Tracing Themes in Open Education Research



The purpose of this module is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the following:

  • Historical roots of current interpretations and practices of open education in research
  • Connections and gaps between roots
  • Implications of these findings on current understandings of and practices in open education


The purpose of this module is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the following:

  • Historical roots of current interpretations and practices of open education in research
  • Connections and gaps between roots
  • Implications of these findings on current understandings of and practices in open education

Module Designer

Irwin DeVries, PhD

I'm Adjunct Faculty with the School of Education at Thompson Rivers University, and Associate Faculty with the School of Education and Technology at Royal Roads University. My roles have included instructional designer, instructor, program developer, administrator and musician in open and distance learning. Since I call myself an open educator, I have no choice but to be open. Simple!!


How might a sense of history help your future work? There is an increasingly widespread concern about the lack of a historical understanding of the history and roots of open education, with the implication that many new developments are unnecessarily “reinventing” longstanding ideas and findings, as well as missing out on a deeper understanding of the field based on its historical concerns and social underpinnings. The image below is taken from a brief article from Sandra Peter and Markus Deimann (2013). The article is an approximate ten-minute read and provides a good preliminary foundation for the balance of this module.

complex timeline diagram depicting population in billions on the left, and a variety of open education concepts across the bottom. These include student universities, coffee houses, self-education societies, university of london external system, miners' libraries, open university, university of south africa, iTunesU, open learn, MIT OCW, MOOCs, MIT/edX

image of a megaphone indicating important content

Download and read the following article: On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction


Open education or open educational practices have a wider variety of definitions in the research. For example: Ehlers and Conole (2010) focus mainly on content in the form of open educational resources: “OEPs constitute the range of practices around the creation, use, and management of open educational resources with the intent to improve quality and innovate education.” In contrast, Hogan, Carlson and Kirk (2015) make reference to OEP as a striving for ‘radically higher academic level in learners, to use OER to develop networked learners who can self-organize, co-create, innovate, and peer validate,” emphasizing pedagogical possibilities enhanced by OEP. Cronin’s (2017) definition of OEP further emphasizes such aspects as collaboration, participation and learner empowerment, encompassing “…collaborative practices that include the creation, use, and reuse of OER, as well as pedagogical practices employing participatory technologies and social networks for interaction, peer - learning, knowledge creation, and empowerment of learner.”

Each of these definitions captures a certain piece of the puzzle, but the puzzle remains and definitions of open education are essentially negotiated and emergent. However, we do know that it is closely associated with a number of themes, as noted above, including such aspects as networked learning, empowered learners more in control of their own learning, collaborative learning practices, participatory technologies, use of open educational resources (OER), with these and more being discussed throughout this mini-MOOC.

illustration of multiple puzzle pieces with open education at the centre and networked learning, rep, empowered learners, oer, participatory technologies, and collaborative practice written on the remaining puzzle pieces

Puzzle background from Pixabay, overlay of concepts by Jenni Hayman, Public Domain

This day is built around research that was recently published in Open Praxis journal. The published article abstract reads:

“The term open education has recently been used to refer to topics such as Open Educational Resources (OERs) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Historically its roots lie in civil approaches to education and open universities, but this research is rarely referenced or acknowledged in current interpretations. In this article the antecedents of the modern open educational movement are examined, as the basis for connecting the various strands of research. Using a citation analysis method the key references are extracted and their relationships mapped. This work reveals eight distinct sub-topics within the broad open education area, with relatively little overlap. The implications for this are discussed and methods of improving inter-topic research are proposed” (Weller, Jordan, DeVries & Rolfe, 2018).

Drawing upon this research, Weller and Jordan (2017) published a handbook based titled “Openness and education: A beginners guide.” This publication is designed to expose researchers in the field, and especially graduate students and early-career scholars, to the richness and depth of open education research going back a half-decade and more. It should be noted that this is a survey of research citations, not a more comprehensive history of open education in its various emerging forms, such as has been undertaken by Peter and Diemann (2013) and others.

What is “citation analysis”?

Citation analysis is a process of analyzing references from an initial body of research literature, looking for multiple linkages among cited research and then repeating the process over multiple iterations. This data is then mapped out into citation clusters, after processing in software (Gephi) that graphically arranges the data into a map (Figure 1). The following eight themes emerged in the referenced research above:

  • Open practice
  • Open educational resources
  • E-learning
  • Distance education and open learning
  • Open education in schools
  • MOOCs
  • Social media
  • Open access publishing

diagram showing nodes and strength of connections between the 8 themes of the academic article under discussion

Figure 1: Citation analysis map (Weller et al., 2018)

Research themes emerged both as clusters and as time ordered items, among other possibilities, the latter seen in a simplified form in this graphic:

another form of timeline this one vertical running from 1970 to 2010 in ten year increments. Items included are open education in schools, distance ed and open learning, elearning and online ed, open access publishing, OER, open practices, social media moocs, each of the categories gets smaller based on how recent it isanother form of timeline this one vertical running from 1970 to 2010 in ten year increments. Items included are open education in schools, distance ed and open learning, elearning and online ed, open access publishing, OER,

Figure 2: Timeline (Jordan and Weller, 2017)

More on the themes

Following is a brief survey, in point form, of each of the eight themes.

Open practice
  • One of the most recent and ongoing areas for research in the field
  • Definitions remain diverse and emergent
  • Prominent themes of connection to social media, open access publishing, OER, digital scholarly practices, open educational practices (research and teaching)
Open educational resources
  • Emerges around 2000
  • Began with learning objects, moved toward open source, open courseware
  • Links to E-learning, distance education
  • Influencing MOOCs and pushes toward open practices
  • A central force in the network
  • 1990s, 2000s
  • Related to technology-enhanced learning, web-based technologies, etc.
  • Maintained focus on pedagogy with technology
  • Gained interest of educators beyond open universities
Distance education and open learning
  • 1980s onward
  • Growth of open and distance universities
  • Included gradual shift to “open learning” - learner-centered pedagogy, fewer barriers
Open education in schools
  • Main focus in early 1970s - many early moves toward less stratification, streaming, elitism in education
  • Examples:
    • Plowden Report UK (1967)
    • US Open Schools
  • “Child centered” – individualization, discovery learning
  • Curriculum freedom by teachers
  • Access, flexiblility (locations, hours, open classroom configurations)
  • Most recent theme in the network
  • Relationship to “openness” not clear
  • Some shared connection with OER and e-learning
Social media
  • From mid 2000s
  • Web 2.0, blogging, communication
  • Moving toward open tools
Open access publishing
  • Later 1990s
  • Not strongly linked to other themes
  • Focused more on higher research than teaching
  • Important contributor to digital scholarship


The primary take-away for this module is the concept that modern education practice may seem completely new and leading edge. It is often new for individual practitioners and institutions. Taking time as a scholarly practitioner to examine past research, and to gain an understanding of the deeper history as well, has great value when creating “new” frameworks. All human learning, all ways of collaborative learning have strong ties and important roots in history, theory, and research. It’s worth digging around to examine the rich soil in which seedlings of new practice grow.

Day 3 Activities

Activity 1: “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

Consider the following topics related to your practice:Areas of low connection (“islands”)

  • Open education in schools
  • MOOCs
  • Distance education
  • Open learning
  • E-learning

Reflect and write down your thoughts about the ways that any two or more of these themes be related and relevant to your practice. What makes the concepts related, what separates them? How might your concept of open education be informed by considering these themes and integrating related bodies of knowledge with current practices?

Activity 2: Can you diagram or illustrate your reflection and ideas?

Explore More

Select any of these references for this module and read the full version, or suggest other readings that will enhance or shed new light on this lesson. Complementary, alternative or opposing views are welcome.

Jordan, K., & Weller, M. (2017). Openness and education: a beginner’s guide. Global OER Graduate Network.

Peter, S., & Deimann, M. (2013). On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction. Open Praxis, 5(1), 7-14.

Weller, M., Jordan, K., DeVries, I., & Rolfe, V. (2018). Mapping the open education landscape: citation network analysis of historical open and distance education research. Open Praxis, 10(2), 109-126. Retrieved from

Additional References

Cronin, C. (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). doi:

Ehlers, U., & Conole, G. C. (2010). Open Educational Practices: Unleashing the power of OER. In UNESCO Workshop on OER in Namibia 2010.

Hogan, P., Carlson, B. R., & Kirk, C. (2015). Open Educational Practices’ Models using Open Educational Resources. Retrieved from


Day 3 of Making Sense of Open Education by Irwin DeVries is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 International license.

Last modified: Thursday, 31 May 2018, 11:47 AM