Five critiques of the Open Educational Resources movement

This is an Author’s Original Manuscript of an article whose final and definitive form, the Version of Record, has been published in the Teaching in Higher Education 2013 [copyright Taylor & Francis], available online at:[ DOI:10.1080/13562517.2013.774354].

Knox, J. (2013) Five Critiques of the Open Educational Resources Movement. Teaching in Higher Education, DOI:10.1080/13562517.2013.774354

This post will review existing literature on Open Educational Resources, introducing five critiques:  1.) An under-theorisation of ‘openness’, in which the concepts of positive and negative liberty will be used to suggest a neglect of coherent theorisation concerning the practice of self-directed learning.  2.)  The simultaneous privileging and rejection of institutional authority, where OER literature will be shown to endorse the reputations of established institutions while claiming liberation from them.  3.)  The diminishing of the role of pedagogy, in which OER will be aligned with an untheorised learner-centred model of education.  4.) Humanistic assumptions of unproblematic self-direction and autonomy, and 5.) an alignment with the needs of capital, in which a Foucauldian interpretation of subjectivity will offer alternative perspectives on the notions of power and emancipation in OER discourse.  It is suggested that these critiques may provide a framework for OER to develop a theoretically rigorous area of scholarship.


The advent of networked digital technology in education is often posited as a profound intervention in the drive for open access (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor 2011), offering the means for individuals to obtain information independent of institutional authority or centralised control.  Open education has been ‘enabled and inspired’ by the Internet (Brown and Adler, 2008, p18), and it is the Open Educational Resources movement (OER) which has had the biggest impact in this area (Brown and Adler 2008).  The OER movement proposes extensive free access to information in the form of web-based digital resources for learning, teaching, and research, and is associated with an wide range of projects including MIT’s ‘OpenCourseWare’, the ‘OER University’ (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007; Caswell et al. 2008; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011) and Stanford University’s recent partnership with the open course ‘An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ ( 2012).  OER resources are typically placed in the public domain for free use or repurposing by others, and can range from full courses to individual modules (Downes 2007; Hylen 2002).  Following from significant institutional uptake of OER projects worldwide (Caswell et al. 2008; Hilton III et al. 2010; Hylen 2002), in 2011 UNESCO announced policy guidelines for the implementation of OER in higher education, attempting formally to standardise the ways in which these resources are created and shared within the sector (UNESCO 2011).

The primary objective of OER is to address ‘the provision of access to learning opportunities to those who would not otherwise be able to obtain them’ (Downes 2011).  In this sense, OER is grounded in the well-established path of liberal education; as a project that seeks to improve the human condition (Marshall 1996).  OER literature often associates itself with the declaration of human rights, claiming the ability to enhance the quality of human life, bring people out of poverty, and in doing so taking on the role of ‘social transformer’ (Caswell et al. 2008, p1).  For this purpose, the OER community pledges ‘to develop together a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity’ (D’Antoni 2008, p7).  Such language might be considered to position OER within the modernist traditions of progress and emancipation from ignorance, stances that have entrenched associations with the project of education (Usher & Edwards 1994).  This alliance is at times overt: ‘The traditions of rational and reflective practice of the academy will contribute to building sustainable futures for the university and the institution’s rightful place in society as we move forward in the OER world’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p3).  OER often appears to position itself as the ultimate expression of these core humanistic and modernist ideals of education.  With reference to the declaration of human rights, Caswell et al. claim ‘for the first time, we can now begin to convert a 60- year-old declaration into a reality’ (2008, p10).  As such, OER literature tends to endorse, and naturalise, the notion of an ideal human condition as the object of education.  However, as we will see, it may be problematic to assume the ability of OER learners to self-direct towards these predetermined goals.

Much of the OER debate centres on defining the meaning of ‘open’, however this tends to be predominantly about removal of the restrictions involved in accessing learning resources, from copyright regulations to financial constraints (Downes 2007; Hylen 2002; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor 2011).  What much of the OER literature fails to adequately address is the consequence of open access in terms of education itself.  While ‘open’ is used to imply a lack of restrictions on the learning resource, it also implies a lack of regulations on education.  Use of learning resources in the absence of institutional structures, with their in-built teaching frameworks and pedagogical and subject expertise, implies that individuals are able unproblematically to self-direct in their educational activities.  In focussing on learning as an activity independent of centralised structure and administration, it will be suggested here that endeavours which privilege openness tend to make assumptions about the capacity for individuals to act purely in an autonomous fashion as ‘self-directed’ learners.  This paper will therefore problematise the ways in which OER implies particular notions of freedom and independence in the advancement of its educational agenda.

An under-theorisation of the notions of ‘openness’ and ‘freedom’.

In 1958 the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin proposed two concepts of freedom: positive liberty and negative liberty (Berlin 1969).  These ideas about the nature of individual freedom are renowned in the fields of political philosophy and economics, yet they also have significant implications for the movement away from institutional control in education.  Positive liberty concerns itself with specifying the practice of freedom.  At the heart of this concept is the idea that individuals are rational beings; it is through the innate abilities of reason that people are able to decide the form and quality of freedom, and the way in which liberty is to be exercised (Berlin 1969).  For Berlin, this idea of positive liberty operates within the individual, banishing lower order desires, as much as it functions in society, where populations can be coerced into the notions of freedom rationalised by those in authority.  In contrast, Berlin also defines negative liberty.  Rather than involving itself with the practice of being free, this idea of liberty emphasises the removal of barriers to freedom.  Where positive liberty might be considered freedom to, negative liberty becomes freedom from (Marshall 1996).  At the core of this individualistic sense of freedom is the idea that people must be allowed to exercise their will without the intervention or oppression of other human beings (Berlin 1969).  Thus negative liberalism concerns itself entirely with the removal of obstructions to personal liberty, and offers no vision for how freedom might actually operate in practice.  Therefore, the central difference between these two concepts of freedom is the extent to which liberty must be specified, or can be assumed.  Positive liberty views the predefinition of freedom as a requirement for a coherent society, while negative liberty assumes it as an innate quality which will come to exist when obstacles are eliminated.

These two concepts of liberty can be traced in the principles of individual freedom and independence that underpin both conventional education and open access learning.  The traditional model of the educational institution might be considered to reflect the rationales of positive liberty by predetermining the methods of access to knowledge, and the subsequent delivery of learning.  Just as in Berlin’s formulation of positive liberty (1969), the control and discipline exacted by the educational institution can be viewed as the imposition of a centralised rationality.  This view is informed by a Foucauldian sense of power as existing in the performance of systems; having ‘embodiment in rational forms of government, administration, management and supervision’ (Usher and Edwards 2005, p402).  The institution predefines the structure and organisation of education, as well as the status and extent of knowledge, according to what it considers to be the most reasonable approach to improving the lives of the unenlightened (Marshall 1996).  In this traditional teacher-centred model, learners are coerced into the systems of the institution on the grounds that they are as yet unaware of the rational superiority of the educational method, a view which resonates with aspects of positive liberty, where the populace are considered blind to the rationality inherent in themselves (Berlin 1969).  Where education has been considered a public service which emancipates the illiterate and innumerate from the predicaments of ignorance (Ball 1990; Marshall 1990, 1996), the educational institution might be considered to play a definitive role in the agenda of positive liberalism.

It is perhaps this kind of scenario that liberal educators have perceived in the traditional university, and this kind of model which provokes the desire to move away from institutional control.  Educational endeavours that promote open access have clear similarities with the concept of negative liberty, focussing their concerns on emancipation from hierarchies of control and the bypassing of systems which condition admittance to knowledge.  The OER movement in particular appears to emphasise the model of freedom from, positing ‘the removal of “unfreedoms”’ (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007, p1) as a principal aim, alongside ‘innovative approaches to remove barriers to the creation; use, re-use and sharing of high-quality content’ (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007, p5).  In declaring that ‘individuals are free to learn from OER’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p4), the implication appears to be that learning is something that is possible with, perhaps even enhanced by, the absence of organisation and structure.  Central to the OER cause is the idea that the educational institution functions as a barrier to the egalitarian acquisition of knowledge.  This is often formulated in the claim that demand for higher education surpasses current provision (Brown and Adler 2008; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor 2011).  The focus becomes the circumvention of the perceived limitations of the institution by offering learning resources without the requirement to enrol in the systems of formal higher education.  Thus OER tends not to concern itself with questions about the practice of learning, and is inclined to devote attention exclusively to what it perceives as the task of making knowledge available outside of the traditional forms of institutional control.

The rejection and privileging of institutional structure

Despite the central claims of institutional circumvention, there is a significant proportion of OER literature that appears to endorse the idea of the university.  It has been suggested that one of the fundamental problems of OER is that learning cannot be assessed or accredited, rendering self-directed learning unnoticed and unacknowledged (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011).  Thus the implementation of institutional accreditation is considered to raise the perception of OER quality to meet that of traditional provision (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011).  Taylor asserts that quality assurance from institutional endorsement and accreditation is fundamental to the entire OER project (2011).  This places OER in a subservient position to that of the academy, being measured to the standard set by the establishment.  Further institutional influence is suggested in Clements and Pawlowski (2012), who highlight confidence and trust in specific OER producers as a major factor in their use.  Institutional affiliation is often made explicit in OER, most notably in MIT’s OpenCourseWare website (MIT 2012), but also in organisations that claim independence from the academy.  Significantly, the website of ‘Udacity’, an independent company which claims no institutional affiliation, promotes free online content by explicitly publicising the fact that its professors are also associated with Stanford University and the University of Virginia (Udacity 2012).  Despite the general claims to openness and independence, these instances suggest that major stakeholders in OER have a tendency to revert, paradoxically, to the authority of organisations, systems and structures in the production of reliable academic ‘content’.

The literature which attempts to describe how learning might actually take place with the use of OER, although limited, also appears to endorse forms of organisation.  Brown and Adler propose a constructivist-informed ‘learning 2.0′, in which OER are described as building blocks towards the establishment of participative learning communities (2008, p28), a view supported by Wiley (2006) and Downes (2007).  This conception of OER emphasises the formation of communities comprised of students and academics, rather than mere access to informational content (Brown and Adler 2008).  This perspective appears to work against calls for ‘improving access and transfer of knowledge’ (Hylen 2002), or the declaration that ‘all the basic knowledge, all the refined physics, all the deep mathematics, everything of beauty in music, in the visual arts, all of literature, all of the video arts of the twentieth century can be given to everybody everywhere’ (Caswell et al. 2008, p9-10).  In contrast it foregrounds social learning, legitimate peripheral participation and learning through communities of practice as specific modes and strategies for learning (Brown and Adler 2008).  Learners are thus suggested to become enthused by niche groups, ‘learning to be’ through processes of enculturation and apprenticeship (Brown and Adler 2008).  However, such models might be considered to present new systems of dominance, presenting a situation which differs significantly from the simplistic notions of free and open access advanced by much of the OER literature.  Brown and Adler admit that such community learning is ‘conducted in a structured setting’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p30).  Furthermore, the examples of OER provided by Brown and Adler are predominantly institutionally mediated projects, or the sharing of resources amongst existing university faculty (2008).  Such illustrations tend to adhere to notions of centralised control and management, and neglect to tackle the full and radical implications of unrestricted and independent access to OER.  Thus an underlying paradox exists in the promotion of OER; at times being described as augmenting current modes of delivery, used in conjunction with existing institutional programmes, yet simultaneously advanced as a solution to the lack of capacity within traditional universities (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011), and as a radical challenge to their dominance.

No place for pedagogy

The promotion of OER as the sole method of access to knowledge advances a notion of learning that has profound implications for continued educational provision.  In advocating the unrestricted and unstructured use of learning resources, OER foregrounds and prioritises ‘learning’ as the central concern of educational endeavours, considering its users to be ‘participants’ in rather than ‘consumers’ of education (Wiley 2006).  In this sense OER is aligned with perhaps the most fundamental conceptual shift in recent education.  The ‘learnification’ of education has involved ‘the translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and learners’ (Biesta 2009, p3).  Such a shift might be considered to follow from the influence of humanistic psychology and a constructivist orthodoxy in education, where ‘learner-centred’ methods are privileged.  The open education movement has been a major proponent of this view, perceiving the notion of ‘education’ as thoroughly enmeshed in the organisational, regulated characteristics of the university, while the processes of ‘learning’ are often considered to be interiorised and independent of structure and formality, which are seen as incidental, and often restrictive to the fundamental activities involved in acquiring knowledge.

One of the most noticeable effects of the privileging of learning in the OER movement is the lack of consideration with regards to pedagogy and the place of the teacher.  Wiley describes higher education’s existing ‘core areas’ as ‘content, research, expertise, and credentialing’ (Wiley 2006, p4), which appears to disregard the part that teaching plays in the institution.  Further OER proposals suggest ‘formal education institutions have an important role to play by augmenting opportunities for open learning, assessment and credentialisation within the larger learning system now possible with the Internet and OER’ ( Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p3), leaving no room for institutional involvement with pedagogy.  This stance is reiterated frequently: ‘the role of the public provider is overwhelmingly one of support and recognition for an individual’s own educational attainment’ (Downes 2011).

The inclusion of pedagogy in the OER model seems to be thin on the ground.  In the recent outline of plans for the OER university, Taylor suggested ‘open pedagogy’ as a central and critical area for development, however this was simply subheaded with ‘effective learning environments’ (2011), suggesting a diminution of teaching to the mere manipulation and design of the educational-technological setting.  ‘Open pedagogy’ is further defined as ‘teaching focused on the pedagogy of discovery’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p14), yet this seems to suggest further learner self-direction rather than articulating a coherent strategy for critical pedagogic design.  This apparent dismissal of teaching methods and teacherly expertise might be considered to sit uneasily with the implicit endorsement of the educational institution described in the previous section, where the prestige of the university, it might be argued, is a consequence of its pedagogical proficiency.

OER literature focusses predominantly on factors concerning the provision of access and the reduction of regulation concerning its resources.  References to methods or activities of teaching and learning are scarce, beyond the assertion that OER requires the nurturing of self-direction and autonomy (Taylor 2011).  Furthermore, the notion of self-motivated individuals is rather simplistically assumed in the call for ‘passion-based learning’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p30).  Reference is made to the ways in which OER might be repurposed and reused, however this tends to foreground strategies for dissemination rather than learning (Hilton III et al. 2010).  Downes calls for a ‘self-managed education’, but concentrates on proposing infrastructures and strategies for how this might be put in place, rather than specifying how it might actually operate in practice (2011).  This absence is justified in terms distinctly reminiscent of Berlin’s negative liberty: ‘The temptation to manage, and especially to manage for outcomes, in the provision of any good or service, is overwhelming. It should and must be avoided’ (Downes 2011).  OER literature thus appears to neglect to address how teaching in higher education might translate into the model of independent, self-directed access to learning resources.  In the absence of a coherent theoretical stance, the responsibilities of the professional teacher appear to be reduced to environmental facilitation.

Humanistic assumptions of autonomy and self-direction

One of the central arguments in Berlin’s original paper was for plurality in the concept of liberty, highlighting two uses of the term which differ significantly in their outlook, and imply very different ideas about how society might operate (1969).  However, to privilege negative liberty in its most idealistic sense is to assume that states can exist in the absence of restriction, dominance and discipline, and ultimately to adopt a narrow view of the concept of power.  As tantalising as the promise of openness might seem in the context of education – a world emancipated from the constraints of archaic institutions, in which individuals are free to do and learn as they please – negative liberty contains stark implications about the enactment of freedom.  Where no regulations are prescribed about how learning should operate in practice, such ‘freedom’ cannot in principle be predicted or assumed to function according to predefined ideas.  Indeed, Berlin suggests that philosophers have dismissed an unlimited and extreme form of negative liberty, supposing that ‘it would entail a state in which all men could boundlessly interfere with all other men; and this kind of “natural” freedom would lead to social chaos’ (Berlin 1969, p157).

However, this view of undefined openness appears to contradict some of the aims expressed in the OER literature.  The prognostications of rational progress, emancipation from ignorance, and increased provision for the intellectually needy, appear to sit uneasily with the idea of a decentralised system that avoids predefined aims.  In the absence of directives we might assume that proponents of OER assume an innate human ability to self-direct.  Education itself has been implicated in such humanistic suppositions, being founded on the ideals of the rational exercise of autonomy and individual agency.  However, to presume such autonomy in human beings may present a contradiction to the very principles upon which the concept of negative liberty is constituted.  The ability to self-direct can itself be perceived in terms of predefined standards, structures and rules, predetermining the ways in which negative freedom might function.  From such a perspective, the ideas behind autonomy derive from the very same rationality that is associated with the management and direction of positive liberty (Berlin 1969).  Given that movements such as OER are not advocates of chaotic, unpredictable learning, but in fact appear to desire similar outcomes to those achieved by organised education, we might contend that reasoned thinking must play some part the structuring of the OER project.  Therefore, it is not the concept of negative liberty itself that is problematic, but rather the premise that its realisation will achieve predefined goals; that an expected order will somehow emerge from unrestrained action.

It is therefore the conception of the human being that is of profound importance in debates about the extent of control and independence in education.  As Berlin astutely points out, ‘the conception of freedom directly derives from the view that is taken of what constitutes a self, a person, a man. Enough manipulation with the definition of man, and freedom can be made to mean whatever the manipulator wishes’ (Berlin 1969, p163).  It is here that we can perceive the limitations of Berlin’s two concepts of liberty, and begin to tackle the potential problems in pursuing open education as the mere removal of perceived barriers to access.  The dichotomous view of freedom envisioned in the positive and negative concepts of liberty rely on the assumption of a given, self-directing human subject, imbued with innate abilities to engage in rational and autonomous behaviour.  Such a humanistic perspective assumes that learners are ‘naturalistic objects, pre-existing in the social world’ (Usher and Edwards 2005, p404).  However, such a stable, predetermined subjectivity can only relate to notions of power in terms of overt dominance; exercising authority or acceding to it in the case of positive liberty, or, as in the case of negative liberty, attempting to escape it.  Such a perspective denies more subtle notions of power, in which human subjectivity can be constructed and shaped by forms of control, rather than simply responding as a predefined entity.  Thus, OER will be considered here to follow the course of governance in modern society, where forms of power ‘intertwine expertise and personal empowerment, thereby displacing the need for active containment and overt oppression’ (Usher and Edwards 2005, p401).  It is precisely in this fashion, through overt institutional endorsement and pledges to endow individuals with the ability to control their own learning, that the OER movement masks more profound instances of power.

Rather than individual autonomy being an innate human quality, Marshall highlights how the ideal of independence and self-direction in education is a social construction (1996; Olssen 2005).  This critique of autonomy derives from the contention that the self is able to objectively comprehend and abide by laws, as opposed to merely following them (Marshall 1996; Olssen 2005).  This follows from Foucault’s assertion that the notion of the subject cannot entail a separation of the transcendental from the empirical (Marshall 1996).  To act autonomously requires the subject to be able to discern all that might influence or affect them, necessitating that the individual be viewed as an entity separate to, and abstracted from those encroachments.  Referring to Kant, Marshall suggests that such a notion of autonomy was conceived out of the need to vindicate moral action, rather than providing a coherent sense of subjective agency (1996).  Foucault’s notion of subjectivity challenges the idea that the self and the law can be considered separate entities, proposing that the self only comes into being through the enactment of laws (Marshall 1996).  Thus, the human subject emerges from structure and organisation, rather than being foundational.  Such perspectives call into question the apparent assumptions of predetermined self-directing individuals detectable in the OER literature, which does not tend to take a critical view on the notion of the subject.

Related to this notion of subjectivity, a broad spectrum of Foucault’s work has concerned the construction of the self through power-knowledge (Olssen 2005), a concept that stipulates the close relationship between power and knowledge such that one is always embroiled in the other (Foucault 1979).  Such considerations of power oppose the notions of an unrestricted, authority-free domain implied by negative liberty.  In this Foucauldian sense, the emergence of knowledge necessitates systems and configurations of power, and such a perspective encourages the notion that OER brings about its own regimes of control.

The OER movement, therefore, cannot assume the innate ability of individuals to self-direct in learning, but must contend with the notion that its planning, implementation, presentation, and discourse, are involved the construction of the subjects who participate with them.  If an environment is structured in such a way as to presuppose a certain type of subject, that subject will emerge (Marshall 1996 citing Walkerdine 1986).  The concept of governmentality concerns the interplay between technologies of domination and technologies of the self (Foucault 1988), and provides a theoretical basis from which to consider firstly the ways that OER literature constructs a particular kind of learner through discourse, and secondly, the induced behaviours through which an individual might perform a particular kind of subjectivity through participation in the OER learning model.

Alignment with the needs of capital

OER literature often specifies a particular kind of learning subject, both in terms of those individuals predisposed to its methods of learning, as well as in terms of what those individuals will become.  Particular benefit is claimed for ‘those learners who lack the means or access to follow traditional learning paths’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p1).  Following from such ambitions, the notion of empowerment features prominently, promising the constitution of a learning subject that is capable of emancipating him or herself from the obstacles of ‘poverty, limited economic opportunity, inadequate education and access to knowledge, deficient health care, and oppression’ (Atkins, Brown and Hammond 2007, p1).  However, and often paradoxically, much of the language in OER literature is distinctly in terms of the marketisation and commodification of higher education and its subjects (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011), where OER becomes an element of the arsenal brought to bear by the institution in contending with global competition, and the learner participates according to the dictates of consumer demand (Brown and Adler 2008).  Successful places of learning are described as ‘robust local ecosystems of resources supporting innovation and productiveness’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p16), utilising terminology which naturalises the conditions of economic prosperity and the exchange of capital.  The effectiveness of OER is frequently articulated in terms of the ability to ‘reduce the costs associated with reproducing and maintaining online courses’ (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011, p8), however this emphasis on replication appears to suggest the need for uniformity, where a homogeneous population of learners benefit from identical resources.  OER proposes to produce a ‘well-educated workforce with the requisite competitive skills’ (Brown and Adler 2008, p16), while Downes cites the ‘link between educational attainment and economic activity’ (2011), appearing to align the learning subject seamlessly with a functioning capitalist economy.

The freedoms induced through the use of OER have also been claimed to ‘increase human capital’ (Atkins, Brown and Hammond 2007, p2), barely disguising adherence to the idea that autonomy ‘retains its connections with policies and institutions of the state’ (Marshall 1996, p85).  As we have seen, one of the central justifications for OER is the claim that demand exceeds current and future institutional provision (Brown and Adler 2008; Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor 2011; Taylor, 2011), holding out the promise of great swathes of self-motivated educational consumers, ready to shell out their innate ability to learn.

Not only can OER discourse be considered to predefine a particular kind of learner, but the modes of access employed can also be perceived to directly influence how individuals formulate knowledge about themselves.  OER permits a very specific form of self-directed educational conduct through which individuals are obliged to attain for themselves particular states of scholarship, enlightenment and economic well-being.  This human capital, from a Foucauldian perspective, is deeply embroiled in defining the individual as an autonomous being, responsible for their own development (Lemke 2001).  As we have seen in the OER proposals for self-direction and the subsequent restructuring of the institution as an administrator and accreditor, the responsibility for learning is shifted entirely to the individual.  This concept of autonomy places decision-making solely in the hands of the individual, where ‘the consequences of the action are borne by the subject alone, who is also solely responsible for them’ (Lemke 2001, p201).  However, institutional control does not diminish, rather the OER movement can be conceived as ‘a reorganization or restructuring of government techniques, shifting the regulatory competence of the state onto “responsible” and “rational” individuals’ (Lemke 2001, p202).  It is the citizens of the world who must liberate themselves from poverty and ignorance through the activities of self-directed and autonomous learning.  Thus the OER model permits particular behaviours and activities that influence and compound the sense of autonomy and empowerment in the production of the self as human capital.

Furthermore, such a personally responsible subject is implicated in the practice of persistent self-examination.  Foucault’s technologies of the self offer a way to consider this introspection as a scrutinisation and verification of one’s own thoughts (1988).  Such self-examination can be considered a systematic thought process; acting to identify knowledge, as well as authenticate it, and in combination propose a permanent self-critique in which the individual measures their ‘self’ against established regimes of knowledge (Foucault 1988).  Significantly, the OER subject is projected to be an individual in need of continual learning, upheld on the basis that relevant knowledge becomes ever increasingly redundant in contemporary society (Brown and Adler 2008).  Thus the OER learner is encouraged to subject themselves to a prolonged scholarship, persistently engaging in examinations of the self in order to determine the superfluity of their knowledge and become a flexible and educated contributor to the efficient flow of capital.  This reflects notions of the contemporary self as constructed through the role of the consumer; a subject in permanent deficit (Rose 1989).  Thus OER education can be viewed as ‘an essential element in the path to self-fulfilment’ (Rose 1989, p119), legitimising itself through the need for persistent self-actualisation, in which the subject must continually reconstruct themselves in line with an ever-changing, and hence unattainable, external world.


The promise of open access to information may be of significant value in education.  Therefore, this post is not intended to dismiss the OER movement per se, but rather to seek its refinement through a more rigorous theoretical examination of the claims of increased provision and unproblematic self-direction.  The five critiques introduced here are suggested to provide a coherent framework for future work in this area.

1. Following from an apparent affinity with the concept of negative liberty, much of the OER literature focuses on the removal of perceived barriers to access, and thus neglects adequately to consider how self-directed learning might actually take place in the absence of the educational organisation.

2. OER literature often promotes a paradoxical claim of institutional circumvention alongside an explicit endorsement of the accreditation systems and prestige of established university structures.

3. However, this endorsement of the institution is problematically combined with a neglect to address the role of pedagogy within the university and an exaggerated and untheorised promotion of learner-centred education.

4. Whilst often appearing to endorse a system of self-directed learning that avoids predefined aims, OER literature frequently predicts outcomes of rational progress, economic prosperity, and emancipation from ignorance.  Thus the OER movement tends to make presumptions about the ability of human beings to self-direct in the processes of learning, often appearing to assume the innate qualities of autonomy and instrumental rationality.

5. The use of OER can be perceived, not as a more rational improvement to education, or a more humane and naturalised form of learning, but as a further refinement in the exercise of power.  While the use of OER might circumvent the more overt practices of discipline exacted by the traditional institution – regulating, organising and categorising the bodies of its learners – it is problematic to assume that such a form of open education is emancipated from regimes of control and subjectification.  OER literature neglects to consider its own discursive alignment with the marketisation and commodification of education, and the ways in which this technology constructs the learning subject as human capital.  In claiming a model of open, free and de-institutionalised education, the OER movement conceals the ways in which the apparently self-directing learner is a product of its own discursive practices and permitted behaviours.


Atkins, D. E., Brown, J. S., and Hammond, A. L. 2007. A Review of the Open Educational Resources ( OER ) Movement : Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities. Report to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,

Ball, S. J. 1990. Foucault and Education: disciplines and knowledge. London: Routledge.

Berlin, I. 1969. Two concepts of liberty. Four Essays on Liberty, 155-165. London: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(04)15657-2

Biesta, G. (2009). Good Education: What it is and why we need it. Inaugural Lecture at the Stirling Institute of Education, University of Stirling.–WHATITISANDWHYWENEEDITInauguralLectureProfGertBiesta.pdf

Brown, John S., and Adler, R. P. 2008. Minds On Fire: Open Education, the long tail, and Learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review, 43(1): 16–32.

Caswell, T., Henson, S., Jensen, M., and Wiley, D. 2008. Open Educational Resources : Enabling universal education. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 9(1): 1-11.

Clements, K. I., and Pawlowski, J. M. 2012. User-oriented quality for OER: understanding teachers’ views on re-use, quality, and trust. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28(1): 4-14. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00450.x

Downes, S. 2007. Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3: 29-44.

Downes, S. 2011. Five Key Questions. Steven Downes Blog

D’Antoni, S. 2008. Open Educational Resources: The Way Forward. Report to UNESCO, International Institute for Educational Planning.

Fitzmaurice, M. 2010. Considering teaching in higher education as a practice. Teaching in Higher Education, 15(1): 45-55. doi:10.1080/13562510903487941

Foucault, M. 1979. Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Foucault, M. 1988. Technologies of the self. In Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault, ed L. Martin, H. Gutman, & P. Hutton, 16-49. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Hilton III, J., Wiley, D., Stein, J., and Johnson, A. 2010. The Four R’s of Openness and ALMS Analysis: Frameworks for Open Educational Resources. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 25(1): 37-44.

Hylén, J. 2006. ‘Open educational resources: opportunities and challenges’, Proceedings of Open Education, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, 27–29 September,

KnowLabs. (2012). Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. Retrieved February 17, 2012, from

Macintosh, W., McGreal, R., and Taylor, J. 2011. Open Education Resources (OER) for assessment and credit for students project: Towards a logic model and plan for action. UNESCO Chair in Open Educational Resources.

Marshall, J. D. 1996. Michel Foucault: Personal Autonomy and Education. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

MIT. (2012). OpenCourseWare. Retrieved February 9, 2012, from

Olssen, M. 2005. Foucault, Educational Research and the Issue of Autonomy. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 37(3): 365-387. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2005.00127.x

Rose, N. 1989. Governing The Soul: The shaping of the private self. London: Free Association Books.

Taylor, J. C. 2011. The OER university: From logic model to action plan. Open planning meeting for the OER for assessment and credit for students project, 23 February in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Udacity. (2012). CS 101: BUILDING A SEARCH ENGINE. Retrieved February 9, 2012, from

Usher, R., and Edwards, R. 1994. Postmodernism and Education: Different Voices, Different Worlds. London: Routledge.

Usher, R., and Edwards, R. G. 2005. Subjects, networks and positions: Thinking educational guidance differently. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 33(3): 397-410. doi:10.1080/03069880500179640

Wiley, D. 2006. Statement to the Secretary of Education. A National Dialogue: The Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education. San Diego.