Open Society

Rethinking the Open Society #oer17

Here are my slides from yesterday’s presentation at OER17.  All feedback welcome.


This presentation explores open education ideologies in light of educational technologies; recent political discourse; and the political philosophy of Karl Popper.  Since the latter half of the 20th century, “openness” has developed within stable frameworks of liberal/social democracy, and is now often tacitly assumed in many areas of society (such as open government, a free press, freedom of speech, etc.).  Over the last year we have witnessed considerable and sustained political upset around the globe, causing many to proclaim a crisis of liberal democracy. In the Anglo world, we observe a surge of support for ‘closed’ political positions, including ‘Brexit’ and the USA presidential election (Knapton, 2016).  There are indications that openness might form the basis of an alternative politics; the Píratar political party evolved from a single-issue focus on copyright reform to become the biggest party in Iceland, standing on a platform of civil rights and participatory democracy.  Slaughter (2016) proposes that the web is the new geopolitical theatre, and that the USA “should adopt a grand strategy of building and maintaining an open international order based on three pillars: open societies, open governments, and an open international system.”

Moe (2017) describes the difficulties inherent in developing and teaching critical thinking, especially within standardised education.  In the connected age, access to information and control over media narratives are paramount to governance.  In the age of ‘post-truth’ we need more than ever educational systems that promote information literacy and critical thinking. There is reason to think that there is a need to reconsider the ideological basis and commitments of open education and its practices, many of which remain wedded to traditional academic structures.  This may seem counterintuitive: as Weller (2014) suggests, the ‘battle for open’ is in many senses won, with a growing body of open access publication; open textbook uptake; open source tools for building learning environments; massive open online courses; and open sharing of research data. However, Rolfe (2016) has demonstrated through content analysis a fundamental shift in the discourse around open education.  Articles from the 1970s tended to understand openness in terms of widening participation, and with this came a concomitant promotion of humane values, fostering autonomy, facilitating the development of others, and a wider social mission. This approach has in turn been disrupted by the rise of flexible learning in higher education and the wide availability of educational materials.  By the time the OER movement had grown to a global force much of the debate had moved on to licensing, technical and implementation issues (Weller, 2016).

A reconsideration of the role of ideology in OER will be framed by elements of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1947).  Popper’s approach was hugely influential for Western liberal democracy, and remains arguably the most sustained attempt to develop a vision of society from the idea of openness.  Popper’s critical approach to education – which emphasizes the role of learner as so-creator of knowledge– serves as a model for making explicit the connection between critical rationality and openness, and provides tools for systematically reflecting on educational practice (Chitpin, 2016).


Chitpin, S. (2016). Popper’s Approach to Education. London and New York: Routledge.

Knapton, S. (2016). Donald Trump is a ‘vulgar, demented, pig demon’ says Hillary Clinton’s ex adviser. The Telegraph, 30 May 2016.

Moe, R. (2017). All I Know Is What’s on the Internet. Real Life Mag.

Popper, K. (1947a). The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol. I: The Age of Plato. London: Routledge. Available from

Popper, K. (1947b). The Open Society and its Enemies. Vol II: The high tide of prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath. London: Routledge. Available from

Rolfe, V. (2016). Open.  But not for criticism?  Open Education 2016.

Slaughter, A.-M. (2016). How to Succeed in the Networked World: A Grand Strategy for the Digital Age. Foreign Affairs. (Nov/Dec.)

Weller, M. (2014). The Battle for Open. Ubiquity Press.

Weller, M. (2016). Different Aspects of the Emerging OER Discipline. Revista Educacao e Cultura Contemporanea, 13(31)