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)