O as in Open

Open_windows_(8607844680) (1)What is education for and what is education about? There is no idea in discussing technology and its role in education, if we don’t confront and debate these core questions at first. The web won, some would say, and no doubt the promise for democratization, decentralization and personalization of education have played a part in the opening up of education. The web won to such an extent, that openness has been victorious and has become mainstream in education today. Martin Weller puts this statement at stake in his book The Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory that came out last year. According to Weller there are two reasons why openness matters in education today:

  • opportunities: as development in technology and media has led to a shift from a pedagogy of scarcity to a pedagogy of openness, from scarcity of knowledge to plenty of knowledge and open pedagogies
  • function: as digital challenges have put the function and role of education and especially of higher education and its relationship to society into question (Weller 2014:9-15).

In his book Weller introduces a set of open education core concepts and their origins in order to show the complexity of open education within higher education. The concepts are:

open access education and its origin in The Open University and its focus on methods in open learning

open source software and its origin in the free software movement and its emphasis on rights and licences like for example Creative Commons (CC)

web 2.0 culture and its shift in using the internet from a broadcast model to a conversational model seconded by a culture of sharing and open practice (Weller 2014: 34-41).

Open education is a set of coalescing principles, Weller states, and the definition of openness and open education depends on which of the three backgrounds above people come from. The context and understanding of openness as in open education is in the eye of the beholder. So to Weller openness is an umbrella term, although he stresses, “… that web 2.0 provides the cultural context within which the openness becomes widely recognized and expected.” (Weller 2014: 42). And so the characteristics of web 2.0 tools, media and approaches as:

  • open
  • social
  • complex
  • participatory
  • distributed
  • networked
  • dynamic
  • mass scale (Conole and Alevizou 2010).

merge into Wellers summing up of general but coalescing principles for open education:

  • freedom to reuse
  • open access
  • free cost
  • easy use
  • digital, networked content
  • social, community based approaches
  • ethical arguments for openness
  • openness as an efficient model (Weller 2014: 42).

In his list Weller adopts and includes aspects of David Wiley’s “5R’s of Reuse” inspired by the open source movement, although Weller thinks Wiley’s definition of openness – Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute – is too strict. Wiley’s “5R’s of Reuse” can be seen and heard in his presentation of open education in my last blogpost, while Wiley’s original introduction to the “4 R’s of Reuse ” is to be found here. A reason for Weller to approach and lean against Wiley to some extent is, I think, because Weller sees the web 2.0 movement as significant for open education in two ways:

  • it decentralized much of the engagement with the web
  • it created a context where open and free were seen as mistakenly missing in online materials (Weller 2014:41).

This goes along well with Wiley’s emphasis on freedom to reuse and remix and on open licences.  They helped making openness common grounds, as Weller notices. So now that openness has become mainstream in education, it is important to ask the question Why does openness matter?, and as a result of the complex origins of the definitions of openness and open education the answer might be one or several of the causes listed below, Weller says:

education is a social good


increased profile


wider participation

unexpected outcomes


easy collaboration.

Open education and open scholarship

The impact of openness as a paradigm in higher education is to be found at both an institutional and an individual level. On an institutional level Weller examines the different aspects of openness in education and looks into open access publishing, Open Educational Resources (OER), MOOCs and the battle for the narrative of education at present and in the future.

But Weller also turns to the individual level of openness in higher education in his book and digs into how individual educators and academics are adapting their own scholarly practices by adopting open and digital approaches. In an earlier article written in collaboration with Terry Anderson, Weller and Anderson point to this challenge dealing with establishing open scholarship:

For the individual scholar, Boyer’s (1990) classification of scholarly activity provides a basis for identifying challenges faced by the advent of digital technology.

In Boyer’s definition of scholarship there are four components, each of which he suggests should be considered as of equal value by universities and government policy:

  • Discovery – the creation of new knowledge in a specific area or discipline.
  • Integration – is focused on interpretation and inter-disciplinary work.
  • Application – this is related to the concept of service, but Boyer makes a distinction between citizenship and scholarly types of service, and for the latter it needs to build on the scholar’s area of expertise.
  • Teaching – much of the interpretation of Boyer can be seen as an attempt to raise the profile of teaching.

For each of these elements we can see many new possibilities as set out by Weller (2011). An example in each of the four components might be the use of open data in research, the use of new publishing methods and networks to integrate work, the application of social media to public engagement, and the development and sharing of open education resources in teaching. (Weller and Anderson (2013)

In his book Martin Weller sets off from the classification of scholarship above and circles around three issues relating to open scholarship:

  • networked participation: individual activity across various media and networks
  • online identity and how it relates to traditional academic practice
  • new possibilities in research practice like “Guerilla research”.

Open practices, open scholarship and resilience

By participating in open practices open scholars can be seen as defining themselves both within their current discipline and institution and also acting in contrast to institutional values and traditional scholarly practices, Weller stresses:

Open scholars are thus in a rather schizophrenic position. They can occupy two different domains which may have competing values. For example, the open scholarship community places a precedent on immediacy, sharing small outputs and working through ideas in the open. The traditional disciplinary community places more value on considered larger output and not releasing these until late in the research process. (Weller 2014: 142)

Here institutional and individual levels intertwine and mutually challenge each other. To make room for open scholarship and to advocate for an alternative to disruption as the model for change in higher education, Martin Weller introduces the concept of resilience as a perspective and claims “…that it is not about wholesale change and debunking of a previous approach, but moving from one state to another.” (Weller 2014:187).

And so, in the light of openness becoming mainstream on the institutional level, too, the innovation that openness affords in higher education can be captured by resilience as a framework, Weller says in The Battle for Open. In the article I mentioned previously, Weller and Anderson define resilience in this way:

Building on Holling’s work, resilience is now often defined as ‘the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’ (e.g. Hopkins, 2009).

This definition places the emphasis on the capacity to retain function and identity, and this is particularly relevant to scholarship. If scholarship is viewed as a set of functions that are useful to society in general (taking Boyer’s four functions as an example), then the aim of digital resilience is to retain these core functions, but to allow them to be realised in new forms. This places a clear distinction between function and form. As Naughton (2009) stresses in terms of key factors about the impact of the internet:

“Don’t confuse existing forms with the functions that they enable. It’s the functions that matter. Forms may be transient, the product of historical or technological circumstances.” (Weller and Anderson 2013)

In terms of higher education practice then, resilience is about utilising technology to change practices where this is desirable, but to retain the underlying function and identity that the existing practices represent, if they are still deemed to be necessary. The practices themselves are not core to scholarship rather that they are the methods through which core functions are realised and these methods can and should change. (Weller and Anderson 2013)

To someone like me with a background in the Humanities and education the function and identity of higher education is anchored in practices that are focusing on developing critical thinking, communicative, aesthetic-creative and historical skills, knowledge and consciousness as well as fostering ethical, social and cultural understanding. And they are currently essential to the development of digital or web literacies as skills, knowledge and understanding needed by both learners and scholars today, so here resilience is involved. In addition, the ability to identify and interpret perspectives as well as the ability to change perspective and handle diverse, often contrasting perspectives needs to be at the heart of practices to understand individuals, cultures, institutions and traditions. To me this is crucial in higher education and in education in general in a mediatized, globalized, individualized and urbanized world. This is what education is for and this is what education is about.

This blogpost has been edited on 25. November 2015 to update David Wiley’s “5R’s of Reuse”, and on 4. December 2015 to remove a dead link to a Martin Weller webinar on The Battle for Open.

Further reading:

Conole, Gráinne & Alevizou, Panagiota (2010): A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education, A report commissioned by the Higher Education Academy, The Open University

Weller, Martin (2014): The Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press

Weller, Martin  & Anderson, Terry (2013): Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53

Photo by Angelo DeSantis on Wikimedia Commons

Elna Mortensen

O as in Open

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