Open education

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Written by Dawn Weeden

Related terms

Open learning; Distance education; Flexible education; Flexi-schools; Distributed learning; e-learning; Life long learning


Open education as a distinct educational medium is difficult to define because it can be used to incorporate a wide variety of aims and ideas. In fact, commentators such as Mckenzie et al (1975) would suggest that it eludes definition. It is often used in conjunction with other forms of education, such as ‘open and flexible education’ or ‘open and distance education’, suggesting that they share similar characteristics. However it is the imprecise nature of the term ‘open’ which prevents it being wholly synonymous with a particular educational mode.

Carr (1990) suggests that there are two central concepts to open education; open access and learner centredness. An open programme will remove geographical barriers, and allow students to study where they want to and when they want to. In addition, many open courses do not have prerequisite entry requirements. This idea was one of the founding principles of the Open University, and accounts for both its name and nature. The Vice Chancellor, in his inaugural address, described the Open University as “open as to people, as to place, as to methods, as to ideas” (Open University 1973 p.vii). Thus the implication of openness is flexibility and freedom from the constraints of more closed systems of education.

Learner-centredness is Carr’s second concept, and in terms of openness, refers to the choices given to the learner in the method and mode of communication. The extent to which the learner has autonomy over his learning will vary depending on the nature of the provider and the resources, and on the willingness of the student to accept such responsibility.

The importance of student centred learning in educational ideology can be regarded as cyclical. At the beginning of the 20th century the pedagogical reformers wanted a move away from teacher-led learning. In the 1960s and 1970s the new idea of open classrooms encouraged teachers to take a coaching role, assisting rather than directing learning, allowing students to explore, experience and become active rather than passive learners. By the early 1990s open education was spearheading government policy for lifelong learning. The need to re-skill the workforce led to many employers supporting vocational education by setting up their own learning centres. These facilities use the term open to denote the flexibility which allows employees to access the provision at their own convenience.

So the range of open education stretches along a continuum from complete freedom of choice in subject, teaching and assessment methods, to highly prescribed courses set in formal educational institutions, but open to all irrespective of age, wealth or prior qualifications. The problem with this huge range of provision is that openness then becomes relative, with some provision offering more choice, and some less choice (Lewis (1984) quoted in Lewis (2002)).

As a final consideration, Ghosh (2001) suggests that open education is a philosophy rather than a method. Technological advances have certainly broadened access to learning opportunities through e-learning, group conferencing and asynchronous contact with tutors. But these methods may still not be completely open as they require access to certain hardware and software. Perhaps then, the term is more suited to an educational philosophy and the desire to make education truly ‘open’ to all.


CALDER, J., MCCOLLUM, A. (1998) Open and flexible learning in vocational education and training, London: Kogan Page.

CARR, R. (1990) Open learning: an imprecise term. ICDE Bulletin, No. 22.

CUBAN, L. (2004) The open classroom, Education Next, Spring 2004. (Visited 21-July-05)

GARRISON, D. R. (1989) Understanding distance education: A framework fro the future, London: Routledge.

GHOSH, S. B. (2001) Reaching the unreached for library and information science education: a perspective for developing countries, 67th IFLA Council and General Conference.

KEEGAN, D. (1996) Foundations of distance education. 3rd Edition, London: Routledge.

LEWIS, R. (2002) The hybridization of conventional higher education : UK perspective, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. January 2002.

OPEN UNIVERSITY (1973) Report of the Vice-Chancellor 1971, Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

Useful links

elearnspace – everything elearning
This website has resources which are related to e-learning in particular, a field closely associated with open education. It has a variety of categories to assist in starting, enabling, doing, evaluating and managing e-learning and links to a variety of resources. A search for open education on the elearnspace website provides in excess of 190 hits. (Visited 13-July-05)

International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE)
The ICDE provides a global network and global leadership for institutions around the world that are involved in this type of educational provision. It has a monthly newsletter and a subscription journal called ‘Open Praxis’. (Visited 16-July-05)

Support 4 Learning
An extensive list of resources for students and providers alike. It provides descriptions of open, flexible and distance learning, and has links to several other web resources. (Visited 14-July-05)

Figueredo, Vivian; Anzalone, Stephen (2003) Alternative Models for Secondary Education in Developing Countries: Rationale and Realities. Improving Educational Quality (IEQ) Project. ERIC Report ED476509
This paper seeks to contribute to the international discussion of the potential of alternative models as a policy option to provide secondary school education in developing countries. The paper looks in detail at the rationale for expanding access to secondary education, even in countries that have not achieved universal primary education.

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