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What is Open Learning?

Open learning is an approach to education which seeks to remove all unnecessary barriers to learning, so that as many people as possible are able to take advantage of meaningful learning opportunities throughout their lives.

The key principles of open learning are:

  • lifelong learning
  • flexible learning
  • access
  • learner-centredness
  • fair chance to succeed
  • recognition of prior learning
  • portability of credits

Sometimes people who want to learn have access to classes and courses they can attend where they live. But they may be working, or have family responsibilities, and be unable to attend fixed classes at a centralised venue and in the physical presence of a teacher. Or they may simply prefer to study in their own environment, at their own pace. To provide access for these learners, courses can be designed using distance education methods. In situations in which learners do not have sufficient access to the Internet or even to computers, these distance education methods may include printed course materials, and the use of the postal service for submission and return of assignments. They should also include provision for contact sessions as well as telephone support, so that learners have the chance to engage with other learners, and be supported not only to engage with the course materials, but to succeed in their studies.

Open learning gone wrong

Some people think that open learning simply means providing educational resources and inviting learners to sign up for as many courses as they want to do, without providing any support for these learners.There have been numerous cases in recent years of learners signing up for 'open' courses that they were unable to complete - either due to lack of time, facilities or support. Needless to say, these courses have left the learners feeling deeply frustrated, and have given 'open learning' a bad name.

Opening learning in the age of the Internet

Where learners have access to computers and to the Internet, the opportunity for opening access to learning is increased enormously. There are many courses which can be studied completely online – and at your own pace. The existence of Web 2.0 means that more learning may happen informally than through formal accredited courses. But the mere existence of courses and other learning material and information online does not mean that learning will automatically happen. In fact, these learning resources are so various and abundant that they may be much more bewildering or inaccessible than conventional courses. Also, learners not only have to understand the content of what they want to learn, they also have to use new tools for learning. They may be familiar with these tools and have the technology to support the use of these tools. But they may not. Without support, without courses designed with particular learners in mind, access may be closed more firmly than ever before. Supporting distance learners in the 21st century may be even more challenging than in the past.

But what about learners who do not have access to computers or the Internet? The point of a course like this is not to exclude these learners and pretend that they do not exist. It is to encourage those responsible for supporting learning not only to use methods appropriate to their learners’ levels of technological access, but also to provide support for the use of new technologies for learning.

In the age of the Internet, opening learning is also about opening access to technology. And the tutor is simply one small part of a whole system that needs to do this. There are national challenges, such as adequate infrastructure for access to the Internet, affordable bandwidth, computers in schools. There are institutional challenges such as commitment to computer literacy training for all learners. But change can start even with individuals, particularly if they work with each other as part of a community.

Empowering learners starts with empowering yourself, and then others like you, and then … in ever widening circles.


  1. To what extent have your own experiences of learning reflected any of the above principles of open learning? If these principles were not always achieved in your experience, what do you think are/were the reasons?
  2. How open is the education offered at your institution? How is openness balanced with structured support?
  3. What are the challenges to technological access that your learners face? How do these challenges affect their access to learning? What can you do to open learning in the situation in which you are tutoring or working?

Open Educational Resources (OER) and open learning

There is often a confusion between Open Learning (or open education) and Open Educational Resources (OER). Opening learning is much more complex than simply providing open educational resources, or OER. But OER can help because they are resources that are freely available on the Internet – you can download them for free, without having to go through the lengthy and often costly process of asking for permission to use them. The Saide OER policy expresses this as follows:

At its core, the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) describes educational resources that are freely available for use by educators and learners, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or licence fees. A broad spectrum of frameworks is emerging to govern how OER is licensed for use, some of which simply allow copying and others that make provision for users to adapt the resources that they use. The most well known of these are the Creative Commons (CC) licences, which provide legal mechanisms to ensure that people can retain acknowledgement for their work while allowing it to be shared, restricting commercial activity if they so wish, and aim to prevent people adapting work if appropriate (although this may be legally difficult to enforce at the margins).

For more information about OER, go to the Wikipedia entry on Open Educational Resources. This entry is itself an OER – and you can not only use it without asking permission or paying anything, but also even edit and expand the entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources

There are increasing numbers of OER becoming available on the Web – courses and resources for use in education.

The following are useful sites to explore.

  • http://www.tessafrica.net/ - TESSA brings together teachers and teacher educators from across Africa. It offers a range of materials (Open Educational Resources) in four languages to support school-based teacher education and training.
  • http://freelearning.bccampus.ca/ – This Canadian based web site offers free, open educational resources from across the globe.
  • The Open University's LearningSpace site, at http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/, 'gives free access to Open University course materials. In the LearningSpace, you will find hundreds of free study units, each with a discussion forum. Study independently at your own pace or join a group and use the free learning tools to work with others.'
  • http://oerwiki.iiep-unesco.org/index.php?title=Main_Page – This UNESCO site contains links to a great many open educational resources for educators.
  • http://www.youtube.com/edu - 20,000 videos at the time of launching (in March 2009) - all produced by educators in higher education
  • http://academicearth.org/ - 'thousands of video lectures from the world's top scholars'
  • http://www.younitube.com/ - also known as Lectr.com - more videos for learning
  • http://www.curriki.org/ - 'Curriki is an online environment created to support the development and free distribution of world-class educational materials to anyone who needs them.'

These are just a few of the free resources available on the Web - the list is growing by the day.


  • SAIDE. 2000. Open Learning in South African General and Further Education and Training: Report Prepared for the South African Department of Education, May 2000.
  • SAIDE. 2009. SAIDE Policy on Open Educational Resources.