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The Future of Authoring Open Online Content

Daniel Seaton, PhD, Senior Learning Systems Designer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Daniel Seaton on LinkedIn

I am thrilled to participate in the 30/30 blog series for the Center for Academic Innovation. The evolution of the University of Michigan’s academic innovation initiatives inspired me to focus on the evolution of content creation in open online settings. Given recent architectural changes in MOOC platforms, I anticipate three broad changes to how we author open online content:

  • Content is going to become more modular, meaning we have easier access to using individual components of the open online content we create.
  • That modularity is going to streamline applications of adaptive and personalized learning.
  • Authors will be able to more easily share content with both internal and external partners.

Development toward these predictions has begun in the Open edX platform, which powers MOOC offerings through and can be run independently as an open source project. “Blockstore” a new content-storage layer in Open edX will improve existing features related to content storage and delivery of MOOCs, while also making advanced applications in digital learning adaptivity, personalization, reusing materials outside of courses more easily realized. I am currently evaluating Blockstore’s technical capabilities and timelines, but of course, also thinking through how platform advances will impact the future of open online content authoring.

What’s my initial take? The future looks like something worth accelerating toward and here are a couple areas where we may see some near-term innovation.

What is Blockstore? We will see improvements to existing tools and flows

It is important to understand that, to date, most open online authoring on platforms like edX and Coursera revolves around courses. Even if you create a smaller module (for example, a Teach Out), you still publish that content through user experiences resembling courses. So what happens when content is unbundled with courses as we look to more fully realize the potential of remix and reuse in authoring learning experiences of different grain size? From the Blockstore design discussion

All lesson content in the Open edX platform is currently […] organized into “courses”. […] Blockstore is meant to be a lower-level service … and it is designed around the concept of storing small, reusable pieces of content, rather than large, fixed content structures such as courses. […] For Open edX, Blockstore is designed to facilitate a much greater level of content reuse than is currently possible, enable new adaptive learning features, and enable the delivery of learning content in new ways (not just large traditional courses).

In addition to advanced use cases, Blockstore will usher in improvements to version control, the ability to publish across numerous reuse contexts, and an ability to reorganize content for new use cases. Content authors at MIT often utilize their own workflows for managing content outside of Open edX, e.g., using Github to track versions between different runs of the same course. These workflows can be time consuming to maintain and do not provide efficient access to functions like reuse. Merging these core aspects of content management and with more advanced features (adaptivity, reuse) is an exciting opportunity for those working in open online education.

Toward authoring adaptive and personalized learning

Orchestrating adaptive sequences within MOOCs has been challenging on a number of levels, for example, the Harvard Adaptive Learning (ALOSI) project used a separate Open edX instance to create and serve adaptive content into MOOCs via LTI. Blockstore, in principle, should remove the need for a separate Open edX instance, reducing complexity in implementing adaptive content. But optimal authoring flows will still need to be considered. From the Harvard Adaptive Learning article

Adaptive learning techniques require the development of additional course materials, so that different students can be provided with different content. Most commercially available adaptive engines (e.g. Knewton, Pearson, McGraw-Hill Education) draw on large preexisting problem banks created for textbooks. For our prototype, tripling the existing content in the four adaptive subsections was considered a minimum to provide a genuine adaptive experience.

So how do institutions with large amounts of content leverage their catalogs to populate adaptive learning sequences? And what does a fresh authoring experience look like when starting from scratch? Authoring for institutions with existing content will likely be a combination of drag and drop from existing catalogs, editing or extending some content, all while authoring new content on the fly. It is worth mentioning that it has previously been estimated that the edX consortium has created more than 400,000 videos, problems, and pages across more than 100 partner institutions. For fresh starts in adaptivity, there will need to be a large initial effort to create enough content to seed these algorithmic approaches.

Surprisingly, I worry much less about the algorithmic aspects of adaptivity and personalization. Developers and designers often pay the most attention here, ending up with something fairly generalizable. Without efficient content authoring, it will be difficult to personalize anything.

Authoring outside of the context of a course

The Blockstore design emphasizes that content will be unlocked from course contexts. Open edX authors “may” even be able to create content outside of course contexts and potentially use these resources in other systems (given appropriate linking between platforms). One theme I have often heard discussed in residential teaching settings is how instructors and their colleagues more easily share materials. 

Take this hypothetical example: Faculty X teaches a course on political science that covers a broad range of national security topics. The world’s expert (faculty Y) on the Cuban missile crisis is two doors down from Faculty X. How do materials, lecture capture, or some other digital representation from that Faculty Y get utilized with students the week Faculty X teaches aspects of the Cuban missile crisis?

For many institutions not utilizing open online platforms in their on-campus courses, Faculty Y often needs to create an entire course in order to support Faculty X’s reuse. An entire course is a time consuming ask for faculty Y, but if we are able to support content creation outside a course context, faculty Y may be able to create a small learning sequence in support of their colleague. That type of capability and experimentation may lead to much more adoption of open online authoring tools. 

It is worth noting, MIT has a residential program that, together with the Digital Learning Lab, utilizes the Open edX platform, and other innovative digital-learning techniques, to create unique blended learning experiences for on-campus students. More than 38,000 unique problems have been utilized in a variety of activities in on-campus courses problem sets, pre-class questions, clicker questions, quizzes. I am currently analyzing how Blockstore might facilitate uses of this existing content and catalyze further innovation.

Toward broader reuse and sharing of open online content

Given that architectural evolutions like Blockstore will lead to reuse opportunities, it is worth discussing the broader implications. My interactions with members of the Digital Learning Laboratory at MIT have revealed needs to reuse content between different versions of open online courses, as well as reuse digital content built for on-campus settings in their open online courses, and vice versa. For any institution, the ability to reuse individual problems, videos, and pages will provide a significant source for blended learning. 

DART (Digital Assets for Reuse in Teaching) is a recent Harvard project that addresses this type of reuse; any instructor at Harvard is able to import HarvardX content in their on-campus courses in the Canvas LMS with just a few clicks. DART requires an additional Open edX instance to facilitate reuse, and Blockstore may eliminate this need and hopefully provide additional improvements, along with new opportunities. 

A related use case is that Dartmouth College was able to run small experiments using DART infrastructure to allow reuse of Dartmouth content by instructors on their campus. The Dartmouth-Harvard example is a small step toward potential content sharing between institutions, but many issues related to technology and policy require exploration. Given that developments like Blockstore will make reuse more straightforward, it may be the right time to kick off more discussion around content sharing.


Given the ability to realize such advanced digital-learning scenarios, how will Academic Innovation units organize to start experimenting and refining new applications of open online learning? As a nod to James DeVaney’s initial post, I look forward to “deep collaborations between institutions” in addressing the future of digital-learning.



Thanks to Anindya Roy for collaborating on MIT content stats.


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