Monday, 8 February 2016

Open2Study: Resting or Comatose?

I have written before about Open2Study (or O2S as I'll refer to it) so I'll confine the introduction to a very few words. O2S is an Australian MOOC platform, owned by Open Universities Australia (OUA). It offers a range of mainly introductory 4-week courses to a very tightly controlled format making it an ideal first stop for new MOOC learners.

O2S was launched in March 2013 and I was among the early adopters completing my first course (Teaching Adult Learners) in June. It's initial target was to have 50 courses on line by the end of 2013 and it pretty much achieved this having opened the latest courses for enrolment in late 2013 for a first presentation early in 2014. Early results were promising with a steady, if undramatic, increase in student numbers and an enviably high completion rate; research published on site indicated 30% completion which was some 4-5 times better than other platforms. There are a number of reasons why this rate was so high which I might come back to another time but the short length, introductory level and limited assessment doubtless contributed.

As 2014 progressed I began to have some concerns about the platform and these were shared by a number of other students on the (rather ramshackle) community forums. There were, for example, a number of platform issues which had been raised but remained unresolved months later (and, indeed, are still outstanding over two years later). No new courses were or have been released since the initial roll out of 50 and one of that batch, The Art of Painting and Drawing, was withdrawn under mysterious circumstances. There was no public announcement or explanation of its withdrawal but a staff poster some time later reported that it was for 'quality reasons'. It seemed fine to me when I took it but then I'm no artist!

In the two years that have passed since O2S last released a new course there has been very little evidence of activity. In fact, about the only signs of life seen are sporadic blog postings and the fairly regular appearance of staff posters making consistently reassuring sounds on the community forums. When challenged, they told me that it had always been planned to follow the initial roll out by a period of review--but two years? Moreover, although it might not be apparent to students there was a lot of improvement work going on 'behind the scenes'--but surely after two years we should have seen some results from this work?

What worries me is not only the dearth of new material but also the failure to address very long standing maintenance and functional issues. A couple of examples may help to make this clearer. O2S uses a badge system to encourage students (so-called gamification) but there have been problems with the issuing of some categories of badges since at least summer 2013. There was also a chat facility on the site which was taken off-line 'temporarily', due to performance issues--again over two years ago. On a functional front, the community forums lack a working search function or any way to sort or filter posts. All these problems have been repeatedly acknowledged by O2S staff but there is no obvious movement towards a resolution. While improving the forums or reintroducing the chat facility might conceivably require some substantial effort, fixing a broken badge issuing algorithm seems like the work of an afternoon. Is there really anyone behind the staff usernames on the forums and blog posts?

As with many issues in MOOCs and open education generally, I suspect the answers are down to money. As I mentioned, Open2Study is operated by OUA. Since there has been no attempt at monetization I can only assume that O2S is intended primarily as a promotion tool and lead generator--that is to say, it will raise the profile of the contributing universities and direct more students to their (paid) courses. Looking at the O2S site this certainly seems to be the case. Every course has links for 'further study' which jump straight into OUA course applications and every page has a header bar with links to OUA, OTI (Open Training Institute--also owned by OUA) and e3learning (owned by... well you get the idea). In another indication of poor maintenance, many of the university course links are broken leading either to discontinued courses or simply 404 missing page reports.

So what is going on? 2013 was a busy time for OUA with the launch of O2S being swiftly followed by the acquisition of e3learning (a corporate and compliance trainer) and the launch of OTI (a vocational training provider). I have to wonder whether they were over-ambitious, whether they were in danger of losing focus on their core activity of coordinating enrolment in their constituent universities and whether O2S failed to live up to expectations in terms of producing new students for them. Given that the majority of O2S students are foreign (ie not Australian residents) most will have limited interest in pursuing studies with OUA (even though many courses are offered internationally). Moreover, student numbers have plateaued over the last couple of years with most courses attracting around 500-1500 students per presentation which is tiny compared to the likes of Coursera or edX. Maybe OUA is wondering if the returns justify the cost.

Open2Study serves a niche which is not particularly well-addressed by other sites. It's courses, although technically fairly limited, are easy to access and have a very regular format which, I think, makes it especially attractive to new learners--even if they do subsequently move on to greater challenges elsewhere. It would be a pity to see the site close or drift into stagnation but I'm far from confident in OUA's continued interest in or commitment to the project. To be fair, providing free education to a worldwide audience does not feature in any part of OUA's charter or aims so maybe we shouldn't be too harsh if they choose to 'pull the plug'.

1 comment:

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