Trends in Open Education – Open Learning

In this first post in a mini-series on the current trends in open education, I am going to look at the following four sections to offer a fuller exploration of Open Education.

1. Open Learning

2. Open Education Resources (OER)

3. Open textbooks, open research and open data

4. The implications of ‘open’ for course & programme design.

In more recent years, there has been a resurgence of attention being given to open learning, mainly linked to open educational resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Although in themselves OER and MOOCs have developmental importance within education, their popularity have tended to cloud other developments in open education that are likely have a more telling impact on education as a whole. It is necessary for us to step back a little to taken in a broader view of OERs and MOOCs, but also of open learning as a whole. This will help us to obtain a depper understanding of the significance of these and other similar developments in open education, as well as their likely impact on teaching and learning in the present and in the future.

As a concept, open education can be found in a number of different forms:

  • education for all: free or very low cost school, college or university education to be available to everyone within a particular area, and is usually funded by the state;
  • open access to programmes that lead to full, recognised qualifications. These are offered by national open universities or more recently by the OERu;
  • open access to courses or programmes that do not offer formalised course credit, while it may be possible to acquire badges or certificates for successful completion. MOOCs are a good example of this in practice;
  • open educational resources that instructors or learners can use for free. An example of this is MIT’s Open Courseware that provides free online downloads of MIT’s video recorded lectures and support materials;
  • open textbooks, online textbooks that are free for students to make use of;
  • open research, whereby research papers are made available online for free downloading;
  • open data, that is, data that is open to anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute, subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share.

(Bates, 2017)

Education for all – except higher education

Open education is primarily a goal, but it can also be viewed as an educational policy. One crucial component of open education is the removal of the barriers to learning. This can refer to:

  • no prior qualifications needed to study this course;
  • no discrimination on the grounds of gender, age, religion;
  • affordability for everyone, and
  • for students with disabilities there is a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio recordings for students who are visually impaired).

Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open educational programme. Therefore, it must be a design feature of open learning to be scalable as well as flexible.

Access to further or higher education though has been more limited, partly due to financial considerations, but also in terms of ‘merit’. Universities require those applying for courses to meet high academic standards, which are determined by success in school examinations or by institutional entry exams. This has allowed elite universities in particular to be highly selective.

In most OECD countries, roughly 35-60 per cent of each age cohort will go on to complete some form of further education. Especially in this digital age, there is now an increasing demand for highly qualified workers, and further education is a necessary gateway to most jobs, higher education is now a gateway to jobs that attract the highest salaries. Therefore, there is now a mounting pressure for full and free open access to further, higher or tertiary education.

As a consequence of this, open is increasingly (and perhaps misleadingly) being associated with being ‘free’. While the end user (learner) can make free use of open materials, there are real costs in the creation and distribution of open education materials and supporting learners. At some point, this cost has to be met in some way. Therefore, there is an obvious need for a sustainable and adequate system of education that is publicly funded. This is still the best way to ensure access to quality education for all. Other forms of open education can be viewed as steps towards achieving full access into higher education.

Open access in higher education

In the 1970s & 1980s, there was rapid growth in the number of open universities that required no or minimal prior qualifications for entry. In the United Kingdom, for instance, in 1969, less than 10 per cent of students leaving secondary education went on to university. It was at this time that the British government established the Open University, a distance teaching university that is open to all, using a combination of specially designed printed texts, and broadcast television and radio, with one week residential summer schools on traditional university campuses for the foundation courses (Perry, 1976). Now the OU makes extensive use of online learning. The Open University started in 1971 with 25,000 students in their initial entry intake, and now they have over 200,000 registered students. The OU has been consistently ranked by government quality assurance agencies in the top ten U.K. universities for teaching; in the top 30 for research, and number one for student satisfaction (out of over 180). However, it can no longer cover the full cost of its operation from government grants and there is now a range of different fees to be paid.

It is interesting to note that there are no publicly funded open universities in America. This is one reason why MOOCs have received so much attention there. The Western Governors’ University is the most similar to an open university, and private, for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix fill a similar niche in the market.

As well as the national open universities, which will offer their own degrees, there is also the OERu, which is an international consortium of mainly British Commonwealth and U.S. universities and colleges that offer open access courses that enable learners either to acquire full credit for transfer into one of the partner universities or to build towards a full degree, offered by the university from which most credits have been acquired. In this, students will pay a fee for assessment.

“Open, distance, flexible and online learning can rarely be found in their ‘purest’ forms” (Bates, 2017). No teaching system can be completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance). Thus there are then degrees of open-ness within each institution. Open-ness will have particular implications for the use of technology in education. If no-one is to be denied access to a particular course, then technologies that are available to everyone must then be used. If an institution is deliberately selective in its students admission process, then it has more flexibility over their choice of technology for distance learning. For example, it can require all students who wish to take an online or blended course to have their own computer and Internet access. The institution cannot do this if its mandate is to be open to all students. Truly open universities then will always lag behind the leading trends of educational and technological applications of technology.

Despite the success of many open universities, they often lack the status of a campus-based institution. Their degree completion rates are also often very low. The U.K. OU’s degree completion rate is 22 per cent (Woodley and Simpson, 2014), but nevertheless still higher for whole degree programmes than for most single MOOC courses.

Lastly, some of the open universities that have been established for more than 40 years, have not always adapted quickly to new advancements in technology, partly because of their size and substantial prior investment in older technologies such as print and broadcasting. This is partly because they do not wish to deny access to potential students without the latest technology. Therefore, open universities are now being increasingly challenged by both an explosion in access to conventional universities, which has taken up some of their market, and new developments such as MOOCs and open educational resources, which will be the topic of my next post.

Online Open Learning

Current online open learning has been experiencing a boom in recent years. As stated earlier, open does not always have to mean free. Sites like Udemy, Udacity, Coursera and edX have all witnessed an increase in usage as online learning enters the mainstream. The big picture is also promising:

  •  34% of learners who study online are under the age of 25, that is a 9% increase from 2012 (source)
  • in 2015 the global e-learning market grew by 9.2% over a 5 year period (source)
  • the global market was worth roughly $107 billion in 2015 (source)
  • eLearning retention rates can be anywhere from 25-60% higher than face-to-face retention rates – which typically range from 8-10% (source)
  • In 2016, the global e-learning market was worth 165.36 billion U.S. dollars and is projected to surpass 243 billion U.S. dollars in 2022 (source)

While these figures are very promising to project future growth in open education, as they apply directly to sites like Udemy, Udacity, Coursera and edX, they do not carry across to learners who apply for online courses in higher education. In terms of successful applicants to online programmes (for online higher education), there is still a bias towards wealthy families:

  • 48% of high-flying students [are] from wealthy families,
  • 23% of high-flying students from low-income families;

contrasting this with successful applicants:

  • 72% of students [are] from wealthy families;
  • 2% of students [are] from low-income families


It is in this area, that work remains to be discussed, negotiated and decided in how to create an educational system in which it can be accessed equally by all.


Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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