The Open University UK: creating a win-win situation by sharing code and content

The Open University. Source: Open University (OU) UK, one of world's largest distance-learning universities (200,000-plus students) started implementing Moodle Virtual Learning Environment during 2005. Moodle was chosen as a very powerful, modular software with a huge user base. Simultaneously with migration to Moodle, OU decided to change its policy and to release a significant part of learning materials as open educational resources (OER) through the OpenLearn project.

With that, OU had two projects:

  • Development of Moodle-based OU internal Virtual Learning Environment and
  • Development of OpenLearn initiative (VLE plus courses).

The OpenLearn project has been funded by £ 2 million donated by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Budget was £ 5 million for the development of the two VLEs. The budget covered research, the development of the platform(s), change management, course customizations and all other tasks essential to making the system work.

Moodle Improvements. The OU was developing those projects five years ago when Moodle did not have many features that are standard today, so significant time and money was invested in improvements.

Change Management. By 2005 the OU had numerous not-connected online services. Those services were outdated, hard to maintain, difficult to use and did not support highly interactive education. Despite obvious benefits or new, well-chosen technology, introduction of new technology (change management) was the biggest challenge.   A long list of innovations had to be implemented, improved and tested, and a huge number of students and staff had to be familiarized with the new system.

Requirements and skeptics. The university had very high requirements with regard to the new system especially because improvements and a well-functioning system are important tools to eliminate resistance against the new VLE and facilitate change. Of course, skepticism about Moodle and online educations was an additional challenge. Older faculty members, accustomed to using paper during their academic careers, were concerned.

Balance and Change Agent. The OpenLearn project was a very helpful ‘balance and change agent.’  Because it did not commit any faculty member to provide online classes through OpenLearn, ‘there was less resistance.’  The university took this forward to collaborate and liaise with faculty. Their intention was to actively involve each faculty member in the process. To make sure that everything is understood, and that everything works as it should, a series of about 45 events was held and each faculty member was asked to attend.  In addition, the university created a wiki where faculty could discuss the new VLE.

Cooperation. For the OU the most important source of information and cooperation was the Moodle community ( Liaison with other universities can be beneficial. But each university has specific requirements, so the results of such cooperation cannot be compared with results achieved through collaboration with a Moodle community. As Niall Sclater, director of Learning Innovation at the Open University, illustrates: “What we've found is that with Moodle, we're part of the worldwide community, and that's really the best forum for collaboration and development.”  With 36 million of users, 1.2 million of teachers and 3.6 million of courses, bugs and glitches are found and fixed very quickly, and you can expect almost an instant answer for any relevant proposal or question you have.

Support. Although there were proposals to have a dedicated commercial support partner in the process, the team in charge of the VLE has realized that the best source of expertise is freely reachable through the Moodle community. There is no reason to have ‘a middle man’ between the OU and Moodle community.

Result. Today the OU has a working Virtual Learning Environment that is scalable, robust and feature- rich and that is being used more and more.

Benefits of OpenLearn platform.  The OU found that the OpenLearn initiative can result in real financial benefits.  As of October 2009, 11,000 students had registered through the OpenLearn site.

Potential barriers. Sclater mentions a few barriers that may arise at the beginning of such development:

  • Lack of awareness. Faculty may not know why/how to use new technology.
  • Lack of incentives. Faculty may be reluctant to make a change. Pressure from students can help mobilize such teachers.
  • Concern to avoid alienating students. There is the concern that e-learning methods might exclude some students from participating in courses. Some of them may not have appropriate technology (computer, Internet) or appropriate skills. The OU decided that its focus should be on leading in new technologies and that students would find a way to get a computer with an Internet connection.
  • Risk aversion. There is reasonable concern that using a system that is still developing might be a risk. However, the OU made sure that the software is stable and that only tested improvements would be added. OU was aware that there may be a problem here and there with the system, but it knew that problems can happen to any system and a solution would be harder to find with a less modular or less flexible platform.

Conclusion.  Moodle and free learning materials as part of the OpenLearn project are an indication of how paradigms are changing. Moodle is the VLS of choice because of ‘stability, flexibility, scalability and support.’ The source of feedback and information, 36 million users, could not be duplicated by one company. Change management is significant, if not the biggest cost factor.  OU made gradual, step-by-step changes with clear instructions on ‘how to make that step’.

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