was really interesting to see this scenario emerging as one of the outcomes of the meeting of a UK HE cluster through the modified Future Search Method adopted by the TEL-Map project.

During a meeting at Nottingham, prior to the CETIS conference, the TEL-Map UK HE cluster identified some 80 trends and drivers impacting on the future of TEL in UK higher education. The group rated them for Impact/Importance and consolidated the high impact, high uncertainty trends and drivers into two overarching but mutually independent axes: ‘Variety of universities’ and ‘Student demands’. This cross-impact analysis resulted in these two axes placed to develop four context scenarios, namely Oxbridge Model, Traditional University Model, De-Campus Model and Open-Ed Model.


The Open Higher Education scenario was identified from the bottom right quadrant of the scenario diagram above. In this scenario, emerging leaders include the OERu, P2Pu and Udacity. The common features of this scenario’s learning model include low cost content and peer learning support, with expert support when it is needed. Initially, students choose this form of HE because they don’t have to pay for the services provided by universities that they cannot benefit from, such as sports halls, students societies, classrooms and libraries, etc. This model expands as more and more people find online university courses affordable & practical and more students see its benefits, including those who would have attended traditional university.

Along with the Open Higher Education scenario, three other thought-provoking and interesting scenarios were presented and discussed, including, Christian Voigt’s “Technology Supported Learning Design”; Adam Cooper’s “The Network of Society of Scholars” and David Sowden’s (University of Hull) presentation on “New Models of Learning”. During the workshop, the participants were also given an opportunity to vote for drivers identified in each scenario using ideascale to stimulate the discussions and debates. If you are interested to know more about the workshop, a full report will be available soon at the TEL-Map project website.

Can the flipped classroom disrupt the existing lecture-based teaching model in institutions?

HE institutions, from architecture and business to pedagogy and content delivery, have been designed for the classroom-based lecture model. However, rapid technological change now means that lecture capture technology is becoming widely available and lecturers can easily record their presentations so that students may view them anywhere, anytime. Millions of audios and videos of OERs have been produced by subject experts and are freely available at iTunes U for teachers and students to use and re-use in their teaching and learning. And students can search and find most of the information they need on Google, YouTube and social networks via their mobile phones or laptops. As a result of this ever-increasing student access to technology and online learning content, institutions and educators are being forced to rethink how student learning can be facilitated to make class time and activities as relevant and valuable as possible. A term “flipped classroom” has been articulated by some education practitioners, to describe a reversal of the traditional teaching method that gives students video lectures to watch in their own time at their own pace at home and then go to their classrooms for discussions, coaching and interaction with teachers and between peers. The idea of the “flipped classroom” has been brought to the public by the popularity of Khan Academy and its founder, Salman Khan’s TED Talk on reinventing education via using videos.

There is an ongoing debate on the concept of “flipped classroom” and its implications for education, in particular, most recently in the US school sector. A growing number of success stories have been shared by advocators and practitioners but some confusion, critique, and hype also need to be addressed. As with any technology related educational practices, technology itself is only a tool that can be used to address some problems and challenges in education. In this case, the flipped approach offers a simple solution, for using technology in teaching and learning, that helps educators move from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘side-by-side learners’ in the classroom. To many educators, however, the idea behind “flipped classrooms” may not be new and it could be interpreted and implemented in different ways in different learning contexts.

In general, it could be argued that technology has failed in its promise to transform education, especially, when PowerPoint and whiteboards have come to dominate classrooms, reinforcing the lectured–based class model. However, the “flipped classroom” may provide a new way to think about the role and relationship between technology, teacher and students. In essence it would allow the classroom to be used for interactive discussions and collaborative activities while using technology before, after and outside of the classroom. In this way, technology can be employed in radically different ways to support educators to explore new pedagogical approaches to meet individual student needs.

Eventually, the rapid and continuing developments in the areas of lecture capture technologies, OER, digital textbooks, search, social network tools and mobile devices will change students’ learning experience within and outside the classroom. The flipped approach provides a good example of how technology might be used to disrupt the existing education model and traditional education practice. However, to make real change for a better education system we need also to ‘flip thinking’ at all levels of education sector, from practice, method to process and business models, in order to take full advantage of these disruptive technologies in institutions .

Is there a business model for open learning in institutions?

How can institutions develop new business models to support open and flexible learning where content is free? How can we design and create interactive, responsive and pedagogically effective open courseware to support on-line and blended learning worldwide? How can OER be culturally, linguistically and pedagogically adapted and reused in different languages, cultural contexts and educational settings? There are growing issues and concerns related to the use and reuse of OERs and the implementation of open learning in institutions, as Tony Bates indicated in his blog post OERs: the good, the bad and the ugly.

A group of academics in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics (IEC) at the University of Bolton have been working on a small project to address some of those issues and explore new business models for developing and delivering online courses nationally and internationally through OERs and open learning approaches. They have recently collaborated with Chinese partner institutions to create an online course “Designing Learning for the 21st Century” which is primarily for Masters students who are studying educational technology in China. It is also openly available for anyone who is interested in this topic. In September 2010, this online course was piloted with students in Shaanxi Normal University (SNNU) as one of the modules integrated into their existing postgraduate degree programmes.

Through this course, IEC and its partners are exploring different working practices, and pedagogical approaches for online teaching and learning using a wide range of digital technology and open approaches. The aim is to develop new business models for online learning programmes that allow for differential pricing for support and accreditation options to students. Several themes emerged from this small-scale collaborative project that might be of wider interest to the OER community:

  • Localisation: there are many concerns about the use and reuse of OERs in different languages and cultural contexts. In this course, staff in the IEC worked closely with Chinese institutions to find out what resources were needed most and how to balance producing and reusing valuable OERs. The courses was subject to ongoing revision of reading materials and learning activities based on the feedback from the Chinese students and the local facilitators in order to make this course linguistically, culturally and pedagogically integrated into their context.
  • Producing and re-using OERs: although the course was created for Master students, some of the content has been reused by other Chinese teachers in their undergraduate Academic English courses. Inspired by the global OER movement and this open course, the local facilitator from SNNU not only used some of the content from the IEC open course in his undergraduate course but also developed an educational technology OERs collection. This collection brought together a large number of open courses in the field from UK, US and China.
  • Learning process rather than free content only: in this course, all of the learning activities, forum discussions, assessment and students’ assignments were available freely to anyone without registration. Face-to-face local facilitation and online expert inputs were provided to ensure that effective learning support is available for learners.
  • Disaggregating content, facilitation and accreditation: it is expected that a wide range of free to use learning resources will catalyse institutional innovation in teaching and learning practice, learning support and accreditation services. In this case, while course content was free, staff time was paid for and the cost of delivery was shared by through both the English and Chinese institutions through local learning facilitation and online expertise support. Students studying at the partner Chinese institutions can gain credits from their own institution after they finish the modules.

One key question which emerges from this small scale unfunded open course project is whether or not we can find a sustainable business model for open course innovations? According to Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation, it is possible for institutions to explore new business solutions and organisational strategies by launching new market disruption to target non-customer / non-consuming context. In this case, the open course made it possible for more Chinese students, including those studying in Chinese institutions or self-learners, to gain UK educational experience and if registered with a University also gain credits.

The next stage of the plan is to expand the course to several Chinese institutions and to set up a consortium through SSNU to share the cost of expertise input from Bolton. According to the IEC open course project leader, Prof. Bill Olivier “in this project, the ‘breakeven’ point comes when we have 200 students from the partner Chinese institutions”. The project is expected to continue next academic year in order to collect evidence for developing a cost framework for open learning institutions in the future.

With current funding pressures across the UK higher education sector and many previously funded OER initiatives coming to an end, finding a viable business model for open courses is one approach to sustaining the OER ‘project’. We need to think creatively about innovative approaches to support online teaching and learning practice through OERs. As with many other open learning initiatives, this small-scale open course project is only the beginning of seeking new ways to provide online learning nationally and internationally to reach more learners through an open learning approach. Hopefully, the Academy/JISC Open Educational Resources (OER) Phase 3: Embedding and Sustaining Change will provide a good opportunity for institutions to continue embedding OERs in teaching and learning practice and explore sustainable business models for low cost and effective HE provision.

Disruptive innovation and Open Education in HE

In my presentation at the recent CAL conference on disruptive innovation and Open Education in institutions I looked at the implications of OERs and Open Education initiatives in HE provision by applying Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation framework. Clayton Christensen offers two types of innovations that affect how we improve business and organisations: sustaining and disruptive. According to Christensen, a sustaining innovation is about improving the existing system while a disruptive innovation, on the other hand, creates an entirely new market, typically by lowering price or designing for a different set of consumers or different needs of existing customers. The theory of disruptive innovation helps explain how complicated, expensive products and services are eventually converted into simpler, affordable ones.

HE institutions are currently facing the challenges of funding cuts and rising tuition fees; on the other hand, the rapid development of OERs and Open Education initiatives provides opportunities for institutions to explore new business, financial and revenue models for free or lower cost and flexible HE provision to meet different needs of learners. As with many other technology related initiatives in education, it is clear that most institutional OER programmes focus on sustaining their current business and practice. Inevitably, the existing culture and organisational structure poses huge barriers to innovative models for the use of OERs and provision of Open Education. By contrast, many disruptive innovations around open courses, which offer different models and approaches to make education more accessible and free for all, have grown rapidly outside institutions. Examples of this type of innovation, such as DIY U, P2P U, OER U etc., can be seen as a complement or threat to traditional universities.

Disruptive innovation theories offer possible business solutions and organisational strategies to respond to open educational service provisions, such as by setting up new units with different resources, processes, and priorities to explore new educational approaches and services. Institutions can launch new market disruption to target those who are not being able to go to universities, or either launch up-market sustaining innovations by reducing the cost and providing better learning experiences without extra cost or low end market disruption to target those who look for simple and straight forward courses rather than complicated university degrees. The challenge for institutions is how to implement both sustaining and disruptive innovation in order to improve the existing teaching and learning practice as well as move away from highly formalised, standardised and expensive HE provision towards an individualised, cheaper, flexible and effective education economy.

The slides of this presentation are available at the Slideshare.