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.

Islands in the Lifestream – Week 4 summary

The anthropologist, Nancy Fried Foster, gave a presentation a couple of years ago to a small group at my institution. She talked about a variety of things but, as a manager, one of the things that stuck with me the most was about helping people cope with change. Her key message was that you need to allow and acknowledge a period of mourning. This pretty much reflects the main theme of my lifestream this week: a definite absence of content, ensuing from the transition from cybercultures to community cultures.

This transitory, momentary grief – a result of this change in focus – accounts for the lack of a richness of detailed, conscientious grappling with key ideas in this theme, or those revealed in the core readings. It also accounts for the attempt at preparedness exhibited in the lifestream, tempered by a general sense of disorientation. I put together, for example, a short and desirous wishlist of things I’d like to read; I’ll add to this throughout the theme. I spent time picking a MOOC, and wrote up my reasons for my choice: something interesting enough for me, but with a clear eye on the ethnographic project which would be based on it. This resulted in me looking for something that I perceived might be emotive and evocative enough to generate cool and engaging ethnographic observations and conclusions. But there’s also been a sense of connectivism about what I’ve written: in a post about MOOCs and folksonomy, for example, I tried to orient some of the new ideas I’d encountered in the article by Stewart with another topic with which I was already familiar.

So it feels as though my lifestream this week has been a set of islands. The topography is the same, and the climate comparable. But the ferry schedule between the islands could do with improvement.

Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand



Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.
Image credit
CC-BY. Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand, by Patarika, on Flickr.

Distributed knowledge: can MOOCs learn from folksonomies?

Back in the day when I was getting my librarianship qualification, I did some research on folksonomies. My project was to explore how folksonomies and traditional classification schemes describe the same books on LGBT history, and to see if, and how, this destabilised knowledge. When I was reading Stewart’s article about MOOCs earlier today, I was struck by a point of cautious convergence between her comments about MOOCs and new literacies, and what I remember learning about folksonomies.

There’s a brilliant article by Clay Shirky called ‘Ontology is Overrated’. It’s a bit librarianly, and it talks a lot about some of the ways in which classification schemes are outdated and even a little insidious in places. But it’s a good read. Shirky presents folksonomy, or social, user-generated tagging, as antagonistic to traditional, top-down classification of knowledge.

if you’ve got a large, ill-defined corpus, if you’ve got naive users, if your cataloguers aren’t expert, if there’s no one to say authoritatively what’s going on, then ontology is going to be a bad strategy

For Shirky, this is in particular a baaaaaaaad fit for the digital world. When you need to organise knowledge, especially knowledge contained in or packaged in digital formats, you’ll struggle to do this alongside traditional ontologies. Come in Dewey Decimal, your time is up.

Folksonomy allows, in theory, for the organisation of knowledge to develop along desire lines. Tags are freeform and uncontrolled, so knowledge is organised on the fly in ways that are authentic, shifting, contemporary. Tags are inclusive and democratic, giving equal weight to long tail interests and to cultural assignations. Folksonomy is a project committed to the fundamental distribution of the organisation of knowledge. Or so the argument goes.

Stewart contends, quite sensibly, that MOOCs may inadvertently create conditions for the development of new literacies. One of the ways in which it may do this is in distributing expertise. The massiveness of MOOCs radically adapts the relationship between teacher and student. It decentres the teacher, no longer seen as the ‘knower’, and reshapes the learner’s role so that they must be less passive and more active in their learning. MOOCs implicitly foster and place a high value on collaborative, collective intelligence and knowledge.

These two developments – the organisation of knowledge via folksonomy, and the reorganisation of the teaching of knowledge via the MOOC – strike me as fairly similar. There’s a redistribution of power, a re-levelling of knowledge, a democratic shift in the locus of information and expertise, and a flattening of hierarchies.

However, studies of folksonomy in situ, particularly of dear departed websites like Delicious and Diigo where tagging was really popular, sort of demonstrate the failure of the project, at least from the perspective of knowledge organisation. They found that folksonomies were imprecise, inexact, and ambiguous. The lack of control over spelling, the cultural implications, the chaos and unpredictability and the over-personalisation of tags undermined their trustworthiness. The tags used obscured the long-tail, and they followed a power law. Just like traditional systems of classification, there was still a need for an ‘authority’. It’s just that, now, that authority was user-generated and unaccountable.

These were fairly old studies of folksonomy, so perhaps times have changed. I hope so. But I do think there might be a warning here to the MOOC, particuarly in terms of the redistribution of knowledge. The massiveness of the MOOC necessarily decentres expertise. It restructures where that expertise might lie, and it fundamentally destabilises who might be perceived as an expert, and who might be an expert. But what it can’t do is to remove the need for an expert altogether, nor can it eliminate the need for that expertise to be earned, to be accorded in some way, to be accountable in some way. It may not belong to the teacher alone, but there still need to be some condition over what it is, and who owns it.


Guy, M., & Tonkin, E. (2006). Folksonomies: Tidying up Tags? D-Lib Magazine, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1045/january2006-guy
Hammond, T., Hannay, T., Lund, B., & Scott, J. (2005). Social Bookmarking Tools (I): A General Review. D-Lib Magazine, 11(04). https://doi.org/10.1045/april2005-hammond
Shirky, C. (2005). Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags. Retrieved 11 February 2017, from http://bit.ly/1p97ISy 
Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.