Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ MOOCs and the OPAL Quality Clearinghouse

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 20, 2011

I have submitted the following responses about #change11 and MOOCs in general to the Open Education Quality Initiative (OPAL) survey of OER practices (I love how the email said it would take five minutes to complete the survey). I would also encourage others involved in MOOCs to participate in the survey, as my responses represent my own perspective only.

Please describe your practice

Please be specific. Describe how you managed to achieve greater openness in educational practices, policies or other fields. What were the challenges you encountered to start with? What works in your view? Were there particular phases you had to go through to achieve the result? How can others best learn from your experience? Please upload additional material, or give a link to a helpful resource, tool, description, website, etc.
The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is a concept developed by Stephen Downes, George Siemens (University of Manitoba, Athabasca University) and Dave Cormier (UPEI) in 2008.

The practice consists of hosting a traditional college or university course in an open environment, supported by technology that facilitates massive participation.

A series of MOOCs have been hosted by various organizations since (please see for examples).

MOOCs are instances of a connectivist pedagogy. The essential element is to foster and support connections between participants and learning resources. Participants in MOOCs are encouraged to use their own platform (blog, photo account, social network site) to create and/or share resources.

Typically, a MOOC will be supported with technology that facilitates this sharing. A number of MOOCs have used gRSShopper, an application that harvests RSS feeds created by participant platforms, organizes the material, and redistributes it as a daily email newsletter and RSS feed.

The principle of connectivist learning is that the learning takes place not as a result of absorbing the course content, but rather in using course content as the basis for conversation and the creation of additional materials.

Typically in a MOOC more content is produced than learners can consume; they are encouraged to select content that is relevant to their own circumstance and by so doing create an individual perspective or point of view on the domain of discourse.

Conversation is also often seeded by the hosting of online sessions with guest participants, typically experts in the field. While these live sessions are attended by a smaller percentage of participants, they result in the production of artifacts that prompt additional discussion.

Quality - OER/OEP 

How does the institution approach quality in OER? Is there any current indication of a quality concept or process? Does the institution perceive quality from the perspective of the quality of open educational resources or the quality of open educational practice? How does the institution show quality through OEP versus quality of OEP? What methods, concepts and practices are used to enhance the quality of OEP?
There is no filtering or other mechanism directly addressing quality in a MOOC. The design is such that quality materials will be discovered and highlighted by course participants. Quality, in other words, is not determined by experts, it is crowdsourced.

This is an important feature of MOOCs. There is not the presumption that (a) there is a single type of quality that applies to all participants, and (b) that this quality could be recognized by course facilitators. Accordingly, what we observe in a MOOC is that participants will cluster around different types of materials or media - for example, they may cluster around a discussion board, social network site, or virtual world. Quality is then indicated in different ways specific to those environment s(such as the 'Like' button in Facebook).

Additionally, course facilitators do not participated as dispassionate observers or 'coaches'. Rather, they participate as though they were students, creating resources on an ad hoc basis, highlighting materials they find interesting or useful, and in other ways modeling the practice of quality contributions.

'Quality' in a MOOC is defined not as the exceptional nature of published materials, but rather the richness and utility of conversation and discussions mediated by those artifacts and other activities. Hence, quality is determined post-publication, and even post-distribution, as an emergent property, and not an inherent property of the resource itself.

The most overt quality mechanism is the review of participant feeds. Each feed is reviewed by a facilitator prior to being added to the list of aggregated feeds, as follows:

- to ensure the URI submitted for the feed RSS (or Atom, or other supported format) is correct

- to ensure the content encoding is correct, and can be understood by the aggregator

- to ensure the content is not spam, or irrelevant to course materials

Participants also select by overt action the content they want included in the course through the embedding of a course tag (for the current 'Change' MOOC the tag is '#change11') in the title, description or category fields.


How can OER/OEP innovate educational practices? What current innovative practices are there in the institution? Please do not regard innovation from just a technology perspective!
The MOOC is as a whole an innovative educational practice. For example, the following:

- a course need not be offered by a specific institution; while one institution may 'seed' the course, other institutions may use the MOOC as the basis for courses of their own, which they evaluate and and credential in their own way.

- all aspects of course function are open; in addition to open educational resources, planning documents are open (and may be edited by participants), online class sessions are open (and recorded, the recordings posted), materials contributed by participants are open (though participants may form their own closed groups; we don't force anyone to contribute), and any evaluative materials are open.

- the principles of learning by conversation and creation of artifacts are not in themselves new - we are reminded of Papert's constructionism, for example - the conduct of these activities in a massive open online environment is new


What are the current OER/OEP policy arrangements at institutional and national level across Europe/the World?
MOOCs are mostly characterized by a lack of policy.

Course materials themselves are licensed under CC-By-NC-SA (though there is no particular requirement for this). Contributors own and manage their own IP.

It is important to note that contents are never actually acquired by the institution or merged in any way. This frees the participating organizations from most policy requirements governing IPR, quality, accessibility and hosting conditions. Materials are accessed in situ by course participants, and are only linked to or referenced by the course management system.

There are certain policy implications that could be recommended by the model, such as:

- public support for MOOC applications and environments, such as content aggregation software, online synchronous meeting software, etc.

- public support for open educational resources that may be used by the MOOC application - this supports the authoring and hosting of content deemed important from a public policy perspective


What actors are involved in OER/OEP? Is there any evidence to show that OER actors do not always promote OEP but “only” access to OER?  
Actors in the MOOC include:

- course facilitators, and often volunteers helping the facilitators

- course participants, both 'for-credit' participants at one or more institutions, and non-credit participants

- guest experts or session hosts

- the rest of the world, in the form of people who create resources that may be accessed by course participants

OER actors produce whatever they want; there is no effort made to police their production, and this would in fact be counterproductive to the objectives of the MOOC.


What OER/OEP initiatives can be evidenced? Is there any evidence to show that OER initiatives do not always promote OEP but “only” access to OER?
Not applicable, except in the sense that the course itself produces a series of artifacts (such as synchronous session recordings) and these are stored online. A website has been established to store archived MOOCs. 

Open Educational Practices 

Can you identify some case studies/ descriptions which form the illustrative base for a more general model of OEP? 
The more general model of open educational practices is to consider openness to be the default, rather than the exception. As a consequence, aspects of the course production that are closed are done so only as a last resort, with good justification.

For example:

- the course participant list is closed, and not shared with anyone. This is to prevent the course list from being used for spam. Participation in general may be anonymous. A privacy and security policy is employed:  This policy is specific to the course, but could be modified and standardized as a common practice.

- access to the gRSShopper administration functions are closed, in order to prevent access to course participant information, and to prevent unauthorized use of the emailing function or page publication functions

- individual student records related to course grading policies at specific institutions are closed, for privacy reasons

- and as mentioned elsewhere, participants at any time have the *option* to create closed discussions or groups; these are not 'official' parts of the course (there are no 'official' parts of the course, though those organized by facilitators tend to have a higher status among participants)

Tools and Repositories 

What tools and repositories are being used to deliver OER/OEP? For example GLOW, Connexions

Are there any other special tools for OER/OEP? e.g. Cloudworks, in which practices can be discussed and validated?

Are there any tools for Visualisation? e.g. CompendiumLD

Are there any tools for Argumentation? e.g. Cohere
The primary tool for the Downes/Siemens/Cormier MOOCs has been gRSShopper (, a purpose-built application supporting the aggregation, remixing and distribution of references to OERs.


Can you identify any strategies for organisations to use OER/OEP? Can you identify any business models that promote OER/OEP?
There are no strategies that specifically encourage the use of OERs; rather, there is instead a lack of strategies requiring the use of proprietary materials.

When participants are not required to use proprietary materials, they gravitate toward OERs on their own. Many will rely on the listing provided by course RSS feeds and emails, while many others will find or produce materials of their own, contributing them to the course.

No business model is needed in order to stimulate the production of these resources, over and above the business model that supports the offering of a course in the first place.

Current barriers and enablers 

What are the barriers to the use of OER/OEP? Is there any evidence to how these barriers have been overcome? What are the enablers to the use of OER/OEP?
Not applicable in the current context. The MOOC assumes that constraints are not placed on the production and distribution of relevant materials.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 13, 2024 1:04 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.