The Philosophy of Open Learning

Peer Learning and the Intellectual Commons

by Markus Deimann (Volume editor) Michael Adrian Peters (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VIII, 152 Pages
Series: Global Studies in Education, Volume 32


In this book, internationally recognized scholars provide in-depth insight into the emerging field of open education. The Philosophy of Open Learning provides an overview of the current debates and introduces the reader to the overall discourse on open education. The broad range of topics, including MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and OERs (Open Educational Resources) is aimed at demonstrating that open education has emerged as a new principle for organizing higher education. Based on this idea, the book covers various issues that are backed up by thorough philosophical reflections that provide orientation for the heated debates. Open education is discussed in its various imbrications to other open movements, such as open access, and its relevance for education over the last fifteen years.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: Open Education—The Past, the Present and the Future
  • Chapter One: Constellations of Openness
  • Chapter Two: Openness and the Intellectual Commons
  • Chapter Three: Opening Up Education: Opportunities, Obstacles and Future Perspectives
  • Chapter Four: MOOCs, Neoliberalism and the Role of the University
  • Chapter Five: Posthuman Openings: Looking Beyond Technology Instrumentalism
  • Chapter Six: Of Two Contrasting Philosophies That Underpin Openness in Education and What That Entails
  • Chapter Seven: Another World Is Possible: The Relationship Between Open Higher Education and Mass Intellectuality
  • Chapter Eight: Open Access, Freedom and Exclusion
  • Chapter Nine: Open Learning and Social Innovation: Freedom and Democratic Culture
  • Editors
  • Series index

← vi | vii →




The ‘open’ of ‘open education’ has become a much more ambiguous term over the past decade or so. Although the roots of open education go back much further, the modern interpretation of open education has largely been aligned with the development of open, distance education models, such as that pioneered by The Open University in the United Kingdom. More recently, the influence of open source software, open approaches from the Web 2.0 sphere, open access publishing, open education resources (OER) and massive open online courses (MOOCs) has seen a wider interpretation of what openness means in education. There has been a rise in the popularity of both the term and its uptake by mainstream education.

However, this burgeoning popularity of all things open has led to confusion around the term itself. Does it apply to traditional distance education or openly licensed content or free courses? There is a danger in the term becoming essentially meaningless. Allied to this is a sense that much of the work in the open education field is implementation driven, for example, the development of open textbooks to supplant expensive, proprietary ones.

The field, however, in its more recent, broader interpretation, is reaching a state of maturity. Creative Commons was founded in 2001 and MIT launched its OpenCourseWare project in 2002. While the early phases of a field are often typified by application and advocacy as it reaches a level of maturity, more reflective, critical analysis is both possible and essential. ← vii | viii →

The work in this edition is a significant component of this emerging critical approach applied to open education. What does openness in education mean? What are its theoretical foundations? What implications does it have for new forms of education? These are the types of questions this book seeks to address. As we see more people appropriating the ‘open’ label because it has market value, establishing a theoretical basis for openness will be increasingly important. To be able to reference work such as this and come to a common understanding of the philosophy of open education will enable it to emerge as a discipline in itself. The focus thus far has largely been on the application of open approaches within disciplines, but there is a sense that open education can also be viewed as a multidisciplinary field in its own right.

This edition is a timely and critical contribution to this emerging field. The political aspects of open education are explored in a manner that is largely absent from most publications in this field, including neoliberalism and Marxism. Combined with philosophical underpinnings and the relation to humanism and the Enlightenment, the edition provides a firm grounding for the views that often shape open education but are rarely made explicit.

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Introduction: Open Education—The Past, THE Present AND THE Future



There has been much interest in open education over the last decade, which can be interpreted as another sign of the ongoing transformation from an industrialized to a knowledge-based digital society. Open education has been resurrected as a reform project with a long tradition in education history, going back at least to the Enlightenment, which brought about ideas of free speech and communication (e.g., via free press). With the advancement of innovative information and communication technologies embraced under the label “Web 2.0,” social production of knowledge (e.g., Wikipedia), open standards and licenses and a new way of receiving and distributing information have emerged with profound impact on educational practices. Openness seems to articulate an attitude that resembles the core spirit of education, which centers around the notion of sharing. On a deep cultural level, this involves the moral obligation of parents to raise awareness of the various meanings of sharing in the process of enculturation. It is also expected that teachers—as well as experienced individuals in general—share their knowledge to ensure the prosperity of a society. Interactions and collaboration are based on the willingness of sharing—not only information and time but also “soft things,” such as feelings of discovery and joy.

The liberal story of education and education as an engine of modernity is a history of increasing openness, politically linking education to the open society and its norms of freedom and equality. One dominant expression was succinctly stated by Immanuel Kant in “What is Enlightenment?” as “Dare to think for yourself !” ← 1 | 2 → where thinking is equated with “public reason” and its expression. Yet this history also highlights the troubled story of the relation between education considered as a fundamental human right and the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Philosophically, it might be argued that open education is a technological embodiment and affordance of the link between these rights. Freedom of speech as a right is traditionally justified in terms of the promotion of the free flow of ideas essential to political democracy and its institutions, especially as embodied in the institution of a “free press.” Ultimately, free speech limits the ability of the State to subvert other rights and freedoms. Perhaps most importantly, free speech is said to depend on the search for truth and thus is related to education insofar as it rests on the latest science. Educational theorists are also quick to point out how free speech is a significant personal and psychological good that promotes self-expression and thereby autonomy, the development of the self together with self-representation, identity and cultural belonging.

These justifications firmly relate questions of the self and self-governance to questions of democratic government, the search of truth and personal autonomy; while they suggest that there are overriding reasons for accepting that free speech is a basic political principle, they also imply free speech is not an absolute concept but a limited notion because it always takes place within a context of competing values (Mill, 2002). The modern discussion of free speech from John Milton and John Stuart Mill has drawn attention to limiting conditions expressed as principles, such as Mill’s principle of harm or Joel Feinberg’s principle of offense, especially where it can be demonstrated that so limiting free speech prevents damage to other rights. Freedom of speech in liberal society therefore exists in a tight network of rights and constraints that limit it. Momigliano (1973/2003) commented as follows:

The modern notion of freedom of speech is assumed to include the right of speech in the governing bodies and the right to petition them, the right to relate and publish debates of these bodies, freedom of public meeting, freedom of correspondence, of teaching, of worship, of publishing newspapers and books. Correspondingly, abuse of freedom of speech includes libel, slander, obscenity, blasphemy, sedition (pp. 252)

While openness in general both in political and educational terms defines and gives shape to the open society, the question is how it will shape an emerging global society and to what extent these freedoms and limitations can be developed and understood in a digital context.

We need to be cautious lest open education and education in a digital world simply become machines for producing digital labor (Peters & Bulut, 2011). The classic defense of the liberal society as the open society cannot ignore questions of political economy. Karl Popper’s normative logic for open scientific inquiry was also postulated as a model for political philosophy and theory where he criticized Plato, Hegel and Marx for advancing a utopian society based on the allegedly ← 2 | 3 → inexorable historicist logic of modernity. Yet he provided only a set of principles that operate at a metalevel rather than a substantive social philosophy, and he did not work out the implications of a commitment to the open society at the level of everyday communication (Moldoveanu, 2000). The Open Society and Its Enemies (Popper, 1945) was written as his “war effort,” Popper tells us at the beginning of the Cold War, well before the transition to the networked media society where information and communication technologies have fundamentally changed all aspects of our daily lives and redefined cultural production and consumption. He was not able to see how systems of meaning are becoming digital or the ways in which digital information can be infinitely copied, globally shared and distributed and endlessly transformed. Opderbeck (2007) said the following:

“Open” intellectual property rights (IPR) models suggest that opening the intellectual commons will spur development and promote a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources. Developing countries, which lack strong domestic IPR-producing industries, often favor more open IPR systems that allow them to adopt, at minimal cost, technologies and IPR-rich products that are produced in the developed world. (pp. 101)

Sharing has become the primary principle of a new global political economy that promises to transform education and thereby also cultural and economic development. However, on the other side, sharing has become a killer application for the global economy in the face of decreased revenue streams. Goods that have been consumed in a noneconomic fashion, like cars via sharing agencies for students, are now monetized by companies like Uber with the bypassing of state regulations and taxes. It is a smart semantic move to call this the Shareconomy, thus capitalizing on a long tradition with roots going back to St. Martin’s Day, that is, the Feast of St. Martin of Tours (316/317–397), that has been practiced throughout the centuries and within different societies without strict political rulings and economic incentives. Whereas the sharing of tools like drilling machines has been conducted in an informal way in closed communities, there are now global companies with platforms to exchange goods and services worldwide that portray a world where ownership is becoming less important. However, companies like Airbnb or Snapgoods are compromising the free market by subsidizing the supplier to compete with traditional providers, like taxi drivers in the case of Uber (Huet, 2014). The ultimate goal is to produce a market for every good possible and to push sharing into a strict economic logic, stripping down humanistic motives.


VIII, 152
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VIII, 152 pp.

Biographical notes

Markus Deimann (Volume editor) Michael Adrian Peters (Volume editor)

Markus Deimann received his PhD in educational science from the University of Erfurt, Germany and his MA in educational science and political science from the University of Mannheim, Germany. He is a visiting scholar at Florida State University and Research Fellow at the Open Learning Network (Olnet) at The Open University. Michael A. Peters is Professor of Education at Waikato University, New Zealand and Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is Executive Editor of Educational Philosophy and Theory, Policy Futures in Education, E-Learning & Digital Media and Knowledge Cultures, and is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.


Title: The Philosophy of Open Learning
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161 pages