Visualisation of the History of Openness in Education © Peters and Deimann, 2013

Openness in Higher Education (2103) Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

What is Open Praxis?

Open Praxis is the journal of the International Council for Open and Distance Education, and has just been relaunched as a peer-reviewed journal under a new editorial team from Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Spain (although the articles are all in English).

Openness in higher education

This special edition aims to ‘contribute to the reflection and analysis on the concept of openness and its growth and use in higher education‘. Authors for articles in this edition were asked to respond to the following questions:

  • What is the meaning of “open” in education? Which aspects of education does openness refer to?
  • How does openness lead to major changes in higher education?
  • Which are the main challenges regarding openness in higher education?
  • Which successful and relevant experiences of use can we identify?

From the editorial by Dr. Inés Gil-Jaurena:

The issue presents eleven papers covering different aspects regarding openness in higher education from different views: historical, theoretical, conceptual, contextual, political, among others. Three aspects have been the most addressed by the authors: access to higher education and the role of openness to increase it; assessment challenges in open education, and Open Educational Resources (OERs). The more recent phenomenon of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is also acknowledged.’

Review of papers

Peter, S. and Deimann, H. (2013) On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction, Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

This paper is required reading for anyone interested in open education (this post’s opening illustration comes from this paper). I will just quote three paras to give an idea of the scope:

“Open” in education is currently mostly debated in the context of the technological developments that allowed it to emerge in its current forms. More in-depth explorations of the philosophical underpinnings are moved to the backstage. Therefore, this paper proposes a historical approach to bring clarity to the concept and unmask the tensions that have played out in the past.

This historical reconstruction of “openness” (summarised in Figure 1) shows us not only a technological, but also a social, cultural and economic phenomenon, not bound by institutional or national boundaries. It highlights the danger of emphasising one aspect of openness while backgrounding others and how unrestricted practices can quickly, and repeatedly, become institutionalised.

History emphasizes the risk in failing to preserve the openness that made initiatives successful in the first place. The development of free but not entirely open courses needs to be examined more closely. While not immediately altering public perception, the shift from humanistic values to more “efficient” and “productive” educational opportunities can undermine the significance of openness.

This is a first class paper, brief, excellently researched and written, and to the point.

Knox, J. (2013) The limitations of access alone: Moving towards open processes in education technology Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

Knox approaches today’s current emphasis on OERs and MOOCs from a critical (post-modernist) philosophy of technology perspective:

this paper will question whether free admittance to information is enough to realise the goals of universal education and economic prosperity often promised by the open education movement

by criticizing the dominant assumptions of instrumentalism and essentialism that underly their current practice. While sympathetic to Knox’s argument, I found this paper too abstract for my taste. 

Olcott, D. (2013) Access under siege: Are the gains of open education keeping pace with the growing barriers to university access? Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

This is more of an opinion piece. This article examines ‘selected myths and realities at the centre of this challenge to open education within the context of these emerging political and economic realities. The article …provide[s] a pragmatic assessment of how open education advocates can position themselves as the future “voices for access and innovation”‘.

It ends by arguing that ‘There are two [issues] which are essential for the profession to address. First, is our responsibility to stand against the fundamental closing of the main doors to higher education access. [Second] the profession must be diligent in addressing the challenge of creating sustainable business cases models for OER.’

Conrad, D. (2013) Assessment challenges in open learning: Way-finding,fork in the road, or end of the line? Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

Friesen, N. and Wihak, C. (2013) From OER to PLAR: Credentialing for open education Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

Yin, S. and Kawachi, P. (2103) Improving open access through prior learning assessment Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

All three of these papers discuss the use of prior learning assessment as a means of ‘integrating’ open learning with university or college credentialing. 

Conrad’s paper examines the issues and challenges framing the role of assessment in the migration to OERs. Conrad argues that ‘open learning models have not yet reckoned with the question of assessment and its corollary challenges of portability and recognition.’ This paper calls for a focus on the use of prior learning assessments and in particular portfolios used in post secondary education, specifically at university level, as a means of recognizing learning through OERs.

Friesen and Wihak suggest three ways in which PLAR could be used to assess and credential open educational activities.

Yin and Kawachi discuss the use of two forms of prior assessment being used on a large scale by the Open University of China.

The problem I had with all three papers is that they start from a premise of trying to ‘fit’ or articulate open learning with conventional credentialing, rather than seeing open learning as a goal in itself that may need to develop its own forms of assessment.

Rodriguez, O. (2013) The concept of openness behind c and x-MOOCs Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

This was one of the few papers in this edition actually based on original research into MOOCs, based on combining data collection and personal experience of eight MOOCs (six c-MOOCs and two x-MOOCs) with other research on MOOCs. Rodrigues argues that ‘previous studies have shown that c-and x-MOOCs share some common features but that they clearly differ on the learning theory and pedagogical model on which they stand.’ In this paper he extends earlier findings and concentrates on the concept of “openness” behind each format, showing important differences.

The paper doesn’t add anything new to the arguments that Downes and Siemens have made about the differences between c-MOOCs and x-MOOCs, but it’s nice to have the information presented here so comprehensively and clearly.

Olakulehin, F. & Singh, G. (2013) Widening access through openness in higher education in the developing world: A Bourdieusian field analysis of experiences from the National Open University of Nigeria Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

Flor, A. (2013) Exploring the downside of open knowledge resources: The case of indigenous knowledge systems and practices in the Philippines Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

Tynan, B. and James, R. (2013) Distance education regulatory frameworks: Readiness for openness in Southwest Pacific/South East Asia region nations Open Praxis, Vol. 5, No. 1

These three very different studies look at concepts of openness in developing countries. This is an important perspective, given the often evangelistic nature of some of the supporters of open learning in Anglo-Saxon countries. All three of these papers look at the hard reality of open learning in different regions of the world.

In the case of the National Open University of Nigeria, the authors’ analysis suggests that despite the limitations that marginalised learners confront in trying to gain access to higher education, education leaders and higher education policy makers who champion openness can unconsciously constitute themselves into barriers rather than enablers of access to higher education.

In the Philippines, the researcher observed a marked reluctance from organized indigenous people’s groups to participate in the initiative. It soon became apparent that interfacing indigenous knowledge with open access concepts held complicated issues.

The findings from the Pacific region study on regulatory issues regarding open learning suggest that readiness for openness in higher education across the region requires an understanding of regulatory frameworks, sensitivity to cultural contexts, and strategy at a range of levels including governmental and institutional. [Nevertheless] there is a willingness and preparedness to investigate and explore OER in higher education across the region.

My conclusions

For a newly launched journal, this is an excellent start. I would have preferred more empirical research on OERs and MOOCs. We have a great deal of evangelism, argument, and analysis, but very little data, especially on what learning is actually resulting.

Nevertheless, these papers asked some excellent questions about what is meant by ‘openness’, and provided some much needed questioning of the assumptions behind much of the post-modernist, technology-based approaches to open education.

Unfortunately, though, while this edition should be essential reading for supporters of OERs and MOOCs, few will find their way to reading these articles, and those that do are unlikely to be influenced by the arguments here. That will be a pity.





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