Challenges and opportunities of open online education: a group concept mapping study

Challenges and opportunities of open online education: a group concept mapping study

This summer my first article was accepted for publication in a scientific journal! This was wonderful news to me, a personal milestone… However, most people that are not my direct colleagues (for example: my grandpa) have only a vague idea (if even) what I actually do, and most of them don’t have the intention or time to read the full article to find out. This is ok with me, as I also admit I still don’t know exactly what my sister did during her 4 years of PhD research into ‘something with artificial kidneys’. However, I do want to give it a try and explain what this study was about in a more accessible way. So, here we go: a study about the challenges and opportunities of open online education in The Netherlands explained in a blogpost.

Why would you do a study like this?

Let me first briefly explain what the reason behind this study was. In former times, it was most common for universities to teach their students through face to face instruction, in lecture halls and class rooms. However, with the rise of the internet and upcoming technological opportunities, new forms of teaching are finding their way into the higher education sector. As that started out with blended educational formats, where education was partly online, and partly face to face, it expanded to formats that went a step further and made it possible for a bigger public to access higher education courses. This is called ‘open online education’ (OOE). In these OOE formats the teaching and teaching materials are completely online and are ‘open’ in terms of for example time (i.e. self-paced education), place (i.e. no specific physical location required), program (i.e. flexible learning path), access (i.e. no entry requirements) and costs (i.e. available without costs for the student).

Examples of OOE that you might have heard from are MOOCs, the massive open online courses provided for example by Coursera or edX. These are also seen as promising opportunities for providing a solution to the rising costs of higher education and admission requirement restrictions that many students face. As nice as that sounds, a lot of institutions struggle to embed open online education in their institution as there are many examples of OOE projects that are only successful on the short term, and only have very local success. So, it seems that there are difficulties surrounding institution wide embedding of OOE, but what are those exactly? We therefore asked the following question that was also central to this study:

What are the challenges and opportunities for OOE innovation projects within higher learning institutions as experienced by OOE project leaders?

Who did we target with this question?

We collected data from 22 project leaders who lead innovation projects within several Dutch higher education institutions. The reason behind asking these project leaders is that they are the people that hands on work with OOE, and often serve as pioneers of OOE within their institutions. Therefore, they are in the line of fire (so to say) when encountering difficulties or opportunities for their OOE projects in their organisational context.

So, what method did I use to answer this question?

The method I used to collect data from the project leaders was group concept mapping. This is a structured way to get a better understanding about a specific issue. With group concept mapping we were able to identify 8 bigger themes that represent challenges and opportunities for OOE on an organizational level, visualized in a map (as you could already suspect from the name of the method). This nice small island group of themes can be found in the figure below. How exactly this map was made, and what technical and methodological details are behind it I would like to recommend you to read the full article, as it quickly escalates when I try to explain that shortly…

What do these islands represent? What does this all mean?

The core themes (islands on the map) regarding the challenges and opportunities of OOE that were identified were: 1. Online teaching, 2. Supporting mechanisms, 3. Assessment, 4. External target groups, 5. Educational flexibility, 6. Quality of education, 7. Institutional reputation, and 8. Educational efficiency. The biggest challenges were found in the theme of online teaching and in the theme supporting mechanisms.

  • Challenges of online teaching: Online teaching requires other capabilities of teachers, educational designers and students compared to existing traditional education, and is seen as a main challenge. This therefore implies a skills gap among educators not only in being able to teach in an open and online environment, but also in developing and designing online education.
  • Challenges of organizational support mechanisms: There is a clear need for technical support (i.e. ICT, recording of material, designing online modules), and on the other hand a demand for a higher level of support in terms of organisational vision, strategy alignment, and policies that support the development of OOE. In other words, there is a lack of organisational support on multiple levels of the organisation to steer towards embedding of OOE.

Well, as you might wonder, what can we say about opportunities then? The clusters that are mainly saying something about opportunities are external target groups, educational flexibility, quality of education and institutional reputation. The clusters external target groups and institutional reputation were more outwards oriented, and deal with, for example, reaching remote learner groups and increasing brand awareness and enhancing the reputation of an institution. The clusters educational flexibility and quality of education were more inward oriented and deal with increasing educational flexibility by being able to offer time- and place independent learning, flexible and personalized learning paths and enriching existing education with the addition of open online educational forms.

By identifying what the biggest challenges and opportunities are with this study, we have an answer to the question of this study. In the full article, I obviously go deeper into the clusters, look at more implications and argument what next steps could be according to the findings. Yet, since I wanted to be short and accessible, I will end the blog here, hopefully giving you a less vague idea of what my work is about… However, are you curious for more? Then feel free to read the full article online here (it is open access!)…

Martine, PhD candidate


Schophuizen, M., Kreijns, K., Stoyanov, S., & Kalz, M. (2018). Eliciting the challenges and opportunities organizations face when delivering open online education: A group-concept mapping study. The Internet and Higher Education, 36, 1-12. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2017.08.002

CC BY 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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