Openness is still the only superpower

Flurry of anti-MOOC, anti-Cousera columns in the Chronicle recently, many fairly well thought out. Doug Guthrie thinks the real direction should be not cohorts, but customized learning (he doesn’t deal much with the mixed history of programmed instruction, but OK). Cathy Davidson argues (I think rightly) that the real future of this stuff has to be a mashup.

These are two radically different views of where we go from here. In a cruel world we would have to decide which of these we wanted to pursue and dedicate resources to and which one we wanted to starve.

But the world is not that cruel; or at least it doesn’t have to be. Both Cathy’s mashup and Doug’s customized class can be wrought from the same base materials, assuming those materials are open.

And this is where I depart from a lot of people I think. I love a good fight over pedagogical techniques and scalable architecture, but I’m less concerned about that than whether in the course of this argument we are producing open, reusable course elements. As long as the argument produces reusable course elements, our options are multiplied in moving forward. More things become possible.

Without that commitment to openness, less things become possible. Competition becomes reductive, instead of expansive.

At the risk of over-pimping the mixable Psych xMOOC I have been working on with many others I want to show you what openness means. Here’s the introduction module to that xMOOC, which I am co-building with other instructional design people and psychologists in our free time:


The idea here is to create an xMOOC style course, but that is not the extraordinary thing about it. Anyone can cut up a video and put some multiple choice questions into it to increase attention and retention of material.

No, the secret sauce here is that this course is not built from scratch.

Take the first couple of readings, textbook style things written by a professor from University of Redlands named T. L. Brink. Who is T. L. Brink? He’s a guy who showed up a while back on open education message boards saying things like this:

T. L. Brink

The stuff he uploaded looked like this, and was in PDFs:


But it was well presented — he’s got a very direct style, and a nice manner of presentation that feels half-textbook, half lecture.

We are taking these PDFs, reformatting them, and uploading them as Canvas Wiki pages like so:


Then, in typical xMOOC style, we are writing fairly simple questions that follow these textbook segments, quizzes which test whether students are doing the readings and help the students rehearse and retain the chapter content:


These are first pass questions — placeholders until our subject matter experts review the material. But in a very short amount of time we are able to piece together a course.

It’s CC-BY-NC-SA, so we can do this sort of thing. And since we license by the same terms, if Brink wants to take advantage of our work at some point and use our framework to deliver his class, then karma comes full circle.

So that’s the main text. What about the videos? The videos are old 2007 Yale Open Courses videos that used to be about an hour long apiece. They are lectures by prominent researcher Paul Bloom — twenty hours in all. In their original format they are one hour long videos, a whole class in one sitting, soup to nuts. Classic OpenCourseWare circa mid-aughts.

In a proprietary world, those videos would be locked in that format until Yale itself decided to do something else with them. Luckily, we don’t live in that world. Here in our office our wonderful new media specialist made quick work of those videos, using cue times provided by Yale bookmarks to cut them into meaningful 10 minute YouTube segments that we could then drop into Canvas:


After we chopped it up and embedded it, we took each of those shorter segments, and threw some quick and simple content rehearsal and light application questions, written by a variety of instructional designers working at various institutions, in between each 10 minute video. What’s more, the questions are pulled out of a quiz bank set up for that video — so we can expand the questions available easily:


To add some depth to the course, we periodically add in readings from a free (and excellent) textbook the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) put out on behavioral genetics:


And of course we add assessments and activities around those readings as well. (h/t to, reuse experts extraordinaire, who turned me on to both the AAAS book and the Brink text).

I could go on — we’ve got some peer assessments built in as well (yes, you can do randomly assigned peer assessment without signing a contract with a MOOC company — check out the “more options” section in Canvas assignments). And there are some reading response assignments that accommodate posting on blogs or other outside entities.

I’m pretty proud of how far we’ve come with this in a short time here (and thank you Maria, Ivy, Amy, Larry, Brian, Chris, and others for your help on this).

Is it the world’s flashiest Psych xMOOC? Probably not. But that’s not its superpower. Just as the superpower of the Yale lectures wasn’t that they were the best lectures ever, and the superpower of the Brink textbook wasn’t that Brink was the next William James.

All the authors and lecturers were excellent. And the quality of all the inputs was good, even exceptional. But their superpower was that they were open. And because of that, they can support Doug’s programmed learning vision, or form the content skeleton of Cathy’s mashup vision. Because of that, as we roll forward arguing over the future of learning, each one of those futures becomes more possible, not less. We multiply our opportunities rather than zero-summing them.

That’s the killer feature that is so lacking in these thin corporate offerings, and that’s what we need to bring this discussion back to. Without openness, MOOCs are just another piece of software.

You can see the mixable Psych xMOOC here.  If you want to help out by formatting a section, writing questions, or wrapping awesomeness around it, email me at

7 thoughts on “Openness is still the only superpower

  1. Strong work, Mike et al. You’ve definitely shown how much potential there is in simply putting in a bit of elbow grease and remixing existing open content. Dave Wiley pioneered a similar experiment with the open ed grad course I took from him some years ago for the Utah Open High School, and I believe has revisited it with open book projects, etc.

    “Is it the world’s flashiest Psych xMOOC? Probably not.”

    Well, every great Wikipedia article begins as a stub. Then it must suffer the indignity of being marked “multiple issues” or in need of sources. Etc. Eventually, thanks to the openness of the platform and the contributions of the willing, it becomes a great article. And then the Discussion section really heats up 🙂

    To further the project, may I suggest that you guys (1) provide a download link to the CC export package so folks can take and remix this, as modeled by the awesome UK Open U OpenLearn project; (2) provide a form whereby users can request teacher access to contribute directly to a version of the course (Canvas already provides open enrollment for students, but not teachers… hmm… yet…)

  2. Very impressive. There is also a bit of super power in the FINDING the open. Any great tips on how to go about doing that? Some days I feel like I spend a whole afternoon seeking out a module task, lecture, assessment and come up empty. It’s frustrating to feel like I’ve wasted that time I can’t get back.

    • Trick is to start with integrators if you can. Find a course on your subject or one close to yours, and see what they have pulled in on your target issue. is a great place to start. CK12 can be helpful for intro level courses. I think as starts pumping up the “resource” courses that they will be an additional source.

      But don’t start by typing something into an OER search box — that way madness lies. The best way to search is to free ride of the effort of those who have searched before us.

      What subject areas do you find yourself searching for most often?

      • Thanks for the guidance, yes, I’ve been lost in the OER search box too many times. It doesn’t help that I’m so scattered all over the map. Recently, I have been looking for first year physical geography, first year Calculus, first year Discrete Mathematics, Communication, Pop Culture & Film, Accounting to name a few. On the horizon, I’ll need things for political science and visual arts.

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