Behind the Scenes with OpenLearn: the Challenges of Researching the Provision of Open Educational Resources


  • Stephen Godwin
  • Patrick McAndrew
  • Andreia Santos


e-Learning, open content, tools, action research, activity theory


Web‑enabled technology is now being applied on a large scale. In this paper we look at open access provision of teaching and learning leading to many users with varying patterns and motivations for use. This has provided us with a research challenge to find methods that help us understand and explain such initiatives. We describe ways to model the research and identify where pressures and contradictions can be found, drawing on a reflective view of our own practice in performing the research. Open educational resources are defined as technology‑enabled educational resources that are openly available for consultation, use and adaptation by users for non‑commercial purposes (UNESCO, 2002). OpenLearn is one of the largest of such initiatives and is committed to the provision of open educational resources for all. It is being developed by The Open University and is primarily sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It provides users with over 4 200 hours of higher educational material drawn from Open University courses. Other learning tools such as discussion forums, video conferencing, and knowledge mapping software are also available to the user. In this paper we aim to introduce OpenLearn and outline some of the main research issues surrounding such an initiative. We seek to explore theoretical and practical approaches that can provide suitable tools for analysis. Activity theory is seen as a suitable approach for macro analysis and its use is illustrated in terms of the complexity of large scale research. Activity theory, besides informing research perspectives, can be turned in upon the research process itself allowing us to consider the challenges and context of the research. By using activity theory in this way and illustrating from a range of practical approaches we demonstrate and illustrate a useful research approach.



1 Apr 2008