Blog 26

Open Education in Higher Learning

Jerusha Lederman

Jerusha Lederman, Teaching Commons

Open Education Week(OEW) worldwide began on March 7 of this year.   Although at York, OEW was a relatively quiet affair, Open Education fundamentally influences ways in which we teach, learn and operate as an institution.   Awareness and knowledge of Open Education Resources (OER) help us to successfully navigate the continually evolving landscape surrounding best pedagogical practices in Teaching & Learning at the University level.   Increasingly, institutions of higher learning are embracing eLearning and OERs.  In this vein, today’s blog presents a quick overview of Open Education: what it is, how it can be used within the university setting and why it can play an important role in teaching, learning and potentially student recruitment and retention.

The term “Open Education” (OE) can be used to refer to both a philosophy of learning and to a concrete set of instructional materials.  The underlying idea is simple:  as human beings interacting in a community, we each strive to accumulate knowledge and experience which help us to grow and learn from one another.  OE asserts that all people should be afforded every opportunity to do so, regardless of financial or other obstacles.  OE involves the deconstruction of barriers by making educational content readily available (eg. printed pamphlets, online documents, podcasts, etc.) for public consumption thus facilitating the betterment of society through the realization of a more educated, skilled population.   For the purposes of this blog, I use “open” to mean unrestricted free access and / or permission to reuse, revise and further distribute learning materials under certain conditions (Wiley, 2015).

Living in a digital age, we tend to think of OE as something occurring exclusively online.  This is not entirely the case. For a brief history on OE endeavours dating back to the Middle Ages, see this page at the Open Education Handbook online.

In modern times, the rise of widespread OE had its beginnings in the U.K. with the founding of the Open University in 1969.  Prior to this, in an unprecedented move during the nineteenth century, the University of London became the first institution to spearhead distance learning opportunities via correspondence course.   Continuing in the same British pioneering spirit, the Open University was established originally for students who either could not afford a university education or were not able to attend university full time due to work, family or other commitments.

In ensuing decades, the success of Open University initiatives inspired higher education organizations around the world in countries such as Canada, the United States, China, India, South Africa, Portugal, Turkey and Japan to step into the arena of OE and create OERs.  2002 saw a revolution in OE with an Ivy League university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), digitizing its courses and making course material available for free online under MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW).

A full discussion of milestones in the history of OE and their implications exceed the scope of this article. A graphical summary and point form write up of major OE developments can be found at

Following MIT’s OCW lead, many universities mounted online open course materials.  In the late 2000’s, the term Massive Open Online Course, or “MOOC”, was coined.  The first MOOCs were offered in Canada in 2008 and were known as cMOOCs.  The ‘c’ was meant to portray that they stressed connectivity between course participants over traditional, lecturer-as-expert pedagogies.   More conventional lecturer-centric MOOCs, or, xMOOCs began to be offered in 2011 by Stanford University and are still offered widely today by both universities and organizations such as Coursera, Udemy, etc.

A distinction can be drawn between MOOCs and OERs.   A MOOC often utilizes OERs to create a community of practice amongst students wherein automated self testing, peer review and the earning of certificates can occur (Mulder, 2015.)   The active and unrelenting development, utilization and reuse of OERs is therefore in the best interests of any university for the following reasons:

  • materials are accessible but protected under Creative Commons (CC) licensing. This increases the university’s public visibility and serves directly as a testament to its quality of education.
  • All research and intellectual property is retained by faculty due to CC licensing yet material is reusable and adaptable for a wide range of courses.
  • OERs effectively function as a university’s “audition material” and act as powerful recruitment and retention tools for prospective and current students.
  • The quality and diversity of a university’s OERs can attract an international student base who might otherwise not consider or be unaware of the university’s existence.
  • Enrolment is naturally enhanced as students are much more likely to enroll for courses for which they do not have to purchase expensive textbooks.

In conclusion, based on past and current developments in teaching and learning, it is clear that OE is beneficial for students, faculty, universities and ultimately society.  Applying the OE philosophy to wedge “open” the door for all to higher learning and general knowledge has profound impact and will likely continue to evolve as technology evolves.


References & Further Reading

Kernohan, David and Amber Thomas (2012) OER – a historical perspective

Mulder, F. (2015). Open(ing Up) Education … boosted by MOOCs?    in C.J. Bonk, M. M. Lee, T. C. Reeves, T. H. Reynolds (Eds.). The MOOCs and Open Education Around the World. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Wiley, D. (2015). Defining the “Open” in Open Content.

Open Education Timeline – the interactive online timeline created by the Open Education Working Group []

Open Courseware Consortium Toolkits page for addressing concerns, making the case, getting an OCW project off the ground



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