Lesson 10 - Trends in Open Learning

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Course: Teaching in a Digital Age
Book: Lesson 10 - Trends in Open Learning
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Date: Friday, 12 July 2024, 12:39 PM

1. Watch this Video on Trends in Open Learning

2. Scenario: Watershed Management

Figure 1: The Hart River, Yukon. Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

Over a number of years, research faculty in the Departments of Land Management and Forestry at the University of Western Canada had developed a range of digital graphics, computer models and simulations about watershed management, partly as a consequence of research conducted by faculty, and partly to generate support and funding for further research.

At a faculty meeting several years ago, after a somewhat heated discussion, faculty members voted, by a fairly small majority, to make these educational resources openly available for re-use for educational purposes under a Creative Commons license that requires attribution and prevents commercial use without specific written permission from the copyright holders, the faculty responsible for developing the artefacts.

What swayed the vote is that the majority of the faculty actively involved in the research wanted to make these resources more widely available. The agencies responsible for funding the work that resulted in the development of the learning artefacts (mainly national research councils) welcomed the move to makes these artefacts more widely available as open educational resources.

Initially, the researchers just put the graphics and simulations up on the research group’s web site. It was left to individual faculty members to decide whether to use these resources in their teaching. Over time, faculty started to introduce these resources into a range of on-campus undergraduate and graduate courses.

After a while, though, the word seemed to get out about these OER. Research members began to receive e-mails and phone calls from other researchers around the world. It became clear that there was a network or community of researchers in this field who were creating digital materials as a result of their research, and it made sense to share and re-use materials from other sites. This eventually led to an international web ‘portal’ of learning artefacts on watershed management.


The researchers also started to get calls from a range of different agencies, from government ministries or departments of environment, local environmental groups, First Nations/aboriginal bands, and, occasionally, major mining or resource extraction companies, leading to some major consultancy work for the faculty in the departments. At the same time, the faculty were able to attract further research funding from non-governmental agencies such as the Nature Conservancy and some ecological groups, as well as from their traditional funding source, the national research councils, to develop more OER.


By this time, the departments had access to a fairly large amount of OER. There were already two fourth and fifth level fully online courses built around the OER that were being offered successfully to undergraduate and graduate students. A proposal was therefore put forward to create initially a fully online post-graduate certificate program on watershed management, built around existing OER, in partnership with a university in the USA and another one in Sierra Leone. This certificate program was to be self-funding from tuition fees, with the tuition fees for the 25 Sierra Leone students to be initially covered by an international aid agency.


The Dean, after a period of hard negotiation, persuaded the university administration that the departments’ proportion of the tuition fees from the certificate program should go directly to the departments, who would hire additional tenured faculty from the revenues to teach or backfill for the certificate, and the departments would pay 25 percent of the tuition revenues to the university as overheads. This decision was made somewhat easier by a fairly a substantial grant from Foreign Affairs Canada to make the certificate program available in English and French to Canadian mining and resource extraction companies with contracts and partners in African countries.

Although the certificate program was very successful in attracting students from North America, Europe and New Zealand, it was not taken up very well in Africa beyond the partnership with the university in Sierra Leone, although there was a lot of interest in the OER and the issues raised in the certificate courses. After two years of running the certificate, then, the departments made two major decisions:

  • Another three courses and a research project would be added to the certificate courses, and this would be offered as a fully cost recoverable online master in watershed resource management. This would attract greater participation from managers and professionals in African countries in particular and provide a recognized qualification that many of the certificate students were requesting.
  • Drawing on the very large network of external experts now involved one way or another with the researchers, the university would offer a series of MOOCs on watershed management issues, with volunteer experts from outside the university being invited to participate and provide leadership in the MOOCs. The MOOCs would be able to draw on the existing OER.

Five years later, the following outcomes were recorded by the Dean at an international conference on sustainability:

  • The online master’s program had doubled the total number of graduate students in her Faculty.
  • The master’s program was fully cost-recoverable from tuition fees.
  • There were 120 graduates a year from the master’s program.
  • The degree completion rate was 64 percent.
  • Six new tenured faculty had been hired, plus another six post-doctoral research staff.
  • Several thousand students had registered and paid for at least one course in the certificate or master’s program, of which 45 percent were from outside Canada.
  • Over 100,000 students had taken the MOOCs, almost half from developing countries.
  • There were now over 1,000 hours of OER on watershed management available and downloaded many times across the world.
  • The university was now internationally recognized as a world leader in watershed management.

Although this scenario is purely a figment of my imagination, it is influenced by real and exciting work being done by the following at the University of British Columbia:

3. Open Learning

Figure 2: ‘I’m just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education…’ Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize speech, 2014. Click on image to see the speech.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in open learning, mainly related to open educational resources and MOOCs. Although in themselves open educational resources (OER) and MOOCs are important developments, they tend to cloud other developments in open education that are likely have even more impact on education as a whole. It is therefore necessary to step back a little to get a broader understanding of not just OER and MOOCs, but open learning in general. This will help us better understand the significance of MOOCs, OER and other developments in open education, and their likely impact on teaching and learning now and in the future.

3.1. Open Education as a Concept

Open education can take several forms:

  • Education for all: Free or very low-cost school, college or university education available to everyone within a particular jurisdiction, usually funded primarily through the state.
  • Open access to programs that lead to full, recognised qualifications. These are offered by national open universities or more recently by the OERu.
  • Open access to courses or programs that are not for formal credit, although it may be possible to acquire badges or certificates for successful completion. MOOCs are a good example.
  • Open educational resources that instructors or learners can use for free. MIT’s opencourseware, which provides free online downloads of MIT’s video recorded lectures and support material, is one example.
  • Open textbooks, online textbooks that are free for students to use (such as this one).
  • Open research, whereby research papers are made available online for free downloading (see for instance open research central).
  • Open data, that is, data open to anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute, subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share; see for example the world bank’s open data bank.
  • Open pedagogy, a method of teaching and learning that builds on principles of open-ness and learner participation.

Each of these developments is discussed in more detail in this lesson, except for MOOCs, which are discussed extensively in Lesson 11.

3.2. Education for All – Except Higher Education

Open education is primarily a goal or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open education is the removal of barriers to learning. It can mean no prior qualifications to study, no discrimination by gender, race, age or religion, affordability for everyone, and for students with disabilities, through a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio recordings for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open educational program. Thus, open learning must be scalable as well as flexible.

State-funded Schools 

State-funded public education for the education of children from around the age of five through to sixteen or in some countries eighteen is the most extensive and widespread form of open education. For example, the British government passed 1870 Education Act that set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. Although there were some fees to be paid by parents, the Act established the principle that education would be paid for mainly through taxes and no child would be excluded for financial reasons. Schools would be administered by elected local school boards (Living Heritage, undated).

Over time, access to publicly funded education in most economically developed countries have been widened to include all children up to the age of 18. UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults, supported, at least in principle, by 164 national governments. Nevertheless today there are over 250 million of ‘out-of-school’ children, adolescents and youth worldwide (UNESCO, 2018), or roughly one in five.

Post-secondary Education

Access to post-secondary or higher education has been more limited than access to schools, partly on financial grounds, but also in terms of ‘merit’. Universities have required those applying for university to meet academic standards determined by prior success in school examinations or institutional entry exams. This has enabled elite universities in particular to be highly selective.

However, after the Second World War, the demand for an educated population, both for social and economic reasons, in most economically advanced countries resulted in the gradual expansion of universities and post-secondary education in general. In most OECD countries, roughly 35-60 percent of an age cohort will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Especially in a digital age, there is an increasing demand for highly qualified workers, and post-secondary education is a necessary gateway to most of the best jobs. Therefore, there is increasing pressure for full and free open access to post-secondary, higher or tertiary education.

The Cost of Widening Access

As we already saw the cost of widening access to ever-increasing numbers results in increased financial pressure on governments and taxpayers. Following the financial crisis of 2008, many states in the USA found themselves in severe financial difficulties, which resulted in substantial funding cuts to the U.S. higher education system (see, for instance, Rivera, 2012), which in turn resulted in a rapid increase in tuition fees.

It is probably more than co-incidental that other forms of open education such as MOOCs and OER arose at a time of increasing cuts to the funding of public education in the USA. Solutions that enable increased access without a proportionate increase in funding or tuition fees are almost desperately being sought by governments and institutions. It is against this background that the renewed interest in open education should be framed.

3.3. Open Access in Higher Education

Open Universities

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a rapid growth in the number of open universities that required no or minimal prior qualifications for entry. In the United Kingdom, for instance, in 1969, less than 10 per cent of students leaving secondary education went on to university. This was when the British government established the Open University, a distance teaching university open to all, using a combination of specially designed printed texts, and broadcast television and radio, with one week residential summer schools on traditional university campuses for the foundation courses (Perry, 1976; Weinbren, 2015).

The Open University started in 1971 with 25,000 students in the initial entry intake, and now has over 200,000 registered students. It has been consistently ranked by government quality assurance agencies in the top ten U.K. universities for teaching, and in the top 30 for research, and number one for student satisfaction (out of over 180). It currently has over 200,000 registered students (Weinbren, 2015). However, it can no longer cover the full cost of its operation from government grants and there is now a range of different fees to be paid. In addition access to higher education has now widened to the point where 50% of a high school cohort now enter some form of higher education in the UK (UK Department of Education, 2018).

There are now nearly 100 publicly funded open universities around the world, including Canada (Athabasca University and Téluq). These open universities are often very large. The Open University of China has over one million enrolled undergraduate students and 2.4 million junior high school students, Anadolou Open University in Turkey has over 1.2 million enrolled undergraduate students, the Open University of Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka) almost half a million, and the University of South Africa 350,000. These large, degree awarding national open universities provide an invaluable service to millions of students who otherwise would have no access to higher education (see Daniel, 1998, and more recently, Contact North, 2019, for a good overview).

Alternatives to Open Universities

It should be noted however that there is no publicly funded open university in the USA, which is one reason why MOOCs have received so much attention there. The Western Governors’ University is the most similar to an open university, and private, for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix fill a similar niche in the market.

As well as the national open universities, which usually offer their own degrees, there is also the OERu, which is basically an international consortium of mainly British Commonwealth and U.S. universities and colleges offering open access courses that enable learners either to acquire full credit for transfer into one of the partner universities or to build towards a full degree, offered by the university from which most credits have been acquired. Students pay a fee for assessment.

3.4. Limitations of Open Learning

Open, distance, flexible and online learning are rarely found in their ‘purest’ forms. No teaching system is completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance). Thus, there are always degrees of openness. Openness has particular implications for the use of technology. If no-one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used. If an institution is deliberately selective in its students, it has more flexibility with regard to choice of technology. It can for instance require all students who wish to take an online or blended course to have their own computer and Internet access. It cannot do that if its mandate is to be open to all students. Truly open universities then will always be behind the leading edge of educational applications of technology. Despite the success of many open universities, open universities often lack the status of a campus-based institution. Their degree completion rates are often very low. The U.K. OU’s degree completion rate is 22 per cent (Woodley and Simpson, 2014), but nevertheless still higher for whole degree programs than for most single MOOC courses. Lastly, some of the open universities have been established for more than 40 years and have not always quickly adapted to changes in technology, partly because of their large size and their substantial prior investment in older technologies such as print and broadcasting, and partly because they do not wish to deny access to potential students who may not have access to the latest technology. Thus, open universities are now increasingly challenged by both an explosion in access to higher education generally, and in the use of online learning by conventional universities. For instance, in Canada, Donovan et. (2018) report that nearly all universities and most colleges are now offering fully online courses (although access is still mainly based on prior qualifications). New developments such as MOOCs, and open educational resources, the topic of the next section, are further challenges for open universities.

4. Open Educational Resources (OER)

Figure 3: 1 © Giulia Forsyth, 2012

Open educational resources are somewhat different from open learning, in that they are primarily content, while open learning includes both content and educational services, such as specially designed online materials, in-built learner support and assessment.

Open educational resources cover a wide range of online formats, including online textbooks, video-recorded lectures, YouTube clips, web-based textual materials designed for independent study, animations, and simulations, digital diagrams and graphics, some MOOCs, or even assessment materials such as tests with automated answers. OER can also include PowerPoint slides or pdf files of lecture notes. In order to be open educational resources, though, they must be freely available for at least educational use.

4.1. Principles of OER

David Wiley is one of the pioneers of OER. He and colleagues have suggested (Hilton et al., 2010) that there are five core principles (the 5Rs) of open publishing:

  • Re-use: The most basic level of openness. People are allowed to use all or part of the work for their own purposes (For example, download an educational video to watch at a later time).
  • Re-distribute: People can share the work with others (For example, send a digital article by-email to a colleague).
  • Revise: People can adapt, modify, translate, or change the work (For example, take a book written in English and turn it into a Spanish audio book).
  • Re-mix: People can take two or more existing resources and combine them to create a new resource (For example, take audio lectures from one course and combine them with slides from another course to create a new derivative work).
  • Retain: No digital rights management restrictions (DRM); the content is yours to keep, whether you’re the author, an instructor using the material, or a student.

Users of OER though need to check with the actual license for re-use, because sometimes there are limitations, as with this book, which cannot be reproduced for commercial purposes without permission. For example, the origin of the work must be accurately attributed to the original author (BY), and it cannot be converted by a commercial publisher into a printed book to be sold at a profit (NC), at least without written permission from the author. To protect your rights as an author of OER usually means publishing under a Creative Commons or other open licenses.

4.2. Creative Commons Licenses

This seemingly simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license enabling people to freely access and adapt copyright material, without charge or special permission, is one of the great ideas of the 21st century. This does not take away the author’s copyright, but the license gives permission automatically for different kinds of use of the material without charge or any paperwork or written permissions.

Figure 4: The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses © The Creative Commons, 2013

There are several possible Creative Commons licenses:

  • CC BY Attribution: Lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
  • CC BY-SA: Lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This is particularly important if your work also includes other people’s materials licensed through the Creative Commons.
  • CC BY-ND: Allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  • CC BY-NC: Lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
  • CC BY-NC-SA: Lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under identical terms.
  • CC BY-NC-ND: The most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

If you wish to offer your own materials as open educational resources, it is a relatively simple process to choose a license and apply it to any piece of work (see Creative Commons Choose a License). If in doubt, check with a librarian.

4.3. Sources of OER

There are many ‘repositories’ of open educational resources (see for instance, for post-secondary education,  MERLOTOER Commons, and for k-12, Edutopia). The Open Professionals Education Network has an excellent guide to finding and using OER.

However, when searching for possible open educational resources on the web, check to see whether or not the resource has a Creative Commons license or a statement giving permission for re-use. It may be common practice to use free (no cost) resources without worrying unduly about copyright, but there are risks without a clear license or permission for re-use. For instance, many sites, such as OpenLearn, allow only individual, personal use for non-commercial purposes, which means providing a link to the site for students rather than integrating the materials directly into your own teaching. If in any doubt about the right to re-use, check with your library or intellectual property department.

4.4. Limitations of OER

The take-up of OER, other than open textbooks (see next section), by instructors, is still minimal, other than by those who created the original version. For instance, in Canada in 2017, less than half the institutions reported use of OER (Donovan et al., 2018).

Quality Issues

The main criticism is of the poor quality of many of the OER available at the moment – reams of text with no interaction, often available in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted, crude simulation, poorly produced graphics, and designs that fail to make clear what academic concepts they are meant to illustrate.

Falconer (2013), in a survey of potential users’ attitudes to OER in Europe came to the following conclusion:

The ability of the masses to participate in the production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production may exploit this mistrust of the free. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of the approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualized measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

If OER is to be taken up by others than the creators of the OER, they will need to be well designed. It is perhaps not surprising then that the most used OER on iTunes University was the Open University’s until the OU set up its own OER portal, OpenLearn, which offers as OER mainly textual materials from its courses designed specifically for online, independent study. Once again, the design is a critical factor in ensuring the quality of an OER.

Instructors' Professional Self-image

Hampson (2013) has suggested another reason for the slow adoption of OER, mainly to do with the professional self-image of many faculty. Hampson argues that faculty don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore, their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work.

OER can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’. It can be argued that this reason is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it is the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there?

Free or Open?

There is also considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. For instance, some Coursera MOOCs are free, but not ‘open’: it is a breach of copyright to re-use the material in most Coursera MOOCs within your own teaching without permission. The edX MOOC platform is open source, which means other institutions can adopt or adapt the portal software, but institutions even on edX tend to retain copyright. However, there are exceptions on both platforms: a few MOOCs do have an open license.

Situating OER

There is also the issue of the context-free nature of OER. Research into learning shows that content is best learned within context (situated learning), when the learner is active, and that above all, when the learner can actively construct knowledge by developing meaning and ‘layered’ understanding. Content is not static, nor a commodity like coal. In other words, content is not effectively learned if it is thought of as shoveling coal into a truck. Learning is a dynamic process that requires questioning, adjustment of prior learning to incorporate new ideas, testing of understanding, and feedback. These ‘transactional’ processes require a combination of personal reflection, feedback from an expert (the teacher or instructor), and even more importantly, feedback from and interaction with friends, family, and fellow learners.

The weakness with open content is that by its nature, at its purest it is stripped of these developmental, contextual, and ‘environmental’ components that are essential for effective learning. In other words, OER is just like coal, sitting there waiting to be loaded. Coal of course is still a very valuable product. But it has to be mined, stored, shipped, and processed.

More attention needs to be paid to those contextual elements that turn OER from raw ‘content’ into a useful learning experience. This means instructors need to build learning experiences or environments into which the OER will fit.

Study the Research

For a useful overview of the research on OER, see the Review Project from the Open Education Group. Another important research project is ROER4D, which aims to provide evidence-based research on OER adoption across a number of countries in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

How to Use OER

Despite these limitations, teachers, and instructors are increasingly creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of repositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. As the quantity of OER expands, it is more likely that teachers and instructors will increasingly be able to find the resources that best suit their particular teaching context.

There are therefore several choices:

  • Take OER selectively from elsewhere and incorporate or adapt them into your own courses.
  • Create your own digital resources for your own teaching, and make them available to others (see for instance  from Florida State University).
  • Build a course around OER, where students have to find content to solve problems, write reports or do research on a topic.
  • Take a whole course from OREu, then build student activities and assessment and provide learner support for the course.

Learners can use OER to support any type of learning. For instance, MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) could be used just for interest, or students who struggle with the topics in a classroom lecture for a credit course may well go to OCW to get an alternative approach to the same topic.

Still Worth the Effort

Despite some of the current limitations or weaknesses of OER, their use is likely to grow, simply because it makes no sense to create everything from scratch when good quality materials are freely and easily available. We have seen in Lesson 7 on selecting media that there is now an increasing amount of excellent open material available to teachers and instructors. This will only grow over time. Indeed, OER will prove to be one of the essential features of teaching in a digital age.

5. Open Textbooks, Open Research and Open Data

Figure 5: Open Stax open textbooks

5.1. Open Textbooks

Textbooks are an increasing cost to students. Some textbooks cost $200 or more, and in the USA a university undergraduate spends on average between $530 – $640  a year on textbooks (Hill, 2015), although the cost of recommended textbooks is between $968 and $1221 (Caulfield, 2015).

An open textbook on the other hand is an openly licensed, online publication free for downloading for educational or non-commercial use. You are currently reading an open textbook. There is an increasing number of sources for open textbooks, such as OpenStax College from Rice University, and the Open Academics Textbook Catalog at the University of Minnesota.

In British Columbia, the provincial government-funded the B.C. open textbook project, which operates in collaboration initially with the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, but now also with other provinces through the Canada OER Group. The B.C. open textbook project focuses on making available openly-licensed textbooks in the highest-enrolled academic subject areas and also in trades and skills training. In the B.C. project, as in many of the other sources, all the books are selected, peer-reviewed, and in some cases developed by local faculty. Often these textbooks are not ‘original’ work, in the sense of new knowledge, but carefully written and well-illustrated summaries of current thinking in the different subject areas.

Advantages of Open Textbooks

Students and governments, through grants and financial aid, pay billions of dollars each year on textbooks. Open textbooks can make a significant impact on reducing the cost of education. The government of British Columbia estimates that the BC Open Textbook project has saved the roughly 300,000 post-secondary students in the province more that $4 million in textbook costs between 2012 to 2017 (Bernard, 2017).

Cable Green, the Interim CEO of the Creative Commons has a ‘vision’ for open textbooks: 100 percent of students have 100 percent free, digital access to all course materials by day one. That is far from the case today.

DeNoyelles and Raible at the University of Central Florida found (2017) that due to high costs:

  • 30 Percent of [student] respondents said they have opted not to purchase a textbook at least once
  • 41 Percent have delayed purchasing a textbook
  • 15 Percent have taken fewer courses or decided not to take a particular class

DeNoyelles and Raible concluded that:

  • The cost of textbooks is negatively impacting student access to required materials (66.6% did not purchase the required textbook) and learning (37.6% earn a poor grade; 19.8% fail a course).

A survey of all public post-secondary students in Florida conducted by the Florida Virtual Campus (2016) found that due to the high costs of textbooks:

  • Time to graduation and/or access to courses is impacted by cost. Students reported that they occasionally or frequently take
  • Fewer courses (47.6%)
  • Do not register for a course (45.5%)
  • Drop a course (26.1%)
  • Withdraw from courses (20.7%)

There are also other considerations. It is a common sight to see lengthy line-ups at college bookstores all through the first week of the first semester (which eats into valuable study time). Because students may be searching for second-hand versions of the books from other students, it may well be into the second or third week of the semester before students actually get their copy.

So why shouldn’t the government pay the creators of textbooks directly, cut out the middleman (commercial publishers), save over 80 per cent on the cost, and distribute the books to students (or anyone else) for free over the Internet, under a Creative Commons license?

Figure 6: Open textbooks: no bookstore line-ups! Image: The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Limitations of Open Textbooks

Faculty resistance is still a problem for open textbooks. Open textbooks had been adopted in between half and two-thirds of all post-secondary institutions in Canada in 2017, and a further 20 percent were exploring their use. However, this varied considerably by province. In British Columbia, 90 percent of all post-secondary institutions had adopted open textbooks for some courses; in Saskatchewan and Quebec, less than a third of institutions were using open textbooks (Donovan et al., 2018). This indicates clearly the impact of government support for open textbooks. Adoption was highest in universities and large institutions. Donovan et al. also found that there was a lack of knowledge and even more so of training for instructors in the use of open textbooks and OER.

Murphy (2013) has questioned the whole idea of textbooks, whether open or not. She sees textbooks as a relic of 19th century industrialism, a form of mass broadcasting. In the 21st century, students should be finding, accessing, and collecting digital materials over the Internet. Textbooks are merely packaged learning, with the authors doing the work for students. Nevertheless, it has to be recognized that textbooks are still the basic currency for most forms of education, and while this remains the case, open textbooks are a much better alternative for students than expensive printed textbooks.

Quality also remains a concern. There is an in-built prejudice that ‘free’ must mean poor quality. Thus, the same arguments about quality of OER also apply to open textbooks. In particular, the expensive commercially published textbooks usually include in-built activities, supplementary materials such as extra readings, and even assessment questions. Nevertheless, Jhangiani and Jhangiani (2017), in a survey of 320 undergraduate students in British Columbia who had actually used an open textbook for one or more of their courses found that  96% of respondents perceived the quality of their open textbook to be equal or superior to a commercial textbook.

Others (including myself) question the likely impact of ‘open’ publishing on creating original works that are not likely to get subsidized by the government because they are either too specialized or are not yet part of a standard curriculum for the subject; in other words will open publishing impact negatively on the diversity of publishing? What is the incentive for someone now to publish a unique work, if there is no financial reward for the effort? Writing an original, single-authored book remains hard work, however, it is published.

Although there is now a range of ‘open’ publishing services, there are still costs for an author to create original work. Who will pay, for instance, for specialized graphics, for editing or for review? I have used my blog to get sections of this book reviewed generally, and this has proved extremely useful. Nevertheless one can still approach top quality reviewers for an independent review, as was done for this book (see Appendix 3). I also received free technical support from both BCcampus and Contact North, but other potential open textbook authors may not have that kind of access.

Marketing is another issue. It takes time and specialized knowledge to market books effectively. On the other hand, my experience, having published twelve books commercially, is that publishers are very poor at properly marketing specialized textbooks, expecting the author to mainly self-market, while the publisher still takes 85-90 percent of all sales revenues. Nevertheless, there are still real costs in marketing an open textbook.

How can all these costs be recovered? Much more work still needs to be done to support the open publishing of original work in book format. If so, what does that mean for how knowledge is created, disseminated and preserved? If open textbook publishing is to be successful, new, sustainable business models will need to be developed. In particular, some form of government subsidy or financial support for open textbooks is probably going to be essential.

Nevertheless, although these are all important concerns, they are not insurmountable problems. Just getting a proportion of the main textbooks available to students for free is a major step forward. To see whether or not I felt it worthwhile to write the first edition of this book, see ‘Writing an Online Book: Is it Worth it?’ (Bates, 2015).

Learn How to Adopt and Use an Open Textbook

BC campus has mounted a short MOOC on the P2PU portal on Adopting Open Textbooks. Although the MOOC may not be active when you access the site, it still has most of the materials, including videos, available.

5.2. Open Research

Governments in some countries such as the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom are requiring all research published as a result of government funding to be openly accessible in a digital format. In Canada, the Minister of State for Science and Technology announced (February 27, 2015) that: 

The harmonized Tri-Agency Open Access Policy on Publications requires all peer-reviewed journal publications funded by one of the three federal granting agencies to be freely available online within 12 months.

Also, in Canada, Supreme Court decisions and new legislation in 2014 means that it is much easier to access and use free of charge online materials for educational purposes, although there are still some restrictions.

Commercial publishers, who have dominated the market for academic journals, are understandably fighting back. Where an academic journal has a high reputation and hence carries substantial weight in the assessment of research publications, publishers are charging researchers for making the research openly available. The kudos of publishing in an established journal acts as a disincentive for researchers to publish in less prestigious open journals without having to pay to get published.

However, it can only be a question of time before academics fight back against this system, by establishing their own peer-reviewed journals that will be perceived to be of the highest standard by the quality of the papers and the status of the researchers publishing in such journals. Once again, though, open research publishing will flourish only by meeting the highest standards of peer review and quality research, by finding a sustainable business model, and by researchers themselves taking control over the publishing process.

Over time, therefore, we can expect nearly all academic research in journals to become openly available.

5.3. Open Data

The two main sources of open data are from science and government. Following an intense discussion with data-producing institutions in member states, the OECD published in 2007 the OECD Principles and Guidelines for Access to Research Data from Public Funding. In science, the Human Genome Project is perhaps the best example of open data and several national or provincial governments have created web sites to distribute a portion of the data they collect, such as the B.C. Data Catalogue in Canada.

Again, increasing amounts of important data are becoming openly available, providing more resources with high potential for learning.

The significance for teaching and learning of the developments in open access, OER, open textbooks and open data will be explored more fully in the next section.

6. Open Pedagogy

Figure 7: Current landscape of Open. Image: Paul Stacey, 2018

6.1. What is Open Pedagogy?

David Wiley (2013) originally defined open pedagogy as:

that set of teaching and learning practices only possible in the context of the free access and 4R permissions characteristic of open educational resources

It will be seen later in this section that Wiley has since (2017) recanted on this definition and indeed questions the whole idea of open pedagogy. However, this definition was influential in framing the more recent discussion of open pedagogy around the use of OER (see DeRosa and Jhangiani, 2017, for an excellent discussion about open pedagogy, its origins, and its development since 2013).

Indeed, even in 2019, BCcampus still defined open pedagogy as follows:

Open pedagogy, also known as open educational practices (OEP), is the use of open educational resources (OER) to support learning, or the open sharing of teaching practices with a goal of improving education and training at the institutional, professional, and individual level.

However, it is now realised that for open educational resources to be widely adopted, as well as to change teaching practice, they need to be embedded in a much broader ecology of teaching and learning, of which open pedagogy is a critical component. The following definition from the University of Texas Arlington Libraries represents this thinking:

Open pedagogy is the practice of engaging with students as creators of information rather than simply consumers of it. It’s a form of experiential learning in which students demonstrate understanding through the act of creation. The products of open pedagogy are student created and openly licensed so that they may live outside of the classroom in a way that has an impact on the greater community. Open projects frequently result in the creation of open educational resources (OER). OER are free teaching and learning materials that are licensed to allow for revision and reuse. They can be fully self-contained textbooks, videos, quizzes, learning modules, and more.

I like the above definition because it focuses on student behavior, where open educational materials are a by-product of their learning, rather than the starting point, although open pedagogy can also embrace OER as a starting point.

Hegarty (2015) describes eight attributes of open pedagogy:

  • Participatory technologies: Socially constructed media such as blogs, wikis and other ‘sharing’ social media;
  • People, openness and trust: Students’ willingness to learn is fragile, with participation and interactions unlikely to flourish unless an element of trust can be built (Mak et., 2010);
  • Innovation and creativity: Finding new models of teaching and learning that better exploit OER and more emphasis on choosing digital technologies and methods that encourage the sharing of knowledge and resources;
  • Sharing ideas and resources: An open pedagogy needs peers to share willingly within a connected and trusting and professional community;
  • Connected community: A technologically linked community with common interests;
  • Learner-generated: this requires ‘opening up’ the process to empower students to take the lead, solve problems, and work collectively to produce artifacts that they share, discuss, reconfigure, and redeploy
  • Reflective practice: When students and teachers collaborate in partnerships, it facilitates deeper pedagogical reflection
  • Peer review: Conole (2014) sees learners as publishers and users of a range of open tools, with peer interactions and critique embedded in the learning experience.

Hegarty also makes the point that it is almost impossible to separate the components of an open pedagogy into neat, segregated dimensions. Components in each of the eight dimensions overlap in many ways.

Figure 8: Hegarty’s Attributes of Open Pedagogy. Image: Hegarty, 2015

DeRosa and Robison (2017) set out the key idea of open pedagogy in the following:

By replacing a static textbook — or other stable learning material — with one that is openly licensed, faculty have the opportunity to create a new relationship between learners and the information they access in the course. Instead of thinking of knowledge as something students need to download into their brains, we start thinking of knowledge as something continuously created and revised. Whether students participate in the development and revision of OER or not, this redefined relationship between students and their course ‘texts’ is central to the philosophy of learning that the course espouses. If faculty involve their students in interacting with OER, this relationship becomes even more explicit, as students are expected to critique and contribute to the body of knowledge from which they are learning. In this sense, knowledge is less a product that has distinct beginning and end points and is instead a process in which students can engage, ideally beyond the bounds of the course.

6.2. Examples of Open Pedagogy

There is a close connection between networking, social media such as blogs and wikis, which enable students to create open educational resources, and open pedagogy.

Jon Beasley-Murray’s course where students created a Wikipedia entry on Latin American literature is a good example, as is the Math Exam Resources created by graduate students at UBC. This approach is particularly valuable for partly redressing cultural and historical bias, through the organization of Wikipedia edit-a-thons. For two examples, see Women in Red/Indigenous Women. and Indigenous Literature Edit-a-Thon.

The Universidad de Guadalajara (Mexico) has an interesting web site (in English) that provides a number of examples of open pedagogy from around the world, related to its Agora project.

Another practice of open pedagogy is textbook-free degrees, called Zed Creds or Z-degrees but also ZTC (zero textbook cost). Royal Roads University’s Masters of Arts in Learning and Technology is the first master of arts degree in Canada to go textbook-free. Students can access all of the course materials through open educational resources, e-books, journal articles and other free digital resources. These types of courses aim to improve access to education and enhance student outcomes.

Many more examples of open pedagogy in practice can be found in Jhangiani and Biswas-Diener (2017) and in the Open Pedagogy Notebook.

Lastly, there is a related movement around open educational infrastructure and technology that challenges educational institutions and students to think about who owns the technology and data being used for teaching and learning and how open education practices can be enabled by open educational technologies (see, for example OpenETC.)

6.3. The Need to Provide a Framework to Support Open Educational Resources

The search for a pedagogical and organizational framework to support the use of open educational resources has been driven partly by the relative slowness of adoption of OER. To give a simple example, instructors are reluctant to move away from expensive commercial first-year textbooks, because these books often come with a wide range of support materials, such as interactive web sites with sample exam questions and answers, multiple-choice questions, and alternative reading. Open textbooks need to come with similar supporting materials, student activities and a wider ‘network’ of support to compete with commercial textbooks.

Paul Stacey, the Director of the Open Education Consortium, has mused (2018) that too much focus is given to licensing and content development, and not enough to collectively managing open resources so that they are sustainable and dynamic. He argues that OER, to be effective, need ‘commoning’, which reflects the management and sustainability of common, shared resources and services. He argues for:

  • A social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.
  • A self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State. Simply having a community and pool of resources is not enough. There needs to be a set of protocols, values, and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.

Open pedagogy could provide an important pedagogical part of such a framework, but Stacey seems to be suggesting that support needs to go beyond pedagogy to a social and management structure.

6.4. Is Open Pedagogy a Useful Construct?

Some of you may feel like Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme after a lesson from his tutor: ‘I have been speaking prose for 40 years and never realized it.’ The concept of ‘open pedagogy’ has been around for a long time, even if it has seen a revival resulting from the development of OER.

Lord Crowther, in a speech presenting the charter of the British Open University in 1969, defined the Open University as:

  • Open to people: “We took it as axiomatic” said the Planning Committee “that no formal academic qualifications would be required for registration as a student. Anyone could try his or her hand, and only failure to progress adequately would be a bar to continuation of studies.”
  • Open to places: “This University has no cloisters – a word meaning closed. We have no courts – or spaces enclosed by buildings….Wherever the English language is spoken or understood, or used as a medium of study, and wherever there are men and women seeking to develop their individual potentialities beyond the limits of the local provision – and I have defined a large part of the world – there we can offer our help.”
  • Open to methods: ‘Every new form of human communication will be examined to see how it can be used to raise and broaden the level of human understanding.”
  • Open to ideas: “It has been said that there are two aspects of education, both necessary. One regards the individual human mind as a vessel, of varying capacity, into which is to be poured as much as it will hold of the knowledge and experience by which human Society lives and moves. This is the Martha of education – and we shall have plenty of these tasks to perform. But the Mary regards the human mind rather as a fire that has to be set alight and blown with the divine efflatus’.

I am not sure that open pedagogy is the divine efflatus, but Crowther’s understanding of openness in methods is much wider than modern concepts of open pedagogy.

Claude Paquette, following the cultural revolution in Québec, wrote in 1979:

Une pédagogie ouverte est centrée sur l’interaction qui existe dans une classe entre l’étudiant et l’environnement éducatif qui lui est proposé….Il s’agit d’une façon de penser et d’une façon d’agir. L’éducateur aura donc pour rôle premier de contribuer à l’aménagement de cet environnement éducatif.

[My translation: ‘Open pedagogy is focused on the interaction within a class between a learner and the educational environment that is created for him. It is about a way of thinking and a way of acting. The primary role of the teacher then is to contribute to the management of this educational environment.’

Note that there is no mention of free or open educational resources, and the quote could have come straight from Rousseau’s ‘Emile’ (1972).

David Wiley (who was the originator of the term ‘open educational resources’) writes (2017):

“Open” …. does not have anything to say about the nature of learning. …you can’t actually build a pedagogy on a foundation of open (well, not one that isn’t incredibly impoverished). Your foundational commitments in terms of pedagogy should be to an understanding of how learning happens. Once we have made fundamental commitments in terms of a theory of learning, then we can add open to our list of facilitating methods in order to get better leverage.

I wonder if it isn’t nonsensical to talk about “open pedagogy” at all …… Perhaps we should only use open as a modifier for other pedagogies, like “open constructionist pedagogy” or “open connectivist pedagogy” or “open constructivist pedagogy.” It’s clear in each of those cases how open gives you better leverage in terms of supporting learning.

Although many of the practices associated with open pedagogy have been around long before open educational resources were created, OER nevertheless make such practices much easier to implement and more powerful. But does this make a new pedagogy?

Morgan (2017) raises this issue with respect to the project she worked on for the Universidad de Guadalajara’s Agora project.

The Agora design process was focussed on what an open design would actually be a means to which can be summarized as:

  1. Open as a means to facilitate a faculty culture of collaboration across the university and across disciplines
  2. Open as a means to connect with a broader, global community
  3. Open as means to challenge and expand existing understandings of student centre learning
  4. Open as means to challenge ways of doing, in this case, the options and possibilities of digital technology and mobile learning
  5. Open as a means to make the lives of faculty easier in their pursuit of better teaching and learning
  6. Open as a means to create a sustainable approach to faculty development

Ultimately, we did create content that fits quite nicely with the 5Rs, but the goal of our open pedagogy design process was not to create OERs as a means towards or even as an essential component of open pedagogy. The Agora was alternatively all of the ‘isms – behaviorism, connectivism, constructivism, constructionism – but the ism doesn’t really matter.  Importantly, the open pedagogy design was at times technology-enabled and at times it didn’t use technology or the internet at all.  OERs didn’t allow us to practice a different pedagogy, rather the open pedagogy of the Agora was a bricolage of activities and practices that at times resulted in OERs and at times didn’t.

Pedagogy is primarily about practice: what teachers or learners do. Obviously, practice is and should be driven by ideas and beliefs, but it is different from philosophy. Learner-centered teaching or learners creating knowledge (with or without OER) is a pedagogy; ‘open’ is more of an idea and a value. In other words, looking at the quotations above, open is more a philosophy, a way of thinking, that informs practice, rather than the practice itself. However, this is a somewhat academic distinction. OER is enabling changes in teaching practice. However, I prefer a broader vision for teaching in a digital age than one so closely tied to OER.

6.5. Another Vision for Pedagogy in a Digital Age

The increasing availability of high-quality open content is likely to facilitate the shift from information transmission by the instructor to knowledge management by the learner. Also, in a digital age there is a need for greater focus on skills development embedded within a subject domain than on the memorization of content.

The use of open educational resources could enable these developments in a number of ways, such as:

  • A learner-centered teaching approach that focuses on students accessing content on the Internet (and in real life) as part of developing knowledge, skills and competencies defined by the instructor, or learners managing their learning for themselves; however, content would not be restricted to officially designated open educational resources, but to everything on the Internet, because one of the core skills students will need is how to assess and evaluate different sources of information.
  • A consortium of teachers or institutions creating common learning materials within a broader program context, that can be shared both within and outside the consortium. However, not only would the content be freely available, but also the underlying instructional principles, learning outcomes, learner assessment strategies, what learner support is needed, learner activities, and program evaluation techniques, so that other instructors or learners can adapt all this to their own context. This approach is already being taken by:
Overall, such developments are likely to lead to a severe reduction in lecture-based teaching and a move towards more project work, problem-based learning, and collaborative learning. It will also result in a move away from fixed time and place written examinations, to more continuous, portfolio-based forms of assessment.

The role of the instructor then will shift to providing guidance to learners on where and how to find content, how to evaluate the relevance and reliability of content, what content areas are core and what peripheral, and to help students analyze, apply and present information, within a strong learning design that focuses on clearly defined learning outcomes, particularly with regard to the development of skills. Students will work mainly online and collaboratively, developing multi-media learning artefacts or demonstrations of their learning, managing their online portfolios of work, and editing and presenting selected work for assessment.

This is a far broader vision of pedagogy than that built around the use of OER.

OER opens up the possibility of greater student participation in the creation as well as the selection of learning materials. It is essential to embed OER within a robust and appropriate teaching framework or pedagogy that exploits the potential of OER. OER may lead to new, open pedagogy, but more likely will lead to the greater adoption and adaptation of existing teaching methods that benefit from the potential of OER.

What should drive open educational practices and use of OERs should be a broader vision of teaching and learning that focuses on the knowledge and skills students need in a digital age? OER should be embedded in a wider concept of pedagogy than just ‘open’ pedagogy.

7. The Implications of ‘Open’ For Course and Program Design: Towards a Paradigm Shift?

Figure 9: An open and free beach, Pie de la Cuesta, Mexico Image: © Tony Bates 2015 CC BY-NC

Although in recent years MOOCs, emerging technologies and artificial intelligence have been receiving all the media attention, I believe that developments in open educational resources, open textbooks, open research, and open data will be far more important and far more revolutionary. Here are some reasons why.

7.1. Nearly All Educational Content Will Be Free and Open

Eventually most academic content will be easily accessible and freely available through the Internet – for anyone. This could well mean a shift in power from teachers and instructors to students. Students will no longer be dependent on ‘live’ instructors as their primary source of content. Already some students are skipping lectures at their local institution because the teaching of the topic is better and clearer on OpenCourseWare, MOOCs, or the Khan Academy. If students can access the best lectures or learning materials for free from anywhere in the world, including the leading Ivy League universities, why would they want to get content from a middling lecturer at Midwest State University? What is the added value that this lecturer is providing for the students?

There are good answers to this question, but it means considering very carefully how content will be presented and shaped by a teacher or instructor that makes it uniquely different from what students can access elsewhere. For research professors this may include access to their latest, as yet unpublished, research; for other instructors, it may be their unique perspective on a particular topic, and for others, a unique mix of topics to provide an integrated, inter-disciplinary approach. What will not be acceptable to most students is repackaging of ‘standard’ content that can easily be found elsewhere on the Internet and at a higher quality.

Furthermore, if we look at knowledge management as one of the key skills needed in a digital age, it may be better to enable students to find, analyze, evaluate and apply content than for instructors to do it for them. If most content is available elsewhere, what students will look for increasingly from their local institutions is support with their learning, rather than the delivery of content. This means directing them to appropriate sources of content, helping when students are struggling with concepts, and providing opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and to develop and practice skills. It means giving prompt and relevant feedback as and when students need it. Above all, it means creating a rich learning environment in which students can study. It means moving teaching from information transmission to knowledge management, from selecting, structuring, and delivering content to learner support.

Thus, for most students within their university or college (with the possible exception of the most advanced research universities) the quality of the learning support will eventually matter more than the quality of content delivery, which they can get from anywhere. This is a major challenge for instructors who see themselves primarily as content experts and deliverers.

7.2. Modularisation

Figure 10: Four-sided pyramid, by Sol LeWitt, 1999 Image: Cliff, Flickr, © CC Attribution 2.0

The creation of open educational resources, either as small learning objects but increasingly as short ‘modules’ of teaching, from anywhere between five minutes to one hour of material, and the increasing diversification of markets, is beginning to result in two of the key principles of OER being applied, re-use and re-mix. In other words, the same content, available in an openly accessible digital form may be integrated into a range of different applications, and/or combined with other OER to create a single teaching module, course or program, as in Scenario H.

Between 2015 to 2018, the Ontario government, through its online course development fund encouraged institutions to create OER. As a result, several universities brought together faculty within their own institution but working in different departments that teach the same area of content (for example, statistics) to develop ‘core’ OER that can be shared between departments. The logical next step would be for statistics faculty across the Ontario system to get together and develop an integrated set of OER modules on statistics that would cover substantial parts of the statistics curriculum. Working together would have the following benefits:

  • Higher quality by pooling resources (two subject expert heads are better than one, combined with support from instructional designers and web producers)
  • More OER than one instructor or institution could produce
  • Subject coherence and lack of duplication
  • More likelihood of faculty in one institution using materials created in another if they have had input to the selection and design of the OER from other institutions

As the range and quality of OER increases, instructors (and students) will be able to build curriculum through a set of OER ‘building blocks’. The aim would be to reduce instructor time in creating materials and using their time more in supporting student learning than in delivering content. When they do create original material, it can then be shared with other instructors.

7.3. Disaggregation of Services

Open education and digitization enable what have tended to be offered by institutions as a complete bundle of services to be split out and offered separately, depending on the market for education and the unique needs of individual learners. These different services could be as follows:

  • Academic guidance (assessment of learning needs; admission counseling)
  • Choice of educational goals/outcomes/competencies
  • Access to ‘open’ digital content in the form of OER or MOOCs
  • Learner support, including a choice of
    • Topic guidance (build a curriculum)
    • Tutoring on demand (for example, when students are ‘stuck’)
    • Different learning activities (tests, projects, etc.)
    • Feedback on learning activities
    • Assessment preparation
  • Assessment on demand

Learners will select and use those modules or services that best fit their needs. This is likely to be the pattern for lifelong learners in particular. Some early indications of this process are already occurring, although most of the really significant changes are yet to come. Some examples are given below.

Figure 11: Disaggregation Image: © Aaron ‘tango’ Tan, Flickr, CC Attribution 2.0

Admission and Career Counselling

This is a service already offered by Empire State University, a part of the State University of New York, through its pre-enrollment advisers. Adult learners considering a return to study or a career change can receive mentoring about what courses and combinations they can take from within the college that fits with their previous life and their future wishes. In essence, within boundaries, potential students are able to design their own degree. In the future, some institutions might specialize in this kind of service at a system level.

Build a Curriculum

Students could be advised on an appropriate curriculum that can be built to fit their needs. For instance, Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Computer Sciences has built a tool called Daedalus which basically enables the construction of a map showing the inter-relatedness between specific learning outcomes and course content, including course sequencing (see Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation for more details).

Once such a map of a degree program or other qualification or curriculum has been built, students can then navigate their own choice of courses or route through a curriculum – and perhaps negotiate what is needed for a degree. This could just as easily be based on OER as classroom teaching.

Figure 12: By clicking on each of the courses listed, students can see the learning outcomes both needed before studying and what they should achieve after studying each course.

Learner Support

Students may have already determined what they want to study through the Internet, such as a MOOC. What they are looking for is help with their studies: how to write assignments, where to look for information, feedback on their work, and thinking. They are not necessarily looking for a credit, degree, or other qualification, but if they are they will pay for assessment separately. Currently, students pay private tutors for this service. However, it is feasible those institutions could also provide this service, provided that a suitable business model can be built.


Learners may feel that through prior study and work, they are able to take a challenge exam for credit. Alternatively, a learner may wish to present a portfolio of work to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. All they require from the institution is a chance to be assessed. Institutions such as Western Governors’ University or the Open Learning division of Thompson Rivers University is already offering this service, and this would be a logical next step for the many other universities or colleges with some form of prior learning assessment or PLAR.

'Assembled' Qualifications

Learners may have acquired a range of credits, badges or certificates from a range of different institutions. The institution assesses these qualifications and experiences and helps the learner to take any further studies that are necessary, then awards the qualification. Prior learning assessment or PLAR is one step in this direction, but not the only one.

A Discount on Fully Online Courses and Programs

For learners who cannot or do not want to attend campus, the course fees would be lower for online courses than for students receiving a full campus experience.

Open Access to Content

In this case, the learner is not looking for any qualification but wants access to content, particularly new and emerging knowledge. MOOCs are one example, but other examples include OpenLearn and open textbooks.

The Full Campus Experiences

This would be the ‘traditional’ integrated package that full-time, campus-based students now receive. This would though be fully costed and much more expensive than any of the other single disaggregated services.

Funding Models

Note that I have been careful not to link any of these services to a specific funding model. This is deliberate because it could be:

  • Covered through privatization, where each service is separately priced, and the user pays for that service (but not for others not used);
  • Financed through a voucher system, whereby everyone at the age 18 is entitled to a notional amount of financial support from the state for post-secondary education, and can pay for a range of service from that voucher until their individual fund is exhausted;
  • All or some services would be available for free as part of a publicly funded open education system
  • A mix of the above.

Whatever the funding model, institutions disaggregating services will need to be able to price different services accurately.

The Argument Against Disaggregation

There are also strong arguments against the disaggregation of services. Gallagher (2019) argues that the successful colleges and universities of the future will be integrated: coherently and cohesively designed to help students achieve lifelong learning experience that is more than the sum of its parts.

However, this is not a question of either/or and should be driven to some extent by the needs of learners at different points in their learning cycle. Most younger students coming from high school probably will need an integrated college experience. However, working adults or students who have graduated may not want, need or can afford the full package. Disaggregation will provide the flexibility needed for lifelong learning.

The Need for More Flexibility in Services

In any case, there is now an increasing diversity of learners’ needs, from high school students wanting full-time education, graduate students wanting to do research, and lifelong learners, most of whom will have already passed through a publicly funded higher education system, wanting to keep learning either for vocational or personal reasons.  This increasing diversity of needs requires a more flexible approach to providing educational opportunities in a digital age. Disaggregation of services and new models of funding, combined with increased accessibility to free, open content, are some ways in which this flexibility can be provided. For alternative views on this issue, see Carey, 2015; Large, 2015.

7.4. The future is Yours

Despite all the hoopla around MOOCs, they are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with what they want: high quality qualifications. The main barrier to education is not lack of cheap content but lack of access to programs leading to credentials, either because such programs are too expensive, or because there are not enough qualified teachers, or both. Making content free is not a waste of time (if it is properly designed for secondary use), but it still needs a lot of time and effort to integrate it properly within a learning framework.

Open educational resources do have an important role to play in online education, but they need to be properly designed and developed within a broader learning context that includes the critical activities needed to support learning, such as opportunities for student-instructor and peer interaction, and within a culture of sharing, such as consortia of equal partners and other frameworks that provide a context that encourages and supports sharing. In other words, OER need skill and hard work to make them useful and selling them as a panacea for education does more harm than good.

Although open and flexible learning and distance education and online learning mean different things, the one thing they all have in common is an attempt to provide alternative means of high-quality education or training for those who either cannot take conventional, campus-based programs, or choose not to.

Lastly, there are no insurmountable legal or technical barriers now to making educational material free. The successful use of OER does though require a particular mindset among both copyright holders – the creators of materials – and users – teachers and instructors who could use this material in their teaching. Thus, the main challenge is one of cultural change.

In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for the majority of the population. Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within that system. Open education and its tools offer a most promising way to bring about some much-needed improvements.

This is just my interpretation of how approaches to ‘open’ content and resources could radically change the way we teach and how students will learn in the future. At the beginning of this lesson, there is a scenario I created which suggests how this might play out in one particular program.

More importantly, there is not just one future scenario, but many. The future will be determined by a host of factors, many outside the control of teachers and instructors. But the strongest weapon we have as teachers is our own imagination and vision. Open content and open learning reflect a particular philosophy of equality and opportunity created through education. There are many different ways in which we as teachers, and even more our learners, can decide to apply that philosophy. However, technology now offers us many more choices in making these decisions. Thus, there is scope for many more scenarios that aim to extend access and educational opportunities.

8. Activity (Reflective Thinking, Note Taking and Discussion)

This activity is optional. It is presented to facilitate your reflective thinking on the issues. There are no feedback. We encourage you to discuss these with your colleague.

Deciding on use of OER

1. Have you used OER in your own course(s)? Was this a positive or negative experience?

2. If you have not used OER, what is/are the main reason(s)? Have you explored to see what is available? What is the quality like? How could they be improved?

3. Under what circumstances would you be prepared to create or convert your own material as OER?

9. Key Takeaways


Key takeaways from this lesson are:

  • Open educational resources (OER) offer many benefits, but they need to be well designed and embedded within a rich learning environment to be effective.
  • The increasing availability of OER, open textbooks, open research, and open data means that in the future, almost all academic content will be open and freely accessible over the Internet.
  • As a result, students will increasingly look to institutions for learning support and help with the development of skills needed in the digital age rather than with the delivery of content. This will have major consequences for the role of teachers/instructors and the design of courses.
  • OER and other forms of open education will lead to increased modularization and disaggregation of learning services, which are needed to respond to the increasing diversity of learner needs in the digital age.
  • MOOCs are essentially a dead end with regard to providing learners who do not have adequate access to education with high-quality qualifications. The main value of MOOCs is in providing opportunities for non-formal education and supporting communities in practice.
  • OER, MOOCs, open textbooks and other digital forms of openness are important in helping to widen access to learning opportunities. But ultimately, these are enhancements rather than a replacement for a well-funded public education system, which remains the core foundation for enabling equal access to educational opportunities.