Course start and end dates: a moveable feast

The Open University of the Netherlands, as previously reported, doesn’t have fixed start and end dates for their courses which means that conventional VLEs (LMSs) don’t easily fit their business model.

Courses with fixed start and end dates – where a cohort of students has access to content and activities solely within those dates are a breeze to set up on VLEs. But life isn’t usually that simple. What happens when you want to give students access to materials or VLE tools before the course officially starts so that they can familiarise themselves with reading lists and other course content or establish contact with fellow learners?

When learners complete a course should they be denied further access to course forums or to key texts which they’ve paid for and might wish to refer to in the future? They can keep a printed course text indefinitely, after all. If immediate removal of access is unreasonable, how long should they be able to view the course website on the VLE? A year, ten years, for life? Could some students reasonably object to having their course forum postings on display years after the end of the course?

These are not easy questions to answer because they have all sorts of implications for costs, procedures and support. Hence a paper by Dean Taylor went to the Open University VLE Policy Group last week to examine the issues.

The group agreed that access should be provided to the course website as a general rule for three years after the end of the course. However there might be exceptions to this where students were taking, say, eight years to complete a programme.

But there are different types of content on course websites which have to be handled separately. Core content authored by the course team including PDF files, podcasts etc will be included in this three year period. Access to activity content such as course wikis and forums will become read only from the course end date for a period of three years as will access to course related study spaces within MyStuff (the eportfolio system).

I felt that one of the recommendations in the paper needed further work: that online assessments are made inaccessible from the course end date (in case these need to be reused in summative assessments). There will be increasing numbers of courses where online formative assessments form a substantial part of the course content. The presumption should be that these assessments remain available with the rest of the content for three years unless the course team states an intention to reuse the questions summatively.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that some courses include third party materials with copyright restrictions so it’s necessary to restrict course websites to those registered on the course. When there are embedded links in course websites to external, rights controlled content (usually held in the Library) those links will only work if the student is currently enrolled on an OU course. And when students access the course for the first time after it has been made read-only, a warning screen will be presented with a tick-box requiring them to agree to the University’s copyright and codes of conduct. Complex stuff!

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