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A radical definition of Open Education

January 1st, 2010 by Graham Attwell

The Open Education debate is continuing – see contributions by George Siemens, Dave Wiley, Frances Bell, Jim Groom and Stephen Downes.

But I still feel the debate is to narrow and too focused on Open Educational Resources. Don’t get me wrong – I am delighted at the way in which OERs have entered the mainstream of teaching and learning activities. But Dave Wiley, in an excellent paper entitled ‘Open for learning: the CMS and the Open Learning Network‘ and co-written with Jon Mott, explains the failure of Technology Enhanced Education as being due to the way technology has been used to maintain existing practices:

“by perpetuating the Industrial Era-inspired, assembly line notion that the semester-bound course is the naturally appropriate unit of instruction (Reigeluth, 1999).”

The paper quotes Herrington, Reeves, and Oliver (2005) who argue that course management software leads universities to “think they are in the information industry”. In contrast to”the authentic learning environments prompted by advances in cognitive and constructivist learning theories”:

“the industrial, course management model has its center of gravity in teachers generating content, teachers gathering resources, teachers grouping and sequencing information, and teachers giving the information to students.”

Yet the moves to Open Education through Open Education Resources have perpetuated that model. Yes, open educational resources are a good thing in empowering and assisting teachers, yet they remain wedded to the idea of teachers gathering resources, grouping and sequencing information and giving the information to students.

Of course there have been attempts to advance Open Education beyond OERs through opening up courses to non registered students. Dave Wiley himself has run courses on Open Education, George Siemens and Stephen Downes have for the last two years run Open Online courses on Connectivism.

Essentially these courses aim at opening up Higher Education to all those who wish to participate. And indeed the idea of increasing participation in higher education is not limited to the educational technologists. In many countries there has been a long tradition of what in the UK is called Adult Education, run buy a variety of organisations such as the Workers Education Association and sometimes receiving state funding. In the UK, government policy has been to increase the proportion of young people attending university (although this policy seems to have broken down in the present financial crisis).Yet all these initiatives appear to have ignored the issue of class. According to an analysis in the UK comparing achievement in examination results to those receiving free school meals (due to low family incomes), the percentage of pupils getting free meals who achieved the equivalent of five or more A* to Cs was 49% in 2009. For those who did not get free meals, the result was 73%. Another report in the Guardian revealed that:

“children from the richest 2% of all households, are more than four and a half times more likely to study at high-ranking universities such as Bristol and Warwick than children from average neighbourhoods. They are twice as likely as the average child in Britain to go to university at all…..By contrast, children from the poorest 25% of households, typically living in terrace homes or flats, make up less than 6.3% of the student population of these universities.”

The Milburn report, Unleashing Aspiration, recently highlighted that many top jobs are dominated by privately educated people. Although they form only 7% of the population, they account for 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors, 45% of top civil servants and 32% of MPs.

Thus policy attempts to open up higher education to wider social groups have basically failed. And any bottom up approach to Open Education needs to take such failures into account and consider what the aim of such a campaign is. In that light, I understand George Siemens’ frustrations with the prersent movement when he says:

“We need some good ol’ radicals in open education. You know, the types that have a vision and an ideological orientation that defies the pragmatics of reality. Stubborn, irritating, aggravating visionaries.”

The problem is that the existing education systems are wedded to societal structures aiming to perpetuate class differences. In a paper entitled ‘Critical and Vygotskian theories of education: a comparison’ , Willem Wadekker says:

“Transmission of objectified knowledge has displaced personality formation as the aim of education. Its primary function is to ensure the production of persons that fit into existing societal structures.”

Merely using technology to open out existing Higher Education to non registered students will not overcome existing divides of class and race. As early as 1971, Ivan Illich pointed out:

“Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education.”

In an excellent analysis, Danah Boyd points out that the digital divide is not just a question of access:

“We’re closer to universal access today than ever before, but access is not bringing us the magical utopian panacea that we all dreamed of. Henry Jenkins has rightly pointed out that we see the emergence of a “participation gap” in that people’s participation is of different quantity and quality depending on many other factors. Social media takes all of this to a new level. It’s not just a question of what you get to experience with your access, but what you get to experience with your friend group with access. In other words, if you’re friends with 24/7 always-on geeks, what you’re experiencing with social media is very different than if you’re experiencing social media in a community where your friends all spend 12+ hours a day doing a form of labor that doesn’t allow access to internet technologies.”

Boyd goes on to say:

“I’m much more concerned about how racist and classist attitudes are shaping digital media, how technology reinforces inequality, and how our habit of assuming that everyone uses social media just like we do reinforces social divisions that we prefer to ignore.”

If Open Education is to mean anything, it has to address the question of social divisions including class, gender and race. I am unconvinced this can be done from inside the existing educational institutions, although of course is will need the support of those working in those organisations. Instead I think we need to use the power of the internet to provide opportunities for education and learning outside the present system and to embed those learning activities in wider communities than the present institutions address.

Open Educational resources are a good starting point in providing free access to learning materials. But we also need to go beyond the present focus on higher level academic knowledge. My own research on the use of ICT for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises suggest people are using the internet for informal learning. And, contrary to expectation, whilst some of that learning was driven by need in terms of work based activities, much of it was driven by personal interest. In other words, many people are motivated to learn if they have the opportunity.

However, motivation and access to materials are not enough alone, nor for that matter is access to a Personal Learning Environment. Many learners will need support to help them overcome problems and to scaffold their learning. The idea of a Personal Learning Network is good. But once more, many learners will not have access to the people they need to support them, nor will they know where to go to get such support.

In Deschooling Society, Illich proposed using technology to overcome this problem through “learning webs.”

The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.

Illich argued that the use of technology to create decentralized webs could support the goal of creating a ‘good educational system’:

A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.

Illich’s idea of a good educational system could be the basis for a truly radical movement for Open Education

16 Responses to “A radical definition of Open Education”

  1. Josie says:

    Thanks for this analysis and the resources. Those UK stats on class, education, and achievement are alarming but not surprising. What’s distressing is that it only seems to head in the wrong direction. All those post 1944 hopes dashed although I do think there was progress made in those decades.
    The Welsh have a word for it – dysgeidliaeth – teaching and learning as one. For everyone.

  2. My name is spelled with a ‘ph’. Thanks.

  3. Graham Attwell says:

    Sorry Stephen – corrected

  4. Fascinating post and disturbing stats. One of the difficulties in facilitating access to HE open education resources is that it is not clear who will use them or how other than people who have already benefited from post 16 education. The digital divide is not so much lack of access to the internet and web (although this is still a problem for the socially excluded and disadvantaged) but in access to the sorts of information literacy skills and access to the ‘right’ people, i.e. perhaps the right sort of ‘open tutors’ and ‘open scholars’ who are not wedded to the orthodox transmission forms of pedagogy. This could be summed up as a lack of the right sort of social capital. I agree with you that the emphasis has been mainly on open education resources rather than thinking about who the open learners might be and the various sorts of open learning processes that would link open education resources to open learners via social collaborative open social learning practices. I have been struggling with his for some time now and not made mcuh progress! Thanks for the reference to Illich’s notion of ‘learning webs’. It looks as if it could be an important way of thinking practically about open education and learning processes.

  5. Richard Hall says:

    I blogged on the need for ideology in HE during ALT-C09 []. This is in a different, institutional context from that which you promote, but you are right that “the debate is to narrow and too focused on Open Educational Resources.” Where are the ideas? From where might change emerge? In England and Wales current Governmental obsessions [Higher Ambitions] hinder radicalism [again I railed at:

    I will be interested to see where your thinking goes with this, especially in light of the work that I and @josswinn are undertaking on Resilient Education [ and

    Be good.


  6. Manish Malik says:

    This is so timely. I agree with the quote from Ivan Illich’s work on lifelong learning and also about what a good education system should be like.

    Learning is a life-long thing. Empowering the learner as well as the mentor at the same level can result in neumerous possiblities and opportunities for learners and mentors to come together. OERs are a good starting point agreed.

    The reason I say its so timely is because many universities are not #gonegoogle #goneMS #gonecloud, this has empowered the learner and the academics at the same level by using cloud learning environment (CLEs), examples include Google Apps Education edition but not limited to, its not quite “deschooling society” but its certainly de-institutionalising the learning environment. Google Apps designed for end user in mind not the Institution.

    Usng a CLE a learner can continue their journey as a lifelong learner even after they have graduated, using the same set of tools the CLE offered when they were at their institution. To achieve the Lifelong learning aim, what lacks here is the “peer-matching network” buts its not impossible to get that going. So, you come in an institution, use the CLE, that may be the same as what they were using at a previous institution/generally, make your peer network, continue after graduation using the same CLE, expand your network and be a lifelong learning.

    Now for the Personal Learning Network and complete deschooling – I do not think we need a personal learning network as that would be unsustainable, a peer-matching network in and around an institutional model of education would do just as well. I say this as complete deschooling is also unsustainable.

    Also PLNs will also be prone to the race and class divide. I do not know what will over come this divide. Technological empowerment will not relieve us from societal structures (similar to what D Boyd quote says).

    Learning is a quest, a challenge and to quite someone “a bit like a gym membership”. Openness seems to suggest that anyone can join in, even those who are gonna take up the membership but not be motivated to engage. I know your post is not about this, but its a risk that this happens.

    Empowering users of academic institutions (staff and students) with technological means to form and expand peer-networks and looking at learning as a combination of formal as well as informal learning and a lifelong process are key IMHO. Learning never stops, why should a learning environment be like a walled garden? Learning is not just formal or just informal so why go de-schooling? Education system should engulf learning where it happens…

  7. Manish Malik says:

    many universities have now gone google not “not gone google”

  8. Great to see Illich being referenced! It has frustrated me no end that our conversations about networked learning and open education have neglected to quote his work and legacy at length. I think its important, to understanding he’s Learning Webs and Deschooling ideas, to also study 2 more texts by Illich: 1. Tools of Conviviality and 2. Energy and Equity. Deschooling Society stands alone OK (as a quick and obvious reference in this discuissuon), but the 2 further readings really emphasise the depth of not only Illich’s critique, but his proposed alternatives.

    This comment relates to your citation of my comment on George’s blog, that we already have the radicals. For me personally, I refer to Chompsky, McLuhan, Illich, Postman and Friere for ideological inspiration. I think they are popular enough to enable a reasonably shared experience with enough people to gain a conversation and even collaboration around their ideas. I’m still looking for that in the education sector 🙁


  1. good to see 2010 starting with review of ‘Open’ in education by: @gsiemens @GrahamAttwell etc

  2. 7% of population account for 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors, 45% of top civil servants and 32% of MPs.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Steve Wheeler, Graham Attwell and topsy_top20k, topsy_top20k_en. topsy_top20k_en said: @gsiemens says "We need some good ol’ radicals in open education". Here's my reply in a new blog post – […]

  2. […] Attwell risponde dal Galles che il dibattito sui contenuti aperti è piuttosto riduttivo, se non si cambia radicalmente il modo di educare: come sottolineato da Danah Boyd che cita Jenkins […]

  3. […] Last week OEN reported on a post by George Siemens on defining openness. The discussion continues; Graham Atwell places the debate in terms of larger social change. Judy Breck relates it to networks. From […]

  4. […] the original here: Pontydysgu – Bridge to Learning » Blog Archive » A radical … Share and […]

  5. […] haben, siehe die Beiträge von George Siemens, Frances Bell, Jim Groom, Stephen Downes und Graham Attwell. Zu ihnen gehört von der ersten Stunde an David Wiley (Brigham Young University). Auch diese […]

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