Online and Digital Learning

What does it mean to be ‘open’? Reflections on #OER18

If there is one definition of openness that can be agreed on, it is that openness is ill-defined. Each keynote speaker, and likely most conference delegates, came to the conclusion that open educational practice is complex. This, we would hope, is not a surprising assertion, as education itself is complex, influenced by a raft of external and contextual influences. I consider myself an open practitioner, or at least more open than some, though less open than others. How openness is defined and why it is complex occupies much of the interest in this field. In this post I reflect on the ideas shared at OER18, the conference for open education, open educational resources and open practitioners, and try to find my own way forward in understanding what ‘openness’ is as a professional in education.

Where next for openness?

Whilst much was said of ‘critical discourse’ being necessary, the consensus was presented that current views of what openness is and brings to education, are the right views to build from. From this, the attitudes and expectations of openness are something to strive towards, but for many this may be too disruptive a shift to even contemplate buying in to. John Traxler’s opening and provocative thought that the discourse in open learning (as well as mobile learning and social learning) is at risk of stalling (OER18: session 1937). If the discussions as to what openness means, how it is manifested and what the principles are that define it are only identified and critiqued between open practitioners, there is significant risk of a lack of connection to the ‘outside world’.

My primary concerns about the open education movement are the barriers to adoption. I’m not referring specifically here to all the political, economic, cultural and personal factors that influence the decision to become an open practitioner. These are largely covered already by the statement of ‘complexity’. What is perhaps more of a barrier is that openness is sometimes seen as a dichotomy with ‘non-open’, instead of a spectrum of ‘openness’. It is this variability of openness that I sometimes feel is not yet accepted nor invited by the open community.

This is a feeling that is particularly relevant to me in my current role. I want to count myself as an open practitioner. I make my thoughts available on my blog, in presentations and on Twitter. I have contributed to openly available and reusable resources, such as the York Technology-Enhanced Learning Handbook and my Flickr profile. I like the idea of sharing of practice, adaptation and reuse.

The context of our work

In my former role I worked at a university. Those who work in higher education are in a privileged position to be open practitioners, in that their career is dependent upon openness, sharing for the public good and impact. Intellectual Property Rights are, with the exception of some lucrative and patentable ideas, often handled with informal acknowledgement that what appears in your contract of employment (i.e. that ‘all your IP belong to us’) is, in reality, rarely enforced. Of all contexts, higher education is the one most ready for open practice, and I would question whether the barriers some organisations face in further openness is largely down to individual perceptions or lack of awareness.

After leaving higher education and now working for a non-profit commercial organisation, my open practice has had to shift. I am more conscious about what I say, who I say it to and what I share. I’m now working in a competitive environment, not in terms of the selling of products, but competitive in terms of sustainability and resourcing. The organisation I work for has a strong remit to be open, with thousands of freely available educational resources both curated by subject experts and contributed by the teaching community, and the open online courses that I manage. The “value propositions” of open practice as Lorna Campbell described, are aligned to the organisation’s mission (OER18: keynote). Yet this is balanced against information security and contractual obligations, as any commercial organisation is.

One of the concepts presented by Catherine Cronin was that lack of institutional policy inhibits adoption of open practice (OER18: session 1947). Through an absence of guidance, there is uncertainty and risk. It is ironic that in many educational institutions, graduate (leaver) attributes often include resilience, the capabilities to address uncertainty and embrace risk. Yet, the organisational cultures, and perhaps individual viewpoints, are risk averse and fearful of disruptive ideals. The same can be said of many organisations that are weary of what openness might mean to their business model (commercial or not).

In 2014, David Wiley introduced a fifth ‘R’ when thinking about the openness of OERs: retain (own and control). This goes some way to conceptualising the ownership and IPR issues that would otherwise scare ‘the people in suits’ (OER18: keynote). Within my working context, I cannot achieve all the ‘R’s. However, as an organisation we do make available a vast amount of quality, evidence-based and purposeful material. I’d like to consider what we (both the organisation and the community we support) do as open, or at the very least supporting open practice.

The 5Rs of Openness

  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content
  • Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  • Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  • Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

(Wiley, 2014)

The online courses I co-develop are published on FutureLearn. Changes to FutureLearn’s course access model, in that learners pay to have to have continued access to courses after a set period of free access, upset a number of people in the open community, including myself. FutureLearn has to operate in a financially sustainable way though. It is no longer funded by the same means as higher educational institutions. The fear of neoliberalism that is creeping into higher education (as expressed by some presenters), is also, I feel, branding organisations that do contribute massively to the open education sector as holding lesser principles, whilst conveniently ignoring the need for sustainability. The mention of ‘return on investment’ only appeared in the same breath as ‘MOOCs’ in Cambell’s keynote, but not for any other form of open educational resource. Clearly this is down to the high start-up cost for MOOC development, but again looks over the ongoing costs of other forms of open education (including the salary of all those staff whose time is contributing in some way towards a particular project).

Partnerships across the open/closed divide

I was pleasantly surprised though when the role of commercial organisations was highlighted by David Wiley (OER18: keynote), being able to offer certain aspects that currently the open community lack. This may include established marketing, research and development, and infrastructure. The partnership model for open education may well be the answer to some of the challenges the open community face in increasing reach and impact. Though, as was raised in an comment from Doug Belshaw, this would require an appreciation that for-profit organisations could exploit such a partnership.

Ownership (‘retain’ from the 5 ‘R’s), is something we would need to accept applies to not just the original open material, but the products that are developed from it. If those products are successful or generate profit, even if they are unchanged, the hidden costs that commercial organisations can bear, or rather utilise economies of scale, provide a little justification to ownership belonging to more than one party. An open resource is more than an idea, it requires infrastructure, resources and time to develop and these are rarely provisioned by the creator of the idea alone (the people you work for will have a part to play here!). I wonder then if there is a turning point emerging, where acknowledgement that in partnering with the commercial ‘devil’, openness can find a way to proliferate.

Wiley responded to Belshaw’s comment on this issue of commercial motivations: we all have choices over how we create and share open content. That is a point not to under-emphasise. This is where I think the spectrum of openness can be more inclusive, as the nature of open practice is therefore about individual choice rather that conformance to a set of open principles. One approach is to draw upon the range of specific licences available, such as Creative Commons – Non-commercial. But I would argue, to be truly open, resource creators need to become comfortable with commercial reuse as well. Or, is the open agenda only for those willing (or able to) openly reuse, and closed as a way of thinking to those who adopt other forms of reuse?

In terms of the sustainability of open resources and open practices, Momodou Sallah brought in the significant contribution social enterprise models can make. This approach has a commercial mind set, making business decisions based upon affordability, return on investment (not necessarily financial) and secure cash flow, whilst setting out to achieve specific socially-motivated objectives. Sallah described the student participation in projects, and as was shown in the examples from the University of Edinburgh’s employment of student interns, the student community can contribute significantly to open resource development and open education. However, internships and involvement of individuals who are participating based on either good will or the acknowledgement they will be developing skills and knowledge for employability and future careers, can be difficult to arrange, access and sustain. What the open movement may want to achieve is participation from a wider group of academics, professionals, and others working in industry in the height of their careers, to complement the support, creativity and energy of those just starting out in their own.

That is just focusing on the academic context, and there is a need to ensure open education actually serves a non-academic majority. Partnerships that span concepts of openness, professional practices and contexts may hold a rich and sustainable future for open education. This partnership must also include the learning community for which open education aims to reach and serve. Nick Baker poignantly described the incoherence between open models of resource sharing and indigenous communities (OER18: session 1928). The cultural sensitivities of knowledge sharing, appropriation and meaning of certain artefacts and ideas can only be understood through understanding the context of origin. Partnership, and a willingness to put aside our own cultural biases to appreciate alternatives, has led to the creation of a new way of thinking about openness, with Traditional Knowledge licensing (Baker, OER18: session 1928). This example illustrates beautifully the view held by Teresa MacKinnon that open practice is situated and complex (OER18: session 1950).

A spectrum of openness

That situatedness is crucial to understanding why, how and what should be created, where it could or should end up and who with. What I am keen to stress though is not openness for openness sake, but open practice that is focused on the learners it intends to support. That’s learners, not educators. This applies as equally to practice as it does theoretical discussion and conceptualisation of ‘open’.

Surely then all open practitioners reside on a spectrum of openness rather than a dichotomy. Each ‘flavour’ or ‘colour’ of openness contributing to the whole picture. Through that, we should appreciate all and any contributions to open educational practices, whether they come from the public, private or third sectors, whether they come ‘with strings attached’ due to the complexity of the context in which they are developed. Openness cannot always be a commitment to all the principles. As I grapple with my own position as an open practitioner who some may see working in a closed context, whilst others see the openness of the underlying mission, I remind myself of a point made by Momodou Sallah:

“Each of us is an open educational resource.”

By acknowledging this, perhaps we can bring more people, organisations and communities into the purpose and ethos of a shared and common good.


OER18 sessions (2018) OER18: Open for all. 18-19 April 2018, Bristol. See conference programme for full details:

Wiley, D. (2014) The access compromise and the 5th R. Iterating towards openness (blog).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.