Lambert, 2018

Lambert, S. R. (2018). Changing our (Dis)Course: A Distinctive Social Justice Aligned Definition of Open Education. Journal of Learning for Development - JL4D, 5(3). Retrieved from


This paper investigates the degree to which recent digital Open Education literature is aligned to social justice principles, starting with the first UNESCO definition of Open Educational Resources (OER). A critical analysis of 19 texts was undertaken to track dominant and alternative ideas shaping the development of Open Education since 2002 as it broadened and developed from OER to Open Educational Practices (OEP). The paper begins by outlining the method of texts selection, including defining the three principles of social justice (redistributive, recognitive and representational justice) used as an analytical lens. Next the paper sets out findings which show where and how the principles of social justice became lost within the details of texts, or in other digital agendas and technological determinist debates. Finally, a new social justice aligned definition for Open Education is offered. The aim of the new definition is to provide new language and a strong theoretical framework for equitable education, as well as to clearly distinguish the field of Open Education from mainstream constructivist eLearning.


social justice, Open Education, Open Educational Resources, Open Educational Practices, OEP, critical theory, definition

Key Ideas

The 2002 UNESCO declaration certainly is clear about its intended benefit for excluded learners in developing countries (UNESCO, 2002). However, the recently published statement on the 10th Anniversary of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration talks about collaboration, innovation and quality more than ideas of redistributing educational resources and opportunities to those who need them the most (Cape Town Open Education Declaration 10th Anniversary: Ten directions to move Open Education forward, 2017). Meanwhile, a consensus on a definition or purpose for Open Education remains elusive. This brings us to critical questions which lie at the heart of current unresolved definitional debates and which are the motivation for this research: Where is social justice in the contemporary Open Education literature? And similarly, is Open Education an innovation for everybody, or is it primarily about removing barriers to the marginalised and excluded? (p. 226)

Two-fold problem:

  • lack of clarity leads to an inability to measure progress
  • efforts will be inefficiently distributed leading to greater inequality

this research contributes a new understanding or explanation for a perceived lack of Open Education progress, an alternative account beyond the dominant discourse that if we could only improve awareness and uptake of Open Education policy or practice, we would be able to make it both “more accessible and more effective” (Cape Town Open Education Declaration 10th Anniversary: Ten directions to move Open Education forward, 2017)." Instead it argues that social justice outcomes for Open Education do not flow from the affordances of our technologies, nor any view of our “openness”, but flow from our commitment to design explicitly for it via the application of one, two or three of the principles of social justice. (p. 227)

Theoretical Lens for the Research: Social Justice Definition

For this research, the following definition of social justice was developed from the work of Keddie (2012), Fraser (1995), and Young (1997) as: A process and also a goal to achieve a fairer society which involves actions guided by the principles of redistributive justice, recognitive justice or representational justice. ( Redistributive justice is the most long-standing principle of social justice and involves allocation of material or human resources towards those who by circumstance have less (Rawls, 1971). Recognitive justice involves recognition and respect for cultural and gender difference, and representational justice involves equitable representation and political voice (Fraser, 1995; Keddie, 2012; Young, 1997). p. 227)

Example of an open textbook for learners of colour:

  • it is redistributive in that it provides resources for a disadvantaged group, helping them succeed in higher ed
  • if it contains no images and examples from the context of learners of colour, then it is not and example of recognitive justice;
  • if it is written from a white colonial perspective, then it is not an example of representative justice.

It is notable that a class of learners of colour could take advantage of the open license and revise the book to become an example of both recognitive and representational justice.

Most importantly, the example also shows that providing an open textbook to all learners, particularly if they are predominantly already educationally privileged, may not be social justice at all. Depending on the cohort and their needs, it may enable a range of outcomes for a range of learners. For elite cohorts, it may in fact give a further leg-up to those whom by circumstance typically have more. (p. 228)

Problem of 'openness determinism'

  • like the fetishization of technology assumes that the characteristics of tech will automatically improve education

For list of key texts, see table 2 (p. 230 in PDF)

Foundational Digital Phase Findings

As Table 3 below summarises, the key texts from the Foundational digital period 2002-2012 either do not address social justice principles as currently defined, imply them weakly or are present in the context or purposes for the work but absent from the often-cited shorter texts and definitions. (p. 231)

The sample texts often frame openness, OER, open-software community and/or the open movement as good because they are based on collaboration, sharing, and democratisation of knowledge. However, none of these are necessarily good in terms of social justice if the sharing and collaboration is primarily between relatively highly privileged Global North IT workers. (p. 231)

Broadening Phase Findings

  • OE more than just the dominant OER/permissions discourse
  • OEP conceptualized as teaching practices that enable innovation for all
  • still lacked clarity around who were the beneficiaries
  • openness still presumed to effect positive change (determinism)
    • this 'normative' account constrains other peripheral views
  • idea of empowerment as synonym for social justice
    • ignores the reality that openness may further empower the already powerful and do nothing for the powerless

Access, progress, and success are three key terms from the field of widening participation in higher education. The use of these terms denotes an attempt to change the demographics of higher education learners and graduates to resemble the multi-cultural, gender, dis/ability, indigenous, and socio-economic mix that occur in wider society. (p. 235)

Recently, the genesis and assumptions of OEP are tracked back to recent trends in the broader educational literature, namely social constructivist, student-centred learning (Cronin & MacLaren, 2018). I would suggest that OEP can alternatively be considered a contemporary online iteration of social constructivist learning, positioned against OER as a more positivist resource and teacher- focussed paradigm. The risk then, at this point in time, is Open Education broadening so far as to lose its distinctiveness and point of differentiation between mainstream eLearning or higher education. In other words, Open Education could wither as a separate field and become subsumed into the field of eLearning and/or social constructivist learning. (p. 235)

Appropriation Phase Texts

The analysis of the Appropriation phase texts (see Table 5 below) revealed a crisis point in the field where the term “openness” was overlaid with commercial meanings such that any sense of “open as common good” was lost and authors moved between wanting to abandon the term, to redefining and re-claiming what was “truly open.” However, as previously discussed, the fetishization of openness is a problematic form of determinism, which reduces the effectiveness of Open Education by not attending to the complex socio-cultural context of learning and technology use. (p. 235)

The 2014-15 texts from Watters and Rohs and Ganz signal a major shift in discourse as more empirical studies came to light identifying a lack of improvement in educational inequality from Open Education initiatives. Both texts signal a growing discomfort with dominant “access and openness as good” discourses, and identify a widening digital divide as likely outcomes should similar approaches continue. (p. 236) Watters’ text provides a powerful rejoinder to the determinist discourse that had been building over previous phases and which assumes “openness” can and will do the work of social justice. What Watters describes is the outcome of openness determinism:

What happens when something is “open" in all the ways that Open Education and open source and open data advocates would approve. All the right open licenses... All the right nods from all the right powerful players within “open.” And yet, the project is still not equitable. What if, in fact, it’s making it worse? What are we going to do when we recognize that “open" is not enough? I hope, that we recognize that what we need is social justice. We need politics, not simply a license. We need politics, not simply technology solutions. We need an ethics of care, of justice, not simply assume that “open” does the work of those for us (Watters, 2014).

Comparison with Recent Published Views

The present data and analysis backs-up and extends these observations to suggest that the dominant themes of contemporary literature not only missed out on the earlier insights but also took the discourse down a technological determinist pathway that requires a concerted changing of course to avoid a recurring lack of impact for diverse learners. (p 237-238)

Interestingly, in the last few years issues of recognitive justice and representational justice have also been debated publically with regard to who has a right to be included and to speak at Open Education conferences. There has been criticism and rejection of “manels” (male only panels) and the under- representation of experts of colour as keynote speakers, particularly those from the Global South who are highly active Open Education participants. It seems timely, then, to also apply these social justice principles to the experience of our students and their learning environments. (p. 238-239)

Recentering a Social-justice Purpose and Definition of Open Education

A social-justice oriented definition would be useful then to shift the debate from what openness might look like, to whom we want our openness to ultimately serve and how our openness might achieve greater educational and societal equality. As Edwards notes, "An important question therefore becomes not simply whether education is more or less open, but what forms of openness are worthwhile and for whom; openness alone is not an educational virtue” (Edwards, 2015, p. 253). (p. 239)

Proposed Definition

The following definition of Open Education is proposed as primarily about social justice, while still allowing space for secondary benefits by other learners:

Open Education is the development of free digitally enabled learning materials and experiences primarily by and for the benefit and empowerment of non-privileged learners who may be under-represented in education systems or marginalised in their global context. Success of social justice aligned programs can be measured not by any particular technical feature or format, but instead by the extent to which they enact redistributive justice, recognitive justice and/or representational justice.

The inclusion of the phrase “by and for... non-privileged learners” maintains the original intention of the 2002 OER definition regarding active participation by developing countries and the marginalised — rather than neo-colonial practices of the Global North doing things to and for those they consider disadvantaged. (p. 239)


The social-justice aligned definition of Open Education proposed here offers new opportunities for designs to be shaped as explicit social justice actions aligned to one or more of the three principles. It also offers the opportunity for new empirical research to measure the social justice impact of initiatives in terms of the way that learners who, by circumstance, have less are able to be provided with more resources, recognition or representation. It also suggests empirical research approaches attuned to demographics of privilege, so that access, progress and success rates can be investigated in both the more and less privileged cohorts in our educational systems. (p. 240)