What do we mean by ‘open’?

In this blog post I want to think about what makes a MOOC open, and what openness means in this context. I’m taking as my starting point Marshall’s observation that  MOOCs “have been positioned as providing a means of addressing disparities in access to higher education for disadvantaged students, nationally and internationally” (Marshall, 2014, p. 254). This certainly aligns with my initial understanding of what ‘open’ implied, and yet I’ve come to consider it a fairly problematic understanding of the term.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Early rhetoric about MOOCs, particularly in the media but also in some scholarship, occasionally focused on their capacity to fundamentally democratise higher education (cf. Koller, 2013). Here openness is availability and freeness: anyone can participate, there are no access restrictions. We do seem to have moved on from this triumphalism to a more realistic understanding that MOOCs can potentially and theoretically broaden access to higher education. They’re more open, if not actually open.

And that reservation is I think because of the understanding that to participate in a MOOC you still need material access to a computer. You still need to benefit from the physical infrastructure, and the social infrastructure, and I’d say most importantly of all: you need the relevant digital skills. And yet, according to the ONS, in 2016 11% of households in the UK did not have an internet connection. Of that 11%, 21% reported that this was due to a lack of skills. “Nearly half of pensioners still hav[e] no internet access at all”, reports the ONS. For me, this fundamentally undermines any assessment of the first ‘O’ meaning ‘availability’.

There’s also plenty of research to back up assertions about the link between socio-economic status and MOOC participation. Hansen and Reich (2015), for example, looked at 68 Harvard and MIT EdX courses run between 2013 and 2015, and examined the socio-economic status of about 15% of the million or so sign-ups. They found that on average participants were significantly more affluent, not just than the national average, but of their neighbourhoods. They have higher average levels of educational attainment. Overall, not only were people with higher socio-economic statuses likely to participate in MOOCs, but they were more likely to complete them.

So what are the alternative meanings?

Rodriguez (2013) tries to describe how MOOCs are ‘open’ in lots of ways all at once. The c-MOOCs, he says, are open because they allow for ‘all degrees of involvement’, because ‘everyone who wishes to participate can do so’; x-MOOCs are less open because ‘the course materials are made available under a custom copyright license’. There’s a sense here that openness is defined as a lack of, or a dismissal of, the rules and norms that usually govern the way higher education is coordinated and conducted. There’s an indication of openness as a sort of difference, even of anarchy.  Similarly, Alraimi et al. (2015) identify openness in terms of being ‘less like traditional higher education’ and ‘more like everyday life’.

Stewart (2015) implicitly connects openness to her discussions of scale and massiveness. Openness here is understood in the sense of being public, or out in the open (p. 232). MOOCs are open in the sense that they’re not ‘closed’, not private. This to me aligns far more with understandings of openness from a research standpoint – open access, for example.

I’m starting to reach the conclusion, then, that openness just means all of these things. And more. That it’s shorthand for ideals like visibility, accessibility, flexibility, freedom, choice. But I wonder how open a MOOC – especially one hosted by a commercial, for profit company like Coursera or Udacity – can truly be, and whether openness is in fact nothing more than a chimera.


Alraimi, K. M., Zo, H., & Ciganek, A. P. (2015). Understanding the MOOCs continuance: The role of openness and reputation. Computers & Education, 80, 28–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.006
Hansen, J. D., & Reich, J. (2015). Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses. Science, 350(6265), 1245–1248.
Koller, D. (n.d.). MOOCs can be a Significant Factor in Opening Doors to Opportunity. Retrieved 25 February 2017, from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2013-12-31-daphne-koller-moocs-can-be-a-significant-factor-in-opening-doors-to-opportunity
Marshall, S. (2014). Exploring the ethical implications of MOOCs. Distance Education, 35(2), 250–262. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2014.917706
Office for National Statistics. (n.d.). Internet access – households and individuals. Retrieved 25 February 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/bulletins/internetaccesshouseholdsandindividuals/2016#main-points
Rodriguez, O. (2013). The concept of openness behind c and x-MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Open Praxis, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.5944/openpraxis.5.1.42
Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.