The thorny issue of MOOCs and OER

Along with the news that GCU and the Scottish College Development Network are developing guidelines for the creation and use of open educational resources, another Scottish news item caught my attention this week. Finally, after weeks of speculation, it was announced that the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde will join the FutureLearn partnership alongside the University of St Andrews which had previously signed up. You can read the press release here.

I can’t claim to have read every press release issued by FutureLearn but it’s telling, though not remotely surprising, that for all their apparent commitment to:

“…free, open, online courses from leading UK universities…”
– FutureLearn Press Release

“…removing the barriers to education by making learning more accessible…”
– Simon Nelson, FutureLearn, CEO

“…opening access to our learning to students around the world…”
– Colin Grant, Associate Deputy Principal at the University of Strathclyde

FutureLearn doesn’t appear to make any mention of using, creating or disseminating open educational resources. Although it’s rather disappointing, I can’t say that it’s particularly surprising. I haven’t got any statistics, but anecdotally, it seems that very few xMOOCs use or provide access to open educational resources. The relationship between MOOCs and OERs is problematic at best and non existent at worst. As Amber Thomas memorably commented at the Cetis13 conference “it’s like MOOCs stole OER’s girlfriend.” Perhaps I am being overly pesimistic about FutureLearn’s commitment to openness, after all, the initiative is being led by the Open University, an institution that has unquestionably been at the forefront of OER developments in the UK.

Of course St Andrews, Glasgow and Strathclyde aren’t the first Scottish universities to join the MOOC movement, the University of Edinburgh has already delivered six successful MOOCs in partnership with Coursera, including the eLearning and Digital Culture MOOC (#edcmooc) which my Cetis colleague Sheila MacNeill participated in and has blogged about extensively. Sheila recently presented about her experiences of being a MOOC student a the University of Southampton’s Digital Literacies Conference alongside #edcmooc tutor, and former CAPLE colleague, Dr Christine Sinclair, now with the University of Edinburgh. I wasn’t able to attend the event myself but I followed the tweet stream and was interested to note Sheila’s comments that the Edinburgh MSc module on digital cultures in more “open” than the Coursera MOOC on the same topic.


It didn’t take much googling to locate the eLearning and Digital Cultures MSc course blog which, sure enough, carries a CC-BY-NC-SA licence. I don’t know if this licence covers all the course materials but it certainly appears to be more open than the Coursera version of the same course and it’s very encouraging to see that the Edinburgh course tutors are continuing to support open access to their course materials at the same time as engaging with MOOCs. I wonder if the Scottish FutureLearn partners will show a similar commitment to opening access to their educational resources? I certainly hope so.

14 thoughts on “The thorny issue of MOOCs and OER

  1. Very good highlighting of this issue, Lorna!

    OERs and technology-enhanced learning is the topic covered last week in the ALT MOOC #OcTEL last week at – I partiularly like that OcTEL uses WordPress as its platform and pretty much all the resources are available without a login. I have registered, but I had a period of a week when I lost my login through my own fault, yet I was able to keep up. There are practical as well as ethical and educational reasons why openness is a good thing…

  2. I’m heavily involved in the development of FutureLearn MOOCs at the University of Southampton, and so have some knowledge of plans for the FutureLearn platform. I understand that the aim is for all the content to be discoverable through search engines such as Google, and openly accessible without logging in. Access to activities and discussions will obviously still be restricted to those actually signed up for the courses. That is not to say that those content items will be open as in ‘open for use in other contexts’ or ‘open for editing and re-use’ and most of the academics creating the content don’t want to use CC licences. There is some concern that if CC licences were adopted other institutions or companies would just use our content to run their own versions of our expensively-created MOOCs.

  3. Think the problem here is that open is load of old crock now – so many people have given it different meanings that as a standard to judge against it is empty.

    Might as well judge them on smell.

  4. Hi Adam, many thanks for your comment. It’s really helpful to hear from someone who is actually involved in the FutureLearn development. It’s interesting to hear that the academics that you’re working with are resistant to the use of CC licences and concerned about their educational content being reused in other contexts, particularly given that Southampton has been active in promoting the development of open educational resources through initiatives such as HumBox. Any thoughts on why this should be?

  5. Hi Imogen, thanks for your comment. OcTEL is indeed a very good example of a MOOC that puts its money where its mouth is in terms of openness!

  6. Hi Lorna, HumBox is a good example of how the technology supports the development of a fairly homogenous community that values sharing. That is very different from simply putting your resources online with a CC licence and having no feedback or acknowledgement about their use. All of the successful sharing sites (YouTube, Flickr, Tumblr, ccMixter etc etc) include comments and community. We have an institutional respository (EdShare) which is well used, but there are some concerns about sharing resources that are either “good enough for students but not a worldwide audience” or “contain resources that may infringe copyright, but are OK for use in class”. Plenty of contradictions to unpack there…

  7. I applied for a FutureLearn post at Leeds and did a heck of a lot of reading up on MOOCs, and from that I certainly concur with your view that the relationship between MOOCs and OER is “problematic at best”. I’d be inclined to add “inimical at worst”, and as you point out the MOOC movement has hijacked the word “open” from OER to mean “open” in the sense of “open to all”, not “open for reuse”. Adam’s comments are depressing, as they indicate that Soton academics are going backwards to the anally-retentive days prior to the OER wave, but they’re not entirely surprising – some MOOC models are proprietorial and plainly FutureLearn has decided to go down that path.

    Perhaps MOOCs will spell the death knell of OER? As a passionate believer in the principles of OER I would very much hope not, yet there’s a flip of a lot of corporate and State moolah behind MOOCs which is building a behemoth, a juggernaut that could crush all in its path.

    Of course, some non-corporate MOOCs could be consistent with OER principles. What’s become very clear to me is that there are underlying socio-political ideologies behind MOOCs, from Left socialist through liberal to Right corporate. That much discussion of MOOCs is concentrating on “business models” is a worrying development to me, as a free education leftie idealist, as is the prominence of neo-corporatist collectivism as a MOOC knowledge paradigm. I think that this subsurface political agenda is something that has just not been discussed in the open, and I really think it ought to be before the right corporatist model becomes the accepted paradigm.

  8. Fred, sorry it’s take me so long to approve your comment, pesky spam filter. All I can say is that I agree with you whole heartedly. Sadly the appearance of the FutureLearn Terms and Conditions today only seems to confirm everything you’ve said.

  9. I’ve just now looked at the T&C on the revamped FutureLearn site, and in the dense legalese which no punter is ever going to read, about a third of the way down under “FutureLearn’s intellectual property rights”, it reads:

    All content or other material available on the FutureLearn Site or through the Online Courses, including but not limited to on-line lectures, speeches, video lessons, quizzes, presentation materials, homework assignments, programming assignments, programs, code, and other images, text, layouts, arrangements, displays, illustrations, documents, materials, audio and video clips, or files (collectively, the “Content”), are the property of FutureLearn and/or its affiliates or its or their licensors and are protected by copyright, patent and/or other proprietary intellectual property rights under the laws of England and other countries.

    This is depressing, and very disappointing given the OU’s exemplary role in the OER movement and their making their course content available under the excellent Openlearng platform. I can’t believe that the OU would have agreed to such proprietorial anally-retentive conditions without severe pressure from the other members of the FutureLearn consortium.

    I’m rather glad now that I was rejected for the FL post, though I did give a deliberately provocative presentation which was designed to bring out the background ideology and philosophy of FL, and which definitely wound up the Suit on the panel.

  10. Fred, I think you are being a bit hard on our academics, given that ALL of our research output is made freely available via ePrints (although there are sometimes good reasons to delay or prevent public access to these pre-prints). And we are not going backwards – for example all of the resources in our Faculty of Medicine will soon be shared internally via a newly updated and enhanced versionof our EdShare repository. Yes, only internally – partly for licencing or legal reasons (eg images of human tissue) but mostly because the academics are not persuaded by the OER arguments.

    There is of course nothing to stop academics from developing MOOCs using OERs, and sites like Utubersity are heading in this direction:

    As for the political dimension of MOOCs, well you’re absolutely right. The revolution has already been commercialised. The only hope is for the proletariat to rise up and utterly reject the epistomological hegemony of academe!

  11. Fred – the Futurelearn T&C also include a section on Creative Commons licenced material, making it clear that academics and institutions can choose to apply a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Licence to some (or all) of the material. So still not as open as you might wish (not a CC-BY only) but definitely a step in the right direction.

  12. Adam: “but mostly because the academics are not persuaded by the OER arguments. ”

    That’s what’s so depressing about the Soton situation, that after so many years of the worldwide OER movement, after it being pushed bigtime in UKHE by Jisc and other funding bodies, after it being backed by major UKHE institutions, after the effective death of content copyright (for all that institutions are paranoid about IPR), academics still want to assert control over their content.

    When I was at Nottingham Uni, one of the few UKHE institutions that went for OER bigtime, the top dogs from the VC down actively supported and funded the ‘OER agenda’, and that pushed academics and teachers into both producing and using OERs. Their scepticism of OER and anal-retentive tendencies were overruled by institutional policy, and many of my colleagues came to actively support both the principle and practice of OER. I’d hoped that other institutions would take on this approach.

    OER was the big wave of the last few years, but it looks like it’s crashed and dissipated and we’re back in the sad old world of proprietised content.