Relating to Openness

It was a MOOC-tastic week last week, with the launch of FutureLearn, the new UK-based open course platform, accompanied by tantalising news that Google are teaming up with Edx for the purposes of enhancing even further, their established open course platform. Grumbles in the academic community remind us about the conflict between the non Creative Commons (CC) licensed MOOCs and the principles and meaning of openness in free online education, while Harvard introduces us to the SPOC!

In the Open Media Unit, after the initial curiosity and excitement about how many would sign up to the first OU MOOC on FutureLearn (Ecosystems), we celebrated the success of The Wonder of Dogs, a new OU/BBC co-production presented by Kate Humble and Steve Leonard (revealing the innermost secrets of man’s best friend), and on OpenLearn we say bienvenue! to European Day of Languages with a new interactive quiz and a stunning array of free languages course extracts.

Amidst this, I was tempted to dig around in the data of a recent survey undertaken as part of my fellowship with the Open Educational Resources (OER) Research Hub, to remind myself what our learners said their concerns were when selecting free content. The survey, which has received over a thousand responses since the summer, was set up in order for us to more fully understand informal learners’ use of open content on the OpenLearn platform, and indeed that of teachers.

When asked ‘Which challenges, if any, do you most often face in using OpenLearn content and other open educational resources?’, 11% of respondents selected Not knowing whether I have permission to use, change or modify resources. My initial reaction was that I was heartened that only a small minority of respondents were puzzled about this issue, and I hoped that this was because the CC licence logo is so well embedded in the OER that the University produces.

I looked again at the OpenLearn site and at the small logo in particular and figured that whilst it was familiar to me, it might not be familiar to the majority of our informal learners browsing content.

Whilst the survey indicates that the majority of users are not concerned with the licensing of the content nor with the open source nature of the platform (Moodle) it may also imply that they don’t have an awareness of open content being anything other than just free and that the CC logo is on the whole, meaningless unless you’re in the know. (I must defend my Open Media Unit colleagues though with respect to trying as hard as possible to make the license clearly visible on OpenLearn. To quote Douglas Adams and his words ‘Don’t Panic’ emblazoning the cover of Hitchhiker’s, the logo appears as “large friendly letters” on about 50% of the website. In addition, clicking on the graphic takes users to an extensive set of FAQs that outline exactly what the licence means.)

So is a lack of awareness of the license a reason to be complacent about making it known and staying with the principles of openness?

Probably not. Whilst OpenLearn primarily serves informal learners, our study also revealed that 16% were teachers, with an equal spread over school, college and university sectors. Several of the comments in the survey revealed that the teachers using our content were keen to let their students know the origin of their inspiration or were directly pointing them to the content itself.

We know that the same is also true of our users of free content on iTunes U (this is content that is free but not ‘open’ in the true OER definition) i.e. that a minority are teachers using it as inspiration for teaching. Two platforms hosting similar content, reaching different demographic groups. Some of the range of comments below from teachers using OU content on OpenLearn and iTunes U reflect a diversity of approach to the materials themselves and the licences applied to them:

  • I’ve used what I’ve learned, not any material as such. [iTunes U user]
  • I have not used any of these yet. I need to know about permissions. [iTunes U user]
  • I can promote and recommend but ultimately if the students feel they have enough to do they will not use the resources. However my colleagues often like being told about open learn resources. [OpenLearn user]
  • I am more likely to make some of my materials available under a CC license. [OpenLearn user]
  • It has been great to supplement my on-line resources for some of my first year students. [OpenLearn user]
  • I am open to new and fresh ideas, diverse and alternative ways of looking at concepts, I believe it is my responsibility to share this information. [OpenLearn user]

Undoubtedly we will continue to make it clear to our users on OpenLearn that where we mean ‘open’ we mean you can use, share and adapt. Not all of the content can be issued under CC due to some of the source material having rights restrictions, but we are content from the first wave of analysis of our study that CC licence or no CC licence, the material continues to inspire both informal learners and teachers alike. Worth signing up to.

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