Delivering free online courses: how open can we be?

1. Kim Catcheside

Why pay high fees to attend university? Why shell out to live on campus? Why bother with seminars and tutorials when you could get it all for free, online?  A provocative blog extract from JISC’s David Kernohan.

Open Learning practices are not new – but we’re seeing the Open movement take hold and as it does, sustainability, quality, and the ability of learners to navigate their way through are important questions… In delivering free online courses: how open can we be?  


2. Kim Catcheside

Hello and welcome to Jisc on Air. I’m Kim Catcheside and in this edition we’ll be exploring Open Education Practices which have been embraced by some academic and management staff as an exciting new development in delivering education, while others regard it with some trepidation.

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David Kernohan is a programme manager at JISC, and is responsible for the UK Open Education Resource Programme.

3. David Kernohan  

I think it’s something that is seen by academic managers as being more scary than it actually is, it is something that is… I think I would say built in to academia as a practice, as it has been practiced and always will be. The idea of sharing what you’re doing, the idea of a community of peers, the collegiate idea, I mean even if you go back to say Cambridge University in the sixteenth, seventeenth century, the big part of academic responsibility actually was to deliver public lectures, to be a public expert in a particular field, its actually really only in the last fifty, sixty years or so that we’ve seen academia becoming closed practice in any way.         

4. Kim Catcheside

One of the sorts of courses that has taken hold in open learning is known as a MOOC – a massively open online course – at its best it can connect academic experts and learners in a particular field. MOOCs offer boundless possibilities, inspiring teachers and students alike, but as they continue to evolve, we’re also seeing increasing suspicion as to their sustainability and real value. Martin Weller is Professor of Open Technology at the Open University.

5. Martin Weller                          

The original MOOCS like the ones that George Siemens and co. ran, were really part of an experimentation, they just wanted to kind of think what can we do now that we couldn’t do before, now that we have a massive global network, we can use free tools, everyone can be connected, you can get people to come in and talk with us for free, I’ve been a guest lecturer on some online courses, and I can do that because I can join in free on a Wednesday night from home and be talking to their students and stuff, so it’s really a way to think about ‘what can we do now that we couldn’t do before?’

I don’t think they were ever trying to suggest that this was the way all things should be taught, you know, or this is the new way for education, it was just this is interesting thing about this….their own pedagogical approach to it, and the idea of connectivism and stuff, but I think the new MOOCs, particularly the American ones which really started when Sebastian Thrun at Stanford ran the  Speak AI course and had something like 120,000 students, that’s really made everyone sit up and take notice. And then a lot of the rhetoric has suddenly become round you know.. we’re going to sweep away universities, they’re going to become redundant, this is the way we’re going to teach everything, and I think that’s… and suddenly people began to look at that rhetoric and people said that’s beginning to sound a bit ridiculous, it’s not quite that new, and increasingly the way those new MOOCs are looking, it’s beginning to look quite similar to old forms of just normal online tutoring and teaching, they don’t look that dissimilar from Open University courses for instance, so I think there’s an awful lot of hype around the kind of newer MOOCs and what they offer us for education.

6. Kim Catcheside

The hype is one thing, but there are real practicalities involved with developing and running MOOCs and these can prove difficult for Academic and Management staff to fathom.

7. David Kernohan        

The faultline running under it is, how do academics, how do support staff continue to be paid fairly for the work that they do, and also share the knowledge of expertise that they are generating with the world. I don’t think anybody has really bottomed that one out yet, we need clearly to look at new models of business, new models of funding, and new models of academic work. Clearly the world in which we pay academics to do research and then we pay again to read that same research in a journal and then we pay again to buy a textbook based on that research, that’s not a sustainable model either, so there needs to be some kind of a change in the kind of way academic life happens.

8. Kim Catcheside

For Alison Littlejohn, professor of Learning Technology within the Caledonian Academy at Glasgow Caledonian University, the learner needs to be at the centre of any Open Educational Resource..

9. Alison Littlejohn            

We have to look at the learner behaviours and understand how learners learn in a networked environment. How do they make sense of the knowledge that’s out there in the environment? How do they connect up all the different educational resources and other types of resources that are there, how do they make sense of these during their learning? I think a lot of the focus in terms of OER has been on the resources themselves, because I think in terms of teaching and learning in higher education there’s a lot of focus on the content. But if we take that focus away from the resources and the content, and we focus on how people learn, then we could really make much further strides forward in terms of how we use Open Educational Resources and the benefits that they bring.

10. Martin Weller              

A lot of evidence that we’ve seen from MOOCS currently is that they tend to benefit learners who are already experienced, they’re not very good for inexperienced or new learners, particularly online learners, they have a very high drop-out rate, so lots of people start them and don’t finish them, and maybe that’s because they got what they want from them and then go away again, but we know that there are certain things about committing to a formal course, perhaps it’s just paying the money, perhaps money’s a big commitment and makes you get through to the end, but we know there are very high drop-out rates and so the idea that they might bridge some big learning divide may be misplaced, because actually they may increase that learning divide because only really experienced learners are successful in them, and they go on and have this additional learning experience other people don’t get, so there are some discussions to be had, maybe we just haven’t come up with good MOOCs for novice learners yet.

11. Kim Catcheside

Martin and Alison’s caution about inexperienced learners being able to navigate Open courses was also a consideration for staff in Coventry University’s Department of Media. PHONAR and PICBOD are MOOCs and their resources are freely available as Open Educational Resources. They have been set up especially for second and third year students – not first years. These MOOCs are being developed for students taking their degree at the University, along with independent learners around the world, who can participate for free. Jonathan Worth is lecturer on the course..

12. Jonathan Worth          

There are two open classes that we’re running at the minute, Phonar –  Photography and Narrative, we shortened it to Phonar because that’s a really great hashtag, So Photography and Narrative is about different ways of thinking about narrative, the different ways of thinking about story-telling, for photographers, and then the other classes that we run is Picturing the Body, and that gets shortened to Picbod. both classes embody the subject matter. So Photography and Narrative, a big driver for that course is that the students should not only tell the story in lots of different ways but also connect with an audience, they have to consider themselves publishers, so one of the things that they’ll be marked on is how have you managed to gather a following for your story and how have you engaged with it, and how have you mediated the ownership and the authorship of that project? These are really challenging things for a photographer to think about and to have to deal with           

13.  Kim Catcheside

Phonar engages with the students on the course and those in the wider world on different levels – but it’s not entirely open and constitutes a module of the BA course.

14. Martin Weller              

As I understand Phonar…I think it’s an existing campus course that’s kind of opened up its borders if you like, and I think that’s interesting, we’ve seen that in the states with particularly a course called DS106 that’s run by a chap called Jim Groom, so that’s a campus based course, but he makes it open to everyone, and there I think that’s… I think we’ll see a lot more of that, I think that is an interesting model, because providing you’re not eating into your existing student numbers, you’re not cannibalizing yourself, then its a sustainable model to just make it open, and there can be benefits there, so that’s a photography course, so I think it’s really useful for the students there to be exposing their work to other people, and also it’s a benefit for the free learners, they can come in, they can participate with people, and you do  get these people who volunteer to come in and give talks.

15. David Kernohan          

The guys at Coventry and also the old school MOOCs, the MOOCs started in Canada with the likes of George Siemens, Dave Cormier, Steven Downes, it’s about the students connecting with each other, connecting with practitioners, learning together, sharing their work, critiquing each others work, that kind of stuff, that to me is a much more powerful and much more interesting model of education

16. Kim Catcheside

As an example of this on Coventry’s Picbod site, there is an interview with leading world photographer, Gary Schneider, based in America…

17. Jonathan Worth          

We recorded this conversation over two or three nights, and then edit it together with some of his pictures, so that the students got a really valuable and considered and produced movie to watch, and when they watched it they then tweeted their notes. They made notes on the computer using Twitter, so I was able to then Storify them, to Storify them into a narrative that everyone could benefit from. and it also went live on the class website as well, on, where everybody in the world if they wanted to, could watch this Gary Schneider interview, it’s a great interview, you should watch it. And so all these other people began to tweet notes as well, and of course, I was able to aggregate these notes as well, and so we had MA students, our second-year students, we were getting the benefits of MA students’ notes, and other artists’ and established photographers’ notes, and other people that were just into Gary Schneider’s art, were experts on Gary Schneider, they were making notes as well.

18. Kim Catcheside

But alongside the benefits, there are issues – in this case, Gary Schneider is a professional photographer, the authentic voice and the unrivalled expert on his own work… he’s contributing for free, but he’s spreading the knowledge and understanding of his product, but what if you’re an academic expert, inundated with requests to talk for free?

19. Martin Weller              

I think it would be a different thing if every course did it, if you were getting 20 requests a week to come in as a guest lecturer for a course, you’d soon get fed up some of the stuff works when it’s novelty factor.

19. Kim Catcheside

Martin Weller

20. Martin Weller              

When I’ve done talks for Moocs and things I’ll just come in free via Skype or Illuminate and give a talk so that’s kind of on my own time, so you don’t mind doing that because it might be only an hour, but there is an issue about that, so if I was being paid to deliver content on a course, I’d learn a lot more about the course, I’d make sure what I was providing fitted with the learning outcomes and stuff, but if I’m doing it for free, I think well you’re getting it for free, so I can’t afford to give more than a couple of hours to it, so what I do may not fit as closely with the course as if I was providing paid for content, so there is kind of maybe an expectation on the learner there to make some of those connections between what I’m saying and what they’ve been learning about, which perhaps if I was paid to do it, you might make explicit some of those connections and things, so there’s maybe a kind of subtle shift in the contract between the educator and the learner, in an open free course.

21. Alison Littlejohn          

There is a concern of sustainability in terms of open educational resources, how they’re created, how they’re released, how the quality is assured and so on, and part of the problem is the tension between the established educational practices and the new processes and practices that are emerging, in terms of Open Educational Practice, open learning practice and so on. So, in moving towards these open practices, some institutions are applying their existing quality assurance methods and adapting these in some ways to allow for open educational resources, and that’s having some successes, but 10 years down the line I would imagine that what we would see are significantly different practices that would allow, perhaps some radically new and sustainable practices to be put in place, for example, different types of peer review, or even insuring that learners have a better understanding what types of resource are likely to be more robust or of high quality compared with other resources. So in some ways we need quite a radical shift in terms of the practices of both learners and teachers, understanding part of the normal day to day work.

20 Shaun Hides                          

This is connected to this question of, what’s the credibility, why would someone trust the material that they find through us

21. Kim Catcheside

Shaun Hides is head of the department of Media at Coventry University…

22. Shaun Hides               

That’s about us building that network, building that community, building that trust, if the things that we say in these spaces prove to be unreliable, not interesting, not challenging, off the money, then people simply won’t trust us, and they won’t stay in our networks. As a head of department I began this story with the question of  research.

I think that we’re on the cusp of a transformation of the landscape of academic publishing, I think the idea that, for much longer we’re going to have a situation where scholars in universities are going to subject themselves to peer review, fellow scholars, negotiated and managed through an academic publisher that then charges them for the privilege of reading their own research, and worse than that, charges libraries and thereby students a huge amount to have access to that information, I think that whole network and that whole framework is going to be radically transformed.

23. Kim Catcheside

For students at Coventry the open-ness of these 2 courses has proved vital. Larissa is severely dyslexic, she almost failed her first year, but has graduated with a first in the final year…

24. Larissa                       

I think probably with Phonar and Picbod and the open classes, for my dyslexia it helped a lot, because it was this visual learning, it was all online, so you had the text, but actually underneath you had someone speaking the text as well, so I could sit and listen to it. You had videos, you had interviews, so it wasn’t just sitting reading a book or giving a handout of sheets, actually I could go, I could interact, I could listen to stories, I could look at other people’s work, and it was kind of using these other skills and probably other ways of learning so not just the traditional way, that probably helped my dyslexia.

These lessons work well for a dyslexic, it’s kind of like a dyslexic blog, that’s how I first explained it, because it’s all different ways of learning, it’s not just this black and white way of learning, and I think what I’ve had in education before is, ‘this is the right way Larissa, this is the wrong way, you’re doing it the wrong way, you’ve got to do it the right way’. Whereas here, it wasn’t, this is how you learn, so yeah we’ll take that on board and let’s see how far we can go.

25. Shaun Carroll             

There’s like a change obviously because everyone’s trying to define themselves now and wonder which is the right way to be a successful photographer?

26. Kim Catcheside

Fellow student Shaun Carroll taking the Picbod course, especially valued the use of peer feedback and review, made possible by twitter…

27. Shaun Carroll                       

I wasn’t actually interested in twitter.

I’ve barely really used Facebook or anything like that, but now it’s actually taking that from being like a more of a recreational type of thing but actually turning it into a very professional tool with the fact that everything is starting to have an existence online

28. Kim Catcheside

Shaun was encouraged by the feedback he received for his work on line and decided to organise an exhibition of his and fellow students’ work in space they found in Coventry city and this in turn proved a valuable experience.

29. Shaun Carroll             

It gives you the confidence as well with your work as well, once put it up in an exhibition space, it gives you the confidence that other people might enjoy it, so I started entering a few competitions and you know putting the work out there, and I think a few others in the class did, it gave us that confidence to actually go for things, one of things was that I got back was that I got selected for the Brighton Photo Fringe, which is happening in October this year.

30. Kim Catcheside

Shaun’s practical experience –  being able to print his photographs – and his relationship to the city of Coventry –  where he organised an exhibition of his work –  have been important to his development – for Martin Weller, these qualities are vital to delivering education – however much enthusiasm there is for MOOCs, they can’t do this…

31. Martin Weller              

Whether it’s the death of the university I think someone suggested the other day, in the future there’ll only be ten global online suppliers of education, and I think that underestimates what people want from education, it underestimates the value of the personal support they might get, like the local flavour of learning, and it really over-estimates what MOOCs can deliver across the board.

32. Kim Catcheside

 PICBOD and PHONAR are valuable elements in the course. They give students a platform to show their work and a forum for feedback; students are benefitting from the engagement with prestigious guest lecturers around the world, but they’re real worth is difficult to quantify at the moment. Shaun Hides.

33. Shaun Hides               

In the case of a student who got an internship with Annie Leibovitz, how much time, and therefore how much cost would that have entailed had we actually tried to make that happen in a conventional way, the number of hours on the phone, the number of email exchanges, the negotiations backwards and forwards – even if we could have brokered that opportunity –  which I doubt that we could, the kinds of attention to our classes that this is bringing, can I tell you that we’ve got 10% more applications because of this particular open class? No, there’s no way that I can say that, but I do see in the faces of the students who come on every open day, their reaction when we talk about this way of working; and I do know for instance at a time when most courses in the UK, most courses in the UK, are experiencing a small drop, a smaller than everybody expected, but a small drop in application numbers, on average our courses have experienced about a 15-20% increase this year. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I think this is because of the approach that we’re taking, I think that potential students understand that what we’re trying to do is work in this way and that it is appropriate to the media environment now, so is that a cost or is that a benefit? To me it’s absolutely a benefit, but I couldn’t tell you how much it’s worth and how much I’ve saved, maybe at some point in the future we will be able to.

34. Kim Catcheside

Open Online course modules are certainly proving a valuable element within the course in Coventry, but there’s potentially an even greater advantage here – according to Alison Littlejohn an Open course or MOOC can be a useful shop window for the entire institution.

35. Alison Littlejohn          

My message for co vice chancellors would be to use Open Education Resources as a way of taking forward the messages that you want the public to have about your university. For example, if you’re trying to sell your university as a world leader in research, you could follow the example of the Oxford Open Spires Project, and they’ve released a number of podcasts of their leading researchers to position the university as a world leader in research. Other universities and some of the post-92 universities have very specialist areas of teaching, where subject experts have put forward their resource materials which have positioned the university as a world leader in a very specific area. Now that’s a very important message in terms of marketing the universities and I think that would be very important for any pro-vice chancellor in the current climate.

36. Kim Catcheside

And in the current period of dramatic flux and change in delivering education, MOOCs offer something else too

37. Martin Weller               

I think the really interesting thing about them is they give you room to experiment,… if I wanted to run a course tomorrow about a subject I couldn’t get approval for here because it was too niche or too experimental then I could just put on an open course, if I wanted to try a new technology, I could try it out on an open course, a new way of teaching, so you use free tools, people aren’t paying for the course, so you haven’t got to deliver a certain contract or anything, so I think in some ways that that could be the real value for us as educators, they give us a space to go away and explore things, so, don’t lose the fun and experimental aspect of the MOOC.

38. Kim Catcheside

If you would like more information about or support with developing Open Learning Resources, please visit

Next time on JISC on AIR, we will be looking at Assessment and Feedback, until then, goodbye.

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