Editorial Advisor, Matthew Shorter, talks about ‘Openness’ in the context of FutureLearn
FutureLearn is a platform for a learning experience often referred to as ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (or ‘MOOCs’). Of the four letters that form the ungainly acronym, ‘massive’, ‘online’ and ‘courses’ are fairly uncontroversial. Our university partners organise learning content into structured courses, offered online to potentially massive numbers of learners. The word ‘open’ proves to be far more slippery to define. Some people suggest very strongly that it must stand for a certain specific meaning. This article is an attempt to set out what it stands for in the context of FutureLearn.
First and most obviously, we are in the business of making courses freely available for learners to use for educational purposes. It’s a central principle for us that the core of the FutureLearn offering remains free to access.
Partners might sometimes suggest additional resources that require payment by learners, or offer additional services of interest to learners that come with a cost attached. FutureLearn offers statements of participation or attainment to learners for a fee, and we may offer additional services in the future. The creation of FutureLearn as a company and platform and the creation of courses alike require a big up-front investment and we need to maintain our ability to recoup that investment in order to make the whole service sustainable. But all such services and resources will be optional, and the core of our offering is and will remain free courses.
In principle, FutureLearn is designed for content to be discoverable via search and social networks, and our ambition is to make as much content as possible discoverable in this way in the coming months. We believe that some content should be available before learners sign up, to give learners the chance to preview content before they do sign up to a course, but also so that if someone chooses to blog about a piece of course content or post it to a social networks, others can follow the link back to the content. For the same reason, we believe that course content, and the rich discussion around it, should remain discoverable online once courses have finished. We believe in a web where useful resources have permanent, stable URLs and want to do our bit towards that vision.
There may be cases where our partners are not comfortable with this approach for business reasons, and in those cases we are prepared to make exceptions; once again, we are clear that course content on FutureLearn belongs to partners (or learners – on which see below for more) and not to us. There may also be content that we want to include that has usage restrictions to do with time or place, and our partners and we will consider those situations on a case by case basis.
In the short term while we are in beta, we are still working to put the mechanisms in place to make ourselves more discoverable in a way that’s consistent with our needs as a business. In particular, we are keen that when potential learners see a piece of course content from FutureLearn they are offered a clear pathway to sign up for courses. We also want to give our partners control over the content that they promote ahead of courses starting. Both of these are product features that will take us some time to implement. But we are working towards a position where content is discoverable by default.
For many, openness is synonymous with open licensing. We agree with the principle that it is desirable to open up educational resources for re-use by learners in other contexts. We already publish all learner content under a Creative Commons NC BY ND licence, which means that learners own their comments and that those comments can be searched, viewed and copied for non-commercial purposes, provided the originator is identified.
We also hope that FutureLearn will be a vehicle for the provision of some of our partner universities’ content under open licences such as Creative Commons, but we are not dogmatic about it, for three reasons.
Firstly, we are very clear that course content on FutureLearn such as videos and articles belongs to its creators among our partners and not to FutureLearn itself, and it is therefore for partners to determine the appropriate licensing for this course content. Secondly, there are occasions where we may want to make valuable content available to learners that would not be available under an open licence because underlying rights holders such as authors, actors, musicians or photographers would not agree to that. Thirdly, there are commercial reasons why partners may not wish to make their content available under open licences, such as the risk that it could be re-used wholesale by third party competitors. In those circumstances, we would not want an insistence on open licensing to be a barrier between fabulous content and massive numbers of learners.
FutureLearn itself is also sensitive to these risks at the level of the whole platform. As stated above, neither the website nor its content were free to create, so both we and our partners need to safeguard our ability to make money from services offered around that content.
With all that said, we are very pleased that two of our earliest courses, Nottingham’s ‘Sustainability, society and you’ and Edinburgh’s ‘The discovery of the Higgs boson’, have been made available to enrolled learners under Creative Commons licences, and we would love to see more courses being made available under such open licences in the future.
FutureLearn is keen to be open to the public about its processes and approach, within the bounds of being a sensitive partner to our university colleagues and safeguarding anything that’s commercially sensitive. That’s why we’re writing this post and why we have already shared details of our product development methodology and approach to pedagogy.
Openness also characterises our approach to communication within our partnership of universities. We are proud of the culture of collaboration that we are developing, where we invite input and feedback from our partners on our approach to everything from prioritising product features to building new institutional relationships, via marketing, scheduling and many other aspects of our operation. And we are delighted to see our partners increasingly working together in an atmosphere of trust on developing emerging content ideas.
Openness is a two-way process too: we have implemented tools to make it as easy as possible for users to feedback, to see the feedback of other users, and for us to be able to analyse, act on and respond to user feedback.
Finally, openness isn’t always desirable. There will be occasions when it’s important to our users to be able to create content in the context of small social assignments such as peer review, where that content is intended to be visible only to very small groups of learners, or to create private notes to aid reflection.
We are sensitive to the wishes of learners to protect their privacy, while other learners may wish to share and promote their learning and their profile. This can best be handled by giving FutureLearn users choices on how to make their profile open to others. We shall always make these choices clear, and not hidden in ‘small print’. For now, our default position is that all user profiles are visible to other learners registered on FutureLearn, but users need to opt in to make their profiles visible to search engines.