Understanding Open Education
27 February 2020

In an article published in Distance Education in 2017, I argued against conflating open educational resources (OER) with open education. In fact, since then there has been a growing tendency to use the term “open education” while discussing OER. This practice undermines the depth of knowledge that we have accumulated in the field of open education and we miss the opportunity to utilise the affordances of OER in all modes of education (face-to-face, distance, online) to increase access and improve quality. Considering the significance of the topic in this Open Education Week 2020, I am expanding the definition of openness that I offered during the Open Education Week 2016.

Before that, let me share some facts.  In their book “Distance and Blended Learning in Asia,” Colin Latchem and Insung Jung linked the origin of the idea of open education to Nobel Laureate and social reformer, Rabindranath Tagore, who envisioned the need for home study in the early twentieth century. His idea was taken to UK by Leonard Elmhirst, who co-founded Dartington Hall as a progressive school to regenerate rural economy. One of its pupils was Michael Young, who proposed the idea of UK’s Open University (subsequently established in 1969) and piloted it with the establishment of the National Extension College. Another key person to make significant contributions to the world of open education was Charles Wedemeyer, who in 1973, articulated the concept of open education as a mix of multiple features, of which all may not be present in one system: opening education to more people, open admissions, using multiple channels of communication, open curriculum, open access to learning from anywhere, encouraging open participation, open accreditation, and open sharing. So open education has been around for over 50 years!

In recent times, as David Kember puts it, open education/learning has been more about “removing barriers to participation” in learning. So, open education is about open entry, study anywhere, anytime and flexibility to choose courses. Thus, any education system can demonstrate the attributes of openness as identified by Wedemeyer, and the learning resource is just one of these. I have further expanded the concept of open education in a recent keynote address to propose a framework that includes a range of issues, moving from (i) “exclusive” entry to “anyone’s” entry, (ii) studying from one location to learning anywhere, (iii) fixed schedule to learning any time, (iv) “fixed course basket” to provision of “à la carte” approach to course selection, (v) “sage-on-stage” teaching to a highly collaborative learning environment, (vi) using proprietary tools and technology to using more of open technologies, (vii) using copyrighted learning resources to open educational resources, (viii) fixed assessment approach to recognition of prior learning and new forms of authentic assessments, (ix) locally recognized credentials to globally recognized credentials, and last but not the least, (x) high cost to affordable education. That’s a bit complex and the framework gives us a score that could help assess institutions aspiring to become more open. However, let me come back to my idea of open education in terms of Fairness, Flexibility and Freedom.

Fairness relates to equity and social justice. The cost of education is a barrier to increasing access to education for all. The Yidan Prize Forecast: Education to 2030 reports that in many developing countries the cost of a four-year degree is between 200% and 500% of average incomes. A recent report published by the Commonwealth of Learning indicates that learners spend on an average of USD165 on learning resources per year. Previous studies in Bangladesh and Malaysia also point towards challenges to access education due to high costs. So, it is appropriate for OER practitioners to urge for open licensing of educational resources that are developed with public funds. This has now become part of the UNESCO OER Recommendation approved by UNESCO General Conference in November 2019. Some works  of interest promoting equity and social justice are those of Sarah Lambert and Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams and Henry Trotter, both published in the Journal of Learning for Development.

Flexibility refers to the range of options available to learn. This could range from recognition of prior learning to the use of massive open online courses within a lifelong learning framework. Flexibility to choose from a range of courses to graduate has become a norm in many high-income countries. However, in many countries and institutions there is no flexibility due to local restrictive regulations regarding what can be taught through what mode, and what constitutes quality. While there is a limit to flexibility in many first-degree contexts, open education is about creating opportunities to provide learner autonomy. A flexible learning system allows a range of affordances to learners helping them learn in their own space and at their own pace.

Freedom could also be treated as a dimension of flexibility. However, I use the word as in “free speech.” This dimension of open education is  from the perspective of OER, where the learning resources used in teaching and learning are not only available at zero cost, but are also available in accessible format with open license to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute. This is work in progress for all of us, and to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep. Creating teaching and learning resources with open license and making them available requires not only a shift in the proprietary mindset but also an attitude of giving, and not greed to profit out of public good. This also requires openness from the creator to think that an open resource could potentially remain up-to-date with the help of community, and as such could promote the longevity of his/her works. Changing mindsets is a slow process, and thus government intervention to proclaim policy/law through legislative or executive process to make all publicly funded resources with open license available is key to further progress. Availability of teaching and learning materials with the freedom to repurpose and contextualise them provides new avenues for teachers and learners to rethink their pedagogical practices and improve student learning.

Open education practitioners and OER experts may do well to remember the history of open education!

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