Reflecting on the Impact of the Open Education Movement: A Reflective Think Piece

Gráinne Conole and Mark Brown recently published an invited article and critically reflective think-piece in the Journal of Learning for Development produced by the Commonwealth of Learning. The focus of the paper was a critique of the impact of the Open Education movement on higher education. It considered the impact of adopting more open practices on: learning, teaching and research. In terms of the impact on learning it described three aspects: Open Educational Resources, Open Textbooks and Massive Open Online Courses. In terms of the impact on teaching it describes three frameworks which can guide the design process: the 7Cs of Learning Design framework (Conole, 2016), the SAMR model (Puentedura, 2013) and the ICAP framework (Chi & Wylie, 2014). Finally, it considered the impact on research and touches on the growing Open Science movement. The article concludes by considering the barriers and enablers associated with adopting more open practices.


The paper argued that open practices have many facets and are complex, they are not new but are having an increasingly impact in education as a result of new digital technologies and in particular how people are deploying social media. There is a lot of rhetoric around the potential of open practices and naïve assumptions about their impact, but it is important to caution against this; they are not inherently good in themselves, but it is more to do with how they are appropriated. In other words, the nature of and benefits of open practices depends on the context, i.e. how they are applied and implemented. Cronin (2017) argues that the use of open practices by learners and educators is complex, personal, and contextual; it is also continually negotiated. Higher Education institutions require collaborative and critical approaches to openness in order to support academics, students, and learning in an increasingly complex Higher Education environment. Olcott (2013) argues that openness and open education needs to be viewed along a continuum with varying degrees of openness and access to knowledge as the guiding core principle.


Building on these perspectives we argue that openness is fluid, constantly evolving and can be understood using the metaphor of a kaleidoscope where different shapes, colours and patterns come together as visually attractive images, but they can change before your eyes and often in unpredictable ways. In order to critically read the different change forces and competing and co-existing perspectives influencing the Open Education movement, and the images they produce when mixed together, a type of double vision is required, which combines both a political and pedagogical lens. This bifocal view endeavours to strike a balance between the language of opportunity, firmly anchored in the mission of equity and opening access, set against a deeper level of critique.

The paper concludes by arguing that OER and MOOCs are important as they get us to think more about the learner experience and they challenge traditional educational offerings. However, more needs to be done to increase the uptake and use of OER and MOOCs anchored within sound pedagogical models. We need to more deeply understand what new digital literacies are needed to harness the open practice affordances of new digital technologies, particularly in terms of achieving the goal of education for all. There remains a distinct lack of discourse on OER and MOOCs at policy and strategy level and this urgently needs to be addressed if we are to truly promote the openness agenda. We also need to focus more on the development of senior educational leaders with an understanding of digital technologies and a vision for OEPs. There are also financial implications; institutions need to understand why they are investing in OER and MOOCs and how to evaluate their efforts. Importantly, we are teaching students for an uncertain future, to do jobs that we are being told may not even exist in the future. Therefore, we need to go beyond knowledge recall to develop the skills and competencies they need for life-long learning in the 21stCentury to be critical thinkers, critical consumers and critical citizens.


Chi, M.T.H., & Wylie, R. (2014), The ICAP Framework: Linking Cognitive Engagement to Active Learning Outcomes, Educational Psychologist, 49:4, 219-243.

Conole, G. (2016), The 7Cs of Learning Design, in J. Dalziel (Ed.), Learning Design – state of the art of the field, London: Routledge.

Cronin, C. (2017), Open education, open questions, EDUCAUSE review, available online at, last accessed 28thJune 2018.

Olcott, D. (2013), Access under siege: Are the gains of open education keeping pace with the growing barriers to university access?, Open Praxis, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 15-20, available online at, last accessed 28thJune 2018.

Puentedura, R.R. (2013), SAMR and TPCK: an introduction, available online at

Researching Open Digital Textbooks: From Books to MOOCs and Back Again

A research team in the NIDL has begun a study to investigate the current and intended future use of open digital textbooks in Irish higher education. Despite textbooks still being a common feature of the higher education landscape the open textbook movement has not yet featured prominently in Ireland. This claim is evidenced by our analysis of recent policy documents, institutional websites and the types of digital innovations shared through relevant professional bodies. A recent Irish case study of open education policy initiatives, which is part of a wider report describing open initiatives in 28 EU countries (Inamorato dos Santos, et. al., 2017), supports this assertion, as there is no reference to open textbooks.


On a related note, Ireland also stands out alongside of Latvia, Luxembourg and Slovenia in this European Commission report as the only countries not to identify MOOCs in the context of open education policy initiatives. The absence of the MOOC movement in Irish policy texts remains an intriguing gap, especially given the Government’s current focus on promoting flexible life-long learning. Notably, in 2017 the growth of MOOCs continued worldwide with an estimated 78 million learners registering for a free online course (Class Central, 2018). This figure is up by 20 million on the previous year and increases to around 130 million learners when China and other developing countries are included in the count.


While globally MOOCs are still a major force in shaping thinking and the direction of the “Openness” movement they have not yet replaced the textbook, as predicted (Class Central, 2016), and rather it would appear the level of interest and activity in promoting open textbooks is gaining momentum. For example, around a third of the 28 European case studies on open education policy initiatives mentioned above identify some type of current or planned open digital textbook initiative (Inamorato dos Santos, et. al., 2017).

Having said that most of the major open digital textbook initiatives over the past decade have taken place in North America. Of course, textbooks have traditionally been an essential part of higher education for the majority of students in the United States (US) (Fischer, Hilton, Robinson & Wiley, 2015).

While the Openness movement is anchored in deep philosophical roots the growth of open digital textbooks in the US has been partly a pragmatic response to economic crisis, underfunding of higher education and rising textbook prices. It is reported, for example, that from 1978 to 2013 textbook prices in the US increased 812% and that in 2014 a typical student spent about US $2000 annually on textbooks (Baglione & Sullivan, 2016). Another US study claims that since 2006 the cost of college textbooks increased by 73%, which is over four times the rate of inflation (Senack & Donoghue, 2016).

3.jpgDespite rising costs Allen and Seaman (2016) found in their survey of over 3,000 US faculty that virtually all courses (98%) require a textbook as part of their suite of required resources. However, at this point our knowledge of whether traditional textbooks remain core to the student learning experience in Irish higher education is largely speculative. With more widespread implementation of Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) throughout the sector and the growth of Open Educational Resources (OER) it might be reasonable to assume that usage of textbooks is declining but we simply do not have data to support or refute this assumption. In a similar vein, we have little or no data on the amount of money Irish students spend on textbooks to support their study, to what extent they decide to purchase them, and if the cost is a significant barrier to their success.

Although there has been a proliferation of OERs in most disciplines over the past decade the reality is the level of awareness, curriculum integration and repurposing of open resources by teachers at least in the US remains quite low (Seaman & Seaman, 2017). However, open digital textbooks – essentially a collection of OER aggregated in a manner that resembles a textbook but may also be rich with media and hyperlinks – are an exception as they have proven easier to garner the support of institutional leaders, policy-makers, and major charitable donors. This claim is evidenced by the strong lead taken by organisations such as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and government departments, as clearly demonstrated in the BC Campus initiative.


BC Campus began in 2012 with a project to create a collection of open textbooks aligned with the top 40 highest-enrolled subject areas in British Columbia. A second phase began in 2014 with an additional 20 textbooks. The project continues to grow with currently over 230 open digital textbooks available and at the time of writing the BC Campus OpenEd website claims that students have saved over $5m (Canadian) through the initiative, which now includes over 40 participating institutions.

In 2017, an open digital textbooks project began in the United Kingdom (UK) led by the OER Hub to test the transferability of the North American model of success to the UK context. More specifically, the UK Open Textbooks project is framed by the following overarching research question:

What is the viability of introducing open textbooks in UK higher education through the testing of two proposed models: OpenStax and OpenTextbook Network approaches?

 As part of the project a series of workshops has been offered throughout the UK along with the development of teacher textbook survey. The findings of this survey coupled with the growing body of research evidence on the usage, implementation and sustainability of open digital textbooks will inform our own work.


At a deeper level we still need further evidence to test the underlying assumption that the use of textbooks and the students who utilize them will have better academic experiences and demonstrate improved academic performance (Hilton, 2016). Putting aside any financial savings the real question is whether the development of open digital textbooks leads to a transformative advantage over the use of conventional resources. In other words, we should not lose sight of the risk of merely replacing an old technology (print textbooks) with a newer innovation (open digital textbooks) without fundamentally questioning the role and value of the textbook in new models of 21st Century learning. Set against this wider backdrop the NIDL research team has the following research objective:

Research Objective

To investigate the current and intended future usage of open digital textbooks in Irish higher education and their transformative potential.

Research Questions

The study of open digital textbooks is framed around the following series of (draft) research questions:

  1. What is the current usage level of textbooks in Irish higher education?
  • What is the current use of textbooks?
  • What is the current use of digital textbooks?
  • What is the current use of open digital textbooks?
  1. What awareness, experience and knowledge do Irish educators have of open digital textbooks?
  • What value do lecturers place on textbooks?
  • What is lecturers’ practice in terms of textbooks?
  • What are lecturers’ perceptions of the quality, suitability and potential of open digital textbooks?
  1. What awareness, experience and knowledge do Irish students have of open digital textbooks?
  • What value do students place on textbooks?
  • What is students’ practice in terms of textbooks?
  • What are students’ perceptions of the quality, suitability and potential of open digital textbooks?
  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of adopting open digital textbooks in Irish higher education?
  • What are the perceived pedagogical benefits?
  • What are the actual and potential financial benefits?
  • What are the perceived disadvantages of open digital textbooks?

5. What are the perceived barriers and enablers likely to influence the successful institution-wide adoption of open digital textbooks?

  • What are the major barriers?
  • What are the major enablers?
  • What are the key lessons for Irish educators?

There will be several phases to the research and if you would like to find out further information about this study of open digital textbooks in Irish higher education, then please contact:

Dr Eamon Costello <>


Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2016). Opening the textbook: Educational resources in US higher education 2015-16. Babson Survey Research Group. Available from

Baglione, S., & Sullivan, K. (2016). Technology and textbooks: The future. American Journal of Distance Education, 30 (3), 145-155.

Class Central. (2018). A product at every price: A review of MOOC stats and trends in 2017. Available from

Class Central. (2016). Which will win: MOOC vs. book? (Part 1 of 3). Available from

Fischer, L., Hilton, J., Robinson, J., & Wiley, D. (2015). A multi-institutional study of the impact of open textbook adoption on the learning outcomes of postsecondary students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 27, pp. 159–172.

Hilton, J. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: a review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Education Technology Research Development, 64, pp. 573–590.

Inamorato dos Santos, A., Nascimbeni, F., Bacsich, P., Atenas, J., Aceto, S., Burgos, D., & Punie, Y. (2017). Policy approaches to open education: Case studies from 28 EU member states. Available from

Seaman, J., & Seaman, J. (2017). Opening the textbook: Educational resources in US higher education, 2017. Available from

Senack, E., & Donoghue, R. (2016). Covering the cost: What we can no longer afford to ignore high textbook prices. Available from