A Quick Guide to Open Education

2 Open Education

Abbey K. Elder

When starting your work as an OER program manager, you’ll likely have a base of knowledge that affects the way you talk and think about open education. For this chapter, we are going to delve into what open education is and how the field has expanded over time to encompass pedagogies and practices which go far beyond open educational resources (OER) alone.


“Open education is an idea, a set of content and a community which, properly leveraged, can help everyone in the world access free, high quality, open learning materials for the marginal cost of zero. We live in an age of information abundance where everyone, for the first time in human history, can potentially attain all the education they desire.” (Cable Green 2017)

Open education as we know it today is part of an ecosystem, a series of “open” movements that have coalesced around education, technology, and scholarly communication. Apart from open education, the most notable of these movements are open source, open access, and open science, the last of which is sometimes purported to be an umbrella term under which all other “opens” fall (de la Fuente, n.d.). Rather than fighting for a specific and limited definition, most of these movements have positioned themselves in opposition to what they define as “closed” ecosystems (Weller 2014). This can be seen in the ways that the open education and open source communities talk about their content, not under a strict ruler but under general guidelines. The “open source way,” for example, is described as a set of principles: transparency, collaboration, release early and often, inclusive meritocracy, and community (opensource.com, n.d.). Similarly, Wiley’s 5 R’s are a set of guidelines outlining what make OER “open.”

One of the first open movements to take hold on the internet was the open source community, whose proponents committed to releasing software under a license that enables remixing and reuse. This became an integral part of open education as well. However, many of the groups present in the early open education community focused on sharing content through their communities rather than software. As Bliss & Smith (2017) explain in their breakdown of the history of open education:

“much of our attention focused on OER’s usefulness at providing knowledge in its original form to those who otherwise might not have access. The implicit goal was to equalize access to disadvantaged and advantaged peoples of the world – in MIT’s language, to create ‘a shared intellectual Common.’” (p. 15)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s OpenCourseWare site, MIT OCW, gained national attention in 2001 when instructors began sharing their courseware and syllabi produced at the distinguished university. Although MIT OCW was certainly not the first major institutional initiative for open education, as the term “open education” had been used by instructors for decades before, MIT’s repository of resources would influence the future of open education and its representation for over a decade (Weller 2014; Bliss & Smith 2017).

Later repositories would build upon MIT’s groundwork. MERLOT, OER Commons, and LibreTexts—three of the largest grant-supported OER repositories—have each added something unique to the ways in which they support the location and creation of open content. MERLOT brought forward the idea of members contributing content they had made themselves or found elsewhere to grow the collections within the platform rather than only adding content that was currently in use for a course. OER Commons innovated by contributing a more robust system for tagging and filtering content, including the alignment of materials to specific educational standards (e.g., the Florida Science Standards for K-12 courses). Finally, LibreTexts has continued to innovate by building out more interactive components, like their Remixer tool for easily cloning and remixing content from multiple resources on their platform into a new base book, as well as several technical integrations, like Jupyter Notebooks and dynamic figures, 3D models that can be manipulated by users.

Today, the people who work in open education continue to innovate, looking ahead to how the use of open educational resources and open educational practices can improve education for students and instructors alike.

Open Educational Practices: Centering on Education

Although many individuals working in open education in the early 2000s were focused on sharing free and open content online, there were also many instructors present in these communities who wanted to situate open content within the greater educational ecosystem. Open educational practices (OEP) are defined as “practices which support the (re)use and production of OER through institutional policies, promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning path” (Ulf-Daniel Ehlers 2011).

These practices are often discussed as if the idea of “actually teaching with OER” was an afterthought to the production and sharing of content. However, history tells us this is not the case. The open education community in the 2000s might not have emphasized open educational practices and open pedagogy in their early discussions; however, instructors at community colleges and those working in distance learning had long pioneered discussions around affordability, access, and pedagogies built around the sharing of content (Lee 2020). Additionally, scholars like Catherine Cronin have been spearheading the discussion around OEP to include a more nuanced view of teaching openly (Cronin 2017; Bali, Cronin, and Jhanigiani 2020). This is further highlighted by a growing interest in open pedagogy among instructors.

Open Pedagogies

Open pedagogy relates to the set of teaching practices that include engaging students in a course through the development, adaptation, or use of open educational resources. Often, we discuss open pedagogy in reference to renewable assignments, a term coined by Wiley and Hilton (2018) as “assignments which both support an individual student’s learning and result in new or improved open educational resources that provide a lasting benefit to the broader community of learners.” In other words, these assignments include the creation of something that can be reused, unlike “disposable assignments,” which are discarded after being graded.

Common examples of open pedagogy assignments include student-created textbooks and student-created test banks to supplement open textbooks. However, these examples make up only a small portion of the possibilities available to instructors implementing open pedagogy in their courses. Over the years, scholars and open pedagogy experts have come together to discuss various ways of implementing this type of pedagogy. We recommend reading the work of these scholars and practitioners for more information about how open pedagogy work is accomplished:

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Open Education

As we explored in Chapter 1, instructors tend to make the leap toward open education because OER supports affordable access to course content for their students. While the wider availability of affordable content might contribute to a more inclusive classroom for some students, there is reason to push back against the idea that access to content is all it takes to make a course “equitable” (Seiferle-Valencia 2020). Over the past decade, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become an implied outcome of open efforts, something that should follow from the increased availability of content and participatory practices that OEP implies; however, as Croft and Brown (2020) explain, it is imperative that open education proponents “reinforce those conversations through intentional and coordinated efforts” (p. 160).

Below, we’ve compiled a few insights to help you foster a more inclusive OER program at your institution.

  1. Talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) often. Make it a part of your daily workflow, until it appears to be an integral piece of your open education program. When you discuss adopting or adapting OER with instructors, students, and other stakeholders at your institution, bring up not just the affordability of OER but the ways in which your program can support DEI.
  2. Invest staff time and/or funding to support OER projects that might otherwise go unnoticed. This may include work by lecturers or adjuncts who do not traditionally have support structures or time to invest in open education work, OER projects that support lower enrollment courses in niche fields, or interdisciplinary projects that require training and oversight for a team housed in multiple colleges.
  3. Include language in grant proposals and consultation forms to require that instructors have a plan for ensuring that their course is inclusive and equitable for all learners. Provide examples and support for instructors navigating these topics for the first time. This can help instructors center diversity and inclusion as a major part of their projects early on in their OER adoption or creation timeline.
  4. Encourage open pedagogy projects that center on student participation and uplifting student voices to showcase a diversity of perspectives. Note: when doing this type of work, it is equally important to center discussions on student choice. Privacy and the ability to opt-out of public projects is particularly important for students who may feel singled out or vulnerable in public-facing spaces.

This list is far from comprehensive, and these steps will not be possible for everyone. To learn more about what your institution can do to foster equity through open education and related initiatives, seek out resources on social justice and open education. If you aren’t sure where to start, we recommend Open at the Margins: Critical Perspectives on Open Education (Bali et al 2020).

A Growing Focus on Accessibility

Accessibility is often discussed as a weakness in open education due to the common use of the word “accessibility” in OER discourse when referring to the free “availability” of content. While these two terms might be technically interchangeable, the term “accessible” has a much more important connotation when it comes to the production of digital content. Digital accessibility refers to tools and processes that help make “access to digital information possible regardless of the nature of a person’s disability and how they consult the information.” (Orange Digital Accessibility, n.d.). Accessibility has also been an issue for OER in the past, when much of the content being produced was made up of inaccessible PDFs created by individuals working without any official support.

The landscape for OER production has changed for the better over the past decade, but many institutions still lack dedicated support for ensuring the accessibility their staff produce. Digital accessibility should not be an afterthought to the production of educational content: it should be scaffolded into the production process and ensured for all resources. Luckily, there are resources to help guide that process for faculty and staff who are new to the topic, and many colleges now have accessibility offices and staff who can provide feedback on this work as well.

Program Manager Tips: Defer to Local Experts

While it is important to ensure that the resources created and used through your institution’s OER program meet accessibility guidelines, you do not need to become an accessibility expert yourself. Instead, help faculty and staff get support to ensure that their projects are accessible. Collaborate with partners at your institution who work in IT, the Dean of Students office, or another department that specializes in access services, if that is available at your institution. Developing relationships early is incredibly important for this type of work, and these relationships can become lasting partnerships as your program grows over time.


Looking back on the past and envisioning the future of the field of open education, it is clear that there is no one path we are all walking toward. Instead, there is a general branching out of our community, growing into new spaces and learning new things. One thing is clear: it does not matter if everything that we do fits the rules or standards of the “wider open education community.” Instead, what matters is that we can create, share, and collaborate with one another to develop something new: a base of content and practices that can disrupt or even replace commercial content in education. To do this work well, we must listen to instructors and learners so we can support their needs and ensure that the work we do is both open and inclusive for those within and outside our communities.

Recommended Resources

Key Takeaways
  1. Open education is one specialization within a set of open disciplines, each of which takes a slightly different approach to openness as a concept.
  2. Although OER are the central point of discussion for many open education advocates, other aspects of open education have become increasingly prominent in the field, such as open pedagogy and incorporating best practices for inclusion into teaching.
  3. As the discipline of open education continues to grow, more nuanced discussions have been brought to the forefront, such as, “Who is able to engage in the creation and use of OER?” Questions like this are important, and acknowledging their importance through action can bring nuance and purpose to your OER program.


Aesoph, Lauri M. 2018. “Accessibility, Diversity, and Inclusion.” In BCcampus Open Education Self-publishing Guide. Victoria, B.C.: BCcampus. https://opentextbc.ca/selfpublishguide/

Bali, Maha, Catherine Cronin, and Rajiv S. Jhangiani. 2020. “Framing open educational practices from a social justice perspective.” Journal of Interactive Media in Education 2020 (1): 1-12. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/jime.565

Bali, Maha, Catherine Cronin, Laura Czerniewicz, Robin DeRosa, and Rajiv Jhangiani (Eds). 2020. Open at the Margins: Critical Perspectives on Open Education. Rebus Community. https://press.rebus.community/openatthemargins/

BCcampus. 2018. Indigenization Guides. BCcampus and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training. https://bccampus.ca/projects/indigenization/indigenization-guides/

Bell, Steven. 2018. ‌”Course Materials Adoption: A Faculty Survey and Outlook for the OER Landscape.” Choice 360. https://www.choice360.org/research/course-materials-adoption-a-faculty-survey-and-outlook-for-the-oer-landscape/

Blessinger, Patrick and T.J. Bliss. 2016. “Introduction to Open Education: Towards a Human Rights Theory.” In Open Education: International Perspectives in Higher Education, edited by Patrick Blessinger and TJ Bliss. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers.

Bliss, T.J. and M. Smith. 2017. “A Brief History of Open Educational Resources.” In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science, edited by Rajiv Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener, 9-27. London: Ubiquity Press. https://doi.org/10.5334/bbc.b

Clifton, Alexis, and Kimberly Davies Hoffman (eds). 2020. Open Pedagogy Approaches: Faculty, Library, and Student Collaborations. New York: SUNY Geneseo. https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/openpedagogyapproaches/

Coolidge, Amanda, Sue Doner, Tara Robertson, and Josie Gray. 2018. Open Education Accessibility Toolkit—2nd Edition. BCcampus. https://opentextbc.ca/accessibilitytoolkit/

Croft, Benjamin, and Monica Brown. 2020. “Inclusive Open Education: Presumptions, Principles, and Practices.” Distance Education 41 (2). https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2020.1757410

Cronin, Catherine. 2017. “Openness and praxis: Exploring the use of open educational practices in higher education.” The International Review Of Research In Open And Distributed Learning 18 (5). http://dx.doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i5.3096

Cummings-Sauls, Rebel, Matt Ruen, Sarah Beaubien, and Jeremy Smith. 2018. “Open Partnerships: Identifying and Recruiting Allies for Open Educational Resources Initiatives.” In OER: A Field Guide for Academic Librarians, eds. Andrew Wesolek, Jonathan Lashley, and Anne Langley. Pacific University Press. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/librarian_pubs/72

de la Fuente, Gema Bueno. n.d. “What is Open Science? Introduction.” Foster Open Science. Accessed September 25, 2021. https://www.fosteropenscience.eu/content/what-open-science-introduction

DeRosa, Robin, and Scott Robison. 2017. “From OER to Open Pedagogy: Harnessing the Power of Open.” In Jhangiani, R.S. & Biswas-Diener, R. (Eds.), Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science, 115-124. London: Ubiquity Press. https://doi.org/10.5334/bbc.i

Durham, Erin and Braxton, Sherri. 2020. “Advancing an Open Educational Resource Initiative Through Collaborative Leadership.” International Journal of Open Educational Resources 2 (1). https://doi.org/10.18278/ijoer.2.1.5

Ehlers, Ulf-Daniel. 2011. “From Open Educational Resources to Open Educational Practices.” Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning 15 (2): 1-10.

Farrow, Robert. 2017. “Open Education and Critical Pedagogy.” Learning, Media and Technology 42 (2): 130-146. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439884.2016.1113991

Green, Cable. 2017. “Open Licensing and Open Education Licensing Policy.” In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science, edited by Rajiv S. Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener, London: Ubiquity Press. https://www.ubiquitypress.com/site/books/e/10.5334/bbc/

Hegarty, Bronwyn. 2015. “Attributes Of Open Pedagogy: A Model for Using Open Educational Resources.” Educational Technology 55 (4): 3-13. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44430383

Lee, Kyungmee. 2020. “Who Opens Online Distance Education, to Whom, and for What?” Distance Education 41 (2): 186-200. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2020.1757404

Mays, Elizabeth, ed. 2017. A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students. Rebus Community. https://press.rebus.community/makingopentextbookswithstudents/

Open Knowledge Foundation. 2013. “Open Education Timeline.” TimeMapper. http://timemapper.okfnlabs.org/okfnedu/open-education-timeline

Openpedagogy.org. n.d. “Open Pedagogy Notebook.” Accessed July 12, 2021. http://openpedagogy.org/

Opensource.com. n.d. “The Open Source Way.” Accessed July 12, 2021. https://opensource.com/open-source-way

Orange Digital Accessibility. n.d. “Digital Accessibility Definition.” Accessed September 25, 2021. https://a11y-guidelines.orange.com/en/digital-accessibility-definition/

Portland Community College. 2016. Web accessibility handbook, 2nd edition. Accessed January 30, 2022. https://www.pcc.edu/instructional-support/accessibility/handbook/

Seiferle-Valencia, Marco. 2020. “It’s Not (Just) About the Cost: Academic Libraries and Intentionally Engaged OER for Social Justice.” Library Trends 69 (2): 469-487. https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2020.0042

Sinkinson, Caroline, and Amanda McAndrew. 2020. “Approaching Open Pedagogy in Community and Collaboration.” In Open Pedagogy Approaches: Faculty, Library, and Student Collaborations, edited by Alexis Clifton and Kimberly Davies. New York: SUNY Geneseo. https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/openpedagogyapproaches/

Thille, Candace. 2008. “Building Open Learning as a Community-Based Research Activity.” In Opening Up Education: The Collective Advancement of Open Education Through Open Technology, Open Content, and Open Knowledge, edited by Toru Iiyoshi and M.S. Vijay Kumar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.12657/26069/1004016.pdf?sequence=1

Walz, Anita. 2019. “Differentiating Between Open Access and Open Educational Resources.” https://vtechworks.lib.vt.edu/handle/10919/94422.2

Weller, Martin. 2014. The Battle for Open: How Openness Won and Why it Doesn’t Feel Like Victory. London: Ubiquity Press. https://doi.org/10.5334/bam

Wiley, David, and Hilton, John III. 2018. “Defining OER-enabled Pedagogy.” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 19 (4). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v19i4.3601


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The OER Starter Kit for Program Managers Copyright © 2022 by Abbey K. Elder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.