Open Educational Resources in the Post MOOC Era

By Gary W Matkin / April 2013

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It's clear that the landscape of the open education movement is changing everyday. What we now know as MOOCs (massive open online courses) will soon be superseded by a new MOOC-massively online open curricula. This transition is logical because courses are always steps in a longer learning pathway, which we call curricula, "majors," or degrees.

The immense supply of open educational resources (OER) available, and the efforts of universities to make these materials available to millions of students and teachers around the world, creates an imperative that OER must be used. The challenge is that the supply of OER is largely unorganized and difficult to find. One response to the demand is the University of California, Irvine's (UCI) recent announcement that its entire undergraduate chemistry curriculum is available on YouTube and its OpenCourseWare website. UCI's offering consists of 15 video courses (22 hours per course) covering the entire UCI undergraduate chemistry major.

UCI's Open Chemistry project is an early example of the next phase of the OER movement, where students are able to acquire open education by choosing a complete, coherent curriculum composed of many lectures and courses, providing a full mastery of a subject. Rather than trying to assemble a curriculum themselves from individual courses, scattered amongst different universities and online platforms, learners can now go to one place and find a curriculum like undergraduate chemistry.

OER and the Context of MOOCs

UCI's chemistry initiative is the latest development in the 13-year history of open education that began when MIT made its historic announcement that it would put all of its courses on an open and fully accessible OpenCourseWare website. Over the next few years many other institutions followed MIT's lead. Today there are approximately 281 universities around the world that are part of the OCW Consortium. Large-scale open "utilities" have formed, including YouTube and iTunes U, for higher educational institutions to publish OER.

Eventually, the proliferation of OER began to have a gravitational pull. Some within the learning community began to wonder how OER could be more effective in helping students, in serving minority populations, improving the teaching/learning process, increasing graduation rates, and potentially lowering the cost of higher education.

In July 2011, the MOOC era was born. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford offered, "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence," now known as the first widely recognized MOOC. By January 2012, at least three organizations had formed to exploit the MOOC phenomenon: edX (started by MIT and Harvard), Coursera, and Udacity (start-up, for-profit companies founded by Stanford professors). The MOOCs, for the first time, created a widespread public awareness of the possible connections between OER, affordable education, and, high-quality academics.

Have Free Degrees Become the Holy Grail?

The first MOOCs excited imaginations, as the possibility of very low cost degrees seemed to be a logical next step. Several foundations (Gates, Saylor and MacArthur) began funding projects to advance this idea. And major U.S. based institutions announced their own efforts to use OER to support their own low-cost degrees (University of Washington, Wisconsin, and the California State University system). A number of traditional "degree completion" institutions (Excelsior, Thomas Edison State, and Charter Oaks) incorporated OER into their programs to create assessments of learning that could be attached to OCW in order to generate degree credit.

A milestone was reached in November 2012 when the American Council on Education (ACE) and Coursera announced that five Coursera courses (including two UCI courses) would be eligible for ACE credit. This is the first time that students of open courses may have their open learning recorded with the national credit "bank" represented by ACE. Institutions, at their discretion, may accept the ACE credit toward the degrees they offer. Legislators who are concerned about both the cost of education and the shortage of courses available to matriculated students have begun attempts to force higher education institutions to accept academic credit toward degree, derived from free courses. In March 2013, the California State Legislation announced a bill that would require open course credit acceptance from all California public institutions. While this may be seen as a major intrusion on the academic integrity of institutions and their ability to control the learning experience, the leaders of the three systems (UC, CSU, and Community Colleges) are generally supportive of this initiative. They understand, despite significant faculty opposition, that open education and lowering the cost of higher education have become strongly linked in public awareness and public policy solutions supported by powerful political forces.

Overcoming the Learning Context Issue

The learning context issue is created by the problem of trying to assemble a degree from a selection of otherwise unconnected courses. A degree is clearly intended to be a series of learning experiences that lead to a defined learning outcome. Regional accrediting agencies now require that institutions clearly define the learning outcomes for each degree and "map" how each course in the degree curriculum advances the student toward specific learning outcomes. This requirement is based on the logical assumption that learning is most effective when it takes place within a context that is in control of the faculty of the institution. Faculty have the responsibility to select, sequence, and link learning experiences, including individual courses, in a coherent and consistent fashion.

The context issue is more important in some higher educational settings than in others. For instance, the general education requirements defined by most institutions consist of a very wide selection of courses offered in the curriculum. Students can meet these "breadth" requirements in many interesting ways usually defined in very broad terms (science, statistics, English, performing arts). However, when it comes to undergraduate majors, the integration of the learning objectives becomes more important as students are led step by pedagogical step from one level of mastery to the next. OER has already become important to matriculated students who use it to supplement their following of a separate learning pathway (degree) or for previewing a subject before enrolling. But for those wishing to find OER at a scale larger than a single course it is going to be tough.

Can the Issue of Context Drive the Supply of Open Degree Programs?

UCI's Open Chemistry project provides the entire context of a full undergraduate chemistry major as defined by its faculty. For the first time, an entire undergraduate major is available in one place in a consistent and completely open format. UCI's project has already proved very useful to UCI chemistry students who can refer to the lectures as they attend the course in the classroom. It has also helped students enrolled in chemistry at other universities. And it has served as a model for institutions in underdeveloped countries, allowing access to what a major research institution defines as the learning for chemistry majors.

UCI's Open Chemistry project is a first and important step for the University of California system, and also for the OER movement in addressing the context issue. However, a video lecture-based offering is not an online course in the usual definition. UCI's Open Chemistry offering does not currently include exercises, discussion sessions, supplemental learning materials, and other learning objects that are common in online courses or MOOCs. More importantly, there is no credit offered for any learning that might take place by students viewing the lectures. UCI will be making its own evaluation of the academic issues involved in enhancing the learning experience, and in providing credit and will closely follow what other institutions are doing, including those involved with edX, Udacity, and Coursera.

One thing is clear; the current MOOC era will change as quickly as it began as institutional leaders such as MIT, Stanford, UCI and other higher education institutions seek ways to provide access for advanced education to underserved students and teachers around the world.

About the Author

Gary W. Matkin, Ph.D. is the Dean of Continuing Education, Distance Learning and Summer Session at UC Irvine. Dean Matkin is a recognized leader in higher education, who for more than 30 years has participated in and written about the major issues in American higher education. Recognized for his expertise in the administration of online education, Matkin has also made important contributions to the understanding of the process and role of research universities in information sharing and regional economic development. He is well-known for his prominent leadership role in the Open Educational Resources movement and is responsible for leading UC Irvine as the first West Coast University to become a member of the OCW Consortium.

Copyright is held by the author. ACM 1535-394X/04/13 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2460459.2460460


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