A personal reflection on Open Education


The third annual Open Education Week takes place from 10-15 March 2014. The purpose of Open Education Week is  “to raise awareness about the movement and its impact on teaching and learning worldwide“.

Cetis staff are supporting Open Education Week by publishing a series of blog posts about open education activities. The Cetis blog will provide access to the posts which will describe Cetis activities concerned with a range of open education activities. My contribution to the series covers:

A personal reflection on Open Education

Two years ago, Lou McGill developed an Open Educational Resources timeline which reflected on the involvement of Cetis with learning technology and OERs over the past ten years. I found it very interesting and thought provoking. In this Open Education week, I would like to share some thoughts and reflections on Open Education through my personal learning journey and some of the work that I have been involved in with OERs, Open Online Learning and MOOCs.

1. Back in 1985, I signed up for a Self Study Higher Education Programme when I worked as a school teacher in China. Since the 80’s, China has built the world’s largest Open Education system to meet the needs of people who are not be able to attend a college or a university face-to-face. The programme is open to everyone regardless of age, previous education or qualifications. They can choose to study any subject that they are interested in (from a total of 21 subjects), either self-taught or study with peers and tutors at local learning centres. Those who pass examinations gain qualifications equivalent to a college degree. More than 3-million Chinese students have obtained university degrees via this programme over the past two decades. When I was half way through the programme to gain the degree in Chinese, I was offered an opportunity to study at Beijing Normal University. As a result, I didn’t take all of the examinations, but the two years of self–study did add great value to my life at that time and it continues to this day. In this example, it is very clear to me that although the self-study programme would have advanced my career, the four years of study at Beijing Normal University changed my life and career direction completely.  Learning for the sake of learning is a luxury that few can afford.  In the case of MOOC students, research suggests that most of them are already well-educated professionals. For many learners undertaking tertiary education, gaining a degree qualification is the prime motivation as they believe it will enhance their career opportunities. Open education involves not only access to course materials, but also appropriate support and guidance. Therefore, how to make university education more accessible, valuable and meaningful to learners is a challenge that universities cannot ignore.

2. I have been very lucky to be involved in shaping and supporting the UK OER programme since I joined Cetis in 2008. This has given me a unique opportunity to work with UK institutions and the wider OER community to understand the opportunities and challenges of OERs from an institutional perspective. In the UK, more than 80 universities have been involved producing OERs and making teaching and learning material searchable, sharable and reusable globally. One question that all funders, institutions and educators would like to answer is: how might OERs be shared and reused by others? We can celebrate the success of funded OERs projects but we must also question the sustainability of these initiatives after their initial funding runs out. There are some individuals who are inspired by the global OER movement and who spend their time and efforts promoting OERs. These grassroots OER projects are, I think, more sustainable in the longer term. For example, here is an OER/Open Course collection created by Dr Ma, a scholar from a Chinese University. He and his students gathered a large number of OERs and Open Courses in educational technology produced by universities from the UK and US. At present, these courses have been translated into Chinese and reused by Chinese lecturers who teach relevant courses to students who are studying educational technology. Some lecturers from Chinese universities have also started to use this platform to make their courses open and to share with educators in other universities.

3. The rapid development of MOOCs, highlights the question about business models again and again. Commercial startups, such as Coursera and Udacity have been experimenting with various revenue streams and recently have focused on professional training, credit-bearing courses and international markets. It seems an obvious question for institutions: what is the business model if the course is free? In 2010, my colleagues and I at Institute for Educational Cybernetics developed an Open Online Course for Masters students, who were studying educational technology in China and delivered it in partnership with a Chinese university.  We used a blended learning approach with a local facilitator. This course helped us gain a better understanding of language, cultural, pedagogical and access issues in other education contexts. It also gave us an opportunity to explore some ideas on how to scale up to make open online courses financially viable for institutions. Institutions will need to identify a particular market niche that differentiates itself from its competition and makes the courses sustainable over the longer term. With expansions of MOOCs, students can start looking at different degree programs at different universities around the country or around the world. Institutions will need to think beyond MOOCs. They need to design and develop high quality open online courses to enable students to study online or blended courses in their home countries. These courses need to be affordable, accessible and flexible to meet the different needs of learners globally.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that a new Europe-wide initiative, “Open Education Challenge” has been launched to encourage innovations in education through funding educational startups in Europe. I am currently involved in preparing a bid to address some of challenges in open education and help institutions develop new models for sustainable open online courses. Hopefully, this initiative will give educational practitioners and innovators a new opportunity to work together and bring about a substantive change in education worldwide.


Cetis White Paper on ‘Beyond MOOCs: Sustainable Online Learning in Institutions’

It is now six years since the advent of the first MOOC course, and 2012 is widely identified as the year that the hype surrounding MOOCs reached its peak and in 2013 began its path into ‘trough of disillusionment’. The key questions for institutions are what lessons we might learn from the MOOC experiment and how this may help institutions to develop a more strategic approach to improve the quality of teaching and learning and open up access to higher education?

Following the well cited Cetis white paper ‘MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education’ (BIS, UNESCO, Universities UK), this new report looks beyond the current debate on MOOCs to understand the potential of open online learning for learners, educators and institutions from pedagogical, financial and technological perspectives.

In this Beyond MOOCs white paper, we discuss key concepts emerging from the MOOC development that may have significant impact on future HE, these include openness, revenue models, and service disaggregation of HE provision. We also identify the areas that institutions may consider to explore with open online provision through the lenses of technology options, pedagogical opportunities and learner choices. In conclusion, we provide a decision-making framework to address questions of what form or forms of online learning provision would be appropriate to meet a particular organisation’s business needs.

Hopefully, this report will stimulate further discussions and debate on exploring the opportunities developed by MOOCs and to experiment with new forms of provision that go beyond HEI’s existing markets. We would welcome opportunities to continue discuss and explore ideas around open online learning in higher education in future workshops and seminars. If you are interested in discussing the implications of this paper for your institution, please contact Li Yuan at l.yuan@bolton.ac.uk, Stephen Powell at stephenp.powell@gmail.com or Bill Olivier at B.Olivier@bolton.ac.uk at Cetis (http://www.cetis.ac.uk).

MOOCs and Higher Education: What is next?

I gave a presentation on “MOOCs and Higher Education” at the SCONUL annual conference in Dublin last week. In the presentation, I examined the potential of MOOCs as a disruptive innovation and an emerging technology in higher education, and explored the concept, business model and trends of the MOOC phenomenon. The full presentation is available at here.

The Gartner Hype Cycle has been widely used to illustrate the processes of maturity, adoption and applications of emerging technologies in society. A question I posed in my presentation was, will MOOCs fall into this pattern of technology adoption?


If we take the Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford in 2011 as the starting point for the hype cycle, then 2012 was, ‘The Year of the MOOC’! This was manifested by the rapid spread of media coverage and the elite institutions forming partnerships to launch online courses shown as the upward trend of the graph moving toward the “peak of inflated expectations.” In 2013, less optimistic news and research findings have been appearing, e.g. the recent announcement from Coursera, which deflated expectations of MOOCs shown as the downward trend of the graph line.

Some questions:

  • Are MOOCs beginning the short journey into the ‘trough of disillusionment’?
  • Is the time approaching for MOOCs providers and universities to figure out what works and what doesn’t work?
  • Sometime in the future, if and when MOOCs enter the ‘slope of enlightenment and plateau of productivities’, will they then have a real impact on the delivery of higher education?

The answers to these questions remain to be found in the future!

To MOOC or not to MOOC

The question to MOOC or not to MOOC has perhaps been discussed in many institutions’ committee meetings recently, such as this tongue-in-cheek one on Tony Bates’ blog! While some leading universities in North America and Europe have joined Coursera to offer MOOCs, a recently published report from Queen’s University in Canada, which made recommendations about the institution’s policy and strategic planning on online learning, suggested that “Queen’s does not become involved in MOOCs until and unless there is greater support for online learning (within the university)”. It has also been reported that some institutions have been denied the opportunity to offer MOOCs through Coursera because, as a company policy, it only works with ‘elite institutions’, e.g. the ‘top five’ universities in countries outside of North America. No doubt discussions on what institutions should do about MOOCs will continue until the hype cycle has passed.

Coursera recently announced that it made $220,000 profit in the first quarter of 2013 by charging for verified completion certificates and receiving revenue from Amazon through learners buying books suggested by the professors headlining MOOC courses. This ‘brand + content = revenue’ model seems a win-win business proposition. Students pay for certificates from elite universities and the professors sell more of the books they’ve published to a mass audience, publicised via recorded lectures on their MOOC courses. In this case, many would argue that online learning should be considered a pedagogical choice (e.g. cMOOCs) rather than a cynical money making approach to education.

Whether institutions have been involved in MOOCs or not, it is clear that the development of MOOCs has re-focused institutional attention on how to provide effective online learning in order to gain competitive advantages in a global educational market. As the Queen’s University report suggested, the university needs to have “a plan that sets clear goals for online learning, identifies the resources needed, and makes the necessary organizational and structural changes”. Institutions will need to rethink their organisational structures and business models to make teaching and learning more effective, pedagogically and financially, either via face-to-face or online. Following on from the recently published CETIS MOOCs report, we believe that there is a need to make sense of the new pedagogical approaches and business models around MOOCs and other forms of online courses, and produce an analysis to help inform about institutions’ policy and strategic planning with regard to online distance learning.

CETIS white paper on “ MOOCs and Open education: implications for higher education”

The rapid development of MOOCs has generated significant interest in the new form of online learning model from governments, venture capitalists and institutions, due to their key attractions of scaled up ‘massive’ open access to online courses for anyone, anywhere in the world. It has also created a great deal of debate around how MOOCs will have impact on conventional HE providers and whether it will disrupt existing business models in Higher Education.

The phenomena of MOOCs has surfaced many questions about the role of universities in society and has challenged traditional views about teaching, learning and assessment. A key question surrounds how institutions can develop a cohesive strategy in responding to the opportunities and challenges posed by MOOCs and other forms of openness in higher education.

The CETIS white paper on “MOOCs and Open Education” seeks to raise awareness of MOOCs in higher education institutions. It offers a framework for thinking about MOOCs issues and challenges as disruptive innovations and for stimulating future thinking on open education. This report was largely informed by various commentators’ and practitioners’ thinking on MOOCs from their blogs and press releases, with additional intelligence from openly available reports. It has also been shaped by various activities that CETIS have been involved in, for example in promoting openness and supporting innovation in UK institutions.

The report is written from a UK higher education perspective and takes into account current changes on funding and fee structures in the UK higher education and the desire for more accessible, cheaper and flexible HE provisions from traditional institutions and private providers. We hope this report will help decision makers in institutions gain both a better understanding of the phenomenon of MOOCs and trends towards greater openness in higher education and a framework to think about the implications for their institutions.

eBooks in HE institutions – are we ready yet?

eBooks is one of technologies that many believe will have significant impact on education; and indeed will change the way of teaching and learning in schools and universities. In essence, both eBooks and printed books are very similar in as much as they allow people to do the most important thing – read a book. However, compared to traditional books, eBooks offer new ways to distribute and interact with information. Take, for example, the eBook produced by the Oxford Internet Institute, “Geographies of the World’s Knowledge”, a research report on where and how knowledge is distributed across the world. Readers can select pieces of the pictures in this book to zoom in on and to glean further information as they wish. They can navigate to particular pages via interaction with the visualizations.

The rapid development of E-readers, tablets and mobile technology in recent years, such as Kindles, iPads and smartphones makes buying, downloading and reading eBooks more popular and easier. As a result, more and people are reading routinely on their electronic devices. In particular, the younger generation, reading is the tool for much social activity and experience through the sharing of notes and comments instantly. With these social networking developments, it is clear that there will be increased demand from learners for eBooks within academic contexts. Education will need to change to provide a more interactive learning experience and access to content anytime, anywhere as promised by using eBooks.

However, despite all the hype, eBooks have remained on the fringes of higher education. For institutions, eBook technology is still new. There are many questions needing to be answered in order to embed eBooks in teaching, learning and research. For example, is eBook technology mature enough for education? Is it time to invest heavily in e-textbooks in institutions? What are the technical and cultural challenges we are facing and how can eBooks be best used in academic contexts? We don’t know the answers to all of the questions, but it is clear that we need more information and knowledge about eBooks to make well informed decisions.

Hopefully, the newly published JISC Observatory TechWatch report on “Preparing for Effective Adoption and Use of Ebooks in Education” will help decision makers, IT managers, librarians and educators to gain a better understanding of current issues and challenges in adopting eBooks in institutions. In this report, the author, James Clay, introduces the history and key concepts of eBooks and discusses the technical, cultural and legal challenges that need to be addressed for the successful adoption of eBooks in education. Furthermore, it offers scenarios illustrating the effective use of eBooks in libraries and in teaching, learning and research in institutions. It also provides us with useful insights into the future directions of eBook development.

Will Analytics transform Education?

Effective use of data is vital for success in today’s business world. In education, Analytics (or Learning Analytics) is becoming a hot topic, promising to disrupt and transform education and learning. I have written an article to address some current trends and issues on analytics in education for TEL-Map, a European funded support action project, intended to help stakeholders develop roadmaps and work towards actually implementing desired future for TEL in Europe, in which CETIS has been involved. In this overview article, I did a short detour to the business world for some examples of analytics, then I looked at how education has approached the phenomenon, explored some practices, and raised some concerns about the downside of this trend. The full article is available at the TEL-Map project portal – Learning Frontiers.

“Open Higher Education”, a scenario from the TEL-Map UK HE cluster

At the “Emerging Reality: Making sense new models of learning organisation” workshop at the CETIS conference 2012, Bill Olivier from Institute of Educational Cybernetics at the University of Bolton presented a scenario of “ Open Higher Education” which was developed by a group of participants from the UK HE sector. Having been involved in the UK OER programme, looking at the trends and development around OERs and open education in HE, it was really interesting to see this scenario emerging as one of the outcomes of the meeting of a UK HE cluster through the modified Future Search Method adopted by the TEL-Map project.

During a meeting at Nottingham, prior to the CETIS conference, the TEL-Map UK HE cluster identified some 80 trends and drivers impacting on the future of TEL in UK higher education. The group rated them for Impact/Importance and consolidated the high impact, high uncertainty trends and drivers into two overarching but mutually independent axes: ‘Variety of universities’ and ‘Student demands’. This cross-impact analysis resulted in these two axes placed to develop four context scenarios, namely Oxbridge Model, Traditional University Model, De-Campus Model and Open-Ed Model.


The Open Higher Education scenario was identified from the bottom right quadrant of the scenario diagram above. In this scenario, emerging leaders include the OERu, P2Pu and Udacity. The common features of this scenario’s learning model include low cost content and peer learning support, with expert support when it is needed. Initially, students choose this form of HE because they don’t have to pay for the services provided by universities that they cannot benefit from, such as sports halls, students societies, classrooms and libraries, etc. This model expands as more and more people find online university courses affordable & practical and more students see its benefits, including those who would have attended traditional university.

Along with the Open Higher Education scenario, three other thought-provoking and interesting scenarios were presented and discussed, including, Christian Voigt’s “Technology Supported Learning Design”; Adam Cooper’s “The Network of Society of Scholars” and David Sowden’s (University of Hull) presentation on “New Models of Learning”. During the workshop, the participants were also given an opportunity to vote for drivers identified in each scenario using ideascale to stimulate the discussions and debates. If you are interested to know more about the workshop, a full report will be available soon at the TEL-Map project website.

A wordle for technologies in 2012


This wordle was generated from texts abstracted from mentions of key technologies in a collection of more than 20 articles and blogs on technology predictions for 2012, which I gathered through Google search recently. These predictions were produced mainly by individuals and organisations from the IT and business sectors.

First, I extracted the main topics from each article and blog as the basis for creating the wordle. Then I did a bit editing work in order to create a more accurate wordle presentation. For example, I added “-” between two or three words (e.g. cloud computing as cloud-computing) or “s” to words in the singular (e.g. tablet as tablets) and using a common name for same technology that has appeared in different forms (e.g. using cloud-computing instead of cloud service or cloud based technologies).

It probably comes as no surprise for most people to see which technologies appeared and their order in the wordle. However, there are several themes repeatedly mentioned in those articles and blogs. On the one hand these reflected the most popular technology trends in 2012 predictions and on the other hand they signal potentially important implications of these technological development in education, teaching and learning contexts. These themes are summarised:

1. Mobile and tablets are continuing to grow and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is increasing as more people use their own devices for work. Organisations will embrace that trend and proactively develop a stance and policies on BYOD to better manage, secure, maintain, and deploy mobile devices and applications within their organisations.

2. TV is being integrated with other devices to make it “mobile, local and social”, e.g. controlling your TV with smartphones, tablets and Microsoft’s Kinect. Internet TV and IP TV become embedded into the mainstream. Apple will launch Apple iTV to provide the next generation of television experiences.

3. Cloud computing continues to be the top IT investment priority for organizations; the scalability, flexibility and IT cost benefits of cloud computing become more apparent.

4. Big data and analytics are going mainstream. Businesses and government agencies alike are adopting big data and advanced analytics technologies to build innovative new services, improve service levels, and drive greater efficiency to provide better service for customers, open new markets and reduce costs.

5. A massively connected world: The Internet of things, Near Field Communications (NFC) and Context-aware computing are making a seamless link between data and various applications and services around us, e.g. remote health monitoring and diagnosis, mobile wallet, augmented reality (AR);

6. The next generation of social networks, e.g.  Facebook, Google+ and Twitter, will continue to redefine how we interact with each other online. Advanced social networking technologies will be widely used in business to enhance collaboration between employees and improve efficiency and overall service levels in organisations.

7. Desktop 3D printing has caught the attention of the public. There will be cheaper and improved 3D printers, innovative user interfaces for model manipulation which make it possible for them to be used at home, schools and universities.

8. Others: image search and voice recognition goes mainstream; apps become an essential tool for businesses; HTML5 becomes important, etc …

This work intends to provide a quick update to the 2011 JISC Observatory’s “Technology Forecasting Literature Review”. Although we have covered most of the topics in the report, several technology trends appearing in the wordle might be worth further investigating, e.g. Big Data, 3D Printers, the next generation of TV, etc. For more detailed analysis of the technology predictions in 2012 and onwards from the IT and business sectors, please go to the google docs to see all the topics extracted from the articles and blogs and follow the links to the original websites. It is also worth noting that the NMC has just released its NMC 2012 Horizon HE Report, which identified mobile apps and tablet computing as technologies expected to enter HE mainstream in one year or less.

Big Data and Analytics in Education and Learning

With the growth of the internet, mobile technologies, multimedia, social media and the ever increasing Internet of Things, the data we can mine effectively as well as the types of information we can process from that data are evolving rapidly. In a recent report, McKinsey Global Institute estimated that the amount of data increase globally is roughly 40%. The term “Big data” has emerged to describe “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyse” (McKinsey, 2011). Big data represents data sets that can no longer be easily managed or analysed with traditional or common data management tools, methods and infrastructures. According to Gartner, the challenges of Big data come from three dimensions:

Volume: means the increase in data volumes within enterprise systems will cause a storage issue and a massive analysis issue.

Variety: means different types of information from various sources are available and need to be analysed, including databases, documents, e-mail, video, still images, audio, financial transactions, etc.

Velocity: means both how fast data is being produced and how fast the data must be processed to meet demand. This involves streams of data, structured record creation, and availability for access and delivery. (Gartner, 2011)

These characteristics bring new challenges to traditional Business Intelligence (BI) and analytics and require new approaches, new software tools, and new skill sets to manage and extract value from new, complex, unstructured and voluminous data sources.

Big Data has made its way onto the Gartner Hype Cycle for 2011 for mainstream adoption in 2 to 5 years. According to Gartner, “By 2015, companies that have adopted big data and extreme information management will begin to outperform unprepared competitors by 20% in every available financial metric”. It is predictable that big data will provide new opportunities for data service providers, content/information publishers, and software companies to offer optimized services and platforms that help organizations make better business decisions. For example, Oracle has developed a comprehensive Big data strategy, which includes releasing Hadoop data-management software, a NoSQL database and R analytics. IBM has also unveiled InfoSphere BigInsights platform for big data analysis. Many governments, sectors and corporations have seen Big data as a key strategic business asset of the future development and have started to experiment with Big data technologies as a complementary or alternative form to traditional data management and analysis.

How will HE institutions address the opportunities and challenges for Big data in education? According to MGI Big Data report, Education in the US is the tenth largest data sector, which stores and manages approximately 267 petabytes of information. However, compared to other sectors, Education faces higher hurdles because of the lack of a data-driven mind-set and available data. With an increased focus on such issues as data-informed accountability and transparency, emphasising student retentions and academic achievements, teacher performance and added value and productivity in education, big data will play an important role in guiding education reform, helping institutions to develop business strategies and assisting educators to improve teaching and learning. Predictably, while all sectors are facing the challenges of making effective use big data, several general development trends for big data in education can be detected for the future, for example:

  • One of the key challenges for big data in education is to develop data informed mind–sets and to make sure that educational data are effectively managed and available for end users. It is clear that the use of Big data is different from traditional data mining, and it requires new approaches, new tools, and new skills to deliver the promise of BI and analytics. In order to optimise the use of big data, institutions will need not only to put the right talent and technology in place but must also structure their workflows and incentives to promote data informed decisions at all levels.
  • One of the real opportunities for big data in education is to integrate information from multiple data sources. This means working with significantly greater data sets to store and mine all the unstructured and structured data to which institutions have access. These will include scientific research, library resources and administrative information, as well as data sets collected via LMS platforms and other sources to help institutions make smart decisions that lead to real success on e.g. development strategies and organisation management, student recruitment, international markets and intelligent curricula.
  • A shift from data collecting to data connecting. The potential of big data and analytics in education is to connect the unstructured and structured data effectively to identify and leverage the real learning patterns that lead to student success. Mining unstructured and informal connections and information produced by students in this way, including blogs, social media networks, machine sensors and location-based data, will allow educators to uncover facts and patterns they weren’t able to recognise in the past.
  • A new way to manage and use much larger sets of real-time student data. The real-time, contextual data could be used to provide real-time intelligence about learners and their collective/connected learning environments and contribute to open-ended and student-directed learning. For example, mobile analytics can be used to take advantage of the contextual data including tracking learner attention, behaviour management, truancy, teacher performance evaluation and school dashboards, etc.

Big data related technologies and applications:

  • Cloud computing,
  • Linked data
  • Metadata
  • Mashup
  • Stream processing
  • Visualization
  • Google’s MapReduce and Google File System
  • MapReduce & Hadoop
  • InfoSphere &BigInsights

Further reading:

Big data: The next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity. http://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/publications/big_data/pdfs/MGI_big_data_full_report.pdf

“Big data” prep: 5 things IT should do now. http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9221055/_Big_data_prep_5_things_IT_should_do_now

Big Data and Education. http://blog.xplana.com/2011/08/big-data-and-education/

Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2011, http://www.gartner.com/DisplayDocument?ref=seo&id=1754719,

Penetrating the Fog: Analytics in Learning and Education. http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume46/PenetratingtheFogAnalyticsinLe/235017