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Open Learning: What It Is and How You Can Benefit

Industry Advice Education

There’s a mounting pressure on today’s colleges and universities to demonstrate their worth. As tuition costs continue to climb, affordability is becoming a bigger barrier to access in higher education.

In response, dozens of institutions are rethinking how they deliver education by democratizing access to textbooks, lesson plans, and even courses themselves. It’s a movement called open learning that enables students to have greater control over what they learn, where, and when.

What Is Open Learning?

The goal of open learning is to broaden access to education, which can be done in a variety of ways. Dr. Gail Matthews-DeNatale, lecturer for Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration program and associate director at the Center for Advanced Teaching and Learning Through Research, breaks open learning down into three dimensions:

  • Open courses
  • Open educational resources
  • Open pedagogies

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“There’s this larger value system at play in open learning, including a concern for access, accountability, and affordability,” Matthews-DeNatale says. “If you look at higher education, those are the big issues that everyone is trying to figure out.”

Here is a closer look at how those issues are being addressed through the three dimensions of open learning.

Open Courses

Open courses are what most people typically think about when they hear “open learning”—particularly massive open online courses (MOOCs). As opposed to traditional online models, MOOCs are free and available to anyone with an internet connection. Six years ago, when MOOCs were at their height, enrollments could exceed 230,000, although the typical class size averaged 25,000 students. Only 15 percent typically completed their courses, however, causing many to question MOOCs’ effectiveness.

“A number of early providers made basic mistakes in relation to online learning, such as focusing solely on content instead of creating opportunities for students to interact with each other or their teacher,” Matthews-DeNatale says. “But MOOCs did put on everyone’s radar the value of learning experiences that are open in a different kind of way.”

Since then, multiple colleges and universities have introduced derivatives of MOOCs, such as “MicroMasters”—online graduate-level courses centered around a particular field of study that can be applied toward a full master’s degree program—and Teach-Outs, which are short learning experiences focused on a specific current issue. Through these different offerings, institutions can engage with a broader base of students in ways that are more affordable and attainable for the learner.

Says Matthews-DeNatale:

One thing people say about MOOCs is, “People didn’t finish,” but the question is, “Are we using a traditional educational lens to judge that learning experience?” If we have on-ramps where people can dabble with something and say, “Now that I’ve done this, I want a more formal relationship with that domain,” that’s great. Perhaps it’s also OK for students to stop after they have gotten to the level of learning that meets their present interests and needs, without pursuing credit or a degree.

Open Educational Resources

Open educational resources (OER) also enable students to tap into and explore a field of study in a more approachable, cost-effective way.

Matthews-DeNatale defines OERs as “high quality online resources that are made available by experts in the field at no cost.” Rather than ask students to spend an average $1,285 on textbooks per year, professors are utilizing content that’s available either under open licensing or in the public domain. By not committing to a singular textbook, faculty have more flexibility to customize their course resources. In turn, learners receive a deeper, more personalized education that’s been shown to improve access and student outcomes.

To ensure OERs are of high quality, guides such as the CARE Framework and TEMOA Rubric have been created to help educators benchmark and evaluate the quality of open resources.

Some colleges and universities are now looking at how they can better support faculty in the use of OERs. Matthews-DeNatale highlights The State University of New York’s (SUNY) OER Services, which provides access to openly licensed textbooks and courses developed by SUNY faculty, as well as OpenStax, a nonprofit started by Rice University to provide educators with access to open resources.

Open Pedagogies

Educators can take the concept of openness one step further by pursuing open pedagogy, which Matthews-DeNatale describes as “engaging students in real work that they can share beyond the boundaries of the classroom.”

David Wiley, a thought leader in open learning, suggests faculty transition from “disposable assignments,” which students throw away upon receiving a grade, to “renewable assignments,” which challenge students to create materials that can be shared with the public.

In Matthews-DeNatale’s class, students are tasked with creating learning experiences that would be beneficial in their own environment. One professional who worked in financial aid, for example, created a two-week online experience to help undergraduates and their peer mentors learn how to make informed decisions on complex student loan repayment options.

“She turned around and used the mini-course immediately in her workplace,” Matthews-DeNatale says, “but it was also an online resource that would be helpful for anyone throughout the nation. The idea is: How can we create content that would also be useful for other people that we can give away?”

The Benefits of Open Learning

Open learning is helping democratize education, by making it more affordable, accessible, and attainable to students, no matter their location or income level. It also helps students explore new industries before investing in an often costly, more formal education.

“I think we are just beginning to tap into the opportunities made possible through the open approach,” Matthews-DeNatale says. “Open learning could be a key component to solving some of the hardest problems in education.”

In an open education system, every professional can pursue lifelong learning.

If you’re interested in learning more about open learning, explore Northeastern’s Master of Education in Higher Education Administration program or download the guide below to discover other opportunities within the field.


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