What are the Implications of Open Learning for Course and Curriculum Design

By 11/12/2017 March 12th, 2020 Education, Technology Enhanced Learning

In this final post on this series of Open Learning, we address the final question: what are the implications of ‘open’ for course and curriculum design?

In recent years MOOCs have been receiving a lot of media attention, however I believe that the coming developments in open educational resources, open textbooks, open research and open data will be far more important to the open education movement than MOOCs will be, and muchmore revolutionary. In this post, we’ll look at some of the reasons why.

1. Open Learning

2. Open Education Resources (OER)

3. Open textbooks, open research and open data

4. The implications of ‘open’ for course & programme design.

Nearly all content will be free and open

We will see a point in the near future, where most academic content will be easily accessible and freely available through the Internet – for anyone. This, in part at least, could mean a shift in power from teachers and instructors to students. Students will no longer be dependent on instructors as their primary source of content. There is already anecdotal evidence of students skipping lectures at their local university or college because the teaching on a given topic is better and clearer on OpenCourseWare, MOOCs or the Khan Academy. If students can access the best lectures or learning materials for free from anywhere in the world, including the leading universities, then why would they be  content with lesser quality from a middling instructor at their university? What added value is this type of instructor providing for their students?

There are extremely valid answers to this question, but it means considering very carefully how learning content will be presented and shaped by a teacher or instructor that makes it uniquely different from what students can access elsewhere. For research professors, this may include access to their latest and as yet unpublished, research; for other lecturers, it may be their unique perspective on a particular topic, and for others, a unique mix of topics to provide an integrated, inter-disciplinary approach. For others it may be the cumulative experience that a lecturer may have in being able to connect theory and industry practice. What will not be acceptable to most students is the simple repackaging of ‘standard’ content that can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet and at a higher quality.

Furthermore, if we look at knowledge management as one of the key skills needed in a digital age, it may be better to enable students to find, analyze, evaluate and apply content than for instructors to do it for them. If most content is available elsewhere, what students will look for increasingly from their local institutions is support with their learning, rather than the delivery of content. This means directing them to appropriate sources of content, helping when students are struggling with concepts, and providing opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and to develop and practice skills. It means giving prompt and relevant feedback as and when students need it. Above all, it means creating a rich learning environment in which students can study. It means moving teaching from information transmission to knowledge management, from selecting, structuring and delivering content to learner support.

Thus for most students within their university or college (with the possible exception of the most advanced research universities) the quality of the learning support will eventually matter more than the quality of content delivery, which they can get from anywhere. This is a major challenge for instructors who see themselves primarily as content experts.


The creation of open educational resources, either as small open learning objects but increasingly as short ‘modules’ of teaching, from anywhere between five minutes to one hour of material, and the increasing diversification of educational markets, is beginning to result in two of the key principles of OER being applied (which we talked about here), re-use and re-mix. In other words, the same content, which is available in an openly accessible digital form, may be integrated into a range of different applications, and/or combined with other OER to create a single teaching module, course or programme.

The Ontario government, through its online course development fund, is encouraging edcational institutions to create OER. As a result of this, several universities have brought together academic staff within their own institutions but working in different departments that teach the same area of content (for example, statistics) to develop ‘core’ OER that can be shared between departments. The logical next step for this would be that statistics teaching staff across the Ontario system would get together to develop an integrated set of OER modules on statistics that would cover substantial parts of the statistics curriculum. This collaborative working practice would have the following benefits:

  • higher quality teaching by pooling resources (two subject expert heads are better than one, combined with teaching support from instructional designers and web producers);
  • a greater amount of OER than one instructor or institution could produce while working alone;
  • a greater subject coherence and lack of duplication of resources;
  • a greater likelihood of staff in one institution using materials created in another if they have had input to the selection and design of the OER from other institutions.

As the range and quality of OER increases, instructors (and students) will be able to build curriculum through a set of OER ‘building blocks’. The aim here is to reduce instructor time in creating materials (perhaps focusing on creating their own OER in areas of specific subject or research expertise), and using their time more in supporting student learning than in delivering content.

Disaggregation of services

Open learning and digitisation enable what has tended to be offered by institutions as a complete bundle of services to be split and offered separately, depending on the market for education and the unique needs of individual learners. Learners will select and use those modules or services that best fit their needs. This is likely to be the pattern for lifelong learners in particular. Some early indications of this process are already occurring, although most of the really significant changes are yet to come.

Admissions and programme counselling

This is a service that is currently offered by Empire State University, which is a part of the State University of New York. Adult learners that are considering a return to study or a career change can receive mentoring about what courses and combinations they can take from within the college that fit with their previous life and their future wishes. In essence, within boundaries potential students are able to design their own degree. In the future, some institutions might specialise in this kind of service at a system level. In the UK, this type of course combination is offered by the Open University, where learners can choose the modules they wish to study, but at present it is limited to within a course specialism. For example, in Computing, you can choose to study web design and object-oriented programming at the expense of algorithms or computer networking. This level of choice allows students to not only work to their own individually identified strengths, but also to their interests. Personally, as a computing lecturer I prefer programming to networking, so why should my students be any different?

Learner support

Students may have already determined what they want to study through the Internet, or personal research such as a MOOC. What they are looking for is help with their studies: how to write assignments, where to look for information, feedback on their work and thinking. These softer skills are crucial for academic success. They are not necessarily looking for a credit, degree or other qualification, but if they are they will pay for assessment separately. Currently, students pay private tutors for this service. However, it is feasible that institutions could also provide this service, provided that a suitable business model can be built.


Learners may feel that through prior study and work, they are able to take a challenge exam for credit. All they require from the institution is a chance to be assessed. Some institutions do already offer this service, and this would be a logical next step for the many other universities or colleges with some form of prior learning assessment. Again, the Open University in the UK, offer a recognition service for previous academic study.


Learners may have acquired a range of credits, badges or certificates from a range of institutions. The institution assesses these qualifications and experiences and helps the learner to take any further studies that are necessary, then awards the qualification. Prior learning assessment or PLAR is one step in this direction, but not the only one.

Fully online courses and programmes

For learners who cannot or do not want to attend campus, the cost would be lower for a such courses than for students receiving a full campus experience. Various institutions across the UK are now offering this type of course as the competition of the marketplace heats up. Online Masters degrees are offered by Queens University Belfast currently include programmes of study in Advanced Clinical Pharmacy Practice and Applied Behaviour Analysis.

While the two courses named above are specific programmes of study in particular fields, for specific qualifications, in other cases, the learner may not be looking for a qualification, but wants access to content, particularly new and emerging knowledge. MOOCs are one example of accessing this, but other examples include OpenLearn and open textbooks.

The full campus experience

This would involve the ‘traditional’ integrated package that full-time, campus-based students now receive. This would though be fully costed and much more expensive than any of the other disaggregated services.

Funding models

Note that I have been careful not to link any of these services to a specific funding model. This is deliberate, because it could be:

  • covered through privatisation, where each service is separately priced and the user pays for that service (but not for services that are not used);
  • financed through a voucher system, whereby everyone at the age 18 is entitled to a notional amount of financial support from the state for post-secondary education, and can pay for a range of service from that voucher until their individual fund is exhausted;
  • all or some services would be available for free as part of a publicly funded open education system.

Whatever the funding model, institutions will need to be able to price different services accurately.

The need for more flexibility in services

In any case, there is now an increasing diversity of learners’ needs, from post-primary school students wanting full-time education, graduate students wanting to do research, and lifelong learners, most of whom will have already passed through a publicly funded higher education system, who want to keep learning either for profssional or personal reasons.  This increasing diversity of needs requires a more flexible approach to providing educational opportunities in a digital age. Disaggregation of services and new models of funding, combined with increased accessibility to free, open content, are some ways in which this flexibility can be provided.

‘Open’ course designs

The increasing availability of high quality open content is likely to facilitate the shift from information transmission by the instructor to knowledge management by the learner. Also in a digital age there is a need for greater focus on skills development embedded within a subject domain than on the memorisation of content.

The use of open educational resources could enable these developments in a number of ways, such as:

  • a learner-centered teaching approach that focuses on students accessing content on the Internet (and in real life) as part of developing knowledge, skills and competencies defined by the instructor, or learners managing their learning for themselves; however, content would not be restricted to officially approved open educational resources, but to everything on the Internet, because one of the core skills students will need is how to assess and evaluate different sources of information;
  • a consortium of teachers or institutions creating common learning materials within a broader program context, that can be shared both within and outside the consortium. However, not only would the content be freely available, but also the underlying instructional principles, learning outcomes, learner assessment strategies, what learner support is needed, learner activities, and program evaluation techniques, so that other instructors or learners can adapt all this to their own context. This approach is already being taken by:

These developments are likely to lead to a severe reduction in lecture-based teaching and a move towards more project work, problem-based learning and collaborative open learning. It will also result in a move away from fixed time and place written examinations, to more continuous, portfolio-based forms of assessment.

The role of the instructor then will shift to providing guidance to learners on where and how to find content, how to evaluate the relevance and reliability of content, what content areas are core and what peripheral, and to helping students analyse, apply and present information, within a strong learning design that focuses on clearly defined learning outcomes, particularly with regard to the development of skills. Students will work mainly online and collaboratively, developing multi-media learning artefacts or demonstrations of their learning, managing their online portfolios of work, and editing and presenting selected work for assessment.


Despite all the current attention being given to MOOCs, I think they are essentially an educational cul-de-sac with regards to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with what they really want: high quality qualifications. The main barrier to education is not a lack of low-cost content but a lack of access to programmes that result in recognised qualifications. This is either because these programmes are too expensive, or because there are not enough qualified teachers, or a combination of both. Making content free is certainly not a waste of time (if it is properly designed for use), but it still needs a lot of time and effort to integrate it properly within a learning framework. A MOOC may be of use for a person who may be interested in learning a topic (for example, information security), but unsure about the making the level of financial investment required to take on such a course. A MOOC which delivers ‘taster’ content or is sufficiently low in cost (e.g. most courses on Udemy) to deliver the content and develop knowledge, without a globally recognised qualification, but allows the learner to avail of the content and make a decision after completing the course, based on the knowledge of how they fared during the course, whether they wish to take their studies to a higher level.

Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but like all curricula, need to be properly designed, and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OER need as much skill and hard work as published content do to make them useful, and selling them as a panacea for education will ultimately do more harm than good.

Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programs, or choose not to. Academic institutions who make use of this, and are continuing to develop the quality of their courses should be encouraged to do. Demanding a student is physically present in a geographical location at  a certain time, is no guarantee of achievement or engagement.

Lastly, there are no insurmountable legal or technical barriers now to making educational material free. The successful use of OER does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – the creators of materials – and users – teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus the main challenge being faced is one of cultural change.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much needed improvements.

This is just my interpretation of how approaches to ‘open’ learning content and resources could radically change the way we teach and how students will learn in the future. More importantly, there is not just one future scenario, but many. The future will be determined by a host of factors, many outside the control of teachers, instructors and institutions. But the strongest weapon we have as educators is our own imagination and vision. Open learning content and open learning reflect a particular philosophy of equality and opportunity created through education. There are many different ways in which we as teachers, and even more our learners, can decide to apply this particular philosophy. Each of them can be equally valid for that individual. However, the technology now offers us many more choices in making these decisions. Thus, there is scope for many more scenarios that aim to extend access and educational opportunities. And the discussion is far from over.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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