Paul Stacey

The University of Open

I enjoyed the University of Utopia as a provocation. However, as the authors acknowledge, at this point the University of Utopia is largely a critique rather than an alternative utopian vision. That got me thinking about how easy it is to critique something and how hard it is to actually put forward an alternative.

Over the past two years I’ve been noticing a lot of commentary, articles, and conversation lamenting how out of step traditional institutions are with contemporary students and forecasting the demise of the university. Here are a few examples:

End the University as We Know It

The Impending Demise of the University

DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education

Why Free Online Lectures will Destroy Universities Unless They Get Their Act Together Fast

I read all of these with great interest and have considerable empathy for much of the disenchantment I hear expressed. However, my interest isn’t around the doomsday portent but in unearthing substantive descriptions of alternatives.

I’ve been playing around with some alternatives in my own mind and thought I’d work one of them out here in public. The alternative I’m imagining recasts the traditional “open university” in contemporary terms. It synthesizes multiple related “open” initiatives into a common core operating principle that defines the university and the education it provides.

I’ve started imagining a University of Open.

The University of Open:

  • uses open source software for its administration and for teaching and learning
  • involves students and faculty in research which is published in open access journals for all to see and use
  • operates in an open government/open data way whereby the learning analytics and data about the institution are open and available
  • offers credential education through programs built using open educational resources developed in-house and reused from elsewhere
  • involves all students and faculty as active contributors in one or more of the open communities that open source software, open access, open government/data, and open educational resources rely on
  • expands on the traditional no-entry requirements open-door policy of an “open university” to intentionally and strategically utilize new and emerging open pedagogies

Let me contextualize these bullet points with particulars.

Open Source Software (OSS)

Open source software is computer software whose source code is open to others to study, change, and improve. The fact that the code is open means it can be easily and quickly adapted. Customization and enhancements do not necessarily require large investments nor are they dependent on a proprietary vendors implementation decision or timeline.

There are lots of open source software applications in use in higher education. Applications such as Moodle, MediaWiki, WordPress, Sakai, and Drupal are all open source software applications serving the learning and collaboration side of higher education. Each of these open source software applications have developer communities (Moodle Development Community, MediaWiki Developers, WordPress Developer Documentation, Sakai Community, Drupal Contributors) that are open to anyone to participate in. Source code bugs, improvements and feature requests are all openly shared and managed within these communities creating a transparency around development that is remarkable.

Open source software also lends itself well to higher education institutions joining forces to form community based developer networks collaborating on development of key applications particularly for administrative systems. The open source software application Kuali is being developed by a consortium of universities and companies to handle administrative and operational tasks like general accounting, purchasing, salary and benefits, budgeting, asset management and grants. The system is designed around modules that enable it to be tweaked to work with other existing applications. As part of the consortium there are services for installation, integration and support.

openSIS is another open source software application built to manages student demographics, scheduling, attendance, grades, transcripts, and health records, and its parent company makes add-on modules to support additional features like disciplinary tracking, billing, food service, and bulk email/SMS messaging for emergency contact. In December 2010 the openSIS developers were being inundated with emails and phone calls from users seeking openSIS + Moodle integration to help them run their virtual schools or hybrid schools more efficiently.

There are lots of other examples including the JaSig community developing uPortal, and CAS (Central Authentication Services) and Internet2 – a consortium led by universities working in partnership with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies including products such as Shibboleth and Grouper

One key aspect of open source software development is that a large number of the participants in the developer communities are also users of the software. This removes the frequently wide gap between what users want and proprietary vendors are willing to provide.

In the University of Open students, faculty and administrators don’t just use these open source software applications they contribute to their development by participating in the developer communities. Students, faculty, and administrators at the University of Open are active investors in open. Faculty and administrators are expected to devote a certain percentage of their time to open developer communities but students receive “credit” for active contributions.

Open Access

Open access publishing is free, immediate, permanent online access to full scholarly research articles for anyone to access, read, and use. Since the 1990’s, with the advent of the Internet, open access has become a bit of a social movement in academia. The basic underlying principle is that publicly funded research should be freely shared with the public for the common good.

The impetus to move in this direction has been driven by two additional forces. First the cost to produce traditional print-based scholarly journals has been rising rapidly. Publishers recoup those costs by charging libraries a licensing fee to access the journal. However, librarian budgets have not been dramatically increasing and many libraries cannot afford to pay. The result has been decreasing access to research publications. The second force is the potential enabled by the world wide web. Digital publication means that it is now possible to publish a scholarly article and make it instantly accessible anywhere in the world over the Internet. The marginal cost of this distribution is $0.

Some academics and researchers open access publish through what is called self-archiving where authors place their article online in a place where it can be freely accessed by all. Some publishers are now doing open access journal publishing where they provide open access to their articles online, recouping their expenses by charging the author a fee for refereeing and publishing the article instead of the library for accessing the article.

At the University of Open all students and faculty are engaged in research and openly publish their research results through open access methods.

Open Government/Open Data

Open government/open data is a policy and legal framework to open up access to publicly held information, promote transparency, and enable wider economic and social gain. Open government aims to stimulate creative and innovative activities around the use of publicly held information to deliver social and economic benefits. Open government makes government more transparent and open in its activities, ensuring that the public are better informed about the work of the government and the public sector. And perhaps most importantly open government seeks to create more civic and democratic engagement often through social networking tools and voluntary and community activities.

The UK government is one of the leading practitioners of open government. Their web site provides some great examples of the kind of economic and social gain possible. They have even launched competitions such as Show Us A Better Way in the hopes that new uses for public information in areas of criminal justice, health and education can be found. See the winning idea here. Similar initiatives are happening elsewhere such as Apps for Democracy.

Closer to home the cities of Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Toronto have recently joined forces to collaborate on an “Open Data Framework“. The Open GovWestBC conference just took place in Victoria on November 10, 2010. The provincial government is increasingly making use of social media and is revamping public service with the first defining principle of the “Citizens @ the Centre: BC Government 2.0” paper being “We will empower citizens to create value from open government data.”

Open government/open data practices have yet to emerge in the context of educational institutions but in my alternative vision the University of Open operates in an open government/open data manner. The University of Open opens up access to public data it gathers and seeks to engage its members and the public in the creative and innovative use of that data to further the education it provides. One emerging area where this has tremendous potential is around learning analytics – the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections, and to predict and advise on learning.

Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources (OER) are learning materials that are freely available under a license that allows them to be:

  • reused – you can reuse the content in its unaltered / verbatim form
  • revised – you can adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself
  • remixed – you can combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new
  • redistributed – you can make and share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others

Implementation of an open educational resource approach involves licenses, software applications (store, search distribute, …), processes (design, development, …) and resulting content (full courses and course components such as learning objects, labs, textbooks, manuals, animations, simulations, and videos).

An emerging development in OER is open textbooks. An open textbook is an openly-licensed textbook offered online by its author(s). The open license sets open textbooks apart from traditional textbooks by allowing users to read online, download, or print the book at no additional cost. Open textbooks help solve the problems of the high cost of textbooks, book shortages, and access to textbooks as well as providing the capacity to improve local teaching and learning. Open textbook initiatives are making significant headlines these days as the education sector grapples with tight financial times. Here’s a sampling of the headlines:

Gov. Schwarzenegger Launches First-in-Nation Initiative to Develop Free Digital Textbooks for High School Students

Washington’s 2-year colleges out to beat high cost of textbooks.

Texas seeks open textbooks.

The University of Open develops new, and makes use of existing, open educational resources to create complete academic programs. University of Open credentials are based entirely on open educational resources. The University of Open educational resources are open to all including prospective students, existing students, and alumni students. Students, faculty and administrators at the University of Open all engage in developing open educational resources as part of their day-to-day activities. The University of Open provides credit to students for knowledge creation as the ChemWiki initiative does by giving students actual credit for contributions students make to the ChemWiki. Alumni are encouraged to continue their involvement with the University of Open by contributing new and improving existing open educational resources.

Open Pedagogies

I’ve deliberately called my alternative vision the University of Open to avoid confusion with what is now a long standing tradition of “open universities”. Historically, open universities have an open-door academic policy that entails no or minimal entry requirements. Open universities often base their teaching method on correspondence study or distance education where students autonomously pursue their learning in a self-paced way from home submitting assignments when ready to be marked by tutors.

In addition to minimal program admission requirements some open universities, such as BC’s own Thompson Rivers University Open Learning offer continuous enrolment, prior learning assessment and recognition credits for learning from life and work experience, and credit transfer to and from other universities. Many open universities were created to offer education opportunities to under-represented groups in higher education – school leavers who missed out on education while young, people in remote communities without the means or inclination to move to an urban setting to access a university campus, people with disabilities or mental health issues, retired people wanting to explore new interests, people wanting to change their career entirely, …

The University of Open embraces this tradition and extends it further. The University of Open is open to enrollment for students from anywhere around the world. The University of Open is open 24/7, has no place-based physical campus, and no residency requirements. Most significantly the University of Open moves the traditional correspondence model of education forward by adopting open pedagogies that leverage educational technologies, online instructional design, and emerging innovative ideas around open practices of teaching and learning.

Of all the “open” aspects of the University of Open, open pedagogies is the least developed. There is no “community” of open pedagogues for students and educators to participate in – yet. But here are some of the current explorations I see happening in the open pedagogies area.

Openly Public Teaching and Learning
I’m starting to see examples here in BC, and elsewhere, of educators teaching using blogs and wikis that can be seen by the public. The course syllabus, modules, activities, assignments and discussion are publicly visible. Students are officially enrolled as per any course but their learning is in the open, publicly viewable and in some cases the public is invited to interact, comment on, and contribute to student work. This moves education from a private matter to a public one. A good example is:
ETEC 522 Ventures in Learning Technologies

Massively Open Online Courses
Massively open online courses allow anyone to participate freely or you can register and enrol for formal recognition. Instructors only formally mark the course assignments submitted by for-credit students. Those freely participating can be as passive or active as they want and are encouraged to do all the readings and assignments, participate in discussions, and post papers for other students to view and comment on. George Siemens and Stephen Downes have been early innovators in this area. Examples of massively open onliine courses include:
Connectivism & Connective Knowledge
Personal Learning Environments Networks and Knowledge 2010 and
Jim Groom’s Digital Storytelling which starts Jan 10, 2011 looks amazing.

Open Study Groups
Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) an online open education initiative that provides free and open courses outside of the traditional university model. P2PU courses are offered by volunteers who work with experts and community members to develop a comprehensive course using open materials and an accompanying social structure. They describe themselves as “an online community of open study groups for short university-level courses” or “online book clubs for open educational resources”.

The University of Open

I expect you, like me, have been aware of many of these “open” initiatives. But, as yet, no one has really put them together as an inter-related whole. Its a bit like the elephant parable where a group of blind men touch an elephant to learn what it is like, but with each only feeling a part their resulting understanding is fragmentary and incomplete. All I’ve done is assemble each of these different open components into a cohesive whole – the University of Open.

Open source software, open access publishing, open government/data, open educational resources, and open pedagogies all share a common underlying philosophy. I think there is potential for untapped synergy by combining them together and pursuing them collectively. If the traditional university is doomed is the University of Open a possible alternative?



That’s a visionary and well-researched post. The OER Foundation is convening a meeting in Dunedin 23 February 2011 for the OER for assessment and credit for students project. A few institutions (Otago Polytechnic, University of Southern Queensland, Athabasca University and the OER Foundation) are getting together to plan and create pathways for informal OER learners to gain formal academic credit. This is one step on the way to constituting what we are calling the “OER University” — of course derivative works are permitted 😉 so the “University of Open” will work equivocally well :-).

Any chance you can join us for the planning meeting? We could benefit from your foresight and planning to make these futures happen. (See: )

Comment by Wayne Mackintosh

Thanks for the feedback Wayne. I’d definitely be interested in participating in the OERF 23-Feb-2011 meeting – let me see if I can make arrangements to do so at this end.


Comment by godsvilla

Paul, this is a really great start to enumerate many of the aspects of “open” that might contribute to a “University of Open.”

While I don’t disagree that the “University of Utopia” piece functions foremostly as critique, I do think it is important in wanting to move forward positively in the formulation of alternatives that we do not overlook the fundamental aspects of the critique which, if I may try to precis, connect the current formulation of student as consumer (and the knowledge produced within the University) with the environmental and economic realities they perpetuate. It is a call not only to openness but to radically rethink the relations perpetuated in/by/on our current institutions. While these may not be *your* intents in formulating a vision of the “University of Open,” I’d suggest that if “open” is not simply to be an instrumental strategy, but instead to reflect the radical changes needed and desired (and to some extent happening whether we like them or not) to create a liveable future, the “openness” needs to pervade into the very notion of institutionality itself.

I think the place this can be seen best is in the one open I think was left out, “open accreditation.” While this is at an even earlier stage than all of the other “opens” you cite, it is the step which will start to situate Universities not as the gatekeepers of Knowledge, a position they ultimately can only occupy now because of their collusion with instruments of Power in the form of Government and Corporate backing, but as one avenue amongst many in a larger learning society, that has an important but not exclusive place in the production and sharing of society’s knowledge. One example I’ve seen on this in recent days was the discussion and development of Badges at Mozilla’s Drumbeat festival.

Thanks again for this post, it is a great start.

Comment by Scott Leslie


Thanks for the words of encouragement.

I don’t particularly subscribe to the ideas of education as a commodity or students as consumers and so have tried instead, as you note, to put forward an alternative. This alternative sees open as an instrumental strategy and as a way of infusing openness into the very notion of institutionality itself.

Having all members of the University of Open be active contributors in the developer communities that are shaping open makes the education experience not so much a personal private matter but a societal one. The efforts of all students, instructors and administrators at the University of Open, as part of their daily activities, contribute to a larger set of open efforts that benefit all. This principle is at the core of the University of Open.

Thanks for introducing the idea of open accreditation. My section on open pedagogies needs much more development – particularly around open assessment and open evaluation which of course are the things on which accreditation is based. Institutional power is very much tied up in their accreditation role.

I’ve enjoyed reading through Mozilla’s badge project and definitely see how badges can be used as a means of encouraging engagement and constitute a kind of portfolio of achievement. It seems to me that the badge project distributes assessment, evaluation and accreditation across the network rather than confining it to experts within an institution and this I see as an exciting direction.


Comment by godsvilla

Paul, this is a great bundling of open concepts. While you’re not explicitly saying this, I think you’re suggesting the “University of Open” would need to be built on these principles from the start. As a way to retrofit existing institutions into a more open paradigm, I like the Students for Free Culture “Open University Report Card” – this unrefined set of metrics might be a good start to pushing traditional universities to accept open practices that will help them compete in the future.

*what about open networks and net neutrality, in general? does that belong in this list?

Comment by Pieter Kleymeer


I think the strategy I’ve put forward with the University of Open can be pursued by existing universities. It seems to me the most likely adopters could be existing Open Universities. In many ways I see the ideas I’ve put forward as being natural evolutions to such institutions as the UK Open University, Athabasca University, the Indira Gandhi Open University and other similar entities. If you were responsible for those institutions why wouldn’t you encompass all of open into your mission and operation? Its core to your very identity and a key differentiator.

However, having worked to create a new university from scratch and worked within a university I know it can be easier to implement new ideas, of the magnitude suggested by the University of Open, by starting fresh. Building a University of Open around the open initiatives and principles I’ve put forward as a new entity has a higher likelihood of success.

Thanks for pointing me to Open University Report Cards. Great sets of evaluative questions for assessing the extent to which a university has engaged with Open Access, Open Education Resources, Open Source Software, and other attributes I’ve ascribed to the University of Open. These questions act almost as a scoring criteria for assessing how close to being a University of Open an institution actually is.

And finally thanks for suggesting open networks and net neutrality as belonging to my list of attributes for the University of Open. I agree they definitely fit.


Comment by godsvilla

Pieter, I can’t speak for Paul, but from my perspective thanks for adding “Open Networks” to the list – the provision of unrestricted access (and the preservation of the right to anonymity) is in my books, another good goal/plank for any “University of Open” (or any University, period, for that matter.)

Comment by Scott Leslie

Super post, Paul, and I very much share your ideas. Could you look into making it possible for people to easily share your posts via twitter, linkedin etc? They deserve it!

Comment by Nataly Anderson


I’ve added RSS Feed links to my sidebar and a simple Share this via Twitter option which appears at the end of each post. Thanks for the suggestion and great to hear you share similar views.


Comment by godsvilla

A brilliant post, Paul! BTW, are you familiar with the work Roger Schank is doing at Socratic Arts and Engines4Education using story centered curriculum with interactive software? You might want to check out and as well as the demo project VISTA at….I think Schank’s work would be a natural compliment to what you’re advancing here…thanks for making a valuable contribution to 21st century education!

Comment by Marc Kivel


Great to hear you enjoyed this post.

Yes, I’m aware of Roger Schank’s work. I like the way he’s taken matters into his own hands and is implementing school alternatives. Its fantastic to see someone who not only critiques, but imagines alternatives and has the wherewithal to actually bring them to fruition. I think Roger’s work is particularly significant in its approach to pedagogy and place.

If others have similar examples of education alternatives, I welcome them. I’m particularly interested in digital examples.


Comment by godsvilla

I am excited about the potentials you have posited and would love to be “in the network” of the University of Open. Your research is solid and opens the door for further development and implementation … thanks for your thoughtful postings and positive perspectives on the future of open lifelong learning.

I am looking forward to learning more and reading the precis of the Dunedin meeting. I am sure it will be productive, informative and exciting.

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I am really enthralled to read this article. Congratulations, Sir Paul! I cannot express my indebtedness to you. In fact, in India, very few are aware of the initiatives taken by the Open Learning community and the education world is ruled by the sharks. And, therefore, it is all the more necessary, that people in my country read your wonderful work. It is great. In fact this article should be read by all who have any interest in learning. I hope this article gets wide publicity. I wish to translate it in Bengali and would seek your permission to get the same published in local newspapers. Of course, after translation first I would submit the translated article to you.
Thank you again for your monumental work.

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