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Google and friends put the ‘open’ back into MOOCs

From massively open to really massively open. oxyman

The entrance of Google into the Massive Open Online Courses market this week has the potential to reignite the spirit of openness that saw these alternative routes into higher education emerge in the first place.

The internet giant is to work with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a website called, which will go live next year.

MOOCs have exploded over the past year. With companies like Coursera teaming up with a number of US universities to offer free online courses and the Open University launching FutureLearn to offer an alternative for UK universities, it seems that everyone is frantically scrambling for a MOOC solution.

MIT and Harvard are not actually new to the game and have offered courses through their own EdX platform for some time. Two highly rated universities working together already represented a formidable partnership but add in one of the biggest and most innovative companies in the world and you’ve got a real force to be reckoned with.

The three-way project is exciting not just because of the high-profile organisations involved. The way they are setting up their site has the potential to get MOOCs back onto the straight and narrow following a drift into the closed and the commercial.

MOOCs originally came out of the open education movement, with roots in open source software and open education resources. But when they were hailed as a revolution in higher education, commercial companies sat up and took notice. Venture capitalists started investing heavily in companies such as Coursera. With all of this additional pressure to create effective business models and excessive hype in the media, the “open” part in the MOOC acronym has begun to feel squeezed. The courses are open in the sense that anyone can join them and study for free. But they are not open in many of the ways that the open education movement deem important – they are not openly licensed, for instance, so you can’t take material and reuse it.

There has also been disquiet about the elitist model many MOOC providers are operating, Coursera for instance has been focusing its offerings on the top US universities. This has left others feeling they are being excluded from the MOOC revolution. There are also concerns around ownership and contracts. And perhaps most worryingly, the pedagogic model embodied by the large MOOC platforms feels constraining. The open course movement hasn’t felt very open after all.

There has been some fightback occurring. For instance, the Reclaim Open project that has emerged from MIT aims to help educators use tools to rediscover the experimental nature of MOOCs. Now, Google, MIT and Harvard appear to be aiming to launch the Wordpress of MOOCs – an open platform supported by a community. certainly looks like at least a partial swing back towards the open aspect of MOOCs. It is open to any institution or individual to create any open course they want. At the moment, the site simply asks you to register an interest so the real detail will come in its terms and conditions over the coming months. But let’s assume these follow through on the promise of openness.

A community that develops learning tools in the same way that developers create plug-ins for Wordpress sounds like an attractive option. And by opening MOOC creation up to everyone, the boundaries of what we think of as a curriculum suddenly become open. You’re looking for course in Harry Potter studies? There might be one run by a fan in Brighton. A course on the history of Wales? Here’s one from the Welsh Tourist Board.

An element of wariness naturally comes with a further expansion of Google’s dominance, though. If becomes really successful then it is not just MOOC providers that should be worried, but learning platform companies such as Blackboard will also be concerned. The EdX/Google combination could provide all the needs of a virtual learning environment. In this scenario it becomes impossible to get any education that isn’t somehow served through Google services.

Does the entrance of Google into the market spell doom for other MOOC providers? Not necessarily. It may be that a more supported, structured partnership will suit many universities. We don’t know how well will link through to existing university offerings for example. This is important as many universities see MOOCs as an element of the recruitment process– learners try a part of a course and then sign up for the degree. MOOC providers can also offer training and development services for partners in developing MOOCs, so this more formal partnership may still be what vice-chancellors feel comfortable with.

But for now, we should probably be thankful that an open source platform with a community driven, open approach to participation is here, as it puts the value of openness back into the MOOC world and will force other providers to respond.

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