Open Education Handbook/History of open education

Open Education covers a broad range of activities and has a long history. From the public library movement of the 19th century which promoted open universities and state-provided education, when education suddenly became accessible to all, to the setting up of institutions like the Open University in the UK which lowered the boundaries to access.

An historical reconstruction is provided by Peters and Deimann (2013) who begin with the scholastic movement of the Middle Ages. They write:

  • The late Middle Ages were characterised by a number of changes that “opened” education from

what had been, until then, one mostly restricted to monastery open schools. A major factor was the growth of medieval towns and increasing urbanisation of society.. Out of the cathedral schools grew what we today recognise as institutions of higher learning, then termed “studium generale”. The “generale” or general nature already recognised the importance and signified that it was “intended for entire Christendom without regard for national or territorial boundaries”.

  • By the late 1500s access to knowledge and learning had become very different. No longer a place for the free exchange of students, teachers and ideas, the higher education institution had become increasingly closed. By the 1600s the invention of the printing press was beginning to spread knowledge more widely.
  • 17th century coffee-houses provide us with another instance of openness. Here patrons from all walks of life were given access to the premises and could sit down and read (or listen) to the latest news, pamphlets and books and participate in lively discussions covering science, religion, business, literature and of course the latest gossip.
  • The 18th century is marked by wide-ranging popular literacy among men. The popular response to Thomas Paine’s 1791 Rights of Man fuelled “literacy from below” as artisans and the new industrial working class taught one another to read and established growing numbers of self-education societies.
  • From the late 19th century until the end of the Second World War, miners’ libraries emerged as the thirst for knowledge and rise of interest in self-education coincided with the growth of the coal industry. With few exceptions, every mining town and village had its own “workmen’s institute”, containing, among other a reading room and a library that would be at the heart of the establishment.
  • The 20th century continued to see education “open” as the belief in the people’s right to access society’s knowledge grew. In Argentina for instance, this is particularly visible in the University of Buenos Aires, as shaped by the ideas of the 1918 Cordoba reform.
  • Openness was also enabled by further developments in distance learning. Best known is probably The Open University (UK) founded in the 1960s, at a time of significant developments in communications technology and mass media.

More recently it has taken on new impetus in a new direction, not disconnected with that history, but not entirely similar in focus.

Fabian Tompsett from Wikipedia argues that:

  • Open Education has its roots in the civil rights movement in America, in particular the Freedom Schools which were tied in with the Greensboro sit-ins where students broke down the colour bar. The students involved in this sit-ins took their college books with them and used the time to study.
  • The People's Computer Company were advocates of Open Source, and went on to spawn the Homebrew Computing Club. It was the social activism of the sixties and seventies which gave rise to the knowledge revolution and the technological advances which have had such an impact on contemporary society. Fabian also points out that schools played a part too and Ivan Illich and questioned the role of schools and advocated learning webs.

Technological innovation has naturally contributed to changes in educational practice but tools are often enablers rather than drivers. Open education is very much the result of a dialectical relationship between technology and human aspirations. As Ivan Illich said in Deschooling Society: "Technology is available to develop either independence and learning or bureaucracy and teaching."

As Martin Weller notes in The Battle for Open: "Openness has a long history in higher education. Its foundations lie in one of altruism, and the belief that education is a public good. It has undergone many interpretations and adaptations, moving from a model which had open entry to study as its primary focus, to one that emphasises openly available content and resources. This change in the definition of openness in education has largely been a result of the digital and network revolution. Changes in other sectors, most notably the open source model of software production, and values associated with the internet of free access and open approaches have influenced (and been influenced by) practitioners in higher education. The past decade or so has seen the growth of a global open education movement, with significant funding from bodies such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and research councils. Active campaigners in universities have sought to establish programmes that will release content (data, teaching resources, publications) openly, while others have adopted open practices regarding their own working, through social media and blogs. This has been combined with related work on open licenses (notably Creative Commons) which allow easy reuse and adaptation of content, advocacy at policy level for nation or state-wide adoption of open content and sharing of resources, and improved technology and infrastructure that make this openness both easy and inexpensive."

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