Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Defining Openness in Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_214



Characteristics of openness can be found in many respects throughout the history of education. For thousands of years, children educated themselves for a large part through more or less free play, exploration, sharing, and exchange. Although children’s play for its own sake might seem a prototypical example for openness in education at first sight, dynamic interrelationships of dimensions of opening and closure are essential for a differentiated understanding of the various aspects of free play, open education, and its conditions and constraints.

This argument can be further illustrated by contrasting educational ideals in transition from closed to more open societies. On the one hand, philosophers like Protagoras, Democritus, or Socrates who called for comprehensive education for “free citizens” in ancient Greece set a basis for public education and contributed to transitional processes from tribalism to humanitarianism or, in other words, from closed to open forms of society where, at least ideally, rules, values, customs, and also taboos could be questioned and criticized. On the other hand, opening up education was meant for some and not for all. In Plato’s model of an educational State, for example, it is only male adult philosophers who can obtain the highest level of education by way of stepping out of the cave with its shadows and false images.

Ambivalences, polarities, and contradictions between freedom and open space for development, on the one hand, and constraints and enforcement on the other, have been discussed in various educational contexts. The spectrum extends from calls for openness to fulfilling one’s moral obligations as an element of Confucian ethics in order to foster a harmonious authoritarian society and Kant’s view of humans who in contrast to animals need education in terms of nurturing, disciplining, instruction, and moral training, to calls for reform pedagogies – aimed at opening up rigid educational systems, at the same time privileging bourgeoisie – as well as to subsequent calls for open learning and a pedagogy of liberation or freedom (P. Freire) and related praxis oriented and activist movements.

Today, we find a variety of initiatives aimed at opening up education by the use of digital media technologies, open educational resources (OER), and creative commons (CC) licenses. Notions of open education are often linked to notions of open source and free/libre open source software (F/LOSS), open access, open society and free culture, open science and knowledge commons, open government and open innovation as well as further related notions. For the most part, recent debates about education for all, enabling universal education, or free educational infrastructures can be characterized by a kind of historical amnesia – calls for education for all are anything but new, they can be traced back at least to the work of Johann Amos Comenius (1592–1670).

Different Approaches to “Openness” and “Education”

Although terms like “open education” (OE) have become increasingly a matter of course – especially in the context of educational policies – many different meanings of “openness” and “education” are being used in everyday life as well as in pedagogical, political, economic, aesthetic, and scientific discourses. Depending on linguistic and performative aspects and personal and discursive contexts, we find a manifold of partly interchangeable, complementary or conflicting conceptions. The terms “openness” and “education” are often used metaphorically or by means of implicit or applicative definitions and less frequently on the basis of explicit and clear definitions.

To give a few examples, openness in education can refer to pedagogical attitudes towards fostering and maintaining processes of dialogue, reflection, and a climate of mutual learning, listening, and recognition; openness in the process of self-formation (Selbstbildung) may refer to approaches for enabling personal growth, for successfully dealing with shifting societal challenges, or to a more relaxed relation to oneself; crossing borders in terms of cognitive, affective or physical mobility in the context of debates, (in-)human encounters, traveling, or migration can be called educational whereby openness may refer to enhanced cognitive skills, emotional or communicative competencies, or to a more skillful performance through embodiment; opening up education can be defined as an indispensable condition for the development of democratic orientations, as an initiative to establish open plan classrooms, as a measure to increase learners’ choices and options for access to education, as a transnational educational policy aimed at innovative teaching and learning, as a new edition in the history of promises of education for all, as an imperialistic or neocolonialist endeavor, etc.

Different understandings refer to different kinds of things, subject areas or phenomenal domains, such as aims, attitudes, intentions, endeavors, group processes, methods, measures, self-perceptions, conditions, relations, policies, initiatives, institutions, and personality characteristics. Furthermore, it is obvious that different approaches correspond with different goals and purposes including notions of education for its own ends.

Pedagogical Approaches

In a pedagogical context, an open approach to openness in education might start by asking for synonyms of “open” and “education” or closely related terms. Spontaneous associations and individual interpretations can be depicted, for example, in the form of a matrix by listing basic meanings and synonyms in the first line or column. Of course, other terms than those mentioned in Table 1 may arise, such as “uncovered,” “unprotected,” “free from concealment,” or “not restricted to members of a particular group” for “open” and “schooling,” “instructional principles,” “learning to learn,” “distribution of content,” “transmission of knowledge,” “pedagogical interaction,” “touching events,” or “biographical upheavals” for “education.” For one thing, understandings and conceptions of “open education” can be considered in the fields of an emerging matrix as shown by way of example in Table 1; for another thing, existing notions of “open education” or “openness in education” can be positioned tentatively in one or more of the fields. By means of such an iterative process and with preliminary results multiple kinds of definitions and metaphorical uses of key concepts as well as possible related goals can be discussed. In a further step, contexts of use, language games, and discursive relationships can be opened to debate with reference to both the ideas of learners and educators involved and the relevant literature available (cf. for example, Nyquist and Hawes 1972; Nyberg 2010 [1975]; Peters 2010; Deimann and Peters 2015). Moreover, alternative approaches, procedural steps, and modes of visualization as well as meta-reflexive and evaluative methods can be considered.
Defining Openness in Education, Table 1

Example for an OE-matrix – at the crossroads of interpretations of …



Without barriers

Allowing for passage

Broad minded




Easy to access

Eligibility certificates

Free choice of material

No or low monetary costs

Coming and going

Learning in formal contexts

No eligibility assessments


Transformative learning

Self-organized learning

Revising and reusing OER



Crediting open learning, self-improvement

Critical literacy

Educational commons, edupunk

Sharing, redistributing content


Teaching as learning

Professional growth

Democratic orientation

(Re-)use of OER


Lesson, class

Low-threshold access

Skipping classes

Global education

Lessons at no (obvious) charge

Flipped classroom

Formation ( Bildung, dannelse )

Free choice of educational material, rhizomatic education

Social mobility

Enabling self-determined processes

Personal enrichment, education for its own sake

Choices for individuals in the course of education

Upbringing ( Erziehung )

Anarchic education

Adequate bonding

Personal maturation

Liberal education

Intercultural education

Modes of meta-reflexive considerations including self-reflection on the level of individuals, groups, institutions, and organizations can act as an important indicator for the analysis of different forms and limitations of openness in education. This counts for earlier forms of open learning, self-organized study-groups, open plan classrooms, or open schooling, just like for more recent developments associated with open universities, open courseware, and open education. In a broad sense, claims for open education are always dealing with tensions between conceptual and performative dimensions as well as with differences between self-determined and self-directed learning. In that sense, open education should be considered as a never-ending process dealing with limitations and limited resources so far, opening up new horizons, and encountering new limitations from now on. Further, educators are well advised to take into account that life itself is educating, too. It is not only intentional forms of initiating and guiding or accompanying educational processes that are relevant here – it is also ongoing implicit education in everyday life and mediated life-worlds.

Educational Policies

Open education is widely perceived as a political or social project, sometimes as a grassroots movement or as an economic and technological opportunity to make money. In the twentieth century there were various initiatives aimed at opening up education. In Europe and the USA, open plan classrooms became popular from the late 1950s to the 1970s. In Austria, for example, free school books, free use of public transport for students, and democratic structures in university legislation were introduced in the early 1970s, while at the same time tuition fees were abandoned. In the postcolonial area also in many African countries, free access, free textbooks, and free feeding were strengthened.

An international effort for education for all (EFA) bringing together governments, multilateral agencies, and non-governmental organizations was launched in Thailand in 1990. Respective goals have been taken up by the United Nations in its Millennium Development Goals in 2000, followed up by a fast track initiative by development banks and government funders in 2002. In the same year, the first public mention of the term “open educational resources” (OER) occurred at the UNESCO forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries (UNESCO 2002). The discussions focused on open courseware and possibilities of improving access to open teaching and learning resources mostly in what the United Nations regarded as developing countries.

At the same time, the first 50 courses in the opencourseware (OCW) project at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge/MA, USA) have been published online (Iiyoshi and Kumar 2010). This project and its institutional commitment to openly share educational resources have been further developed up to the present day.

Among the most recent prominent initiatives are UNESCO’s “Paris OER Declaration” from the year 2012 aimed at the promotion and use of OER to expand access to education at all levels, the Nordic Open Education Alliance founded in 2013, and the initiative of the European Commission dedicated to opening up education from 2013.

Theoretical Considerations

So far, a comprehensive and widely recognized theory of openness in education has not been presented. However, conceptual details are being discussed in blog posts and essays as well as in academic research papers. Accordingly, various forms of discourse, degrees of differentiation, and scopes of claims are being considered. In addition, there are translation problems with key terms in education, and territories and responsibilities for educational issues are not as clear-cut as, for example, in sociology or mathematics.

Definitions of conceptual key issues regarding openness in education depend upon the perspective of the definer and his or her basic assumptions concerning the question of what exactly educational studies and research are. Those who represent educational studies as a distinct discipline in the tradition of humanist philosophy and the enlightenment might refer to the development of open-minded reasoning, to enhanced ways of thinking (H. Arendt), or to flexible and thoughtful building on educationability (Bildsamkeit) – a term originally coined by Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841) as an endemic key term in pedagogy. Whereas those who conceptualize educational systems as operating mainly as agencies of the State might aim at “opening up” those systems in terms of reforms or revolution. Moreover, those who are questioning schooling as to indoctrination might follow ideas of deschooling (I. Illich). Others, who prefer an interdisciplinary approach as regards educational economics, for example, might focus on free access to massive open online courses (MOOCs) and largely scalable “useful” educational content in order to optimize employability. Those who associate education in the first place with “biopolitical control” of populations and especially legitimized, organized practices, in a Foucauldian sense, might call for opening up education in relation to degovernmentalization and the search for alternative subjectivities. Meanwhile, those who conceptualize education in the context of post-, trans-, or para-humanist discourses might vote for the development and intense use of educational applications based on the most recent achievements in biotechnology and artificial intelligence.

The list could be continued easily by reference to all kinds of (inter-)disciplinary approaches and -isms in educational research. There are many definitions of openness in education if any. In view of the paradigmatic relevance of basic assumptions for the conceptualization of openness in education and in order to avoid the unintended promotion of paradogmatic perspectives, it seems crucial to foster meta-critical perspectives at least in the following respects:
  • Open, opening up, and openness as relevant to education tend to have positive connotations. However, this should not keep us from remembering that these terms do not per se represent values. Whether we can appropriately speak of positive or problematic values will depend on contextual and situational conditions, on the constellation of actors, on study requirements and educational objectives as well as on desired or undesired outcomes and secondary effects. Just as in some group processes, trust can only emerge when the group members are able, at least temporarily, to rely on a closed structure, advocating unlimited openness may be counterproductive. Or the other way round: opening up education as a means of rejection and criticism of institutional structures may go hand in hand with the incorporation of favored tools and structures into the educational system which only serve certain interests. Thus, it is important to consider limitations as well as paradoxes and ambivalences that correspond with particular forms of openness. This especially applies to debates about options for the monetization of educational mass events and business models in keeping with the motto “for-profit education for all” providing access and calling for openness and sharing and at the same time using proprietary software and “all rights reserved” approaches.

  • Sharing is a concept that has come to characterize digital media cultures. It emerged as significant theme in media studies, educational research, political theory, and economics, in general, and, in particular, in open education and open content strategies. However, notions of sharing often remain undertheorized in the open educational resources movement if they are not mixed up with notions of exchange and/or gift. There are weak and strong forms of sharing to be distinguished (cf. Hug 2014), and there is a need for a deeper understanding of expanding structures as well as subjectivities and (im-)materialities of sharing, if we want to meet the requirements of the development of knowledge commons, educational commons, and open archives in networked media cultures (cf. Missomelius et al. 2014). Understanding grammars of sharing and cultural-economic alternatives requires rethinking the public-private nexus beyond the dichotomy of capitalist markets and public economies.

  • As for open standards, quality criteria, and didactical aspects, the question remains whether “open educational resources will in future define a sui generis (media) pedagogical standard of education” (Bergamin and Filk 2009, p. 11; bold in orig.). On the one hand, issues of consumer cultures “in which everything may be consumed for free” (Bergamin and Filk 2009, p. 26) should be taken seriously if open education aims at formation (Bildung, dannelse). On the other hand, educationalists often underestimate the educational potentials of popular media cultures and the creative power of design theory or the theory of medial forms (R. Leschke).

  • Regarding the anthropological and normative aspects of openness in education, there is a demand for conceptual clarifications between Scylla of media-phobic tendencies in education or radical normativity towards a specific conception of human beings and Charybdis of media-philic claims for radical openness which hardly allow for critical perspectives. Among the multiple uncertainties we are facing in education, there are manifold socio-technical connections between machines, algorithms, and human actors; demands for action in view of unknowing and little knowledge; multiplex entanglements of cultural, social, biological, and technical dimensions of information processing; multiple identities of individuals enabling openness towards others; and polymorphous medial selves (M. Faßler) dealing with the sensory enormousness of the world. Addressing these complexities and post- or trans-humanist challenges require thoughtful consideration rather than under-complex statements prevailing in the OER movement.

  • Researching openness in education should involve a commitment to opening up meta-critical perspectives for more general reasons too. Critical reflections on problematic forms of monopolization of critical positions or the usurpation of the power of critique are rejected rather than welcomed in academia. Then again, we find problematic turning-points such as criticism of ideology turning into an ideological endeavor, critique of the culture industry as part of the arts and entertainment industry, regovernmentalization in the name of degovernmentalization, or involution of democratic achievements in the name of democracy. Without meta-critical thinking and self-application of critique, notions and practices of openness in education might manifest as (self-)delusion or collective strategy primarily sustaining today’s work and world orders rather than as future-oriented forms of education and knowledge for all.


Openness in education can be regarded as an operative fiction and as an educationalization formula (sensu H. Veith) that has been interpreted in many ways throughout the history of education. As far as interpretations are related to the achievements of the enlightenment, education for openness remains an ambiguous endeavor including openness to criticism, intellectuality, freedom of expression, reasonable and sober-minded acting, bureaucratization of society as well as Eurocentric thinking and European colonialism. Today, openness is “at a crucial stage regarding its future direction” (Weller 2014, p. 202). If we consider education as both a public and a private good and if we take it seriously that all knowledge is contextually bound, context-sensitive concepts and practices open to the future, as well as polylogical approaches, are needed in order to enable critical mediation between individual and cultural memories and between human agency and the ongoing work of algorithms. Closely examined, it can be said that education remains open in two respects: within a limited lifetime and from phylogenetic perspectives of human development.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychosocial and Communication Research, Institut für Psychosoziale Intervention und KommunikationsforschungUniversity of InnsbruckInnsbruckAustria