Open, closed…and everything in between!

Reading through the survey answers to the question “What does open mean to you?”, the perspective offered by an anonymous librarian had me thinking about ‘open’ and ‘closed’ as the extreme ends of a spectrum. Are there degrees of openness?

Open and closed can be thought of as binary positions, but I think it’s more accurate to see it as a continuum. There are degrees of openness. A college might be called open if it accepts everyone who applies, but tuition and the applications process are still hurdles that close it off to some. Some courses call themselves open but are only open to registrants, and closed to anyone else. When it comes to open education or open learning, I think an open-mindedness on the part of course facilitators is important, so that they’re open to learners establishing their own goals and having a hand in defining their own learning paths and assessments – open outcomes/open assessment.

Anonymous librarian’s answer to a preliminary survey for P2P University course on the item: What does ‘open’ mean to you?. Audio recording by Marie-Laure Le Guen under CC BY 3.0.

In higher education, MOOCs are often regarded as the quintessential example of openness. Indeed, on the surface, participation in a massive open online course requires little more than a reliable Internet connection, an awareness that the course is offered and a bit of time on one’s hands. In practise though, being open isn’t just about uploading a couple of video lectures and letting students grapple with the material on their own.

All MOOCs self-identify as open but they clearly do not apply the same yardstick. To measure how much openness goes into a particular MOOC, we would need a multidimensional framework that would help us determine the type and the degree of openness realised in a given course.

I see several dimensions to consider, which I would formulate along these lines:

1. Open enrollment

This is currently the minimum requirement for any MOOC: anyone with an Internet connection should be able to join, regardless of their location, educational background, professional credentials, financial status, etc.

Open enrollment usually means that there are no restrictions as to the number of students joining, which explains the massive scale of some recent courses. An Artificial Intelligence class offered by Stanford in 2012 saw over 58,000 people [pdf] sign up !

Some courses such as Why Open? have however enforced a limit on the number of participants in an effort to manage the pace of the discussion forums. The irony wasn’t lost on Terry Elliott:

This looks like a worthwhile August project and I would love to be a part of it, but I am struck by the delicious irony that a course called “Why Open?” is already closed 😉

Is it enough to allow anybody to sign up at no cost to claim complete openness in terms of enrollment? Well, not exactly. Setting aside the obvious issue of Internet access and cost, the following barriers to enrollment may still exist:

  • Language: the vast majority of MOOCs are offered in English, by English-speaking facilitators or instructors and thus end up being dominated by native English speakers or at least proficient English speakers. Instruction, discussions and assessments generally take place in English which puts some potential students at a great disadvantage. I would therefore rate a multilingual course as more open than a monolingual one. The practical implications aren’t simple but it is a fact worth noting.
  • Self-censorship: Even though the platform is meant to be open to all, potential learners may feel intimidated by the academic qualifications of other participants or the technical terms used in the introduction page and decide that they are not welcome because they do not fit into the culture of the virtual university.

It appears that even on an issue seemingly as straightforward as open enrollment, degrees of openness emerge.

2. Open participation

Which aspects of the course can participants model according to their individual or group needs? The answer to this question will determine the course’s level of openness-as-participation.

This would involve checking whether students are able to define their own learning goals and paths, whether they are expected to create their own learning materials or just use those provided by an external authority, whether they can ‘come and go’ as they wish or are bound by certain rules. It is mostly about who has control over what happens in the course.


  • It is often taken for granted that the tools used in MOOCs are mastered by all the learners. It isn’t always the case and, in the absence of appropriate scaffolding, the lack of technological literacy is going to be a barrier to participation.
  • Low connection speed and firewalls are major hurdles in many parts of the world, and this digital divide is most acutely felt in the case of learners trying to follow video-based lectures. I’ve experienced this myself time and time again!

According to this framework, a course is all the more open that is gives leeway for participants to forge their own paths and provides an appropriate technical infrastructure taking into account everyone’s needs – including for instance alternatives to video lectures and tutorials to help bridge the technological literacy gap, etc.

3. Open resources

What are participants allowed to do with the course materials? Is the software infrastructure open source?

For a MOOC to qualify as fully open in this regard, it would have to release its course material under an open license and use open source software. Here, the restrictions imposed by the chosen license will define the degree of openness, using only copyrighted material being farthest on the closed end of the spectrum while using exclusively works from the public domain would conversely place a course in the most open position (to take extreme examples…).

This is a side of openness often ignored by the bigger xMOOC players.

4. Open assessment

Since the motivations for joining an MOOC typically vary from improving job prospects to simple curiosity for the subject matter, it would not make sense to look at assessment through a single lens. In an open course, learners are free to set their own achievement goals, so the conditions of assessment should be flexible enough to accommodate the diversity of student expectations.

What would open assessment look like then? Pretty much anything that makes sense to the learner will work. Pragmatically, it comes down to a choice between grading (robot grading, peer assessment…), port-folio based assessment or no formal assessment at all. Some students are pushing for access to formal university accreditation.

As usual, it would be fantastic to hear from you on this. Any feedback? Ideas on how to visualise these 4 dimensions ?


Daniel, J. (2012). Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility (pdf). Accessed 2013-08-05.

Breslow, L., Pritchard, D. E., De Boer, J., Stump, G. S., Ho, A. D. & Seaton, D. T. (2013). Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom: Research into edX’s First MOOC. Research & Practice in Assessment, 8(3), 13-25. Accessed 2013-08-05.