The Open University has more than 200,000 students registered in its courses. Since its foundation in 1969, the University has pursued a social justice mission to open education to all. OpenLearn, a £5.65 million project, was generously supported by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation which has been a leading investor in the area of Open Educational Resources over the past five years. OpenLearn will cover a full range of subjects from arts and history to science and nature, at all study levels from access to postgraduate.
Professor Andrew Lane has a BSc in Plant Sciences and a PhD from the University of London. He has been in the Systems Department of the Technology Faculty at the Open University since 1983 and held various offices in the Faculty including being Head of Systems Department, as well as Sub Dean (Courses) and from 2000 Dean of the Technology Faculty. He was promoted to Professor of Environmental Systems in 2005 and in 2006 he was appointed as Director of the OU’s OpenLearn Initiative. He is also a Chartered Environmentalist.
eLA: What does bring the Open University to the open content field?
Andrew Lane: The Open University regards the open content movement as a key opportunity to better fulfil its mission to open up education, drawing upon two significant factors that the Open University can brings to the Open Educational Resources field – scale and experience.
Scale in terms of the quality of archive material available that can be repurposed in varying degrees for online dissemination, and also in terms of developing robust systems (both technological and pedagogical) that provide a meaningful learning experience to large student populations.
Experience in terms of creating distance education material that is designed to be studied by independent learners who often have competing demands on their time and a range of needs and experience. In this respect the Open University differs from many of the other open content providers whose material was created on the assumption of face-to-face use or at best blended use.
The Open University’s OpenLearn initiative will increase understanding of the impact on users of materials developed specifically for distance learning. Another strand of the initiative will be the creation and deployment of suitable learning tools. By placing greater emphasis on the environment, tools and support than the content itself, the Open University recognises that learning does not take place in a social vacuum
eLA: Could you briefly summarise what the OpenLearn project is?
Andrew Lane: We have created two interlinked websites that offer different users the opportunity to variously engage with Open Educational Resources and with other users of the sites. First we are progressively placing a wide selection of pedagogically structured Open Educational Resources derived from Open University materials in a LearningSpace website. Integral to this site are an appropriate selection of open source support tools based on Moodle (http://moodle.org/) that will help users (principally learners) manage their chosen content (self support) and suitably interact with other users (peer support).
Each Unit of material is self contained and can take between 4 and 30 hours to fully study. They include a range of media, including third party material, although all the Open University material is under a some rights reserved Creative Commons licence (www.creativecommons.org). We had 900 hours of Open Educational Resources available in the LearningSpace at launch in October 2006 rising to 5400 hours by April 2008.
Whereas the LearningSpace will contain fixed units of read-only Open Educational Resources, we also wish to foster the dis-aggregation and re-aggregation of these materials and material from other sources to create new, or new versions, of units. The linked LabSpace site is where creators of courses can construct a wider range of learning experiences for their students.
The LabSpace will contain a larger amount of material and will be in less structured form both the 5400 hours worth of units in the Learning Space plus a further 8100 hours of other archive Open University material by April 2008, and it will provide a site to which others will be able to contribute both within and outwith the current Open Educational Resources movement. The LabSpace has an additional support tool collection for learning management and community building and is much more dynamic in the way that resources are developed and used by a very committed and well educated set of communities.
eLA: Where do you see the main challenges for the project?
Andrew Lane: The main aim of OpenLearn is to make some of The Open University’s distance learning materials freely accessible in an international web-based open content environment and, in so doing, to advance open content delivery method technologies by:
- Deploying leading-edge learning management tools for learner support;
- Encouraging the creation of non-formal collaborative learning communities; and
- Enhancing international research-based knowledge about modern pedagogies for higher education.
The major challenges that we foresee are how to empower people to make use of an information rich world through appropriate learning technologies and support networks; the opening up of the opportunities for non-formal learning as part of a life long learning agenda; understanding better how to reach hard-to-reach groups and tackle educational disadvantage; managing quality assurance and intellectual property rights creatively and moving thinking forward on these; and creating a sustainable system for publishing and supporting Open Educational Resources.
eLA: Dear Mr Lane, thank you very much indeed.