Week 10: Quality and the eye of the MOOC beholder: Perspectives from the OERu on mOOCs and micro-credentials by Wayne Mackintosh

Wayne Wayne Mackintosh is Director at the OER Foundation, a non-profit organisation which provides international networking, leadership and support to education institutions in achieving their strategic objectives using open education approaches.

The OER Foundation is coordinating an international innovation partnership of 26 higher education organisations collaborating on the implementation of the OER university (OERu). The OERu is building a parallel learning universe to provide free learning opportunities to students worldwide using courses based solely on OER with pathways to achieve credible degrees.

Wayne holds the Commonwealth of Learning Chair in OER at Otago Polytechnic and has been involved with the design and teaching of open online courses through the WikiEducator community since 2007.

Quality means different things to different to people. In this post I summarise the OERu context leading to the development of micro Open Online Courses (mOOCs) and the future implementation of micro-credentials with pathways towards degrees from accredited post-secondary institutions.  I then respond to the quality related questions proposed by the EFQUEL coordinators who have convened this MOOC Quality Project

As an open educator, in the past I have suggested that it is better to have a poor quality resource which is open than a high quality resource which is closed. Similarly, in open teaching, it is better to encourage and embrace ongoing experimentation with the formats associated with the cMOOC pioneers than constrain future innovation in learning to the confines of conventional quality standards.

The saving grace of education is that teaching is not a prerequisite for learning. I suspect that we have much to learn from the ongoing experimentation with open teaching. However, the OER university collaboration does not have the luxury afforded by unconstrained experimentation. We are focused on the practical challenge of using OER for creating more affordable pathways to credible qualifications for learners currently excluded from the formal sector who are seeking formal recognition from accredited institutions. Our commitment to achieving a fiscally sustainable solution limits our capacity to innovate simultaneously on too many fronts.  We hope that the cMOOC innovations will continue. We have gained valuable insights from the cMOOC pioneers and we hope that this learning at the OERu will continue for the benefit of the students we are aiming to serve as open teaching approaches matures.

Incremental design for micro Open Online Courses for the OERu

The OER Foundation has adopted an incremental and agile design approach to ensure a fiscally sustainable OERu collaboration for the future.  Not unlike the open source development philosophy of releasing early and frequently we continue to refine the OERu delivery model incrementally.

The inception of the Learning4Content open courses early in 2007 has contributed to our experience in developing the implementation of micro Open Online Courses (mOOCs) where micro refers to a subcomponent of a university, polytechnic or community college course.  For example, a mOOC may cover a third of the learning outcomes of a “full” university course. It follows that the OERu network would be able to award a corresponding micro-credential based on the outputs of the summative assessment designed for the mOOC in question.  These micro-credentials would carry credit towards the required credits for specified courses within agreed degree programmes at OERu institutions. However, first a little background and context.

The OERu is first and foremost a philanthropic collaboration which aims to widen access to more affordable education opportunities for learners excluded from the formal education sector through an agenda of social inclusion aligned with the community service missions of the OERu anchor partners. It is smart philanthropy because the OER assets and associated knowledge of open education practices (OEP) gained from the OERu innovation partnership can be reused for improving the efficiency and sustainability of mainstream operations while generating new revenue streams for its partners.

We have bootstrapped the OERu project from the bottom-up thus avoiding the challenges associated with having to recoup significant deficits (or figure out how to repay large venture capital investments).  The OERu network is well on track to achieving a sustainable and scalable OER international collaboration.  Increasing our current membership of 26 anchor partners by 14 new members is all that is needed to achieve a fiscally self-sustaining OERu collaboration without reliance on third-party funding because recurrent operational costs are recouped in the OERu model. This break-even threshold is the point where the OERu collaboration will scale because the network will be able to commission the paid development of courses assembled from existing OERs and open access materials for the benefit of our contributing members as the network grows. This also means that our OERu partners will not be required to contribute more than their agreed two courses to the network. The OERu model will generate competitive advantage for our partners when compared to the commercial MOOC startups.

We have leveraged our learn-by-doing approach to assist with the development and refinement of the OERu delivery model. In February 2007, the WikiEducator community OERuwith support from the Commonwealth of Learning hosted the pilot Learning4Content (L4C) open online course. This L4C pilot was distinctive because:

  1. it used an open wiki design model for the development of the course materials,
  2. participation was free and open,
  3. it was presented entirely online,
  4. the course was based solely on OERs and
  5. was designed to scale for large numbers of learners.

We did not call these courses MOOCs as the term was only coined after the landmark Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course facilitated by Siemens and Downes at the Extended Education and Learning Technologies Centre of the University of Manitoba during the fall of 2008. That said, we did not set out to pioneer new pedagogies now possible with MOOCs other than designing an online delivery model for scalability using OER resources drawing on the research and experience of open distance learning.  To date, the  L4C initiative has offered free online training opportunities for thousands of learners in more than 130 different countries with acknowledgement to the funding support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Over the past six years, the WikiEducator community and the OER Foundation has gained valuable experience in refining open design models, pedagogical approaches and supporting technologies through the delivery of over 60 open online courses worldwide. The OERu network is now preparing for the implementation of mOOCs and corresponding micro-credentials.  For example, the OER Foundation developed the Open Content Licensing for Educators (OCL4Ed) with funding support from the UNESCO. OCL4Ed is an open online course designed for educators and students who want to learn more about OER, copyright, and Creative Commons licenses. During 2012, we hosted three OCL4Ed courses registering approximately 2000 students from +90 different countries providing the opportunity to tweak and improve the delivery technologies.  The OCL4Ed course covers the concepts associated with a third of the learning outcomes for the Open Education Practice elective of the Graduate Diploma in Tertiary Education – a credential to be offered through the OERu.  The experience gained from the OCL4Ed courses was also used to inform the development of the Scenario Planning for Educators (SP4Ed) course which will be offered as a mOOC in parallel mode with students enrolled for the Masters-level course, Change with Digital Technologies in Education, at the University of Canterbury.  The design of the Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific course developed by the University of Southern Queensland is also structured according to three independent assessments thus enabling the course to be offered as three separate mOOCs. The OER Foundation and Otago Polytechnic will pilot summative assessment services for the issue of micro-credential for the OCL4Ed mOOC in September later this year. This micro-credential will carry formal academic credit towards the Open Education Practice elective of the OERu’s Graduate Diploma in Tertiary Education.

Responding to the questions of EFQUEL’s MOOC quality project

Ehlers, Ossiannilsson, and Creelman (2013) posed three crucial questions in the introduction to the MOOC quality blog series.

What are MOOCs actually aiming at?

In the case of the OERu, our mOOCs are aiming to provide free learning opportunities with pathways for OERu students to gain formal academic recognition towards credible credentials from the OERu anchor partners. Successful students will receive micro-credentials which will carry credit towards “full” university courses.  The purpose of the OERu is to widen access to more affordable alternatives to post-secondary education worldwide.

Can the quality of MOOCs be assessed in the same way as any defined university course with traditional degree awarding processes? Or do we have to take into account a different type of objective with MOOC learners?

The short answer is yes and no.

In the case of the OERu we are aiming to respond to the the needs of learners who are seeking formal academic credit. Quality assurance and institutional accreditation provide the foundations on which the OERu’s parallel learning universe is based. The OERu concept must ensure equivalence and parity of esteem for qualifications gained through the OERu network when compared to the on-campus alternatives.  For this reason, the OERu’s assessment and credentialing processes must adhere to the local institutional policy requirements including those of the national quality and/or qualifications authorities which administer the accreditation status of the conferring OERu partners.  OERu anchor partners will not (and should not need) to compromise their individual accreditation status, brand or quality standards by virtue of their participation in the OERu network.

With particular reference to quality standards for course design which are used for quality assurance, some adaptation of the traditional quality standards may be required.  For example, traditional quality standards may incorporate benchmarks for student support with specific reference to lecturer-student support interventions.  The OERu does not use conventional student support methods, but is designed to leverage peer-to-peer support approaches incorporating social media and other online technologies.  Similarly, quality standards which are based on the assumption of an institution offering a full package of services including course materials, student support, formative and summative assessment would need to be adapted. The OERu is a model which is based on the disaggregation or unbundling of services where the OERu partner only provides  summative assessment services. Consequently existing quality assurance procedures would need to take these differences into account.

Are the learners mostly interested in only small sequences of learning, tailored to their own individual purpose, and then sign off and move to other MOOCs because their own learning objective was fulfilled?

The OER Foundation does not have research evidence to respond with any authority to this question. However, it is a plausible hypothesis to suggest that MOOCs can provide greater flexibility for learners to opt into and opt out of individual MOOCs according to their own learning needs and interests.

The OERu is implementing two strategies in an attempt to personalise the curriculum for individual learners. First, we are experimenting with the “pedagogy of discovery” which was incorporated into the Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific course.   The “pedagogy of discovery” (including self-discovery) is designed to engender a free-range learning approach.  The design of the course is such that learners are required to source OERs and open access materials on the Internet in pursuit of their own interests.  This pedagogy incorporates self-directed content gathering and analysis rather than content that is pre-selected by the examiner. Second, the implementation of smaller “micro” courses  could provide greater flexibility for learners to personalise their curriculum. As the OERu collaboration matures, we will generate open research data so as to be in a better position to answer this question.


The OER Foundation subscribes to open philanthropy which means that all our planning for the implementation of the OERu is conducted openly and transparently in WikiEducator. In other words, our openness is not restricted to the courses we develop and teach but is a philosophy which underpins the establishment and implementation of the OERu. Our open planning  approaches have facilitated the adoption of incremental design towards achieving a sustainable and scalable OERu international collaboration. We believe that the OERu partnership is succeeding in shifting the question from “How do you achieve sustainable OER projects?” to “How will your institution remain sustainable without OER?

3 thoughts on “Week 10: Quality and the eye of the MOOC beholder: Perspectives from the OERu on mOOCs and micro-credentials by Wayne Mackintosh

  1. Wayne Mackintosh has done a great service to clarifying the discussion on MOOC’s. They are meant to solve a host of problems that management of Higher Education faces in many countries. MOOC’s provide an opportunity for a learner to acquire proficiency or participation certificates for a particular skill set or particular pieces of knowledge. In that perspective, MOOC’s have much relevance for developing countries as well. At a time when addressing skills development is a matter of priority in policy making, MOOC’s can offer new opportunities to address that concern involving much larger numbers of learners than is currently possible.

    • Hi Balaji,

      Appreciate your note and I agree — MOOCs do offer the potential for widening access to meaningful learning opportunities combined with formal certification for those who want and need this form of certification. At the OERu, we are planning to do a little more than proficiency or participation certificates — the micro credentials will carry credit towards full courses and ultimately recognised degrees. Still lots of work to be done — but I believe we can widen access to more affordable education opportunities for all students worldwide.

  2. Pingback: Quality and the eye of the MOOC beholder: Perspectives from the OERu on mOOCs and micro-credentials by Wayne Mackintosh | E-Learning and Online Teaching Today

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