The Open University, United Kingdom: The OpenLearn initiative


[For further information on the programmes offered by The Open University, see:]

The Open University (OUUK) is the United Kingdom's largest university and it is the only one dedicated to distance learning. It was established in 1969 and the first students were enrolled in January 1971.

OUUK has around 150,000 students studying for their first degree and more than 30,000 postgraduate students, creating a highly collaborative and varied network. Over 25,000 OU students live outside the UK. Most students continue to work parallel to their studies.

The Open University's mission is to be open to people, places, methods and ideas. Through academic research, pedagogic innovation and collaborative partnership OUUK is wholly committed to lifelong learning and seeks to be a world leader in the design, content and delivery of supported open learning.

The OUUK was founded to open up higher education to all, regardless of their circumstances or where they live. Students are of all ages and backgrounds: school students wanting experience of university-level study, school leavers who choose to begin their careers while they study for a degree, people wanting to develop or update their skills, or change career entirely, and retired people wanting to explore new interests and keep mentally active.

Nearly all undergraduate courses have no formal entry requirements, neither do they have a demand for prior qualifications nor experience. All people who have missed out on education may enter to fulfil their potential and achieve a university-level qualification. Widening participation is at the heart the mission, firmly embedded in the core values and central to the Open University's strategic objectives.

In order to acknowledge that some students already have relevant work experience, when they start degree studies, the OUUK offers a range of first degree courses in distance learning in two formats: The first is to study a standard Open University course. The other is to study a short course that awards credit for a student's previous 'experiential learning'.

Read more here: link to cost structure popup and in "Showcases of University Strategies and Business Models for Lifelong Learning" p. 33-4.

OUUK also provides informal learning for the general public as television programmes in collaboration with BBC
( Read more here: link to popup on encouraging wider participation ) and in the open educational resources initiative OpenLearn (Read more here: link to popup on informal learning ).

The OpenLearn initiative was launched by the Open University in 2006 with help from a grant given by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The Open University has, as a learning institution always had a commitment to openness, and many of their television and radio programmes are already supported by free Internet activities and print. However, the OpenLearn initiative departs from the Open University's paying programmes in a number of ways.

Not only are the course materials completely free, they are delivered in a highly interactive open source virtual learning environment where reuse and remix of these materials are encouraged and where social software is used to connect learners in peer supported communities. Furthermore, a number of external sense-making and knowledge sharing tools are incorporated within the platform.

This is an informal learning initiative promoting free use of educational resources for learners anywhere in the world.

Delivery is over the net in a globally accessible web-based open content environment. Moodle is the VLE ( virtual learning environment) of choice.


The OpenLearn initiative is an experimental activity to develop and test radical new business models based on free access to learning materials and tools.

The Open University, quoted in the OpenLearn
OER story (Dewis, 2007)

How the programme is delivered

The OpenLearn initiative is delivered online through the Moodle Learning Management System.

All content is generated with XML so that conversion can be made accessible to various platforms such as text and mobile.

OpenLearn's LearningSpace. LearningSpace is where OER based on current Open University courses or support materials can be found.

OpenLearn's LabSpace makes many different open educational resources (OER) available to students from a wider OER community associated with The Open University. Learners are encouraged to take away, re-use and remix these open educational resources to suit their needs. Broadly speaking, LabSpace resources fall into the categories of 'content' or 'tools'

Reasons for success

The reasons for success can be attributed to its innovative approach to offering free learning opportunites over the net.

    This program meets the following needs:

    • a need for time/space convenience

    • a need for synchronous and asynchronous learning among organised groups of learners

    • a need for retrieving learning materials asynchronously

    • a need for personalised learning

    • a need for platform independency

    • a need for open sharing of materials

    • a need for documenting sensemaking activities online


What makes the OpenLearn Programme different and worthy of interest:

OpenLearn fits with the OU mission of being open to people, places, methods and ideas:


" The philosophy of open access and sharing knowledge is a
wonderful fit with the founding principles of The Open University and with the University's very strong commitment to open educational access and widening participation. The University will be developing forms of open content e-learning which will reach less experienced learners and, we hope, encourage an appetite for further learning."

Professor Brenda Gourley
Vice-Chancellor of The Open University

Market Relations

Since its launch in 2006, OpenLearn has successfully implemented a marketing proposition that in alignment with value 2.0 principles, has created value and indeed revenue for the university. The site has attracted 8 million unique visitors. 80 per cent of these have been new to the OU. This traffic has converted to 13,000 OU new course registrations.

The technological resources latent on its LMS system together with various social media tools have enabled the Open University to provide a site for its users that has yielded many benefits. These technological resources have not only constituted learning objects but have facilitated learning events embedded in a culture of participation. It has been OpenLearn's core aim to create a context where community learning is made possible.

Focus on user experience can be seen through easiness of access, formats that allow for distribution to multiple platforms, disaggregaton of materials that allow for remixes, collaborative tools etc.

OpenLearn has attracted not only users but also other organisations who have wished to become partners.

Production and delivery

The initiative has demonstrated new ways in which emerging technologies are enabling value creation. The capturing of this value is fostered through the provision of open source collaborative learning tools ( such as instant messaging, flash meetings) and through learning management tools that allow charting of semiotic structures.

Starting with a store of formal content-the content from Open University courses, the OpenLearn site distributes this to users through technologies such as RSS feeds and widgets, extending the reach of this content to users on multiple platforms and with multiple interests.

Disaggregation of the original content provides the raw building blocks for individual learners and indeed for whole learning communities so that they may create new meaningful semiotic structures. The contexts in which these new content blocks are produced are dependent upon both intellectual capital (content) and human capital (talent). In effect, the OpenLearn intitiative constitutes an Open Learning Infrastructure where technology supports social learning.


This Example of Implementation is referred to through relevant business model keywords in other parts of this site.