Educating Rita by Willy Russell, 1983

Current activity within open education can be characterised as having reached a beta phase of maturity. In much the same way that software progresses through a release life cycle, beta is the penultimate testing phase, after the initial alpha-testing phase, whereby the software is adopted beyond its original developer community.

Open education has now come to the attention of the mainstream press and traditional higher education, with the uptake of Open Educational Resources (OER) and with the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). The participating masses can be likened to beta testers of these newly opened ways of educating. And, as with many recent software hits from Internet giants such as Google (e.g. Gmail), it is highly likely that open education will remain in a state of ‘perpetual beta’ development and testing, as we investigate and measure the impact of openness on education.

EPSON scanner image
Always in Beta by Tom Fishburne

Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the OER Research Hub (OERRH) is currently spear-heading the testing of OER hypotheses and is aggregating research findings through their OER Impact Map. The beta testing metaphor is also relevant to my research with the FLAX language project for the open development and testing of the FLAX Open Source Software (OSS). I have been promoting the FLAX OSS language system across different educational contexts (Fitzgerald, 2013), and I am now investigating user experiences of the software across multiple research sites in order to involve users in language collections building and further development of the OSS. I will be posting findings from this research on the TOETOE project blog throughout this year.

According to publisher and open source advocate, Tim O’Reilly:

Users must be treated as co-developers, in a reflection of open source development practices (even if the software in question is unlikely to be released under an open source license.) The open source dictum, ‘release early and release often‘, in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, ‘the perpetual beta’, in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. It’s no accident that services such as Gmail, Google Maps, Flickr,, and the like may be expected to bear a ‘Beta’ logo for years at a time. (O’Reilly, 2005)

Open Fellowship with the OER Research Hub at the UK Open University

My first introduction to the UK Open University, henceforth referred to here as the OU, was when my Dad took me to see the film Educating Rita in 1985. It took two years to reach our picture house in provincial-town New Zealand, and I was just at that age – twelve going on thirteen – to appreciate this Pygmalion story of a woman breaking through the class barriers with an emancipatory distance education from the OU. My Dad also took me canvasing with him for the NZ Labour Party in those formative years, showing me first-hand that life for those in state-housing areas was very different from life in homes belonging to those who had been to university.

I never imagined that I’d be at the OU but I am now on my second fellowship here, this time as an Open Fellow with the OERRH based at the Institution of Educational Technology, and previously from 2011-2012 as a SCORE Fellow with the Support Centre for Open Resources in Education. When Rita’s character was a student at the OU in the early 1980s, open meant that admissions barriers had been removed from entry to formal study. This is still true today with the OU’s 200,000 registered paying students coming from a variety of traditional and non-traditional backgrounds. Nonetheless, this is still ground-breaking when we consider that most of the brick ‘n’ mortar higher education institutions of the world, including those with online learning offerings, still maintain strict admissions policies based on entrance examinations and prerequisites. Open has come to mean much more than this, however, with the rapid ascension of OERs and MOOCs. And, the OU have been no strangers to this rise in informal education as demonstrated in their longstanding work with the BBC through their Open Media Unit, and in leading a bevy of wide-reaching open education projects, including OpenLearn and now FutureLearn.

Open Education Awash with Venture Capital

Open has come of age it seems, with pathways to courses, the sharing of courseware code and access to research becoming increasingly free and open to learners; and with models for educational delivery and accreditation being experimented with on an almost daily basis by educators and institutions. Getting an education is one thing but coming up with sustainable and workable solutions for the world’s problems is increasingly understood as something outside of our reach and beyond the actual remit of education. While we discuss how to come up with the best business models for selling MOOCs and higher education to the masses, it might behoove us to ask how we can occupy eduction to evolve sustainable communities (human and non-human) on this planet rather than continue to commodify learning, teaching and research as products for an increasingly globalised world.

Weller’s position paper on the battle for open (2013) echoes concerns from open education advocates on the distortion of key principles for openness in education (see Wiley, 2013); as being sold downstream through the imposed economic value system of a booming online education market (Education Sector Factbook, 2012). The open-washing of the open education movement, in favour of capitalising on ‘open’ education at a massive scale, is being viewed in much the same way as green activists view the green-washing of the green movement, with our world’s most pressing environmental problems playing second fiddle to the big business of so-called green solutions:

When they start offering solutions is the exact moment when they stop telling the truth, inconvenient or otherwise. Google “global warming solutions.” The first paid sponsor,, urges “No doom and gloom!! When was the last time depression got you really motivated? We’re here to inspire realistic action steps and stories of success.” By “realistic” they don’t mean solutions that actually match the scale of the problem. They mean the usual consumer choices—cloth shopping bags, travel mugs, and misguided dietary advice—which will do exactly nothing to disrupt the troika of industrialization, capitalism, and patriarchy that is skinning the planet alive. But since these actions also won’t disrupt anyone’s life, they’re declared both realistic and a success. (Jenson, Keith & McBay, 2011)

Technology activists abound in support of the information wants to be free slogan from the 1960s. Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. …That tension will not go away” (Brand, 1987). Activism that is focused on the tension surrounding the freedom of information continues to grow, but what of activism that is directed at the tension between education wanting to be open and education wanting to be exclusive? Education wanting to be for life and education wanting to be for jobs only? When will we witness the scaling of massive buildings like the Shard in London by education activists – let’s call one of them Rita – in protest of formal education’s direct relationship with the limitations of commercialization? When will we raise the red flag on the global business of buying and selling education as an endgame in itself?

Subtitles errors: One climate reached the top by Gwydion M. Williams via Flickr

The purpose of education is going untested in real terms and the open education movement has only just begun educating in beta, as it were, by drawing on a pedagogy of abundance rather than a perceived pedagogy of scarcity (Weller, 2011). This shift in awareness and practice echoes Stewart Brand’s comments to Steve Wozniak, at the first Hackers’ Conference in 1984, on how information wants to be free due to the cost of getting digitised information out becoming lower and lower. The economics of learning materials (Thomas, 2014), following a recent discussion on the oer-discuss list about the progression from reusable learning objects to open educational resources, marks another useful distinction using Marxist terminology, between learning materials that have exchange versus use value:

In the discussions about whether content has value, there is often a question about whether content can be bought and sold, whether it is “monetisable”. In marxist economics that is the type of value called exchange value: where a commodity can be exchanged for money. There is another type of value: use value.  That is the extent to which a commodity is useful. It is about its utility, not its cost or price. I think most teaching resources can have a high use value both for primary use and secondary reuse, without that ever translating into an exchange value. They might be valuable but you can’t sell them. (Thomas, 2014)

It may be that Rita will draw on learning content and interactions from a variety of accessible places, including open publications and MOOCs, where ‘open’ equals free access only (for example, All Rights Reserved Coursera courses) rather than where open equals free plus legal rights to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute. It may also be that Rita will only begin to realise the use value of these educational resources – perhaps through joining Greenpeace or the Deep Green Resistance, for example – by synthesisng her contributions with those of her peers for the development of a learning community that is informal, networked and open. And, most importantly, where her developing awareness will actively challenge the perpetuation and escalation of global problems that are on a truly massive scale.

In critiquing open education, Audrey Watters, in her keynote address at the Open Education 2013 conference, also proposes communities rather than technology markets as the saviors of education:

Where in the stories we’re telling about the future of education are we seeing salvation? Why would we locate that in technology and not in humans, for example? Why would we locate that in markets and not in communities? What happens when we embrace a narrative about the end-times — about education crisis and education apocalypse? Who’s poised to take advantage of this crisis narrative? Why would we believe a gospel according to artificial intelligence, or according to Harvard Business School [Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation theory, 2013], or according to Techcrunch…? (Watters, 2013)



Brand, S. (1987). The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. Viking Penguin, p. 202, ISBN 0-14-009701-5.

Christensen, C., Horn, M., & Staker, H. (2013). Is K–12 blended learning disruptive? An introduction of the theory of hybrids | Christensen Institute. Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. Retrieved from

Fitzgerald, A. (2013). TOETOE International: FLAX Weaving with Oxford Open Educational Resources. Open Educational Resources International Case Study. Commissioned by the Higher Education Academy (HEA), United Kingdom.

GSV Asset Management. (2012). Education Sector Factbook 2012.

Jensen, D., Keith, L. & McBay, A. (2011). Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet. New York: Seven Stories Press.

O’Reilly, Tim (2005). “What Is Web 2.0”. Retrieved February 20, 2014.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 2(1).

Thomas, A. (2014). Economics of learning materials. Retrieved February 27, 2014.

Watters, A. (2013). The Education Apocalypse #opened13. Retrieved November 01, 2013.

Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How technology is changing scholarly practice. Bloomsbury Academic: London. DOI:

Weller, M. (2013). “The battle for open – a perspective.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education (JIME).

Wiley D. (2011) Openwashing – the new Greenwashing. Retrieved February 24, 2014.