Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 43 seconds

Philosophical foundations of “open” and manifestations. Early thoughts (related to #OER17)

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 43 seconds

Tl;dr I think “open education” has different philosophical foundations and not just different manifestations. I did a quick scan and didn’t find this idea being discussed elsewhere, but let me know if I am missing it somewhere important. 

I am building on some Habermas from my PhD thesis to work towards this idea.

Ok. So this is something I have been wanting to do for a really long time, since I finished my PhD and now with my upcoming keynote at OER17 I want to add something to it. There’s also an interplay between Laura Gogia and me which may or may not fit in with this.

I don’t have time to put all the references in this blogpost, but they’re all in myPhD thesis, which is available here

I feel EXTREMELY impostery doing this because I use Habermas a lot and haven’t read him properly. I also mention postmodernism in passing but I never feel like I know I what it is, exactly, but that seems appropriate for what I think it might be 🙂

So the thing I want to do is explore the philosophical foundations behind different kinds of educational… thought and practice, and relate those to each other. I will explain briefly how this relates to my dissertation.

I wrote recently (and Laura Gogia expanded beyond philosophy with a fantastic inforgraphic) about the different paradigms that inform educational research, from positivism to interpretivism to critical, passing through how interpretive/critical research may be more or less participatory, and how qualitative research can be done from a postpositivist, interpretive, critical or postmodern stance or something in between…. Depending on the researcher’s epistemological and ontological stance (these words still intimidate me but I think I know how to use them well if you’re not gonna ask too many questions).

Now the thing is… the 3 main paradigms align quite well with Habermas’s knowledge-constitutive interests:

  1. Technical interest in prediction and control = positivist (external idealist ontology)/postpositivist (external realist ontology – I think). The methodology and philosophy of the natural sciences, mostly, but also still used in social sciences
  2. Practical interest = interpretivist (focused on subjective experience and interpersonal understanding)
  3. Emancipatory interest = critical approaches to research that are interested in social justice. Critical research can be more or less participatory ; and can overlap methodologic with interpretive research. (my personal approach to research is somewhere between 2&3)
  4. Postmodern approaches aren’t something I understand fully and I don’t think Habermas talked about them so let’s skip those for now. But I do think that a postmodernist stance, sensibility, is relevant in today’s world and that a lot of my own thinking about certain things applies Laurel Richardson’s “crystallization” approach which is about having research and analysis highlight how shedding light on the same thing (a crystal) can produce a different story from the different angles, so that the same object of study can be multiple things at the same time. I don’t know if I am explaining this clearly… but I think you don’t need to necessarily call it postmodernist to believe that research and analysis can produce this. If your stance is 2 or 3 (not so much of it’s 1)

It is important to note how different methodologies look when applied to different philosophical stances and how different ways of analyzing data differs (e.g. content analysis more postpositivist; thematic analysis more interpretivist)

Ok. Moving on, when I learned about curriculum theory I saw the same pattern emerging as follows:

  1. Curriculum as product (focus on learning outcomes) = technical interest. There is also curriculum as content which is different but shares a lot of the (false) sense of value-neutrality of product curriculum so are often grouped together
  2. Curriculum as process (focus on interactions in the class) = practical interest
  3. Curriculum as praxis (focus on social justice as topic and process) = emancipatory interest
  4. Critical curriculum in context (as #3 but with recognition of how micropower in a class/institution interplay with broader macropower in the world). I mention this as a kind of postmodern/poststructuralist thinking. But don’t hold me to it.

It is obvious, then, that different ways of teaching can show a teacher’s philosophical stance, and that giving someone a teaching strategy that goes against their philosophy is pretty useless. At a recent workshop a faculty member said she realized what we were really suggesting was a shift in mindset towards the purpose of assessment, not just strategies. But I digres

Ok. Now in my thesis I apply curriculum theory to AUC’s liberal arts curriculum (I should write an article about that. But later). But also importantly, I found a reference (Johnson and Morris 2010) that makes a great connection between different conceptions of critical thinking and conceptions of citizenship. And Habermas. Here goes

  1. Technical understanding of Critical thinking = teaching informal logic and fallacies = approach to citizenship that is more about following rules
  2. Practical understanding of critical thinking = more holistic conception of critical thinking in context (i think the Johnson and Morris article skips #2 altogether- I should check
  3. Emancipatory understanding of critical thinking closer to Freirian critical pedagogy = critical citizenship as resistance and struggle for social justice

Ok now… this is all already in my thesis and scattered somehow. I am unsure why I never actually made a direct link (possibly too neat?) to say something like:

  1. If you conceive of Critical thinking as informal logic and fallacies you can test in positivist ways (standardized tests) and you can hope to get citizens who solve little problems but do not question the status quo too radically
  2. (blank)
  3. If you conceive of critical thinking as an emancipatory way of thinking and action then you won’t try to measure it with some decontextualized test, and your pedagogy would hopefully nurture citizens who question and resist and promote social justice

But anyway.

This is all well and good for the above. But it isn’t exactly what I am trying to get at with this post. What I want to get at with this post is that I think “open education” has different philosophical foundations and not just different manifestations. Bear with me.

I co-authored a book chapter w Shyam Sharma (out soon) superimposing curriculum theory onto MOOCs. We talked about how much of xMOOCing (and arguably Khan Academy and much OER) centers on “content” as central to curriculum/learning (and possibly specific pre-defined learning outcomes)…whereas a process-oriented view of curriculum would mean a MOOC would be designed more like a cMOOC, prioritizing interpersonal networked learning processes rather than any particular content. A MOOC could be any combination of these stances, and it would have an emancipatory stance if its topic and approach had social justice and critique of status quo as a goal (example for me is #edcmooc and some iterations of #moocmooc). Nothing is purely one or the other…but you get my drift? A postmodern take would probably be something like a rhizo MOOC (because it’s not necessarily critical but it’s definitely a different something for different people depending on where they’re standing, like the crystal!)

So now I want to shift this idea beyond the MOOC and onto open education and I want to consider multiple dimensions, ok? So it wouldn’t be just a spectrum on one dimension of technical vs practical vs emancipatory interest. But it would also be about different manifestations. I will try to create a table now and see where it gets me.

Early draft. I don’t know if it will copy onto WordPress! It doesn’t look great (i am on my phone and had to do lots of html editing already, so forgive me please – and if you want to comment on the gdoc version, here is the link – thanks @kavubob and thanks also @cogdog @kylejohnson @RebusComminity for helping w table – will make better use of your help tomorrow when on a PC).

Open edu/interest or paradigm












Focus on (measurable) learning outcomes

Focus on process of learning in class

Focus on process of promoting social justice

E.g. Interplay between macro and micro power and social justice


xMOOC with focus on instructor-provided content/outcomes and MCQs

cMOOC with focus on process of networked learning  and flexible assessment

Any type of MOOC with social justice topic and process (more c than x)


Open dissertation (inspired by recent VC hangout)

End product open access

Sharing end product

Process of thinking open,interactive, networked

Final product accessible and remixable

Critique as part of dissertation focus. Making it open for social justice reasons for self and others

Open access Publishing approach

Publishing end product of work publicly. Enhance visibility and citation count and metrics

Advocate for open. Making process of scholarship itself open, narrating work,enhancing remixability of work, responding openly to others (#SelfOER)

Cautious advocate for open. Social justice imperative to make one’s scholarship accessible ; done while recognizing limitations of accessibility.

Recognizing the ways in which open can empower and disempower simultaneously

Openness focus

Products like MOOCs, creation and use of OERs, OA papers

Processes like networked scholarship, open narration of work, open pedagogy

More critical use of processes of networked scholarship and open pedagogy; more critical approach towards open products like OERs and MOOCs

11 thoughts on “Philosophical foundations of “open” and manifestations. Early thoughts (related to #OER17)

  1. Hi Maha, this is a great outline and much to think about. I’d be happy to cross-blog with you about postmodernism some time – I did read a lot of it at college, and I notice ideas from PM thinkers used a lot in ed tech theory just at the moment. But until such time as i can write/think a lot more about why I find that problematic, thinking about your third category which I understand as critical research/pedagogy: do we need to say something about this as a reflexive space? i.e. there is an understanding we can’t escape the conditions of teaching and research as power relations – there is an attempt to situate those conditions within wider forces conceptually – but the praxis is to work with the grain of those relationships, to empower the ‘other’ to realise (learn or theorise about) them, to be critical in turn about the very situation we have established. I think it’s somewhere in Freire that ours must be ‘authority on the side of freedom’, with all the contradictions that supposes. Anyway, given the current attacks on ‘liberal values’ in the curriculum I just wanted to say that criticality is not so much teaching about social justice as creating curriculum contexts in which emancipatory (and if necessary oppressive) forces can be played out, inhabited and better understood, e.g. in the language used, activities promoted, and especially the relationships developed.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Helen. I think that you’re right about it being a reflexive space. The attempt to situate within wider forces definitely. Something a practical interest usually does not attempt to do. Kind of “if it’s working now, who cares about outside forces?”

      I am trying to unpack the distinction you make between social justice and liberation. By definition emancipatory means liberating, right? So I don’t think describing it as liberating explains it, it would just be tautological? Whereas adding social justice does (imho) explain it a little? Both as a topic and as an approach. As in, the critical pedagogue is both reflexive about how interactions in class express power dynamics, but also inserts into the class (even if it is a course on biology or engineering) a social justice orientation. What do you think?

  2. My immediate though– and this may not be an issue for you- is that the items in the far left column are not parallel as categories. e.g. MOOC isn’t the same as curriculum or research, but research and curriculum seem parallel. MOOC seems like a subset of curriculum and Open Education… and the last three seem like variations or subsets of what you are calling Open Focus. I have also seen the terms Open Pedagogical practices. It feels like Pedagogy is the same class/category as Curriculum and Research? Sorry this is sort of unfocused. I have been writing all day (and virtually connecting) and my head is killing me.

    I really like the direction you are going toward, I think, but your chart confuses the point I thought you were going toward for me…:-)

    1. Yes ur right. Except MOOCs are both a kind of curriculum AND a kind of open educational practice. I think I could do two tables of different levels of granularity maybe? The big ones are research, curriculum and open stance. The little ones would be critical thinking (as manifested in a curriculum) or MOOCs or such. In a way, how one does a MOOC is a concrete example of an open curriculum that we can analyze in this way?

  3. All of the things your post digressed into, and isn’t exactly about, is what gets me incredibly excited about personal epistemology, and why I think personal epistemology is so important to consider in instructional design, ed tech, etc.
    The table is admittedly a bit over my head tonight, so I can’t wait to come back and read it more thoroughly another time and see how it progresses.

    1. I so love that issue of LMT. Sian pointed me to it and I used it a lot in my postcolonial MOOC book chapter (u contributed to that convo, about a year ago)

        1. I was thinking that there isn’t an OA version! I will check w editors what to do about that…. But also, that means I can use lots of ideas in my OER17 keynote since no one has access to it! I may share little parts of my keynote w u ahead of time btw for feedback. Not too overwhelming (my idea is to share little pieces w different people so i get feedback on everything but no one person knows everything about my keynote)

  4. Hi Maha. We should probably talk about this. In a previous life I was (am?) a Habermas scholar and a student of Continental Philosophy more widely construed. I am doing some similar work around some of the philosophical implications of openness for a couple of writing projects at the moment (including an OER17 paper on ‘open society’).

    Here are some (not particularly well organised) thoughts on your blog post:

    1) Habermas does indeed write about postmodernism at considerable length. See as a starting point. I would also note that there is no theory called ‘postmodernism’ – it is a label applied to several (often disparate) thinkers. One common way into the discussion here is to focus on what has become known as the Foucault-Habermas debate (

    2) Most of what you have set out is from Habermas’s work in the 1960s and 1970s. I think you will need to engage with the Theory of Communicative Action ( for the ‘mature’ position on a lot of this stuff.

    3) I’ve only scanned it, but in your PhD you seem to rely on Grundy (1991) for your interpretation of Habermas. I would note two things about this. Firstly, there are lots of different interpretations available (including Habermas’s own interpretations of earlier works). Secondly, it’s important to engage with the primary texts because there are lots of dubious interpretations out there. The other thing that occurs to me about relying on Grundy is that lots of important Habermasian texts were published or translated too late to be included in literature that is this old.

    4) Most people find reading Habermas quite challenging (including myself). I at least have the benefit of a background in philosophy so most of the proper nouns and concepts are familiar. I am happy to try and help you out if you get stuck, but be warned – it is potentially quite a big undertaking. So I suppose one thing to think about is whether you need to go deeply into this stuff for it to do the work that you need done.

    5) If you are interested in collaborating on something, or would like to discuss any of this stuff, feel free to drop me a line. Twitter is perhaps easiest – my handle is @philosopher1978.

    I hope this is in some way useful to you and doesn’t seem unnecessarily critical. Good luck! And hope to communicate with you again about this.

    1. Hi Rob. Thanks and I will connect on Twitter and would love to collaborate w someone who understands this better than I! I am not relying solely on Grundy for interpretation of Habermas. It’s various interpretations including Carr and Kemmis and others. It was basically that I never set out to find Habermas or Foucault anywhere. But I would be reading my curriculum theory or my research paradigms stuff and I keep coming across them. So since lots of what I came across seemed consistent, I figured that’s how educators applied Habermas (which need not be exactly how Habermas intended it, and I understand is very partial). I remember about the Foucault/Habermas debate thing. I should read about it again. What I did seem to remember is that Habermas as a critical theorist wasn’t into postmodern approaches (I know it’s not one thing which makes it harder to identify but my understanding of the general sensibility, I think, is in that direction of thought? I can’t know for sure!)

      Anyway – gonna tweet you now. And be warned my resistance to reading difficult texts 😉 my undergraduate was in Computer Science!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: