Figure 10.8 I'm just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education Malala Yousafzai's Nobel Prize speech, 2014
Figure 12.1.1 ‘I’m just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education…’
Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize speech, 2014. Click on image to see the speech.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in open learning, mainly related to open educational resources and MOOCs. Although in themselves open educational resources (OER) and MOOCs are important developments, they tend to cloud other developments in open education that are likely have even more impact on education as a whole. It is therefore necessary to step back a little to get a broader understanding of not just OER and MOOCs, but open learning in general. This will help us better understand the significance of MOOCs, OER and other developments in open education, and their likely impact on teaching and learning now and in the future.

12.1.1 Open education as a concept

Open education can take a number of forms:

  • education for all: free or very low cost school, college or university education available to everyone within a particular jurisdiction, usually funded primarily through the state;
  • open access to programs that lead to full, recognised qualifications. These are offered by national open universities or more recently by the OERu;
  • open access to courses or programs that are not for formal credit, although it may be possible to acquire badges or certificates for successful completion. MOOCs are a good example;
  • open educational resources that instructors or learners can use for free. MIT’s OpenCourseware, which provides free online downloads of MIT’s video recorded lectures and support material, is one example;
  • open textbooks, online textbooks that are free for students to use (such as this one);
  • open research, whereby research papers are made available online for free downloading (see for instance Open Research Central);
  • open data, that is, data open to anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute, subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share; see for example the World Bank’s Open Data Bank;
  • open pedagogy, a method of teaching and learning that builds on principles of open-ness and learner participation

Each of these developments is discussed in more detail in this chapter, except for MOOCs, which are discussed extensively in Chapter 5.

12.1.2 Education for all – except higher education

Open education is primarily a goal, or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open education is the removal of barriers to learning. It can mean no prior qualifications to study, no discrimination by gender, race, age or religion, affordability for everyone, and for students with disabilities, through 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 program. Thus open learning must be scalable as well as flexible. State-funded schools

State-funded public education for the education of children from around the age of five through to sixteen or in some countries eighteen is the most extensive and widespread form of open education. For example, the British government passed the 1870 Education Act that set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. Although there were some fees to be paid by parents, the Act established the principle that education would be paid for mainly through taxes and no child would be excluded for financial reasons. Schools would be administered by elected local school boards (Living Heritage, undated).

Over time, access to publicly funded education in most economically developed countries has been widened to include all children up to the age of 18. UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults, supported, at least in principle, by 164 national governments. Nevertheless today there are over 250 million of ‘out-of-school’ children, adolescents and youth worldwide (UNESCO, 2018), or roughly one in five. Post-secondary education

Access to post-secondary or higher education has been more limited than access to schools, partly on financial grounds, but also in terms of ‘merit’. Universities have required those applying for university to meet academic standards determined by prior success in school examinations or institutional entry exams. This has enabled elite universities in particular to be highly selective.

However, after the Second World War, the demand for an educated population, both for social and economic reasons, in most economically advanced countries resulted in the gradual expansion of universities and post-secondary education in general. In most OECD countries, roughly 35-60 per cent of an age cohort will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Especially in a digital age, there is an increasing demand for highly qualified workers, and post-secondary education is a necessary gateway to most of the best jobs. Therefore there is increasing pressure for full and free open access to post-secondary, higher or tertiary education. The cost of widening access

However, as we saw in Chapter 1, the cost of widening access to ever increasing numbers results in increased financial pressure on governments and taxpayers. Following the financial crisis of 2008, many states in the USA found themselves in severe financial difficulties, which resulted in substantial funding cuts to the U.S. higher education system (see for instance, Rivera, 2012), which in turn resulted in a rapid increase in tuition fees.

It is probably more than coincidental that other forms of open education such as MOOCs and OER arose at a time of increasing cuts to the funding of public education in the USA. Solutions that enable increased access without a proportionate increase in funding or tuition fees are almost desperately being sought by governments and institutions. It is against this background that the renewed interest in open education should be framed.

12.1.3 Open access in higher education Open universities

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a 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. This was when the British government established the Open University, a distance teaching university 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; Weinbren, 2015).

The Open University started in 1971 with 25,000 students in the initial entry intake, and now has over 200,000 registered students. It has been consistently ranked by government quality assurance agencies in the top ten U.K. universities for teaching, and in the top 30 for research, and number one for student satisfaction (out of over 180). It currently has over 200,000 registered students (Weinbren, 2015). 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. In addition access to higher education has now widened to the point where 50% of a high school cohort now enter some form of higher education in the UK (UK Department of Education, 2018).

There are now nearly 100 publicly funded open universities around the world, including Canada (Athabasca University and Téluq). These open universities are often very large. The Open University of China has over one million enrolled undergraduate students and 2.4 million junior high school students, Anadolou Open University in Turkey has over 1.2 million enrolled undergraduate students, the Open University of Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka) almost half a million, and the University of South Africa 350,000. These large, degree awarding national open universities provide an invaluable service to millions of students who otherwise would have no access to higher education (see Daniel, 1998, and more recently, Contact North, 2019, for a good overview). Alternatives to open universities

It should be noted however that there is no publicly funded open university in the USA, which 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 usually offer their own degrees, there is also the OERu, which is basically an international consortium of mainly British Commonwealth and U.S. universities and colleges offering 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. Students pay a fee for assessment.

12.1.4 Limitations of open learning

Open, distance, flexible and online learning are rarely found in their ‘purest’ forms. No teaching system is completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance). Thus there are always degrees of openness. Openness has particular implications for the use of technology. If no-one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used. If an institution is deliberately selective in its students, it has more flexibility with regard to choice of technology. It can for instance require all students who wish to take an online or blended course to have their own computer and Internet access. It cannot do that if its mandate is to be open to all students. Truly open universities then will always be behind the leading edge of educational applications of technology.

Despite the success of many open universities, open universities often lack the status of a campus-based institution. Their degree completion rates are 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 programs than for most single MOOC courses.

Lastly, some of the open universities have been established for more than 40 years and have not always quickly adapted to changes in technology, partly because of their large size and their substantial prior investment in older technologies such as print and broadcasting, and partly because they do not wish to deny access to potential students who may not have access to the latest technology.

Thus open universities are now increasingly challenged by both an explosion in access to higher education generally, and in the use of online learning by conventional universities. For instance, in Canada, Donovan et. (2018) report that nearly all universities and most colleges are now offering fully online courses (although access is still mainly based on prior qualifications). New developments such as MOOCs, and open educational resources, the topic of the next section, are further challenges for open universities.


Contact North (2019) Searchable Directory of More than 65 Open Universities Worldwide Sudbury ON: Teachonline.ca

Daniel, J. (1998) Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education. London: Kogan Page

Donovan, T. et al. (2018) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2018 Halifax NS: Canadian Digital Learning Research Association

Living Heritage (undated) Going to school: the 1870 Education Act, London: UK Parliament

Perry, W. (1976) The Open University Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Rivera, C. (2012) Survey offers dire picture of California’s two-year colleges Los Angeles Times, August 28

U.K. Department of Education (2018) Participation Rates in Higher Education: Academic Years 2006/2007 – 2017/2018 (Provisional) London: Department of Education HE Statistics

UNESCO (2014) Education for All, 2000-2015: achievements and challenges Paris FR: The UNESCO 2015 EFA Global Monitoring Report team

UNESCO (2018)  One in Five Children, Adolescents and Youth is Out of School Paris FR: UNESCO Institute for Statistics Fact Sheet No 42

Weinbren, D. (2015) The Open University: A History Manchester UK: Manchester University Press/The Open University

Woodley, A. and Simpson, O. (2014) ‘Student drop-out: the elephant in the room’ in Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

Activity 12.1 Should access to post-secondary education be completely open to anyone?

1. Should access to post-secondary or higher education be open to everyone?

If yes, what are reasonable limitations on this principle?

What should be the government’s role, if any, in making this possible?

If your answer is no to the first part of this question, why should education up to post-secondary education be open, but not afterwards? Is it simply money, or are there other reasons?

2. Are open universities still relevant in a digital age?

For my feedback on this activity click on the podcast below:


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Teaching in a Digital Age: Third Edition - General Copyright © 2022 by Anthony William (Tony) Bates is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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