The Many Definitions of Open Education

Feb 9, 2016 | Education | 0 comments

When I first heard of Open Education a few years back, it was from David Wiley’s concept of Four R’s that I read about in a blog post. Since then it seems that Open Ed has come to mean different things to different people, so I thought I’d write a bit about what it all means, and how we can navigate these definitions as educators.

A few years ago I was working on supporting the development of online courses. A common theme back then was to put MP3s online and call it a podcast. As most nerds will quickly identify, this is an erroneous use of a popular buzzword in education a few years back. Everyone knows that podcasts are are a syndicated feed of sound or video files that a user can subscribe to, automatically delivering audio or video to their mobile device or computer. With no subscription or feed, all you’ve got are sound files uploaded to a website. This is where I learned to embrace multiple definitions (even though many are still wrong).

So what does Open Education mean in 2016?

Open Access


The idea of making higher / tertiary education more accessible to potential students is a big driver in a post GFC world. Institutions want better access to their customers (ahem, students), so providing alternate ways for students to earn credentials is a great way to open doors for them. While this may be a cynical view of getting access to new students, the simple fact is that Open Access affords those who may have never thought to take a tertiary / university course take one. Maybe they are a first generation college students. Maybe they live in an area where this type of education is not available. Through Open Access, these students now have the opportunity to study what they want, and when they want.

A few years ago, the concept of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) became popular, because it gives learners the opportunity to learn subjects on their own time. In more recent years, an entire education industry has popped up around offering MOOCS. Coursera, Udemy and other company’s have popped up and are now developing partnerships with educational institutions to offer courses online.

When you look at the details though, many of these courses have simply atrocious completion rates (with many as low as 20%), meaning students are excited to start, but rarely finish. This is unfortunately the nature of a free online course with thousands of people enrolled. Buy in and motivation has to be there. This is why paid MOOCs are now such big business, especially in areas surrounding IT related fields like graphic design, programming and learning software.

Many free MOOCs offered through educational institutions now simply serve as a marketing tool that tells world “Hey world! We’re doing Open Education! We’re offering free courses online, so if you like that, you should sign up for a real course and pay us money!”

Many schools see Open Education and Open Access as being synonymous, but they’re not. If an institution is only focusing on MOOCs, then they’re missing the point.

Open Educational Resources

The next definition is OER, and this is where the push has been in recent years. The idea here is also centred around Open Access, but more access to educational materials, and learning designs. OER is prominently talked about in realms of instruction, because it speaks about the ‘stuff’ we use when we teach, and how we can access it, and what rights we have to use it.

Photocopying out of a textbook and giving it to students is something that still happens, even though it really shouldn’t, so at least OER is a way to curb that nasty habit and direct instructors on a more ‘legal’ path in their use of educational materials.

When people speak about OER, there are a few subcategories that pop up, because not all are one and the same. For those who are looking to unshackle themselves from the model of ‘My textbook IS my course’, and embrace a more flexible approach to designing instruction and teaching, OER is the path forward.

If your textbook suddenly didn’t exist, where would you get your content from? Surprisingly enough, there are a lot of places you can find content: They’re all on the internet, obviously.

Open Courses

The first category is Open Courses. What this means is that someone, or some institution or some government body has freely shared and entire course, including assessments, outcomes, activities, materials, readings and everything that goes along with that. Never taught Math 101, and your school has hired you to teach it in 2 weeks when it hasn’t been offered before? Just grab and Open Course of Math 101 and you’re ready to go.

There are many of these out there already, including the Washington State Open Course Library, created a few years ago. While many of these sites are popping up, some of them simply aren’t pedagogically robust, comprising of written readings, video lectures and exams. The concept of a robust and engaging online course is still a long way off at many institutions, so if you’re looking at these, don’t be discouraged if you find a few bad ones.

Open Textbooks


When moving a course online, or adding online components to a course, one big part to let go of is the textbook. The Open Textbook has many goals in mind, including reducing textbook costs for students, allowing multiple models of distribution (paper, ebook, PDF, etc.), more control over the content for authors and others.

As I’ve written before, Open Textbooks are, by and large a stepping stone to true OER adoption. It is that huge stone out in the river, that rests only a few centimeters from the shore, easily accessible to most instructors.

Generally, it’s an adoption of Open Textbooks, instead of publisher owned textbooks, that is the primary focus for instructors. There are lot of folks writing textbooks as well, including the BCCampus Open Textbook Project, that embraces the idea of reusing, revising and remixing what their team has worked to create.

The great thing about open textbooks is that idea that you can take what you want from it, and leave the rest. Use the whole thing if you want. Use a chapter. Reorder the chapters if it doesn’t make sense for your teaching.

The most powerful aspect of Open Textbooks is the idea that knowledge is now being wrestled away from huge publishing companies, who charge hundreds of dollars for books that should cost much much less. It gives academics and instructors more power tailor their content for their own classes, to update textbooks more often if they like, and even in some cases, allow their students to give feedback or even rewrite portions of the text they’re using.

Open Resources

Open Resources refer to anything you may find online that you have permission to use in your course. Whether this is material created by other instructors at your school, at another school, like the University of Colorado’s PhET science simulations, or a YouTube or TED Talk video, they are the ‘stuff’ courses are made of.

The big thing to know about with Open Resources and OER in general is the permissions side of things, when you’re looking for a picture for example, you can’t just grab any old picture, but one that has been given Creative Commons license for others to use. The Flickr CC site has a good explanation on the sidebar of what these licenses entail.

Basically this means that you as an instructor, don’t need to create everything from scratch, because chances are, someone already has. Whether it’s a lecture video, a reading, a simulation, an assessment or an entire course, using OER gives instructors the time and energy to move away from content creators to facilitators of learning.

Imagine spending 10 hours recording lectures every quarter for your course to put online. Imagine that 10 hours was reduced to 3 by searching for and adopting open resources. That extra 7 hours can be spent on assessment, supporting students and working on revising your course for next quarter. Oh the miracle of Open Education!

Open Pedagogy


As an extension of the use of OER, there comes open practices. David Wiley, co-founder of Lumen Learning wrote a good article about this a couple of years ago. Basically, if OER is all about the ‘stuff’ we use when we teach, the Open Pedagogy is all about how we teach, and changing how we teach to foster open culture. Well, what does that mean?

This means that our approaches to learning design, assessment, learning activities and everything else has to be flexible enough to encourage open culture in others, including our colleagues and our students. This means transparency in changing things up, this means creating materials collaboratively and sharing them with the world FOR FREE. More importantly it means putting these practices forward with our students and encouraging them to see the benefit of sharing what they have created with others.

As mentioned earlier, one such example is having students create content for the course, to be used by their fellow students. Whether that study guides, questions for exams or even readings or mini-lectures, the idea here is to let go of that idea that Instructors are the sole source of knowledge, that sage on the stage we’ve been hearing about for a while now.

Open Copyright


Of course, after the discussion surrounding licensing above, Open Education can come to mean the permissions of use we grant for the materials we’ve created. While it’s true creators still own the copyright on what they’ve created, the whole idea here is that they have given permission for the world to also Reuse, Revise, Remix, and Redistribute this same content. Creative Commons is the nonprofit organization that administers the most widely used form of permissions, and you can learn more about their licenses here.

Open Research

Cable Green, current Director of Global Education for Creative Commons gives a great lecture that focuses on publicly funded research. He basically says that any research done with public funds should be made available to the public, and I have to agree with that. Instead, what we have now, is publishers acting as gatekeepers to new knowledge through high subscription costs for schools and even higher costs for students who want to access single articles / dissertations. This is why peer-reviewed Open Journals are popping up everywhere, to allow scholarly work to see the light of day, without a gatekeeper in place.

Online Education

This is another definition that some use to describe Open Education, the simple offering of online courses, where none have been offered before. While this definition is not semantically wrong, it does not take into account the culture around Open Education, as an institution could offer an online course using paid textbooks, no OER, and have tuition charged to students. As an educator and Open Ed advocate, I’d have to say that this the definition that should be struck from the record, to stay in the realm of discussion around flexible learning, or modality of learning.


As is demonstrated above, Open Education means a lot of things to a great many stakeholders. More important than all the definitions, is that Open Education represents just one way educational practice is evolving with the times. By using online tools, by using what we continue to learn from educational research in fields such as psychology, development, and overall practice, we can work together to keep stepping away from the ‘Old School’, and be proud to say that we are all part of the ‘New School’.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *