Photo credit: Leigh-Anne Perryman CC-BY

Dinner in the Eiffel Tower restaurant may have been the physical high point of three days recently spent in Paris attending the 2013 European Association of Distance Teaching Universities (EADTU) conference. However, the academic high point of the conference was gaining a bird’s-eye view of the development of open education across the European higher education (HE) sector and a sense of the continuum from institutions taking their first steps in blended learning, through to initiatives moving open education in Europe forward in the interests of educational inclusion.

An example of the latter can be found in the OpenupEd European MOOC platform showcased by Fred Mulder in the Wednesday afternoon MOOCs and OER Masterclass.  In his session, Mulder took a close and critical look at the relationship between MOOCs and openness, asserting:

MOOCs are part of open educational resources if you do them well…Open means more than being freely accessible…it involves open licensing and making content available to all after the MOOC has officially ended.

Mulder took this discussion further by introducing a model for assessing the openness of an institution or initiative against three supply-side factors – open educational resources, open teaching efforts and open learning services, and two demand-side factors – open to employability and capabilities development, and open to learners’ needs.  Irrespective of the other factors, institutions should aim for 100% OER, he insisted.

Photo credit: Leigh-Anne Perryman CC-BY

Abel Caine, UNESCO’s OER and YouthMobile specialist, took the discussion of OER forward and away from the developed world provision that typifies 99% of OER and MOOC content. His session his work for UNESCO was closely aligned with my own OER Research Hub research for the OER Research Hub on the existing use and further development of OER to meet the education needs of developing countries. Caine explained some of the challenges to developing countries’ use of OER and outlined his work with governments on making more widespread the open licensing of publicly funded materials and on incentivising OER creation, use and adaptation by India’s teacher-educators and teachers. ‘You have to have the OER ecosystem in place otherwise our OER initiatives will fizzle’ he asserted – a view I’ve heard voiced by the TESS-India team time and time again.

On Thursday 24 October the main EADTU conference commenced with an official welcome followed by keynotes from Diana LaurillardPatrick McAndrew and Eric Duval. The UK OU’s Patrick McAndrew used his keynote to showcase the Innovating Pedagogy report recently launched by the Institute of Educational Technology (IET), which highlights ten emergent innovations in educational technology from the past year.  McAndrew’s keynotes, together with the presentations in the main EADTU conference acted as a reminder of the UK Open University’s position at the cutting edge of openness, influencing and inspiring HE institutions during their journey towards e-learning and open education.

Innovation does not occur in a vacuum though and the developments in educational technology featured in the Innovating Pedagogy report are inextricably linked with the research conducted by IET into the impact of pedagogical innovation.  This brings me to my main reason for attending the conference – to co-present two papers reporting research on the impact of open educational resources and, specifically, the UK Open University’s free online content platform OpenLearn. Both papers were written and presented in collaboration with colleagues from the OU’s Open Media Unit (OMU) – Director Andrew Law and Head of Third Party Online Commissioning Patrina Law, who is also an OER Research Hub Fellow.

Our first paper offered a comparative view of the types of people using OpenLearn and the OU’s iTunes U channel in terms of their background and motivations. As such it was largely focused on the OERRH hypothesis ‘Open Education models lead to more equitable access to education, serving a broader base of learners than traditional education’.  Here’s our abstract:

With the rise in access to mobile multimedia devices, educational institutions have exploited the iTunes U platform as an additional channel to provide free educational resources with the aim of profile-raising and breaking down barriers to education. For those prepared to invest in content preparation, it is possible to produce interactive, portable material that can be made available globally. Commentators have questioned both the financial implications for platform-specific content production, and the availability of devices for learners to access it (Osborne, 2012).

The Open University (OU) makes its free educational resources available on iTunes U and via its web-based open educational resources (OER) platform, OpenLearn. The OU’s OER on iTunes U reached the 60 million download mark in 2013; its OpenLearn platform boasts 27 million unique visitors since 2006.  This paper reports the results of a large-scale study of users of the OU’s iTunes U channel and OpenLearn platform. A survey of several thousand users revealed key differences in demographics between those accessing OER via the web and via iTunes U. In addition, the data allowed comparison between three groups: formal learners, informal learners and educators.

The study raises questions about whether university-provided OER meet the needs of users and makes recommendations for how content can be modified to suit their needs. As the publishing of OER becomes core to business, we reflect on reasons why understanding users’ motivations and demographics is vital, allowing for needs-led resource provision and content that is adapted to best achieve learner satisfaction, and to deliver institutions’ social mission.

The full paper can be found in pages 175 – 190 of the conference proceedings.

Our second paper focused solely on OpenLearn and investigated the OERRH hypothesis ‘Open education acts as a bridge to formal education, and is complementary, not competitive, with it’.  Here’s the abstract:

Universities across the globe have, for some time, been exploring the possibilities for achieving public benefit and generating business and visibility through releasing and sharing open educational resources (OER). Many have written about the need to develop sustainable and profitable business models around the production and release of OER. Downes (2006), for example, has questioned the financial sustainability of OER production at scale. Many of the proposed business models focus on OER’s value in generating revenue and detractors of OER have questioned whether they are in competition with formal education.

This paper reports on a study intended to broaden the conversation about OER business models to consider the motivations and experiences of OER users as the basis for making a better informed decision about whether OER and formal learning are competitive or complementary with each other.  The study focused on OpenLearn – the Open University’s (OU) web-based platform for OER, which hosts hundreds of online courses and videos and is accessed by over 3,000,000 users a year. A large-scale survey and follow-up interviews with OpenLearn users worldwide revealed that university-provided OER can offer learners a bridge to formal education, allowing them to try out a subject before registering on a formal course and to build confidence in their abilities as learners. In addition, it was found that using OER during formal paid-for study can improve learners’ performance and self-reliance, leading to increased retention and satisfaction with the learning experience.

The full paper can be found in pages 235 – 250 of the conference proceedings.

Conference delegates’ response to these papers gave a clear indication of the hunger for empirical evidence around the impact of openness and OER on learning and teaching both for informing funding decisions around OER initiatives and in countering some of the detractors of OER who question whether they are actually in competition with formal education.  The OER Research Hub is exploring a total of 11 hypotheses concerned with the impact of OER on teaching and learning and would love to hear from you if you’ve been involved in a project where OER impact was assessed. We’re committed to an open data policy and so all data shared with us will be of value to the open educaton community as a whole. To share data relevant to any of our hypotheses contact us at or leave a comment here.

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