Colin's Sandbox

Examining the “Open” in Open Education

With the proliferation of broadband, mobile devices with data capabilities, easy to use mobile applications, data storage and applications that operate “in the cloud”, there has been a lot of talk about learning out in the “open”, particularly at colleges and universities, where the acronym MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has become somewhat synonymous with open education.  The course, offered for credit in the spring semester for the University of Alaska Southeast Educational Technology program, led by Jason Ohler (2014) in Digital Citizenship itself is billed as a MOOC.  What does that really mean in practice?  What are some of the implications pertaining to digital citizenship?

Sing Along: cMOOC / xMOOC / Everywhere a MOOC MOOC

In his video, Dave Cormier (2010) described a MOOC as a course in the sense that it may have a start and end date, facilitators, and materials available hosted on in the spaces that feel most comfortable to the participants.  It has the feel of an event in which members of the community, who may not pay in order to participate, engage with others to explore topics in a supportive, networked environment. The work that is produced is distributed amongst all manner of resources, such as blogs, Twitter, whatever space works for the participants.  As an optional component in some MOOCs students can pay a fee to have direct feedback from facilitators, possibly have higher expectations placed upon them, and have accreditation from an institution running the course.  The primary aim of this type of format is on building your personal learning network, or PLN, in the pursuit of lifelong learning.

To muddy the waters a bit, this is what is known as a “connectivist” MOOC, as opposed to what has become known as an “xMOOC”, which typically aim to extend (the “x” in xMOOC) the university course content into an online format but serving a much greater number of people.  Assessment is typically automated through such tools as multiple choice quizzes.  Compared to the connectivist MOOC or cMOOC, the focus is on the content, and your interactions are with other students as students, not as peers (Caulfield, 2013).  Another issue with the xMOOC model is that when you examine the terms of service, the work that you submit may not be yours to control the rights and distribution. whereas in cMOOCs you have the ability to control your creative works completely (Cheverie, 2013).  In this document the acronym MOOC will refer to the connectivist, or cMOOC variety.

Taking a step back, what we call “open education”, or “open learning” is going to be some combination of elements from both of these approaches.  Resources that participants use to learn subject material or explore the background of a topic are available for free, both “libre” and “gratis”, and are collectively known as “open education resources”.  Wikipedia and the Kahn Academy are the first two resources that came to mind when thinking of libre and gratis open education resources, respectively.

Over the past month I have been working with Dr. Lee Graham from the University of Alaska Southeast along with Verena Roberts, eLearning Consultant and Innovator, to examine topics of open education in K-12 environments.  Incidentally, one of the key findings thus far is that there hasn’t been much in the way of research performed yet in this area.  When you examine open learning and connectivist MOOCs through the lens of digital citizenship, especially in the realm of K-12 education, several important issues stand out that need to be addressed in order to increase your chances for a successful experience either as a participant or as a facilitator.  From the long running MIT OpenCourseWare project, Baraniuk (2008) identified the challenges of open education resources as:

  • the challenge of reuse
  • fragmentation
  • infrastructure cost
  • intellectual property
  • quality control
  • sustainability

In the domain of open education pedagogy, from the University of Manitoba, Dron and Anderson (2014) also discussed the important issue of the fear of learning in open, online formats such as blogs, social media, and others.  I believe is a significant concern, especially when facilitating a collective of primarily adult or a mixture of learners of different generations.  I refer to this as “online agoraphobia” below.

Rearranging these terms as an outline of topics (and consciously omitting one):
Open Formats and Open Licenses

  • the challenge of reuse
  • fragmentation
  • infrastructure cost
  • intellectual property

Developing the Personal Learning Network

  • quality control
  • sustainability

In this taxonomy, the artifacts of the MOOC fall into two distinct divisions: the first is the work produced by the participants in a distributed fashion, in which a set of individuals online (brought together due to their membership of the MOOC perhaps, or certainly otherwise) join together in order to develop some content collaboratively for the benefit of team members and available to the outside world.  This content may include such wide and varied artifacts as a paper, a movie, a set of instructions supported by images, music, there’s really no limit.

The second context is the what I think of as the “back channel” or “meta channel” but may be thought in the traditional sense as class mechanics.  This is the fabric on which the course runs, the collection of means by which course participants reflect, communicate with each other and the facilitators, provide feedback, link to additional resources, plan and report on projects, etc.  This sum total of all of this is the distributed course conversation.

Due to the breadth of the topic I won’t cover the issue of infrastructure that Baraniuk enumerated.  It is certainly an important consideration, especially for K-12 applications, when one thinks in terms of the “Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship” outlined in Mike Ribble’s (2011) excellent text, “Digital Citizenship in Schools, specifically the concern of digital access and disparity of access in the home.

Linux as a Open Learning Model

For a comparison of how open learning environments can exist, evolve, and adapt, I will refer frequently to the development model and history for the Linux kernel, the central portion of what is known as Linux, a popular open source operating system.  The Linux kernel development team is relevant here for the simple reason is that it is a large, hierarchical organization focused on producing one product with a very high degree of quality. Linux is run on a variety of different platforms, notably Android smartphones and tablets, embedded devices (such as that DVD player in your minivan, perhaps), and Chromebooks.  As of 2008, it is estimated that the community is composed of over 5000 developers, and the product is currently over 15 million lines of code long (Bovet & Cesati, 2008).  The cost to rebuild the Linux kernel from scratch has been estimated to be about $3 billion (Wheeler, 2010).  By any metric this is a large, important product to maintain.  What really makes this project stand out from many others is that all of the revisions of the code that led to the current production copy are available for anyone, at no cost, for any reason, and can be copied from and used in follow-on works as long as the original license is also used.  What’s more, the medium of interaction, the discussions that lead to changes in the project, is in the form of an email listserv whose archive stretches back to the very beginnings of the project.  There is no central plan, just evolutionary progress as the developers learn and work collaboratively to face challenges within certain guidelines to meet the community’s needs.  The project maintainers act like referees to enforce those guidelines (Bovet & Cesati, 2008).

Open Formats and Open Licenses

Working on Open Production Teams Versus Open Learning
Since by design, there is no one way to “do” open education, you are going to encounter a wide range of resources utilized to meet the course goals.  In any circumstance, since participants in MOOCs have wide latitude to design and craft their own learning environment to suit their needs, it is best to stipulate certain minimum requirements to provide a starting point for anyone to engage with each other and to make maximum use of ideas and materials generated.  In classes that I have participated under Dr. Lee Graham, participants were required to use Twitter to notify class participants that new blog posts and work had been completed.  The Digital Citizenship MOOC utilized Google Plus for that role as well as a resource hub and shared commenting space.

Creating Team Collaboration Environments

Issues of formats affecting the reuse of created work, intellectual property, sustainability, and fragmentation are so closely related to one another that I include them together for discussion.  “The challenge of reuse” as phrased by Baraniuk (2008) refers to the fact that certain publishing formats such as Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF), Microsoft’s Word (both original and newer OOXML formats), as well as a whole host of others, don’t allow for easy methods for remixing content into other forms, or require non-free tools in order to do so.

What is meant by “free” in this context?  Free is understood here as “libre” in the tradition of public domain and copyleft licenses , meaning with little or no restriction. This contrasts with “free as in no cost” (gratis), in which proprietary software is given away for free (or with accepting website registration and terms of service, or similar restriction).  As Richard Stallman said, “Think free as in free speech, not free beer” (Free Software Foundation, 2014).

Avoiding a long discussion through the technical nitty-gritty, let me summarize by saying that it *is* possible to create repositories built entirely on open source (libre) formats such as the OpenDocument, WebM, and Theora, all accessible through distributed collaboration tools such as SparkleShare and ownCloud, and perhaps tied together with a version control systems such as the one used for Linux kernel development known as Git.  However due to their ease of use, collaborative features, and entrenched user base, it is much more common for users to use cloud-based applications and services such as Dropbox and Google Apps.

Sustainability and Fragmentation

Sustainability, both long- and short-term, relates to the effort required to keep the project viable and stable (Baraniuk, 2008).  These resources often require some investment to keep them going, either in time to facilitate the community, money to keep hosted services online, or both.  Using open education resources helps keep this project cost down and care should be taken in the selection of services to allow you to gracefully transition from one project manager to another.  In the free (libre) open source model used by the Linux kernel development team, there exists one repository which is recognized by the collective as authoritative and whose contents are tightly controlled by a set of maintainers.  Developers and anyone else mirror the authoritative repository.  However, nothing precludes an individual or group from taking the current Linux source tree, calling it something completely different, and declaring themselves as the authority for what is effectively a new project derived from Linux (a “fork”).  As long as the new maintainers adhere to the requirements of the particular license that the kernel is published under (the GNU Public License version 2 in this case), then everyone is happy.  Although historically many software forks die, some go on to live healthy productive lives.  Case in point: most all of Linux distributions themselves are produced from three different branches (Linux distribution, 2014).

When we talk about long term sustainability we may be concerned about the ability to access, modify, and convert from one format to another.  In my opinion, if you were interested in project archival over a very long term, one interesting reason to choose an open document format is that you could, without too much work, include all of the software components and their source code in order to do just that placed on some memory device.  Which memory device technology will survive well into the future aside from chiseling in stone is again a matter for another study in itself.

With any form of distributed project management involving many parties there runs the risk of project fragmentation that has to be kept in check.  At the time of Baraniuk’s (2008) work prior to the rise of cloud-based applications and data storage, this was more of a risk since institutions would maintain their own separate repositories of information to work from.  It is still something to be cognizant of, however, and participants involved in project groups should agree to work from the same shared set of resources to avoid a situation in which one subset of the collective is working from a stale set of working documents.

Creating a Free Culture

It is vital that any group working together on an open education project have the same expectations as to their group norms.  I would recommend that any work be produced under a free license, such as one of the Creative Commons licenses, which allows others permission to freely use the material as stipulated in the license.  License clauses frequently encountered:

  • Attribution: I want my work to be shared, but I want credit for the original work.
  • ShareAlike: I am OK with people creating works derived from my work, but only under the same license.
  • Non-Commercial: I am not OK with anyone using my work for commercial uses (Creative Commons, 2014).

The important thing here is to have an active and ongoing discussion amongst participants as time goes on so that everyone understands the limits and reach of the work that the team has developed together.  It is no understatement to say that the process of setting an appropriate license defines the course that the project will run.  Had the developers of the Linux kernel chosen (or indeed, been able to choose after they had begun) a different license, that is, a different set of expectations about what can and should be done with their work, the result would have been much different and would not have reflected the community expectation of derived work being shared back with the community (Wheeler, 2011).

The Personal Learning Network: Adapting to Learning in the Open

I mentioned before the importance of the personal learning network, or PLN, to the concept of the MOOC: they are inextricably linked.  To a connectivist mindset, knowledge is what you create with and conditioned by your personal network of learners.  Downes (2014) goes further to say that “learning is the formation of connections in a network”.  In contrast with the “net generation”, adult learners by and large do not engage in social media with their peers as often or in the same way (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008; locations 101, 346, 450), so it is to be expected that there be some resistance from moving from brick and mortar classrooms and even closed-system online environments, either of which have traditionally been perceived as safe, into social media and public spaces which have the potential for much more exposure to an infinitely much larger audience.

Dron and Anderson describe a fear of engaging in social media as akin to agoraphobia; a sense of social vulnerability that results from leaving the confines of “closed systems”.  In traditional learning environments, this feeling of safety and politeness can lead to “pathological politeness”, where participants are unwilling to be critical of each other and especially of the teacher.  The safety of these traditional class structures comes “at a pedagogical cost of isolation, group think, potential domination by teachers, a tendency for learners to delegate their learning and their safety to others”.  In addition, the main disadvantage is that knowledge and work that is created stays with the group (Dron & Anderson, 2014).

If they are anything like me, participants who are new to open learning and publishing their work in open spaces will find that their audience is initially small and is assumed to be limited to the immediate collective.  As this network expands, so does the potential for quality control and the potential for increasing “social capital”.  In my research I did not turn up any tried and true method for social acclimatization in open learning environments, but in my own limited graduate student experience this does not seem to have been a large issue with a sizable number of the group.  Those students in graduate school that wish to maintain a more limited lower-profile digital footprint have seemingly been able to do so, while others seem to have actively worked to expand their professional learning network beyond the bounds of the course.  This professional learning network, in turn, can be parlayed that into success in the long term to help support future learning and career goals. (Dorn & Anderson, 2014).

To support learners who may be new to open education, it may be an effective approach to frame the participant’s initial audience as the act of shifting the traditional class group structure and support expectations into the online space initially and then scaffold the participants into different avenues of community-led participation.  It would be important in this environment to set the expectations of the community as one in which participants support of each other in their goals and to maintain a positive discussion while allowing for critical analysis.  To fail in explicitly making space for critical analysis however is to invite “pathological politeness” (Dorn & Anderson, 2014), where participants are unwilling to be critical of each other and especially of the teacher.

By allowing public comments and tracking through technologies as pingbacks (which allow for notification when another site links to a post on your site, optional from the point of the view of the linker), and website usage report tools such as Google Analytics the participant can get a feel for the size and makeup of their audience.  As readership increases, authors expose themselves to wider and more diverse opinions to potentially challenge their work.  It is hoped that the participant grows in their confidence as their work is challenged in this ever-growing arena.

Bringing This Into the K-12 Education World?

As my involvement with Dr. Graham and Ms. Roberts has shown, the research on open education in K-12 education is still in its infancy.  The most recent NMC Horizon Report for K-12 (still in preview) agrees that further study is required to evaluate the model for using MOOCs in the K-12 environment and how to best provide support “collaboration, interaction, and assessment” (NMC, 2014).

On one hand, there are certainly basic concerns of privacy and of students having attained the necessary maturity to be self-directed learners let alone larger concerns of project management when two classes are on different schedules and have different expectations.  On the other, the potential gains from developing students’ online profiles in a positive, learner-centric manner in a network of other passionate peers would seem to be the way in which the net generation approaches learning in this day and age (Palfrey & Gasser, 2008).  The coming years will be exciting as schools and teachers strive to improve education, cut costs, and engage their students.  They can look to the higher education world for research into the current snapshot of best practices but the vanguard may have to be comfortable living on the “bleeding edge”.  Looking again to the case of the community of developers who work on the Linux kernel, it’s certainly possible with the right motivation to have a long lasting collective of learners focused on producing work of the highest level of quality used by millions.


Baraniuk R. (2008).  Challenges and opportunities for the open education movement: A connexions case study.  In Toru Iiyoshi & M. S. Vijay Kumar (Eds.), Opening up education: The Collective advancement of education through open technology, open content, and open knowledge. (pp. 229-246).   Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Bovet, D. P. and Cesati, M (2008).  Linux evolution. Rome: Systems Programming Research Group proceedings, March 26, 2008.  Accessed April 23, 2014 from

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Wheeler, D. (2011).  The Linux kernel:  It’s worth more!.  Personal essay site.

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