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Issue 17 19 Oct 09
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The impact of OpenLearn: making The Open University more "Open"
by Patrick McAndrew and Andy Lane


Over the last three years The Open University (OU) has developed the OpenLearn site ( offering access to free and open resources mainly from The OU, with scope for others to upload their content to one part of the site. OpenLearn was initially supported by funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation from 2006-2008 but also represented an investment by the University itself and was designed as an experiment to help understand the potential impact of Open Educational Resources (OER). OpenLearn had several measures of success as an initiative, including:  meeting targets to make content available; attracting large numbers of users from across the world; launching new technologies; establishing collaborative work in OER with other partners; and gathering evidence of the use and impact of open resources on learners and educators. However a key question that can only now be addressed is will the initiative will have a lasting impact once dedicated external funding stops?  The answer to this question depends on understanding the benefits that OpenLearn has brought to the University and the range of ways that project activity is undertaken.

Benefits of OpenLearn

A major issue relating to OER is often described as 'sustainability', that is, once external initiative funding is removed how can the work carry on? While this is an issue in common with any project that attracts attention and support before funding moves on, for open resources the issue is amplified by the difficulty in establishing business models around free digital resources (Guthrie et al. 2008). Continuation will therefore depend on whether the value to the organisation is enhanced in other areas of its operation by making its content available. Research during the funded period of the OpenLearn initiative identified a range of benefits (McAndrew et al, 2009) including:

  • Enhancing the reputation of The OU. Providing OER is seen as innovative and altruistic placing the provider with other high visibility providers with strong reputations such as MIT and Stanford. In the case of OpenLearn the external approval was also reflected in awards such as the IMS Global Platinum Award in 2007.
  • Extending the reach to new users and communities. Access to the OpenLearn content has been truly global with over 6 million unique visitors to date, the majority from outside the UK. Visitors have come from over 225 different countries/territories including from such places as the Vatican, Guinea-Bissau and the Marshall Islands.
  • Recruitment of students from those who come to see OpenLearn. OpenLearn offers a space where users can see the approach and structure of material before registering, or not, as they choose. A reasonable estimate of recruitment influenced by OpenLearn is the approximately 10,500 students since launch who have made use of OpenLearn before they register for a course at The OU in the same online session.
  • Supporting widening participation. A range of activities have been established linked to the free and open resources available on OpenLearn, for example to introduce groups of disadvantaged learners to the process of learning without the expense or delay in needing to waive fees or set up separate access to learning materials, and setting up special access to OpenLearn content for learners with restricted access in prisons.
  • Providing an experimental base of material for use within the university. The open material has provided a catalyst for reuse and sharing within the organization and has been used as the basis for experiments in semantic search, automated conversion of learning material to speech, and feeds of regular sections of content.
  • Accelerating uptake and use of new technologies. OpenLearn used technologies that were just starting to be rolled out for student use in the University, for example XML authoring and the Moodle learning environment. These needed to be developed more rapidly to meet OpenLearn timescales and were then released openly to the community as well as feeding back into The OU.
  • Acting as a catalyst for less formal collaborations and partnerships. OpenLearn provides a way to encourage joint activity with smaller organisations where previously these may only have been considered when external funding to support the activity was available.

These benefits do not in themselves lead to a sustainable system as, arguably, they could also be achieved by more direct actions to address each of these issues, while there will always be some cost in transforming legacy content for open publication. One view, as outlined by Wiley (2006), is that the sustainability of projects such as OpenLearn will only be achieved by making OER part of the normal fabric of the University’s business, whether that is around teaching and learning, research or business and community engagement activities. At the end of the OpenLearn funded phase in 2008 The OU made a one year commitment to carry forward its work and investigate the embedding of its technical approach and activity within other operations such as maintenance of Moodle and teaching material authoring and development. That transition was to ensure that OpenLearn itself was an active and updated site and the processes were in place so that The OU can carry on making OER versions of course material openly available at minimal cost and effort as by product of activities for students.

Now one year on we can review what has actually happened and see that there is now a wide range of activities that go beyond these ‘sustainability’ plans. In particular there is a clear continuing benefit in being a catalyst for further funded research and support activities.

Beyond OpenLearn: internal actions

OpenLearn (continued)

OpenLearn is now the University’s main hosting website for OER. Originally divided into a LearningSpace and LabSpace it provides access to educational resources from OU courses and teaching projects as study units in a Moodle based learning environment. Further development will shortly enhance this content with a front end (operating in Drupal) realised as OpenLearn explore based on functions and content from the existing site (that is currently dedicated to supporting broadcast programmes with the BBC). This ‘new’ OpenLearn will feature ‘bite size’ rich media assets rather than the multimedia study units of LearningSpace and LabSpace.

Openlearn screenshot

Figure 1: The new OpenLearn website

iTunes U

The Apple run iTunes U website allows many universities around the world to upload educationally appropriate AV material for anyone to be able to download for personal use. The OU’s iTunes U site ( contains video material from courses available without charge. More than 6 million downloads have occurred within a year of launch, the majority from outside the UK.


The OU also has a branded YouTube site ( offering a mixture of video clips from courses alongside other video contributions and podcasts from staff and students. Strictly speaking these are not yet openly licensed (although Creative Commons licences will be implemented shortly); however the YouTube copyright and terms of service statements means that the videos and podcasts can be re-used for most educational purposes.


The OU is involved in some very specific initiatives in Africa which involve the co-development of bespoke OER for use by African institutions to improve educational provision and outcomes in key professions. The most advanced is the Teacher Training in Sub-Saharan Africa initiative ( which is being followed by Health Education and Training in Africa ( in its early stages of development. Both activities also gain from external grant and philanthropic funding.

Stadium and ORO

Events, seminars and presentations taking place at various locations in The OU are routinely recorded as part of the Stadium system and many of the webcasts published on the website are available to the public under a Creative Commons licence. These work with the open availability of publication in the Open Research Online (ORO) system to highlight and disseminate parts of our teaching and research scholarship debates and discussions.

Beyond OpenLearn: Research and Development projects


The Support Centre for Open Resources in Education (SCORE) is part of the HEFCE funded Shared Solutions programme ( and will involve working closely with other English HEIs to publish further OER, share best practices and to host a number of visiting Teaching Fellows that will use OER to enhance or transform teaching and learning policies and/or practices.


The Project on Open Content for Knowledge Exposition and Teaching (POCKET) ( was an eighteen month JISC funded project that finished in February 2009 and investigated the potential to migrate open content approaches in a range of disciplines across a number of higher education institutions.


The Open Learning Network (OLnet) ( has been funded for 3 years from April 2009 by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and aims to gather evidence and share methods about how we can research and understand ways to learn in a more open world, particularly linked to OER but also looking at other influences such as learning design and models of participatory learning. OLnet is meeting its aims through establishing a community for research, carrying out targeted research and offering international fellowships at the OU and its partner Carnegie Mellon University,


The Multilingual Open Resources for Independent Learning (MORIL) ( project ran for 30 months and was funded from late 2006 to early 2009 by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to promote cooperation and collaboration between members of the European association of Distance Teaching Universities by spreading and sharing best practice in the development, publication and use of OER. This work is being extended for a further 24 months through an EC grant for a project called OER-HE that looks at best practices in the innovative use of OER.


In the EC funded Interoperable Content for Performance in a Competence-driven Society (iCoper) ( project The OU is working with partners to establish a best practice network and investigate the technical and cultural factors that prevent or enhance the sharing of educational content, including OER.


OpenScout is funded under the EU eContnetPlus programme to look at instrumental learning in management education and entrepreneurship to provide a goal oriented approach to use of OER.


The Responsive Open Learning Environment (ROLE) project is supported by the EU to develop a research platform designed to make the needs of the learner central to education. ROLE will help companies and education institutions personalise learning linked to the open availability of resources.


Steeple ( is a JISC funded project to investigate, develop, and document sustainable institutional infrastructures to support university wide educational podcasting, the software for which will be openly licensed as an OER.


The Adopting Standards and Specifications for Educational Content (ASPECT) ( is a 30 month EC funded project looking at how best to share content with the focus on school use rather than university use.


Achieving Transformation, Enhanced Learning and Innovation through Educational Resources in Design (Atelier-D) ( is a JISC-funded project to develop a virtual design studio space to support student learning throughout the design programme and so is focussed more on open learning tools than content.


OPAL is a new EC funded Open Educational Quality Initiative that aims to foster improvement in open educational practices in which OER is used to promote quality and innovation.

OpenEd 2.0

OpenEd 2.0 is funded under the EC Life Long Learning programme to pilot new forms of learning with OER. The OU’s role is to develop an open resource to support the learning of research methods and then study how this can be the basis for different types of learning experience across other European universities, business organizations and informal learners.


OpenSE takes a subject focus in Software Engineering to collaboratively identify and develop a core of open learning material. The experiences in doing this will be studied across Europe so that lessons can be learnt and disseminated to others interested in the evidence for use of OER.

A Framework for Preparing Teachers to Teach with ICT

This geographically based case study for the EU Life Long Learning programme looks at how the teaching community in Cyprus can be supported to make effective use of ICT resources and in particular Open Resources.

EduShare and SIDECAP

These linked projects look at the information and development needs for more remote areas of the world to become involved as providers and users of OER. The countries involved include remote nations such as Bhutan and The Maldives and the work of the projects has illustrated how openness can help cross boundaries.


The benefits and projects listed here are only part of the influence that OpenLearn has had within The OU. We also believe that the project has had an impact on the sector overall to move forward the agenda of OER and open learning. While that impact is hard to measure, the growth of the international community around the OpenCourseWare Consortium and the recently established joint programme of projects by JISC and the Higher Education Academy working in partnership offer further evidence that open approaches are an important part of future plans for The OU and the Higher Education sector.

Patrick McAndrew
Andy Lane
The Open University



Guthrie, K, Griffiths, R. and Maron, N. Sustainability and Revenue Models for Online Academic Resources. JISC/Strategic Content Alliance Report.

McAndrew, P., Santos, A., Lane, A., Godwin, S., Okada, A., Wilson, T., Connolly, T., Ferreira, G., Buckingham Shum, S., Bretts, J. and Webb, R. (2009). OpenLearn Research Report 2006-2008. The Open University, Milton Keynes, England.

Wiley, D. (2006) On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education, OECD: Paris.

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