Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

On Open, distance, e-learning and other name confusion

Defining terms like Open and Distance Education has consumed the interest, and resulted in many publications for vocabulary squabblers and some noted educational academics over the years. The rapid evolution of technologies and their adaptation and adoption within the learning and education communities provides opportunities for yet more of this discourse and this post, will likely be yet one more. It is intriguing to note that recent posts on the history of open education have completely neglected the earlier debate and begin with the relatively recent Open Educational resource movement.

The championship of “open learning system” was first and probably most articulately argued by the ‘father of American Distance Education” Charles Wedemeyer. Wedemeyer was a tireless advocate and proponent of often revolutionary notions of higher education. He argued that formal education should and could expand to provide educational access and opportunity to everyone, everywhere, anytime. Even today, few institutions come close to meeting the 10 characteristics of Open Learning that he described in his 1981 book “Learning at the Back Door. These characteristics include:

  1. Learner input into the place, strategies and content of the instructional program
  2. The system recognizes that its instructional program is not the same as the learnign that happens to the students
  3. no prerequisite learning requirements
  4. learners know and can influence the expected learning outcomes
  5. the system is scalable providing cost effective learning opportunity
  6. the system uses communications and information processing technologies effectively
  7. the system uses testing and evaluation to diagnose and help learners
  8. the system employs ‘distance’ in the positive development of learner autonomy
  9. the system works within the learners context and concentrates on enriching that context, not on bringing the student to specialized institutional learning contexts
  10. the system works with other community institutions and resources to enrich the “learning society”

Not to be outdone, Brit Greville Rumble reviewed in 1989 the even then extensive literature on Open Education and described 18 characteristics of openness that he classified into 5 categories

  1. access related criteria (finance,  age and prerequisite requirements etc)
  2. Place and pace of study
  3. Means – referring to choice of media to be used
  4. Structure of the program – defining learning objectives, what content to skip etc.
  5. Support services

Rumble makes an an impassioned cry to differentiate between open and distance education and to admit to ourselves that many distance education institutions have only very narrow instantiations of openness in their programming.

Thus, for institutions like the British Open University or my own Athabasca University which describes itself as “Canada’s Open University” one must search to find how much openness the system really embraces. At Athabasca our definition of ‘Open’ includes no prerequisites for undergraduate education and the time and place shifting afforded by asynchronous delivery models. But openness in terms of using technology, being free or even affordable, choosing the media and content or choosing to learn in collaborative groups are very much missing from most of the programming.

In the 1993 Morten Paulsen advocated for Freedom, a wider but related concept to openness in formal education. In his 1993 “Hexagon of Cooperative Freedom” he places the learner (a cooperative participant) at the center of a six sided model- each point of which describes a different type of freedom.


Curriculum…………………………………….. Space

……………Cooperative Participants

Access………………………………………….. Pace


In 2004 I suggested adding a 7th dimension that being the freedom to determine the type of relationship among other learners and with the teacher. This relationship to be supported at distance through a variety of social software. Paulsen argues that each institution and learning program can define itself along each of the 6 dimensions. Joining the points on a continuum from none to high creates a 6 sided space that grows in area to open learning to more and more participants.

Most recently Christian Dalsgaard argues for a new type of openness that he refers to as transparency – the capacity for learners to find about each other through the traces, comments and artifacts they leave in blogs, tags, profiles and discussions. Transparency is the major educational affordance of social software, used in group, networked and collective learning activity.

These works illustrate that there are many dimensions to openness and a bit surprisingly, the openness implied in Open Source software definitions (ability to freely distribute, modify, non discriminatory use etc) are missing from Wedemeyer’s and Rumble’s lists. More recently, is interest in the ideas of Open Educational Resources that imply more or less restriction on openness of content – often defined in associated Creative Commons Licenses. But certainly in both Open Source and OERs openness includes the idea of free cost. We are just beginning to see openness to those with no financial means incorporated in programs from WikiUniversity, Peer2Peer University and certain non credit programming such as Downes and Siemens Connectivism course. Dave Wiley has long been arguing for expanding many components of openness and has walked the talk with an open course on Open Education that began last  week. He is also co-editing a special issue of the International Review of Research on Open and Distance Learning on Openness and the Future of Education.

Technology and Openness

Distance Education has always and rather unfortunately been defined by the primary technology used to support learning. This technological determinism leads today to debate over what e-learning or online learning really means. But first stepping back, I note that the first and most long lived of the distance education technologies was print combined with postal correspondence. This correspondence education was the only form of distance education from its beginnings in the middle of the 19th century to the development of radio and TV programming in the middle of the 20th century. Because postal correspondence does not support cooperative or collaborative learning activities, correspondence education also became associated with individualized learning.

E-learning and online learning can and does support both individualized and cooperative learning models. It can be free or very expensive, paced or unpaced and support almost all of the criteria for openness listed above. But it rarely does. Some have tried to equate elearning with un-paced learning. Meaning that it affords access to learning at any time. But very little formal education of any sort is really un-paced. Most slavishly follows traditional semester or other arbitrary temporal restrictions, striving to be as much as possible like real (read campus based education) even if it constricts the freedom of learners. Real un-paced learning demands continuous enrollment (enrollment to any time not only in September and January to meet institutional preferences). Un-paced learning also requires continuous opportunity for testing and evaluation. Some learners have opportunity, need and capacity to complete a course in two weeks, others require two years.

Since these criteria of openness have important implications in many dimensions for both learner and teachers, I tend to use adjectives like distance, unpaced, free cost and other adjectives, rather than ones associated only with the media of delivery. Further, we could use an ontology that allows us to tag our programming along many of these dimensions, thus giving a structured and machine searchable means to identify and harvest the type of educational programming that affords the type of Openness that suits each individual learner.

I’ll end with a quote from the 1975 quote from UNESCO  who describe Openness as ” an imprecise phrase to which a range of meanings  can be and is attached. It eludes definition. But as an inscription to be carried in a procession on a banner , gathering adherents and enthusiasms, it has great potential” (quoted from Rumbel, 1981)

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  1. January 16, 2009    

    Hi Terry,
    I really enjoyed reading this post. I guess any education involves oppennesses, and openness also in some senses relates to the original idea of building schools and wanting to educate people.

    Openness is certainly not a particular quality pertaining to certain ways of enacting education – with or without ICTs. I agree, though, that much research on relationships between ICTs, learning and education has in a variety of senses been too techno-centric (usually emphasizing one particular ICT) and focused on inherent qualities.

    There is a need to call for more research which looks at the chains of relations inside which opennesses move and are made. In relation to Christian Dalsgaard (you mention above), I believe that refering to the concept of transparency as an inherent quality of things (in his case web 2.0), may be just as problematic as referring to oppenness as an inherent quality of a particular way of doing education.

    I think we should be careful not to take for granted that (as you write above when referring to Dalsgaard) “transparency – the capacity for learners to find about each other through the traces, comments and artifacts they leave in blogs, tags, profiles and discussions. Transparency is the major educational affordance of social software, used in group, networked and collective learning activity.” If we study this, I’m sure we’d find that neither openness nor transparency is the major educational affordance OF any-one-thing.

    Transparencies and opennesses require maintenance and take efforts. If anything seems transparent and open it is because of the sociomaterial entanglements inside which this is accomplished. And multiple actors are involved in making these accomplishments. We could take any ICT and place in a village in e.g. New Guinea and see how open and transparent I would be(come).

    We should be more concerned with the ways in which ICTs become part of moving the contexts (of the contexts) of knowledge and engagements which we as researchers are interested.

    Thanks for maintaining this blog, I enjoy reading it 🙂

    Kind greetings,


  2. January 16, 2009    

    I love posts about defining the undefinable.
    The first paper in the first course in the AU Masters programme had (and maybe still has) students define “distance learning” (a rather disconcerting introduction since, having just plunked down the tuition fee, I discovered that no one really has a handle what I’ve just committed to). For the paper, I was not drawn to definitions of openness, which at that time struck me as a rally cry for university board members rather than an ideal a student could embrace. Rather, I enjoyed discussions about the “distance” in distance learning. An example: Margaret Haughey (1995) talks about how rich this term is, and that distance is not only about geography and time; it connotes difference: cultural differences, social differences, psychological differences in how we define ourselves (our apartness from others). That is an ideal a student can embrace.
    It would be great to see an ontology for your programming, and it might be interesting to let students to the tagging…

  3. Clayton Wright Clayton Wright
    January 16, 2009    

    Terry, I totally agree with your comment regarding the fact that many distance education institutions are not open unless a very restrictive interpretation of the term is used. During my work with faculty at institutions in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, they proudly announce that their institution is “an open distance learning institution”, yet they have restrictions with regard to:
    – admission requirements – age, prerequisite courses, accreditation requirements
    – registration – often, students can only register two or three times a year (however, I understand the desire of institutions from a management point of view to restrict the registration dates, but at least they should consider having one entry date per month)
    – course fees – Yes, it is understandable that institutions have fees, but the fees should be at a level that many people can pay, or financial support or delayed payment schedules should be implemented.
    – delivery – Specific technology requirements can limit access; those who can’t afford the technology may not be able to receive a print-based version of the course, for example
    – course/program goals are fixed and students are not able to negotiate acceptable goals/objectives that take into account their experience, their environment, their life-long goals, and the goals of the institution
    – course timeframe is fixed and unless there are extreme events, such as the death of a spouse, the timeframe for course completion is inflexible
    – evaluation – how students are evaluated is fixed; rarely do they have the opportunity to negotiate how they can exhibit the knowledge and experience gained during the course. This does not mean that standards should be watered down, but simply that their are many ways to achieve a given standard.

    A truly open system should be a flexible one.

    Despite the comments I made above, I can understand the terms “open” and “distance” but I am challenged with the term “distributed learning” that is gaining in popularity. It seems to be appropriate for those who hold a connectivist view of education, but not necessarily for those who support other educational philosophies.

  4. January 17, 2009    

    As you mentioned openness has many dimensions and it can be defined in many ways.

    With the increased used of affordable technology the cost of information creation and sharing is coming down. The new IT tools such as social bookmarking, social media and networking allow one to share without knowing much under the hood computer technology.

    It is now possible to run online classes where non degree student can participate and in some ways enrich the learning experience of the students who are registered through the University in the online course. Here is one of the experimental course I ran using Ning network that had more vistors and guests then actually enrolled students for a letter grade.


    There are other examples in your blog post that follow the same method.

    IMHO in the future the cost of education will go down drastically for the self motivated learners. In many subject areas to zero. It is the case right now for Information technology and computer science. Anything a highly motivated learner needs is available on the Internet. All they need is a PC, broadband Internet connection, time to find the resources they need to learn and then actually go through the learning experience.

    The motivated learners will have plenty of resources on the Internet to learn on any topic they need/want to learn for free or at a very modest cost.

    On the other hand the cost of traditional education within walled campuses of Universities will go up in the future. It should follow the model of music where one can download the digital music for free but the cost of concerts has skyrocketed where one can see their favorite bands live.

  5. January 22, 2009    

    I admit I consciously neglected anything prior to the modern OER movement as you point out (for reasons of brevity and focus). Thanks for filling in and expanding the discussion.

No Pings Yet

  1. rWorld2 » Open and blended histories on January 16, 2009 at 1:59 am
  2. Being More Specific About Openness in Learning at alstevens.org on January 18, 2009 at 4:34 pm
  3. » OLDaily por Stephen Downes, enero 15, 2009 TIC, E/A, PER…: on February 9, 2009 at 1:50 pm

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