While there is no single answer to the question, what is Open Education, people have been trying to script a definition since the term Open Educational Resources (OER) was coined 15 years ago. As we look forward to celebrating the Year of Open in 2017, we  posed  a few questions to open practitioners around the world:

What is Open Education?  Why is it important? And, What role do you see it playing in the future?  The following is the interview with all the contributors.


Dr. Fawzi Baroud, Assistant Vice President for Information Technology, Notre Dame University, Lebanon


OEC: What is Open Education?
Baroud: Our understanding of open education in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region hinges on widening access to free and licensed content of educational resources for purpose of formal and non-formal education, research, as well as collaboration among educational institutions and economic sectors. The MENA region is in dire need for transparency and access to information; openness represents a continuation of Jomiten, Thailand in 1990 Education for All and subsequent declarations such as the Millennium Declaration 2000, but with a focus on access to learning material for all in the 21st century MENA region. The adoption of OER in educational contexts is leverage to pedagogical innovation through the purposive use of technology in teaching and learning. Much of the non-formal of education in the MENA region goes unrecognized by ministerial regulations due to unresolved issues of diploma mills and the near absence of a Regional Framework for the recognition and transferability of credits. Open badges, for example is a credentialing system that supports recognition of earned experiences in education and sets the tone for establishing frameworks for recognition of open modes of learning.  Collaboration would strengthen cooperative links among educational institutions in research, learning, innovation, exchange and mobility.    

OEC: Why do you think Open Education is important?
Baroud: The perceived importance of open education is variegated as it shifts in education from the entrenched traditional education in brick and mortar institutions to a more flexible and accessible approach for learning for all, opening horizons and vistas for cross-regional collaboration, social cohesion, and sustainable economic development. With masses entering education in the region because of population growth and rising awareness about the importance of education in social and economic upward mobility, open education reduces costs on students and institutions alike and alleviate the financial burdens on public sector of education. Thus, open education is a medium for overcoming barriers to education.   

OEC: What changes do you hope Open Education will bring?
Baroud: It is expected to bring changes at the level of culture, economic and political frameworks. I believe that open education is the cornerstone of sustainable development, lifelong learning and a catalyst for change that promotes transparency in institutional frameworks in the region and involves wider segments of society including civil society in the political-making and change processes.

OEC: What role do you think Open Education will play in education in the future (either in Lebanon or the region)?
Baroud: Among other things, open education in the MENA region including Lebanon will play a significant role in transforming education, widening access, enhancing collaboration, and encouraging ministries and institutions, both public and private to open up to society at all levels and divulge information including statistics, plans, strategies and policies to the public in a transparent way. This futuristic role of open education in the region is inevitable for integrating it into the global economy.

Interview with Dr. Glenda Cox, Senior Lecturer, University of Cape Town

OEC: What is Open Education?
Cox: From my perspective, Open Education includes making freely available, under an open license, all materials that make up education. This could include every kind of teaching material which could range from an entire course to an image or an infographic. Importantly, it includes entire textbooks. From my perspective, I also feel that open access research articles also make up the very important component of education and therefore they can also come under this broader banner of Open Education. In addition to that, I feel that part of Open Education is also Open Science and Open Data because all these aspects can be included as part of an education. As an open educational practitioner, I feel that for me to truly walk the talk of Open Education I need to be considering sharing all these different aspects so data, research, teaching materials, slideshows, presentations all these different aspects. I believe all of that makes up Open Education.  

OEC: What does it mean to you to be an Open Education Practitioner?
Cox: The way I approach everything I do is from an open perspective. Because of that open perspective I am constantly striving to think of ways of sharing different aspects of what I do. As an educator in a higher education institution I do data collection, I do research, I do teaching, I teach workshops, I go to conferences where I do and share presentations. I believe that as an Open Educational Practitioner you need to be able to share all these different components. The Practice side is walking the talk of Open Education.

OEC: Why do you think Open Education is important?
Cox: I think Open Education is important because it extends the reach of teaching, learning and research materials beyond the classroom. At school level, Open Education gives teachers and learners access to materials and textbooks that they previously would not be able to get hold of. That’s related to cost and I will talk about that a bit more later. In tertiary education, there are a number of problems or crises or concerns not only in the Global South but across the globe. Tertiary education is very expensive. There are limited spaces available meaning many people cannot get access to tertiary education and even if they do there is a variable quality between the different tertiary education institutions that you can go to. Open Education is important because having materials openly available and textbooks openly available allows teachers and students or learners at those institutions to have access to materials that they normally would not be able to afford. So it is a potential solution to some of the crises in higher education not only in the Global South but across the world.

OEC: What is your view on Open Education in relation to informal learning and those who cannot get access to universities. Can you see any potential benefits of Open Education there?
Definitely. I have talked about basic education and schooling and then tertiary education. But there is an enormous group of people who may have that basic education but there is no way that they could continue with higher education for a number of different reasons. Having these materials available to teach themselves, to do self-directed learning extends the reach of these materials. I believe that is very important.

OEC: What changes do you hope Open Education will bring?
Cox: In terms of changes there is some evidence that is growing now of the impact of Open Education. Open Education is being researched more extensively. Now we are building some evidence that higher education and other sectors have benefited from Open Education. We can now actually see that there is a benefit and there are numerous examples now. Such examples are extremely important when we are trying to convince people of the value of Open Education and why it is useful. Evidence of impact is important and we now have cases of this evidence of impact especially in the Global South with the Research on OER for Development project (ROER4D).

More recently in higher education, and this is certainly the case in South Africa but there are other calls around the globe, there is a call for “fees must fall.” Students and learners are asking for free education. Although this is a complex problem that involves government and policy in complex historical contexts free textbooks and teaching materials can offer solution to part of that problem. By making textbooks and materials openly available higher education certainly becomes much cheaper for individual students. I feel that that is one of the changes that I hope Open Education can make. That it can address some of these calls for people to have a reduced fee on tertiary education.

Having said that I am aware that there are big challenges. One of the challenges is a lack of awareness of Open Education. While, at the moment, people are calling for “fees must fall,” they are not necessarily aware that Open Educational Resources are available. This is a challenge for Open Education researchers and advocates to make teachers and lecturers aware of these materials and help them to see the value of contributing materials. I am hoping that through Open Education we can solve some of these challenges. Certainly, there is a lot of work to be done around awareness of Open Education before we can see a bigger change or more impact.    

OEC: What role do you think Open Education will play in education in the future (either in the country or the region)?
Cox: Perhaps I should focus on South Africa since that’s my context while referring to cases where I have done some research at different institutions. I am aware of the different contexts out there. In South Africa, my hope is that sharing of teaching materials between institutions will assist some of the smaller institutions, the less resourced institutions but also some of the very new institutions is going to help lectures at such institutions to access different materials, different viewpoints, different ways of teaching and to help them to not reinvent the wheel by creating new resources when in fact those resources are already created and available. In South Africa, the challenge is also around awareness. Making those people in smaller or new institutions aware of the power of Open Educational Resources and the fact that these resources are there for them to use. Also in South Africa, with the crisis in basic education where math and science students don’t achieve well and we know that much of the schooling system is quite inadequate: Having textbooks available for free through various platforms now that are being created like Siyavula and Nolwazi, just to name two, these textbooks and teaching materials are now available for teachers in schools. Especially for students who cannot afford to buy any kind of textbook to have these materials freely available will hopefully improve pass rates and improve grades. That’s what I am hoping for in South Africa.     

OEC: At the level of basic education the Department of Basic Education is responsible for distributing textbooks to schools. How is the availability of openly licensed textbooks going to improve pass rates and grades where cost of textbooks is not necessarily an issue]?
Cox: In many of those schools the textbooks don’t ever arrive. Even when they do arrive there are often not enough of them. We know that this does happen especially in poor areas. It is these kinds of inconsistencies that can be solved by having more of these materials available. We know that teachers are supposed to get support from government but often they don’t get the training that they really need. They don’t have access to these resources and they don’t get the support, the training that they should be getting. I think that the situation in South Africa is very inconsistent. Having materials openly available on different platforms will hopefully equalize this situation and give those teachers who are really struggling to get those materials.

As part of the ROER4D project that I was working on I compared 3 different institutions in SA: UNISA, Fort Hare and the University of Cape Town. The situation in just these 3 institutions is

quite different with complex institutional cultures and history. As an advocate, I hope that these institutions will include more open education resources (OER). The politics and history around using other materials is very complicated. Word of caution: Although we might suggest that people use these OER, the process of getting people to actually do it requires quite a bit of work even when they agree that this is a wonderful idea. The hard work is in terms of showing people value and making them aware. This is a project that needs to be taken on not only in SA but in many institutions. We need to help lecturers become aware of the potential of OER. Having looked at different institutions, I can see how complicated it is to simply take on OER.

OEC: Clarifying question: What role do you think open education will play in the Global South based on your experiences with the ROER4D project?
Cox: ROER4D has a number of studies in various countries in the Global South. I think that it is quite encouraging to see the variety of different projects that are being taken on. In South America (Colombia, Chile, and Brazil). In Africa (South Africa, Ghana and Kenya). In Southeast Asia (Philippines, Mongolia): We had country studies where we can see that OER has been introduced and we can see measures of positive impact on educators. These are still relatively isolated projects however. We hope to continue that research in the future and build on that research. We hope that through this project – part of the project is a development project: Not only have we done research but we also try to develop people involved in the project – For example, my small project: Part of that project was to teach workshops on Open Education and Creative Commons at institutions in a hope that it would benefit the different sites where we were. That’s the case across most of the projects within ROER4D. We have done a combination of development and research. I think that is a really good model to take forward. To benefit institutions where we do research so that they can take OER on board as their own.


Interview with Allen Rao, Global Business Director, Netease Online Open Courses, Beijing, China

OEC: What is Open Education?
Rao: I heard this term over a year ago. Open Education is like free education that was initiated and promoted by many enthusiastic education experts. They wanted to created free access to education to all people around the world especially those people who have poor access to education. Open education provides them [people with poor access to education] with a way to help them get easy access to education and get well educated. That’s the first impression that I have of Open Education. Also, it is easier and more efficient education. Open Education is mostly online (online education). People don’t need to travel far to constrain themselves in a classroom. It is more efficient than traditional conventional education.

OEC: Why do you think Open Education is important?
Rao: It helps those with poor access to education to get educated. It helps them to break financial and territorial barriers. Education is really not somebody’s property. It should be

something that everyone has the right to have access to. Open Education helps to provide such solutions to those people who have maybe some physical, financial or geographical barriers leading to poor access to education.

Open Education is especially relevant in China. For example, when students graduate from high school they need to take college entrance exams if they want to continue studying at colleges or universities. Annually, millions of high school graduates need to take these exams. Only 1/3 of these graduates are able to pass the entrance exams in a way that allows them to continue studying at colleges or universities. That means more than half will fail the exams and won’t be able to study at universities or colleges. What will happen to them? Many will have to find jobs immediately. But, because of lack of skills, all the jobs will be low-paying jobs. If they really want to continue studying at a university they need to have rich parents who will help them with financial support to study further. Open Education helps these people who either fail the exams or who work in low-paying jobs to learn new skills as long as they have internet access so that they are able to have access to education, get self-educated really, and learn new skills.

I would like to share an interesting story about Netease Online Open Courses: A user of our courses came to our offices one day and wanted to donate 4000 Yuan to us [to support the platform, Netease Online Open Courses]. We were quite surprised about that and wanted to know why this person wanted to donate so much money to us. He said that because of the online open education that we have provided it really changed his life. He was one of the people I mentioned earlier who failed the college entrance examination. He ended up working at a construction site in a very low-paying job. He was interested in interior design and found a course on our website. He studied it online by himself for about a year and then an opportunity presented itself to use this new skill [interior design] in his work. He impressed his boss. He was then promoted from being a construction worker to being an interior designer in a big construction company. His pay was at least tripled. He owed this all to the free Open Education from Netease Online Open Courses. For this reason, he wanted to donate that much money to us. That’s a really good feeling. People like him and millions of others are benefiting from free Open Education.

OEC: What changes do you hope Open Education will bring?
Rao: First change, I hope is about quality. I don’t know about other countries but in China there is a stereotype. The context of open [free] education is often associated with lack of quality. One example: A third party educational institute downloaded some materials from our website and uploaded them on their platform and put a price on these courses. It seems like there are many people willing to pay certain price to take those courses instead of coming to our platform where they can get free open access to education through our courses. That was quite a surprise to us but we also, kind of, understand why this happens from the user’s perspective because of the stereotype, fixed perspective they have on free education. So, one of the changes that I hope Open Education will bring in the future is to change and break this stereotype. That people do not have this equation that free Open Education equals poor quality education. Open education can mean high quality education. This is one of the changes I hope will happen in the future in relation to open education.

The second change is around language diversity. At the moment, I think that most of the free, open education resources are available in English. Other languages, including Chinese, are underrepresented. Open Education is a global movement and language diversity should reflect that. Translating materials from other languages can help. Like what we have been doing – translating courses from other languages into Chinese. I hope that there are other organizations or individuals who can help with the translation work into other languages and thus making resources accessible to all the people around the world; people with different backgrounds and nationalities speaking different languages.

The third change: It really takes a lot of resources (staff and financial) to create and maintain platforms with free, open educational resources. How do we maintain the quality of open education efforts and ensure their sustainability? We need to find a way to get financial support or to monetize certain courses. Everyone involved in Open Education should be involved in addressing and solving such challenges. We cannot always rely on philanthropies or rich organizations that keep donating money or giving free money to continue with open education projects. We have to be able to finance ourselves by doing what we are doing.

OEC: What role do you think Open Education will play in education in the future (either in the country or the region).
Rao: It really depends on the changes that I outlined in the previous question. If we can find solutions to the three challenges, then I think Open Education will play a major part in a revolution of conventional education. I am looking forward to seeing that Open Education will be the mainstream education. At the moment, Open Education is not mainstream. If we can find solutions to the existing problems that I mentioned I believe that Open Education can be mainstream. That’s my hope and belief that Open Education will play a major role in education revolution or education movement. I don’t agree with the elite education that education only belongs to those elite group of people. Everyone shall have equal right to education. That is why I strongly support the Open Education Movement.     


Interview with Dr. Peter Smith, Orkand Chair, Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education, University of Maryland University College

OEC:  What is Open Education?
Smith:  Open education is the beginning of an era which will only expand, what I call, free range learning.  It is the ability to allow people to have the equivalent of a personal global positioning system, a GPS for learning.  And they will be able to find resources, support, and advice that they need. It can be organized by an institution or an agency, or even organized by the learner themselves.  Open education is a revolution in the relationship between people learning and content, a more personalized learning path.  Personalized learning isn’t a thousand solutions for a thousand people.  It could be ten solutions for a thousand people.  Personalized learning is where I, as the learner, know why I’m doing what I’m doing, what it’s going to do for me, and how I’m going to get where I want to go.  So, it’s a personal engagement and attachment of the learner to the course; it’s active learning.  Open education is one the variables that creates the opportunity for personal learning.

OEC: Why do you think Open Education important?   
Smith: Open education will play an organizing role in the coherence of personal learning.  What’s very important about open education is that all this personal learning whether – experiential or sponsored can be brought into play in a learning profile.  People learn all the time. Personal, sponsored, and experiential learning will all be brought together in a learning profile for a person; that’s where we are headed.  Open Resources is in the middle of it.  I hope open resources play an organizing role.  Right now, it’s like skiing in a blizzard without goggles.  We need to get the goggles and we need coherence.  Open education can play a role of organizing the coherence for the learner.      

OEC: What changes do you hope open education will bring? If you could look 5 – 10 years in the future, what would it look like?
Smith:  The last five years have been dynamic (in open education) because of technology; but the big breakthrough (of open education) was doing it at all.  MIT and OEC deserve enormous credit for putting up the platform from which MOOCs were spun off.  To me, in the next 10 years, we are going to see free range learning in the digital age.  We are literally going to be in a place where people can keep track of their learning in an electronic portfolio, they will be able to get their learning assessed by validating institutions, but you will have a much more a la carte approach to learning.  Potential capacity or perceived capacity will always outstrip reality in the sense that we are here but want to be there. We must learn our way to get to point A to point B.  Ideas always lead operational reality.  In this world, the turnover rate from idea to reality is so fast that it will change the notion of institutions which use to be seen as the repositories of stability.   Institutions cannot control the pace of change nor can they keep up with that pace of change.  Because of open education, institutions are going to change into a validators and assessors of learning.


Interview with Sophie Touze, Head of Innovation and eLearning at VetAgro Sup, University of Lyon, France

OEC:  Why do you think Open Education is important ?
Touze: As a world in crisis where young people no longer have any guideposts, education has the strong virtue of giving them benchmarks and meaning. Open education, with its people-centered orientation and values, has a fundamental role to play in society.

Open education is a successful example of what more and more people believe: The right of everyone to have access to the education the desire to become a free and happy being and realize his ambitions. This has become possible at almost no cost by simply opening the pedagogical contents of universities, schools, etc.

Open education follows the emerging model of digital culture oriented towards mass education, a true bottom-up approach. This participatory and democratic model, already effective in several fields, recently demonstrated by the Open Government summit in Paris (December 7-9, 2016) and its 5,000 participants.  It needs to be widely understood and understood for maximum effectiveness. The culture of Open must be taught to all. Open education must take this role.

OEC: What changes would you like Open Education to bring?
Touze:  Like Sir Ken Robinson, I believe fundamentally that every human being has a talent that makes him unique, that allows them to contribute to modern society where everyone can live freely and happily by using their talents My wish is that open education catalyzes this change by opening minds, triggering a virtuous circle: open education >open mind >open heart >open life, thereby allowing the paradigm shift towards this inclusive society.

OEC: What is the role of open education in France in the future?
Touze:  Within the government of France, we have become aware of the real reach of digitization and online possibilities, and the transformation of society that it engenders.  We see this as an important opportunity for us.  The organization of the OGP summit was a step in this paradigm shift.  The French Ministry of Higher Education will be a force for the pushing this agenda forward, and for education to have its place within the Open Government Partnership commitments.

Within the Ministry of Higher Education, a series of co-designed workshops have been launched.  We are now working to map digital innovation initiatives and develop strategic digital coherence. The question of a French Open University is being considered. There is a coordinated look at open initiatives, and one of the first projects is the question of open textbooks and more broadly an ecosystem of sustainable openness to accompany the digital transformation of education already on the march.