Lesson 1.1 What is Open Education?

What does ‘open’ mean in an educational context?

Before presenting some concepts related to Open Education and discussing the benefits of working openly within universities, we need to ask ourselves what we mean when we say that a specific educational practice or an educational resource is ‘open’. This depends on the personal understanding of ‘open’, but may also reflect the context in which we are working. To start thinking about openness, let’s introduce some of the key characteristics usually associated with this concept: access, transparency, free, sharing.

Access. Openness is often associated with an increased access to resources. In particular, it is associated with Open Access (this concept will be presented in Module 2) and the drive to ‘open up’ academia by publishing research outputs and learning resources through open licences. Opening up access to research and teaching resources is made possible by the internet, and means that potential users such as researchers and learners do not need to pay to view or to use a specific resource.

Transparency. Openness is often associated with increased transparency, for example in relation to one’s own practices or data. This is particularly the case when an academic shares data, research and materials with others and by doing so enables public scrutiny of processes, outputs and assertions. For example, making research datasets openly available (Open Data will be discussed in Module 2) allows other people to check for possible errors, and carry out further analyses towards ultimately developing and improving research results.

Free. The term ‘free’ is often used in relation to Open Educational Resources (OER). But what does ‘free’ mean within the context of ‘open’? As noted above, increasing access to resources often involves removing the need to pay for a resource at the point of use. This type of ‘free’ has been described as ‘gratis’, as the user is not charged a fee to access or use the resource. In this case, the costs associated with resource creation and/or its maintenance are absorbed elsewhere, for example by the creator or funder. Another meaning of ‘free’ within the context of openness is ‘libre’. If a resource is ‘libre’ it means it doesn’t have limitations on the way in which it can be used. Within the context of openness this refers to the potential of openly licensed materials to be reused. However, different licences afford different levels of reuse, some of which are not considered to be ‘free’ in the ‘libre’ sense (open licensing is discussed in more detail in Module 2).

Sharing. In all the above-mentioned cases, increasing access to resources happens through sharing, particularly when a material is shared digitally, and often means that resources can go beyond the original contexts and boundaries intended by their creator. Sharing stands at the very foundation of open education, since an Open Educational Resource that is not properly shared, could remain unknown and therefore its usage would be minimal. In Module 5 we will see how Open Educational Practices depend on the sharing attitudes of teachers and students: the more willing we are to share, the more the learning process will become open.

https://www.flickr.com/ photos/ comedynose/ 4058757916/ in/ photostream/, Public Domain Mark 1.0

Defining Open Education

Open Education is an ‘umbrella term’ under which different understandings of ‘open’ can be accommodated. More and more, experts and practitioners are adopting an understanding where opening up education does not refer exclusively to Open Educational Resources or to the availability of Open Access research in repositories. Here we provide a short and a longer definition:

Open Education encompasses resources, tools and practices that employ a framework of open sharing to improve educational access and effectiveness. By combining the traditions of knowledge sharing and creation with 21st century technology, Open Education wants to create a vast pool of openly shared educational resources, while harnessing today’s collaborative spirit to develop educational approaches that are more responsive to learners’ needs. Open Education seeks to scale up educational opportunities by taking advantage of the power of the internet, allowing rapid and essentially free dissemination, and enabling people around the world to access knowledge, connect and collaborate. Open allows not just access, but the freedom to modify and use materials, information and networks so education can be personalized to individual users or woven together in new ways for diverse audiences, large and small.


The expression ‘Open Education’ is subject to multiple interpretations and its meanings have significantly changed over time. In the second half of the 20th century, the concept was associated with the idea of using mass media channels such as the telephone or the TV in order to enhance distance education, as exemplified by the UK’s Open University (established in 1969) and other universities around the world based on similar principles and pedagogical approaches, such as Athabasca University (Canada), the National University of Distance Education (Spain) or Indira Gandhi National Open University (India). Unlike the traditional institutions bound to physical campuses and rigid timetables, these new universities were designed to open up education to widening up to segments of the population and to address the needs of those traditionally excluded from higher education. With the rise of the internet and online communications, the idea of Open Education soon started to be connected with Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and e-learning. In order to understand the practices and the phenomena usually associated with Open Education as connected to e-learning, it is important to consider other concepts such as Open Access, Open Data, Open Content or Open Licences – all of which are based on, or directly inspired by – the ideas of Free Software and Open Source. All these concepts are influenced by the underlying idea that – thanks to the possibilities offered by the internet – knowledge can be reproduced at minimal or sometimes zero cost, but nevertheless, some barriers still exist in terms of, for example, copyright.

Open Education is not synonymous with online learning or e-learning, although many people use the terms interchangeably. Openly licensed content can in fact be produced in any medium: paper-based text, video, audio or computer-based multimedia. A lot of e-learning courses may harness OER, but this does not mean that OER are necessarily e-learning. Indeed, many open resources being produced currently – while shareable in a digital format – are also printable. Given the bandwidth and connectivity challenges common in some developing countries, it would be expected that a high percentage of resources of relevance to higher education in such countries are shared as printable resources, rather than being designed for use in e-learning (http://wikieducator.org/A_Basic_Guide_for_OER/A_Basic_Guide_to_Open_Educational_Resources:_FAQ). Likewise, many e-learning courses do not involve the creation, or even use of OER. Indeed, many courses advertised as open (such as certain Massive Open Online Courses – MOOCs) are built around copyrighted content that do not comply with the key criteria of most OER definitions, as learners can only have access to it, but reuse and modifications are not allowed.

The promise of Open Education is that each and every individual, at any stage of their lives and career development, can have appropriate and meaningful educational opportunities available to them. These include access to content, courses, support, assessment and certification in ways that are flexible and that accommodate diverse needs. Barriers, for example those related to entry and cost, are reduced or eliminated. Today, this vision has not been yet realised, and most academics still teach in a traditional way using ‘closed’ resources, but progress has been made and especially Open Education approaches are becoming increasingly popular. As Professor Martin Weller puts it, ‘there is undoubtedly still a lot more that open education needs to do before it affects all aspects of practice, but the current period marks the moment when open education stopped being a peripheral, specialist interest and began to occupy a place in the mainstream of academic practice’ (Weller, 2014 p. 9).


Defining Open Educational Resources

The concept of Open Educational Resources has heavily influenced how the idea of Open Education has been understood during the first two decades of the 21st century. This concept and its acronym (OER) were first coined after a forum organised by UNESCO in 2002, which focused on the potential of OpenCourseWare (OCW) for learning in developing countries. OCW was an initiative launched by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2001, with the aim of making resources available on the internet developed by lecturers for students enrolled in courses at that institution. While OCW refers to whole courses (i.e. modules), the term OER is more generic and can refer to smaller elements. According to the seminal definition formulated after the 2002 forum, the term OER refers to:

‘The open provision of educational resources, enabled by ICTs for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes.’ UNESCO 2002

Another widely quoted definition of the term was suggested by Atkins, Seely Brown and Hammond in their report on the OER Movement published by the Hewlett Foundation in 2007. Their revised definition describes OER as:

‘teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.’

Atkins et al. 2007

The original definition was much more restrictive than this one, as it excluded non-electronic materials and did not consider the possibility of repurposing resources for commercial use. On the contrary, Atkins et al’s (2007) definition detaches the concept from particular technologies and is more flexible from the legal point of view. Within this definition, the key characteristic of resources which are described as OER is that they can be used and repurposed without any cost to users, no matter whether they do so for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

In 2012, ten years after the term OER was coined, UNESCO proposed a revised definition of the concept within the OER Paris Declaration:

‘Teaching, learning and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.’ UNESCO 2012

The word ‘open’ within the notion of OER is usually interpreted as the absence of – or limited – legal (but also technical) restrictions for users to utilise, repurpose and share scholarly resources.

While the definitions of OER above refer explicitly to scholarly (i.e. learning, teaching, research) materials, the educational nature of resources is not determined by their creators, but by the context of their use. That is, content released under open licences or in the public domain are not only relevant to educators and learners when they have been specifically created for educational purposes. For instance, a news article, a song, a picture or a film might be extremely valuable in facilitating learning within a given discipline, despite not being created for that purpose. In this regard, OER are not just created by educators or learners.

Resources are assets that can enable some function or activity, and when we refer to resources that support learning and teaching we usually think of content (for example, textbooks, videos, podcasts). However, materials that qualify as resources for teaching and learning might include a much wider range of tools, such as software, data or techniques (as recognised by the definition in the Hewlett report). A broader interpretation of the term could include spaces for either formal or informal learning, and even people as resources for learning.

Thanks to Creative Commons (CC) and other similar licences (for example, the GNU General Public License) – that will be explored in Module 2 – copyright owners can easily grant permission so their works can be used by others without them having to ask for explicit permission. However, not all CC licences comply with the minimum criteria that content must fulfil in order to be regarded as OER.


Openness in Open Educational Practices beyond OER

Open Educational Practices (OEP) are the next phase in OER development which will see a shift from a focus on resources to a focus on open educational practices being a combination of open resource use and open learning architectures to transform learning into 21st century learning environments in which universities, adult learners and citizens are provided with opportunities to shape their lifelong learning pathways in an autonomous and self-guided way.

Two definitions of OEP are proposed:

Some authors restrict the use of the term OEP to teaching and learning that make use of content that qualifies as OER. For instance, David Wiley has defined Open Pedagogy as ‘the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical in the context of the 5R permissions. Or, to operationalise, open pedagogy is the set of teaching and learning practices only possible or practical when you are using OER’ (Wiley 2017). On the other hand, other authors have made the case for a less restrictive interpretation of OEP. For instance, Martin Weller suggests a definition according to which ‘Open educational practice covers any significant change in educational practice afforded by the open nature of the internet’ (Weller 2017).

In the case of OpenMed, while the project encourages institutions and educators to release content conforming to the 5R permissions whenever possible, it also recognises the value of educational practices that, despite not involving OER, can still help open up learning opportunities to a wider public beyond institutional boundaries. For instance, making scholarly content publicly available on the web (for example, by means of podcasts, online video, blogs or other types of websites and platforms) can be a good first step in opening up opportunities to a wider public, even if content is fully protected by copyright or cannot be used to produce derivative works. While OER levels of openness are more desirable, making resources publicly available is better than having them behind ‘walls’.



What is an Open Educator?

An attempt to define what it means to be an Open Educator has been made by the ‘Open Educators Factory’ project, which proposes the following definition:

An Open Educator chooses to use open approaches, when possible and appropriate, with the aim to remove all unnecessary barriers to learning. S/he works through an open online identity and relies on online social networking to enrich and implement his/her work, understanding that collaboration bears a responsibility towards the work of others. He/she:

  1. Implements Open Learning Design, by openly sharing ideas and plans about his/her teaching activities with experts and with the past and potential students, incorporating inputs and transparently leaving a trace of the development process.
  2. Embraces Open Educational Content, by releasing his/her teaching resources through open licences, by facilitating sharing of his/her resources through OER repositories and other means, and by adapting, assembling and using OER produced by others in her teaching.
  3. Adopts Open Pedagogies, fostering co-creation of knowledge by students through online and offline collaboration, allowing learners to contribute to public knowledge resources such as Wikipedia.
  4. Implements Open Assessment practices such as peer and collaborative evaluation, open badges and e-portfolios, engaging students as well as external stakeholders in learning assessment.