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How Open is Open Education?

October 4th, 2015 by Graham Attwell

For the second in this mini series on open education we ask ‘How open is open education’? How open is open sounds a bit of a stupid question. But lets just start by looking at some of the definitions of Open Education. According to wikipedia: “Open education is a philosophy about the way people should produce, share, and build on knowledge.”

Proponents of open education believe everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and they work to eliminate barriers to this goal. Such barriers might include high monetary costs, outdated or obsolete materials, and legal mechanisms that prevent collaboration among scholars and educators.”

But the European Union is backing Open Education with their open education europa web site providing a “gateway to open education resources”. However they say they are enacting the Europe policy on ‘Opening up education’. This “proposes actions towards more open learning environments to deliver education of higher quality and efficacy and thus contributing to the Europe 2020 goals of boosting EU competitiveness and growth through better skilled workforce and more employment.”

These seem rather different goals. Is open education about a believe that everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources of is it about boosting EU competitiveness and growth?

Lets make no mistake. The spread of open education resources, MOOCs, open access journals and of course Open Source Software are big steps forward. But how far have they taken us: how open is open. I am not sure whether by plan or serendipity but three of the keynote speakers at this years EDEN conference, held in Barcelona in June addressed this question, albeit with different accents.

Jim Groom attacked the soulless of corporate-driven ed tech saying “it robs the field of any deep, meaningful interrogation of the issues we need to be struggling with, such as digital identity, digital fluency the new cultures around piracy and privacy, student empowerment, and how we can begin to think like the web.” None of this happens in an LMS (or VLE), he said. “in fact, that systematic design of that system is anathema to all of these crucial elements of educating in the digital era.”

Jim highlighted how the edupunk discourse had been subverted by corporate and political interests. Rather than talking about new cultures they wanted to highlight the failure of public institutions.

Martin Weller’s speech was entitled the battle for openness (the title of his recent book). In an interview prior to the conference he said: “Generally I think the use of new tech has allowed education to be more flexible, and opened it up beyond the traditional notion of what constituted a university student. But there has also been some terrible hype about new developments, and technology can also been seen as a route for commercial interests to undermine the role of the university.”

And in a brainstorming performance Audrey Waters pointed out the contribution of education to the creation of the web. The web and open education is reliant on an open infrastructure but private and corporate interests were fighting to take control. She called this cultural imperialism.

There seems to be a common message here. Whilst there are advances in opening up education corporate interests (including governments) are subverting the discourses for their own purposes. Rather than seeing MOOCs as an opportunity to provide education to those who had no access or could not afford traditional courses (which is the same thing) Silicon Valley investors pumped money into private MOOC providers to the hope of disrupting education and opening upo the market for private capital (and profit). When investors started losing patience with how long this disruption was taking, founder of Udacity, Sebastion Thrun announced MOOCs were a “lousy product” and he saw the future in selling paid for closed inline training courses.

And rather than moving to genuine open publishing through federated online repositories, the UK government has backed the so called Gold Model which guarantees publishers a rick future income stream form authors (an article entitled ‘Open access fees hike universities’ journal bills‘ in this weeks Times Higher says universities are paying more than ever to publishers).

So Martin Weller is right – there is a battle for open. And that battle is getting ever wider. But as well as fighting on a day to day level over actions, we also need to become clear as to what our vision for openness is and how open we think open should be.

Graphic Recording of Keynotes by Maria Calvet. Video editing by Gabriel Gómez.


  1. […] “There seems to be a common message here. Whilst there are advances in opening up education corporate interests (including governments) are subverting the discourses for their own purposes.” Graham Attwell, Pontydysgu – bridge to learning, 4. Oktober 2015 […]

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