The Limitations of ‘Access': opening up education technologies #OER #MOOC #edtech

An edited version of this post has been published here:

Knox, J. (2013). The Limitations of Access Alone: moving towards open processes in education. Open Praxis. 5(1). pp. 21-29.


‘Openness’ has emerged as one of the foremost themes in education, within which an open education movement has enthusiastically embraced digital technologies as the ultimate means of participation and inclusion. OER and MOOCs have emerged at the forefront of this development, claiming unprecedented educational reform.  However, within these influential initiatives ‘open’ is predominantly used to imply notions of ‘access’ to educational content.  This perspective is influenced by underlying instrumental and essentialist assumptions about technology, and the processes of production involved in networks, systems and software are seldom discussed.  Considering openness as ‘access’ tends to fetishize knowledge as a consumable object, often reinforcing the established authorities and institutions which the open agenda seeks to circumvent.  To conclude, the prevailing understanding of openness in education could be beneficially shifted towards a notion of ‘process’, encouraging further critical explorations of technology and actively engaging participants in dialogue.

Key words: OER; MOOC; technology; open; access; process


In recent years, ‘openness’ has emerged as one of the foremost themes in education, influencing institutional planning and shaping major international policy.  A burgeoning open education movement is becoming established around an agenda of institutional transformation, calling for unrestricted access to educational material and the diminishing of geographic and economic barriers to participation.  At the forefront of this movement have been Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); educational projects which claim significant advances in utilising Internet technology to challenge the dominant models of institutionally controlled knowledge.  Emerging from MIT’s OpenCourseWare project in 2001, OER have received considerable endorsement from educational institutions worldwide (Caswell et al. 2008; Wiley and Hilton III 2009; Hylen 2002), and a various government-supported or non-profit initiatives have surfaced in recent years (POERUP 2012).  OER have also garnered recognition from larger international organisations, such as UNESCO and the European Commission; the former developing policy guidelines for the implementation and standardisation of OER in higher education (UNESCO 2011), and the latter seeking a public consultation on ‘opening up education’ (European Commission 2011).  The MOOC is a much more recent phenomenon, beginning as a fringe experiment in networked learning (see Siemens and Downes 2008), before being reconstituted and adopted by prominent universities.  These institutionalised MOOCs, offered by Silicon Valley start-ups ‘Coursera’ and ‘Udacity’ as well as the Harvard and MIT collaboration ‘edX’, have received overwhelming media attention, which has often extrapolated a radical destabilisation of the higher education sector (see Adams 2012 and Marginson 2012).

These high-profile initiatives are representative of an entrenched commitment and enthusiasm towards technology within the open education movement.  The Internet has become the fundamental means through which this movement seeks to widen participation and increase accessibility. Internet technology is often considered to have ‘enabled and inspired’ open education itself (Brown and Adler, 2008, p18).  However, despite the centrality of networks, systems and software, the technologies associated with open education appear to be rarely subjected to in-depth or critical consideration.  This paper will outline the dominant representation of ‘openness’ in education, and propose ways in which a more considered approach to the role of technology might be approached, indicating a possible direction for this movement to mature as a more rigorous area of scholarship.

Openness as ‘access’

Prominent initiatives within the open education movement have tended to define of ‘openness’ in terms ‘access’ to educational material.  This primary concern with access reflects an affinity with distance education, developed to address the geographical barriers to institutional contact (Downes 2011).  Much of the OER literature focuses on issues of access (see Johnstone 2005, Atkins et al. 2007, Caswel et al. 2008, Downes 2011), and this has centred research around strategies for implementation or the development of supporting infrastructure.  OER are founded on the idea of an information repository, as exemplified by MIT’s OpenCourseWare but also apparent in the proliferation of resource archives now extensive on the web (see OpenLearn 2012, Connexions 2012 and WikiEducator 2012).  This tends to orient the OER brand of open education around a privileging of reliable sources of information as the prime factor in the learning process.  Within this arrangement the role of teaching is pushed into the background, and the chief concern becomes bringing learners into contact with trusted supplies of knowledge.  Potential problems with OER are often framed simply as ‘getting access to a high-speed Internet connection’, immediately followed by ‘once that problem is solved, the various types of resources can be quite useful’ (Johnstone 2005).  Thus access to educational material has been the principal focus of the OER movement; however this motivation often deflects considerations away from the particulars of the technologies employed to store and exhibit this content.  This will outlined in what follows.

The institutionalised MOOCs advance a similar view on the idea of ‘open’, frequently describing their educational initiatives in terms of large-sale access.  Coursera propose ‘to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few’, utilising technology which ‘enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students’ (2012a).  The promotional content on the edX website similarly emphasises a desire to provide access to unprecedented numbers of students, with the president Anant Agarwal declaring ‘our goal is to educate a billion people around the world’ (EdX 2012).  Udacity underscore this trend stating ‘using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world’ (Udacity 2012).  These MOOCs operationalize the view that ‘open’ constitutes an amplification in the number of participants coming into in contact with their educational offerings.  While these initiatives emphasise interactive features rather than straightforwardly static content, the overwhelming message is of the quantity rather than the quality of access.

Transparency and embodiment

The dominant interpretation of openness as ‘access’ may be bolstered by underlying assumptions about technology prevalent in educational research: those of instrumentalism and essentialism (Friesen and Hamilton 2010).  These philosophical perspectives conceive of technology either as entirely neutral; merely enabling the aims of educational endeavours but not influencing them (instrumentalism), or to possess intrinsic qualities (essentialism).  The open education literature often depicts technology in a role of facilitating or empowering the learning process, however this stance tends to render the technology transparent in the resulting activity.  In a typically optimistic gesture, Caswell et al. state ‘new distance education technologies … act as enablers to achieving the universal right to education’ (2008).  They go on to define technology according to its ability to unproblematically reproduce and distribute educational content, yet the degree to which these systems might influence or affect that content does not feature (Caswell et al. 2008).

This perception of technology neutrality is reinforced through the common educational designations ‘resource’ and ‘tool’.  To frame technology as a ‘resource’ activates notions of external sources or assets, extraneous entities that we draw upon and use.  The archival tendencies within the OER movement emphasise this relationship, in which technology is positioned as a prosthetic to the learning process; an instrument considered only in its capacity for enhancement.  Describing technology as a ‘tool’ underscores this role, and masks the ways in which the networks, systems and codes of open education might transform and affect the learning process.  This tendency for instrumentalism limits technology research to studying either the improvement or diminishing of learning (Friesen and Hamilton 2010), and it is often the former that manifests in open education literature.  There may be much richer ways of understanding the learning processes taking place in open education, and this could involve an acknowledgement the constituent role of networks and software in educational activity.  Research within the open movement might therefore look to work with Actor-Network Theory in education (Fenwick and Edwards 2010) or studies of the sociomaterial (Edwards et al. 2011).

Technology is also frequently inferred to possess the qualities attributed to its users.

‘Jay connects to the Internet via his laptop and mobile phone (he is mobile) in order to search Google for information (digital resources are open for him to freely access) relevant to tomorrow’s test. Temporarily stymied, he chats with friends on the phone and by Instant Messaging (IM) to see if they can assist in his search (he is connected to other people)’ ( Wiley and Hilton III 2009 emphasis original).

In this hypothetical scenario, technology appears to function seamlessly here with the various activities of the learner, possessing qualities that match precisely the innate desires of the human being putting it to use.  Wiley and Hilton III go on to describe technology as embodying the organisational changes required if higher education institutions are to reflect wider society (2009).  They suggest ‘connectedness, personalization, participation, and openness’ as four key areas for educational transformation (Wiley and Hilton III 2009, p8), yet each is suggested to transpire almost exclusively through technological means, and from systems which appear to unproblematically personify these qualities.

The technologies of open education are too often implied to have an ‘independent and abstract pedagogical value’ (Friesen and Hamilton 2010, p8).  This is often predicated on idealised interpretations of the Internet, sometimes assumed to be necessarily open through its capacity to increase access (see Brown and Adler 2008).  Developments such as OER are thus promoted as ‘technology-empowered … to create and share educational content on a global level’ (Caswell et al. 2008).  This discourse of facilitation or empowerment forms a powerful rhetoric of educational change and progress, yet it is too often embodied in the technologies of open education, rather than acknowledged as ideal or potential practice.

Hidden production

Perceiving the technologies involved in open education simply as transparent resources or embodied tools, shifts attention away from the often complex ways in which this technology is designed and produced.  Considerable work is needed within the open education movement to unveil the processes involved in the production of technology, and acknowledge the broad pedagogical, philosophical and political presuppositions already encoded in the systems used.  In a critical discussion of the semantic web, Edwards and Carmichael foreground standardisation and coding as rarely acknowledged factors in the use of educational software, constituting a hidden curriculum (2012).  This work indicates possible areas of inquiry with open education technologies, highlighting the ways in which particular notions of learning space, social relationships and forms of communication might be predetermined at the development and planning stage of production.  One such example may be the aformentioned UNESCO declaration which, while claiming to ‘encourage the development and adaptation of OER in a variety of languages and cultural contexts’, also seeks to ‘promote the development of specific policies for the production and use of OER’ and ‘encourage the development and use of OER in open standard digital formats’ (2012, p2).  This move towards normalisation of the ways in which OER are developed necessarily involves fixing the production of educational material in particular ways.  Attention needs to be paid to these standardising routines, and the practices involved also need to remain transparent and acknowledged where these OER are distributed and used.  To consider OER as pedagogically or politically neutral may conceal the contextual activities involved in their production, and neglect to acknowledge the ways in which subsequent learning activities might be affected.  Thus, OER might be considered to influence ‘the potential discourses, trajectories for inquiry, and student subjectivities that might emerge from such a learning environment’ (Edwards and Carmichael 2012, p12).

For Edwards and Carmichael, such practices of coding and standardisation constrain what is possible with technology (2012).  Significantly, these factors shape what can be done with technology at a structural level.  Therefore, although a particular digital technology might be deployed in accordance with acknowledged and accepted pedagogical models, the coding embedded within the system sustains certain levels of rigidity.  Coursera’s webpage on ‘Pedagogy’ claims that:

‘A key factor in the design of the Coursera system is the extensive use of interactive exercises, which we believe are critical for student engagement and learning. Even within our videos, there are multiple opportunities for interactions: the video frequently stops, and students are asked to answer a simple question to test whether they are tracking the material’ (2012b).

Aligning the Coursera system seamlessly with the educational rationale of interactivity deflects a consideration of the ways in which such technology might itself promote particular degrees of inflexibility.  For example, the moment at which a pause comes about in these video lectures will be predetermined, solidifying particular pedagogical assumptions about the correct time to activate formative assessment.  Furthermore, the production of video itself necessitates distinct framings and arrangements of pedagogical activity, simultaneously hard-coding the communicative patterns of traditional didactic lectures into the very systems which claim innovation and interactivity.  This is not to suggest that the production of technology should be granted more attention than the often valuable ways in which it is employed for educational purposes, but merely to call for its inclusion as a constituent factor.

Participatory technologies

Participation in the production of educational material is certainly within the open education agenda, and this has been most prominent in the OER movement’s concern with modifying and repurposing its resources.  The notion of ‘remixability’ is often posited as a way to ensure flexibility and relevance to differing cultural contexts and pedagogical practices (Brown and Adler 2008, Downes 2007, Hilton III et al. 2010, Johnstone 2005, Wiley and Hilton III 2009).  However, true to form, technology is too often neutralised in the activities of repurposing.  ‘Editing, adapting, or otherwise changing educational materials to be more appropriate for a specific use is technically straightforward thanks to the variety of technologies currently available’ (Wiley and Hilton III 2009, p9).  Here the principles of remixing are proposed to transcend the technologies which make it possible.  However, this orientation masks the ways in which the very activities of editing and adapting might be considered to evolve from technology infrastructure and design, as much as they do from human inclinations.  Repurposing and adapting of digital content does not begin and end with the desires of the remixer, but evolves from interactions with what is made possible through the predetermined code present in the software.

Open source software, the movement from which the open education agenda has largely derived (Caswell et al. 2008), offers one way for these hidden coding practices to be further exposed.  The edX platform, as well as the new ‘CourseBuiler’ venture from Google (2012), are promoted as open source, signalling a possible move within MOOC evolution towards more open and participatory practices.  However, as Edwards and Carmichael caution, open source culture, rather than promoting detailed examinations or analyses of code, often encourages the practice of assembling software from pre-written component parts (2012).  Projects created from open source material are therefore often spliced together from elements of code which may have been produced in isolation and about which the end-user may have little knowledge.  Making software open in this way promotes the idea that no contact is necessary with the creator, and thus the complex contextual activities involved in its production remain hidden from the end user.  Therefore, rather than promote the idea that openness simplifies technology, continued research in open education may benefit from perspectives which acknowledge the growing intricacies and amalgamations which influence its production.  Beneath increasingly mild and effortless user-interfaces, or expanding compatibility across platforms and devices, lies deepening complexity.  For the open education movement to render such efforts transparent, constitutes a kind of ‘benevolent concealment’ (Edwards and Carmichael 2012, p6).

Fetishization of knowledge

The lack of in-depth critical studies into open education technologies has contributed to an over-emphasis on content at the expense of context.  This orientation has significant implications for the ways that learning processes and educational activities can be perceived.  Intensified by a dominant understanding of openness as access, open education initiatives frequently appear to fetishize knowledge as a consumable object.

‘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).

Knowledge is portrayed here as a desirable object, immune to the influences of digitisation, interpretation or cultural understanding.  The vast majority of OER initiatives are based in the UK and the US, far outweighing the scarce offerings from African, Asian or South American countries (POERUP 2012), perhaps indicative of who is ‘giving’ such knowledge to the world.  OER are often popularised in the mainstream media as a solution to third world poverty (see Daniel and Killion 2012).  However, couching OER in a discourse of economic benefit and emancipation merely serves to situate education in a role subservient to a functioning capitalist economy, and supposes the purpose of learning to be the increase of human capital (Atkins et al. 2007).  Daniel and Killion extend their notion of openness to include the interests of employers in determining the content of OER, in a move to boost employability (2012).  However, in foregrounding open access as the ultimate exercise of educational freedom, these influential voices appear to mask the simultaneous surrender of content to the concerns of business.  While openness is promoted as unrestricted access to information, the forces which determine what that information should be remain closed.  This excessive attention to access reduces the desires of non-western peoples to an interest in retrieving content, and deflects the discussion away from participatory educational processes which engage society in dialogue about what constitutes legitimate knowledge.

Recent studies which have focussed on the perceptions of OER amongst users have adhered to this trend, seeking ultimately to raise standards and promote reliable repositories (Clements and Pawlowski 2012).  Clements and Pawlowski also highlight how trust in particular organisations is a major factor amongst users (2012), suggesting a value placed on centralised production, an inclination which may, paradoxically, bolster the prestigious institutions that the open education agenda often seek to resist.  While much of the OER movement has sought to incorporate elements of participation through the ability to repurpose and adapt its resources, the recent upsurge of institutionalised MOOCs may be reversing this trend.  In this context, ‘open’ is promoted to mean free access to the educational content of a prestigious university, illustrated succinctly by the tagline on Coursera’s website: ‘Take the World’s Best Courses, Online, For Free’ (2012c).  Rather than promoting the editing or remixing of educational content, the institutionalised MOOCs reinstate rigid and often idolised content.  The hundreds of thousands of students enrolled on these courses are expected to consume identical curricula, predominantly through video lectures or multiple choice quizzes.  While the technology employed in these MOOCs provide elements of interactivity not always present in resource repositories, openness is framed almost exclusively in terms of access to predetermined content.  The subject matter of these MOOC courses is necessarily non-negotiable; their reputation rests on the lofty prestige of the elite institutions who supply it.

Conclusions: open as ‘process’

Where openness is conceived merely as ‘access’, the role of technology is maintained either as a transparent solution to the economic and geographical barriers to education, or a tool which embodies the ideals of the open access agenda.  Moreover, the discourse of ‘access’ tends to fetishize knowledge as a consumable object, often reinforcing established authorities and institutions.  While OER and MOOCs offer valuable and meaningful contributions to current practices in education, there is a propensity to claim educational revolution through an uncritical promotion of technology.  The open education movement in general needs to better theorise its use of technology, acknowledging that certain ways of knowing are both supported and restricted by the processes of technology production.  However, the current rhetoric of openness often functions to hide very the processes involved in hiding, and a more rigorous approach might be to acknowledge that for everything that is made open, something is often simultaneously hidden, or closed. When educational content is made open to a particular user, the methods, practices, and ontologies assumed in its production are systematically rendered inaccessible.

The meaning of ‘open’ in education could therefore usefully shift from the dominant perception of ‘access’ towards a notion of ‘process’.  Conceiving of openness as a process may encourage further critical explorations of the technology that is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in education, as well as permit a more profound dialogue that actively engages society in institutional practices and the collaborative legitimisation of knowledge.  This might involve further methods of participation and co-ownership in the production of technology, but also the capacity to negotiate, dispute and reconstitute what might be considered the object of study, and indeed the purpose of entering into educational activity.  There are already calls for a movement away from repositories of information in the development of OER (Conole 2012), and the need to advance a meaningful dialogue around notions of open practice is now crucial.  While the institutionalised MOOCs have employed technology successfully to recruit unprecedented numbers into potentially significant educational experiences, a shift towards open processes might develop their work into the arena of shared practice, rather than a practice of consumption.


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