These are times of massive change in the digital landscape. Global connectivity through the internet added to the power of communication technologies and the affordability of modern devices makes knowledge more accessible and education more and more distributed. It is in this context that MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – have been making the digital headlines in higher education recently. And it would be fair to say that a University-sponsored group on Open Learning may not have materialised were it not for the MOOC phenomenon.
The membership of the Ulster MOOCs and Open Learning Working Group drew in expertise across learning and teaching, research and innovation, internationalisation and digital learning; all common aspects of a MOOC. On the principle that we could not ignore the changes taking place, we reviewed the MOOC landscape extensively: what, for example, students expected; what others in higher education were doing and had invested heavily in; and what lay behind the power of the platform.
We started from a conundrum: we saw Ulster as having a proud and long-standing position of strength in depth behind the walls of our digital learning environment, yet some of the new players in MOOCs and Open Learning had moved into this space openly and rapidly. As we researched and reviewed, we increasingly found tensions in the higher education positions on MOOCs. This was reflected locally too in terms of delivery, resources, priority, issues of exclusivity and the additional pressure on lecturers and others for design, production and delivery in this arena. We recognise these tensions in this report. We also recognise the challenge of discerning a business model that works for Ulster, be it on reputation, finance, values, or a combination of these and others.
All paths led us back to the principles of Open Learning re-forged by the white heat of technology and its potential to transform the dissemination of knowledge and distribution of education whilst also remaining true to our institutional values. We concluded that:
- Openness at Ulster should be as much practical as philosophical; widening access, for example, is a dominant gene in our institutional DNA.
- Openness at Ulster must resonate within our business equation; the tensions of resource must be set in the context of the value of what we want to do, the cost of getting there, and a recognition of where we are coming from.
- Openness at Ulster should draw from our niche educational provision relative to others in the sector.
- Openness at Ulster should draw from our niche and high quality research and enterprise; much of our research is publically funded with funders increasingly requiring open dissemination and public engagement with research that is accessible, substantial and demonstrable.
- Ramping up to massive open courses would be a massive step too far today; we need firstly to underpin a change in culture and capability that moves to openness in an assured manner. A measured approach would be to develop a conventional, for-credit online module and then scale for open access.
- MOOC costs are prohibitive unless in partnership; partners could be drawn from higher education, the commercial, professional body or third sectors; on a global scale there may be synergy with the aspirations of IGOs and NGOs with a remit in education, health, young people, poverty and peace - UNICEF, UNESCO for example.
- We must demonstrate capacity and capability by building our external profile in open learning and dissemination in an assured manner – using Jorum and iTunes U, for example.
- We should realise the potential for innovation through the research-teaching nexus; using open learning to enhance the student experience and to inject valuable co-creation and collaboration with our students in curriculum and research outputs.
- We need a policy statement on open learning with aims and objectives to frame an institutional position and calibrate diverse impacts.
- And we must underpin all our efforts with on- going awareness raising, academic discussion, support and targeted projects.
In the end, our journey traced the sequence in the name of our Working Group: from MOOCs to Open Learning. Ironically, the impact of MOOCs on our University can be celebrated already: MOOCs were the genesis of this study and may yet be one the many academic fruits collectively visioned by this Working Group and endorsed by this University.