Open vs. free online courses: More than a petty difference?

Year: 2012

Author: Peter, Sandra, Deimann, Markus

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Openness has become a code word (some might also say a buzz word) for a variety of digital trends and movements. With regard to education, openness has been utilised to promote grand transformations such as the free and unrestricted proliferation of learning materials from educators, teachers and students all over the world (Open Educational Resources, OER). There has also been an uptake of so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) to capitalise on the vast amount of OER in such a way that not only dissemination of open materials but also collaborative open practices are ensured. The tremendous popularity of MOOCs (with more than 100,000 participants) has triggered attention not only from academic but also from mainstream media. Especially since elite institutions Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have joined forces and launched EdX – an online open platform that offers free courses from both universities – a debate has started criticising the blurring of educational and economic factors. This debate is further amplified by the emergence of commercial start-ups like Udacity and Coursera that provide free 'open' courses to thousands of students. Whereas the original MOOC model focuses on philosophical and humanistic values (free and open education as a fundamental right to everybody), online platforms like Edx, Udacity or Coursera slightly shift the perspective to “effective” online learning and teaching arguably undermining the significance of openness for education that has become apparent long before the recent emergence of OER.

Such initiatives are currently only debated in the context of the new digital technologies and practices that have allowed them to emerge. This paper proposes a historical reconstruction of the importance of openness for education by reviewing developments from the past centuries. It is argued that such knowledge will contribute to a more balanced understanding of openness in the interplay between commercial interests and humanistic rights to education, by understanding how education has become 'open' over time.