Open Education Policy at the Open University

Interview with Andrew Law, Director Open Media Unit

This interview is part of a series on best practice examples in the area of Open Policy in Higher Education. Practitioners share their experiences on formulating, implementing and integrating Open Policy and Practice at their respective institutions.

In the following interview Andrew Law shares his experience as director of the Open Media Unit with us. Special attention is paid to the business model and embedding open activities in the university, as well as advice which data to gather from users as input for performance indicators, and building a team to do so.

Interview conducted by: Gijs Houwen, Delft University of Technology (TU Delft).



What is the role of the Open Media Unit at the Open University?

The Open Media Unit concerns itself with OU education content that is put into the public domain for free under the OU brand. It’s internally funded, channel focused, strategically aligned content that, at a minimum, allows free use. The Open Media Unit is also in charge of the strategic partnership with the BBC: about half of the Open Media resources go into broadcasting, the rest is online through OpenLearn iTunes U, YouTube and FutureLearn (which is OU owned).

Can you tell us something about the role the open media unit plays in the strategy of the OU?

Our strategy emanates from two strands: first off, it’s in our charter; the university has a social mission to engage the broader public in opportunities to learn, which concerns the full range of levels and subjects. We must do so according to our university charter. The other strand requires us to ensure support of our business purpose, this has four different components.

One component is branding us in the right places and in the right way. Open Media activity complements The OU’s commercial marketing department activity  by finding additional ways of extending and enhancing brand reach. We get 1.5 million pounds ‘worth’ of brand views  through our BBC partnership alone, adding further value through promotion of the OU brand. Brand awareness can be the first step in encouraging people to study at the OU, therefore we also measure click-through rate. We are interested in the number of people that inquire at the university after being reached by our open media. Online visitors allow us to trace their behaviour, and at OpenLearn we get a more than 10% click-through-rate (of those making some form of enquiry about fee based study).

Can you tell us something more about your business model?

At the moment we already have a profitable business model in place: with OpenLearn we are creating actual registrations (enrolment); these are higher value than the costs of running the OpenLearn site. There is, of course, opportunity costs: we could also spend the money on marketing, but through OpenLearn we also contribute to our social charter.

Assets are also important: a lot of the open content we produce also flows back into formal, fee-based course education and improve the quality of education and how students feel about studying here. So we inject back into the teaching practice of the OU. Our unit produces more rich and interactive media than one of the seven faculties at this university, so that’s a significant contribution to formal, fee-based study.

Another asset comes from our partnership with the BBC. We get access to their archive (instead of having to buy those materials). What we got from the archive in one year saved us more than the entire budget for the Open Media Unit. We can also buy extra footage from the BBC when they at unique locations; this provides us unique opportunities for content that we otherwise would not be able to get. Another example of asset is the ‘adwords’ grant we get from Google. This grant raises our profile in search (and is available because we are non-profit with a lot of visitors with a high dwell time and a higher number of them sign up for the OU).

Finally, there is money: because of our relationship with the BBC we can buy rights to materials and sell those on. Because of our network in education, we can make profits where the BBC could not do so easily. We might use the same infrastructure we have in place to release our free, open content for also releasing additional content that we could charge for. However, I am not sure that content in the long run will hold much monetary value.

Are MOOCS in any way part of your plan and how do you view that particular business model?

We are actively producing around 10 MOOCs a year for FutureLearn where we are exploring whether we reach a new audience (brand and enquiries) and whether new forms of assets can be brought back to formal study. With regards to income, we predict income from certificate sales (for the supplier of the MOOC – not the platform) may only cover 5% of costs of MOOC production. However we are looking into other business models that are emerging.

How has your social mission translated into a policy at your institutions? And has this led to a binding policy?

We will not diminish the amount of open content we release. At the moment that is 5% of our total university content, which has meant we have released more than 10,000 hours of content that reaches around 10 million people a year. Being open with education content is one of the six strategic areas of our university. So next to the social mission we are required (and enthusiastic) to fulfil, it is also of strategic business importance to the university (delivering brand, enquiries, assets and income). The strategy is binding for the university as a whole and so the continued support for open education is guaranteed.

What would your advice be to those who are still in the process of shaping their policy?

It is obviously possible to have both a social and a business mission but work hard to ensure that one does not override the other. We needed to make sure our senior governance stakeholders are signed up (and what they are signed up to) and that was expressed as an institutional policy.

What was very important in gaining that governance support was demonstration of tangible outcomes. We needed to resist those who said ‘impact’ and ‘value’ of openness  cannot be measured or demonstrated. It was important to show impact and we needed to be able to show this to ensure long-term commitment.

So, make sure you have some Key Performance Indicators, measure them regularly and make sure they are meaningful and unambiguous and align them with the university mission. For example, brand views are simple, but don’t be shy to invite people to study with you. Click-through rate would be second (enquiries) and after that it is vital to show how you are making improvements within the university either by content or assets. Gather data and show the impact you made. Use the models of other university departments (e.g. marketing) and apply those to your efforts.

Work with your university systems to make sure you don’t create unnecessary friction, make use of what you already have in place and don’t alienate yourself from the academic community, ensure you align with their goals.

Any other advice you would like to share?


Make sure you, and your team, really believe in the fundamental mission you have chosen to pursue – for us that educational transformation is in part enabled by free access. If your team does not genuinely believe what they are doing is right they won’t explore every possible opportunity that exists


EU Lifelong Learning Programme
with the support of the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Union


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