The decision of what beer to buy for our upcoming Christmas celebrations was particularly fraught this year. The “craft” beer on sale at the local liquor store turned out to be just another thing from the world’s biggest brewer. Who, incidentally hasn’t paid any tax in this country in many recent years. I would really like to buy a beer made by a company who brewed it locally, did not rip off its employees, and actually paid tax in this country.

Which led me to discover that recently Australian craft brewers have renamed themselves “Independent” with a list of criteria around small batch and local ownership and brewing, having become tired of global brewing companies jumping on the “craft” label and successfully marketing new “craft beer” brands.

Sound familiar? Yes it does, because as many have pointed out in the last few years, the word “open” has been appropriated by some of the least open global education mega-brands (Weller, 2014). This is not a free/freedom beer metaphor – it’s about misuse of the term “open” as a brand in the same way that “green” and “environmentally friendly” have been used to sell cleaning and other products with horrendously un-green qualities.

I did eventually find some local beer that tastes good and is made by locally owned companies that are also good corporate citizens (Coopers and Two Birds, for what it’s worth.)

And that experience also clarified how I feel about business involvement with Open Education.

Business appropriation of open is bad, but not all business is bad

I have lost patience with big business that sees Higher Education solely as a market, when global multi-national companies co-opt the term “open” as a brand to sell services which are primarily about increasing stock-holder wealth. Listening to CEOs of text-book companies glibly and publically discuss how they’ve been price gouging students of Higher Education while marginalising OER is offensive and unethical. We need to work against such business models and keep talking to those who set compulsory texts about the implications of their decisions.

But friends, not all business is unethical. It is possible to run a social enterprise which is not primarily focussed on accumulating wealth for stock-holders, but instead has a model based on social good, charging fair fees for services, and paying fair wages and taxes.

In short, I’m 100% supportive of independent businesses and social enterprises offering Open Education services.

Which is why I find some of the current blogosphere “whose open education work is the most legitimate” debate regarding some of open ed’s highest profile proponents so frustrating and unnecessary. I also feel that it keeps our eyes off the ball (spoiler alert: reducing inequality!!)

Most recently Wiley and Siemens copped some flack about the irony of using an edX MOOC to talk about Open Education and began to address this in their writings about the course. I tend to agree with their rationale – perhaps if you want to speak to more than the converted you are going to have to have a visit to the mainstream. And yes, Lumen Learning actually employs people, and charges for some of their services. But it’s not like they are jumping in jets to stockholder meetings and price-gouging students so they can take holidays in the Bahamas.

Social enterprises are different to big business in that their social mission is as core to their success as any potential profit.

With Lumen Learning, I think “social enterprise” fits the bill. I see an independent social enterprise working really smart with OER within a very particular context. Their collaborations are making systemic changes to chunks of the American College system such that whole curriculum gets overhauled to ditch the high-cost textbooks and in the process reduce costs to learners while improving grades and their rate of success through to graduation. Some have also written that such mixed-economy approaches will help overcome the sustainability issue that has long been problematic within the OER community.

In short, not all business is bad/unethical – both generally speaking and specifically in the area of Open education.

As my PhD thesis develops, I’m writing up a longer paper on the debate surrounding our key terms and questioning why we want to keep arguing about what openness is. And what it isn’t. The “pure OER is not commercial” theme is a constant of the debate ever since the first 2002 definition put “for non-commercial purposes” in their declaration. We are still generally suspicious of any kind of commercial involvement, despite such milestones as CC-BY licencing allowing for all commercial and non-commercial options as the movement matured.

Rather than a definition of Open Education which lists every type of digital education, can we have one that’s about reducing inequality?

And the debate about what openness is, well that just keeps expanding to fit just about any digital education practice. The latest big EU report on Open Education (dos Santos et al, 2016) came up with 10 dimensions, and if you took the words “open education” out of the diagram, it could have described important features of just about anything educational including policy, assessment, school reform etc etc.

But step back a bit. Why do we need to keep redefining the attributes of openness? Such arguments seem to me to boil down to arguing over what opennenss has the powers to do. Openness does everything and nothing.

But if it’s not about reducing inequality, then it’s just a lot more collaboration and online learning. Or maybe some more digital pedagogy and networked learning. And we already have terms for those.

As my PhD research has progressed I’ve seen just about every kind of technology from Coursera  to FutureLearn to Khan Academy to tablets and all the good old LMS products being pressed into service to produce programs designed to reduce educational inequality. But the literature of open education tends to suggest that nothing good can come out of anything commercial and that particular features of openness (eg “affordances”) is largely responsible for positive change. I haven’t found that to be the case either anecdotally, and now empirically through research.

These open education programs included in my systematic global review used techs that were from for-profits, from not-for-profits, funded by govt and the EU, and the odd one sponsored by tech companies themselves.

Very few programs in my global systematic review study used openly-licenced OERs, they typically used free, online resources. But unlike most MOOCs which tend to educate the already well educated, over two thirds of the studies in my research were student equity or social inclusion programs. I’m using “Student Equity” to mean the concerns of Higher Education Institutions to widen participation of enrolled students. I’m using “Social Inclusion” to cover the range of education, health and welfare programs towards more equitable, inclusive and democratic societies where all members of the community can participate in all aspects of society, including minority and marginalised groups.

I do think Open education can contribute to both Student Equity, and Social Inclusion.

Because what I am seeing is evidence of educators making a difference to both equity and inclusion – and not just to the already educated and privileged. But rather than conforming to (or confirming) any definition of openness I’ve yet seen – particularly those focussed on sharing free stuff to “the world” ie everybody –  these educators seem to be unified by the clear intention to work with and for the most needy learners in their community over the long-term and with whatever suitable technological means they have.

And so if we think that reducing inequality is a central tenet of what open education can do or needs to do, then perhaps it is time to develop a fresh definition that re-centres a social-justice purpose. A definition that focuses on the ends or “the why” of our work, rather than focussing on the means or “the what” of our efforts. I think I’m up for it – let me know if you would like to collaborate on this after 2018 rolls around.

But back to the beer… Perhaps we should also think about setting up an Independent Open Education Association for those not-for-profits and for-profits that are not externally controlled. And can we start talking up Open Education for reducing inequality? Or perhaps, just Equitable Open Education (EOE)?

Until then, I hope you enjoy a refreshing holiday break and come back with plenty of energy for the 2018. Especially, if like me, you are counting down to late 2018 PhD deadline.

2 researchers drink beer

Here is a photo of myself and GO-GN colleague Lisa Taner taken towards the end of the OERGlobal conference in Cape Town this year. It was thirsty work. CC-BY Lambert.

References which have shaped my thinking and which you might find useful:

Engstrom, C., & Tinto, V. (2008). Access without support is not opportunity. Change, 40(1), 46–51.

DiMaggio, P., & Hargittai, E. (2001). From the “Digital Divide” to “Digital Inequality”: Studying Internet use as Penetration Increases. Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Princeton University, 15, 1–23.

dos Santos, A. I., Punie, Y., & Muñoz, J. C. (2016). Opening Up Education: A Support Framework for Higher Education Institutions (EUR 27938). Seville, Spain: European Union. Retrieved from

Gidley, J. M., Hampson, G. P., & Wheeler, L. (2010). From Access to Success : An Integrated Approach to Quality Higher Education Informed by Social Inclusion Theory and Practice. Higher Education Policy, 23(1), 123–147.

Rohs, M., & Ganz, M. (2015, December 3). MOOCs and the claim of education for all: A disillusion by empirical data. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. Retrieved from

Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide. The MIT Press.

Weller, M. (2014). The Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press.

Written by Sarah Lambert

I have a background in university teaching, small business ownership and management, and educational technology. I have 2 grown sons, a love of music and a passion for social justice. My most recent role at the University of Wollongong (Australia) has been as Manager, Open Education. I am doing my...
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