What *might* be wrong with large-scale approaches to open education?: A lit review of scale in open education

When it comes to scale, bigger is generally accepted as better. We are encouraged to “think big” and warned against being “small minded.” In business, politics and online social networks growth in stock prices, political and economic influence and user counts tend to be seen as positive (Rosecrance, 1999; Tomasko, 2006). Education, including open education, has not been immune from this interest in growth and scale. It is therefore not surprising that much of the interest in open education has involved the development of pedagogies, methods of analysis and theories of learning that focus on and support large-scale approaches to learning and teaching (Roll, Russell & Gasevic, 2018).

Edwards (2015), however, suggested that “the task for educational researchers becomes one of engaging in a struggle over the specific approaches to open-closed-ness rather than pursuing openness per se as a worthwhile educational goal” (p. 255). Why then should we not take a similar approach with respect to scale? I see my research task as one of engaging in a similar struggle over the specific approaches to small-big-ness rather than pursuing scale per se. Within that context, even if we start from the assumption that large-scale approaches to open education will play an important role, how can we expect to determine what that role should be without first carefully considering the implications of scale, both big and small?

I am interested in considering the role of scale within the field of open education. To that end, I seek to explore: What might be wrong with big approaches to open education? What benefits might smaller approaches afford? As a first step towards that inquiry, I begin by proposing a scale-based conceptual framework for open education. I then use that conceptual framework to review the open education academic literature within the context of scale first “big” and then “small.”

Conceptual Framework of “Big and “Small” Open Education

Despite the longer history of open education (Cronin, 2017), the internet is central to the development of contemporary open education. The field has been heavily influenced by network theory[1] and a desire to enable widespread content sharing[2] (Macintosh, McGreal and Taylor, 2011). Within this context, two high-profile open education initiatives have emerged: the open educational resources (OER) movement and massive open online courses (MOOCs) (Bayne, Knox & Ross, 2015). As a result, what tends to set these contemporary approaches to open education apart from earlier efforts is an awareness of the shift towards an abundance of content facilitated by the internet (Anderson & Dron, 2011). For Weller (2011), this awareness necessitated something he called a pedagogy of abundance.  He explained that “while expertise is still rare… access to content associated with in is now on a different scale” (p. 226). He went on to ask two questions: “How can [educators] best take advantage of abundance in their own teaching practice, and secondly how do we best equip learners to make use of it?” (p. 232). Throughout this chapter, I consider how scale-related assumptions have affected how these questions have been answered.

Open educational resources (OER) are the teaching, learning, and research materials released under an open license that permits access, use, and distribution by others with limited or no restrictions (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007; Olcott, 2012; Wiley, 2010). Weller (2010) further divided OER according to their size. Below I explore Weller’s concept of big and little OER. I then extend it as a means of also loosely categorizing MOOCs according to their scale. I further suggest that this type of scale-based conceptual framework might also be applied to emerging open education, including open educational practices (OEP) and Open Pedagogy.

Big and little OER

Weller (2010) divided OER into two categories that are helpful for my work, big OER and little OER. He described big OER as “institutionally generated ones.” He further explained that “these are usually of high quality, contain explicit teaching aims, are presented in a uniform style and form part of a time-limited, focused project with portal and associated research and data” (n. p.). Funding of these big OER has historically been heavily funded by foundations, in particular the Hewlett Foundation. Big OER have typically focused on the large-scale transmission of open content as exemplified by partnerships between academic institutions with UNESCO and governments around the world to apply open licenses to publicly funded educational content (Cronin, 2017). In contrast, little OER might consist, for example, of a single image instead of an entire course. They also tend to be created and shared by individuals at low cost. Weller (2010) noted that the “low production quality of little OERs has the effect of encouraging further participation… they are an invitation to participate precisely because of their low quality” (n. p.). In so doing, he highlighted an important relationship: the relationship between scale and pedagogy.

Big and Little Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Emerging from the OER movement, Siemens and Downes offered the first MOOC in 2008 (Losh, 2017). Although the OER movement had an implicit historical association with efforts to scale up learning, the connection was made explicit with the inclusion of the word massive in the term MOOC. In fact, networked learning, a key learning theory that underlies the early MOOCs, was “defined by attributes of autonomy, reduced resistance to information flow, ease of connectivity, organic growth, rapid iteration and improvement of ideas and concepts, as well as ease of scalability” (Seimens and Weller, 2011, p. 166). This inclusion of the words “growth” and “scalability” demonstrate the depth of early assumptions about the importance and desirability of scaling up learning in a MOOC.

Stewart (2013) further demonstrated the depth of this connection by arguing “that networked learning opportunities at the scale MOOCs are beginning to reach have the potential to expose large numbers of people to participatory literacies and learning perspectives, even if and where facilitation and testing are highly instrumental in approach” (p. 229). Moe (2015) has since similarly argued that the inclusion of “commercial OER or branded content” within the field of open education is beneficial, explaining that “this array of producers at various experience levels is an opportunity for the positive growth of OER” (p. 357).  Both Stewart (2013) and Moe (2015) seem to be arguing that scale in any form, regardless of its pedagogical approach and intentions, is positive. The above arguments of Siemens and Weller (2011), Stewart (2013) and Moe (2015) further illustrate an ongoing presumption within open education that scaling up is necessarily positive. Despite this interest on scale that underlies the concept of MOOCs, I suggest that they can also be loosely classified according to their scale as little(r)/ small(er) and big/ large.

Little(r) MOOCs

As discussed above, structure of the early MOOCs was informed by networked and connectivist learning theory.  Downes (2012) explained, “Connectivist learning… is not a matter of transferring knowledge from a teacher to a learner, but is rather the product of the learner focusing and repeating creative acts, of practising something that is important and reflecting on this practice” (p. 11). This definition is important to my work in that it focuses on the mechanisms of the learning process, while remaining silent with respect to scale itself. Moreover, despite high numbers of registrations in early contructivist MOOCs (cMOOCs), Kop, Fournier and Mak (2011) estimated that only “about 40-60 individuals on average contributed actively… on a regular basis” in these courses (p. 82).

Big institutional MOOCs

Given this focus on learning processes as opposed to scale, it is interesting to wonder how matters of scale within MOOCs might have evolved if MOOCs had continued to be defined by these connectivist principles (Haber, 2013). In 2012, however, the cMOOCs described above fell into relative obscurity when two Stanford professors offered another open online course that attracted over 160,000 enrollees from 190 countries (Marques, 2013). Though it bore little resemblance to earlier MOOCs (Daniel, 2012; Moe, 2015; Rhoads, Carnacho, Toven-Lindsey & Lozano, 2015), and open advocates challenged the use of their appropriation of the term MOOC to describe a course whose content was not openly licensed, the name stuck (Marques, 2013; Moss, 2013).

This second institutional model, sometimes referred to as an xMOOC places far more emphasis on growing the total number of enrolments than do cMOOCs.  Rodriquez (2012) found that scaling-up of enrolments within MOOCs necessitated compromising connectivist teaching and learning practices. She went on to suggest that a big MOOC “essentially gives the traditional course a digital facelift” (p. 12). Moreover, there is strong evidence that these courses tend to rely on video lectures (Kolowich 2013) and automated quizzes (Guzdial 2013; Vaidhayanathan, 2017) in ways that tend to privilege behaviorist pedagogy (Hickey & Uttamchandani, 2017; Morris & Stommel, 2013). For many proponents of xMOOCs, the primary consideration is the advancement of massive participation that ultimately serve as “efficiency measures that hope to aggregate fewer higher-level (and higher-cost) educational encounters and standardize them for regularized future delivery” (Bogost, 2013, p. 13).

Knox (2014) correctly noted that there are sometimes overlapping and fuzzy distinctions between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, a constructivist-inspired MOOC, can for example grow to be quite large. Given the above discussion however, particularly Rodriquez’s (2012) findings, I suggest that MOOCs, like OER, can be loosely categorized according to their size.

Thinking big and thinking small

The literature of open education is typically classified according to the project being undertaken, whether it is associated with OER, MOOCs or another emerging field, including Open Educational Practices (OEP) (Cronin, 2017). Across all of these varieties of open, I suggest that all of these projects might also be loosely classified, at least along a scale-related continuum from big to small. Moreover, there is evidence that large-scale projects tend to receive the most attention and tend to dominate the open educational literature (Cronin, 2017; Rhoads, 2015; Weller, 2010). Returning to Edwards (2015) for inspiration, I therefore suggest that it is time to more carefully consider the specific approaches to small-big-ness rather than pursuing scale per se. As a result, I suggest that it is time for a critical analysis of the impact of scale, both big and small, within the field of open education and to carefully consider: What might be wrong with this focus on large-scale approaches to open education and what benefits smaller-scale approaches  might afford? In the following two sections, I explore these questions one at a time by considering the histories and entanglements of knowledge, power and authority first within big, and then within small, approaches to open education.

What Might be Wrong with Large-scale Approaches to Open Education?

Vaidhyanathan (2017) noted that “when saying MOOC, the accent is on the ‘Massive.’ Everything exciting about MOOCs comes from their… massive enrollments. And everything troubling and challenging about MOOCs reflects their massiveness as well.” (p. 297). In so doing, he acknowledged the simultaneous risks and benefits that might accompany new and unproven approaches to online course delivery. Such balanced commentary is, however, rare within the context of technologically-enhanced education (Giroux, 2014).  In fact, within the field of open education, the literature has tipped significantly towards the discourse of possibility at the expense of critique (Vaidhyanathan, 2017; Weller, 2010). Extensive positive claims have been made about contemporary open education, including its ability to overcome longstanding barriers to education (Edwards, 2015; Gourlay, 2015; Knox, 2013). Bayne, Knox and Ross (2015) expressed concern that the field of open education has “too often tended towards optimism, advocacy, and conviction, rather than a critical understanding of what openness might mean for education” (p. 248).

Knox (2013), however, warned that “it is precisely in this fashion though… that the OER movement might conceal more profound instances of power” (p. 827).  Knox (2014) further suggested “that ‘massiveness’ constitutes not only something unprecedented in education” but also something whose impact should be carefully considered within a field “that is becoming increasingly global in its capacity and reach” (p. 165).  The purpose of this section is to do exactly what Knox has suggested, to carefully consider the impact of large-scale approaches to open education and, more specifically, to consider what might be wrong with large-scale approaches to open education.

Untangling ideas of knowledge, power and authority within big open education

Speaking about the wider field of educational research, Sanya, Desai, Callier and McCarthy (2018) explained:

Explicitly and implicitly, educational systems and institutions imbue value into specific histories, ideals, lives systems, ideologies, and futures… These educative practices are not simply in the classroom, curricula, school policies and artifacts and rituals of everyday school life… They are also in the disciplining of students and teachers, determining what can and cannot be taught, and what knowledge is produced, valued, circulated, and censored. (p. 5)

Education matters and who control education matters. Making sense of large-scale approaches to open education requires considering the socio-economic and political relations that determine who uses them and why (Marx, 2010). The same is true within the field of open education (Knox 2017).

Almeida (2017) called for an untangling of ideas related to access and ethics within open education and advocated “questioning the ‘relationships among knowledge, authority, and power’ that contribute to neoliberalism, social inequity, and to the problems with dominant systems of academic knowledge production” (p. 7). The following sections consider the implications of these relationships between knowledge, authority and power within large-scale approaches to open education.

Big open and knowledge

Knowledge-sharing is a central concept within open education. Knox (2017) contended that there is a need to:

develop a scholarship of the MOOC itself, to examine how this high-profile course format is impacting our ideas of what education is, and in turn, how it is involved in both reflecting and shaping ‘us’, as human beings embroiled in increasingly global educational practices.” (p. 389)

I agree with this contention. Reviewing the critical open education literature, it appears that large-scale approaches to open education may, often unintentionally, support the process of “learnification” (Biesta, 2009), reinforce colonial power structures and enforce invisible forms of control.

 “Learnification” of knowledge

Knox (2013) was deeply concerned with “the ways in which learners are being framed by the promotion of OER” as completely capable of autonomous and self-directed study (p. 822). He contended that via OER, open education runs the risk of being seen as a completely individual endeavour. Several critics, including Knox, have further argued that this approach will inevitably lead to a two-tiered approach to learning in which some students pay tuition and being taught by most-often on campus faculty using and sharing OER to augment instruction while others are expected to self-teach with access only to the OER resources (Almeida, 2017; Knox, 2013). Similarly, Gajjala, Behrmann, Birzescu, Corbett and Bondor (2017) noted that within the dominant MOOC paradigm, “‘massive’ dissemination… is considered/ mistaken as ‘participation’ and ‘inclusion’” (p. 142). These ideas to appear to align with a longer term broad conceptual shift towards that Biesta (2009) called the “learnification” of education that involves “the translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and learners” (p. 3).

Colonial approaches to knowledge

Huijser, Bedford, & Bull (2008) pointed out that many big open education initiatives involve the “dumping” of content onto the internet in the hopes that someone else will find and use it. As a result, “content creation (including educational content) on the Web is currently heavily dominated by the developed and English-speaking world” (para 9). This contention was supported by Atenas (2012) who found that more that half of OER repositories were Western. Christen (2012), however, highlighted that this type of content dumping has deeply colonial roots closely tied to the “collecting history of Western nations [that] is comfortably forgotten in the celebration of freedom and openness” (p. 2876).

Crissinger (2015) further pointed out that in relation to open education, assuming that access to more information can in and of itself alter “exploitative colonialist histories and deeply rooted structural oppression… is [often] blind to an understanding of structural issues” (para 18). Similar ideas are reflected in a small but growing body of critical literature within the field (Almeida, 2017; Bates, 2015; Haider & Bawden, 2006; Knox, 2013). As a result, big open education can, and often has been, working at cross-purposes from the very goals it has purported to achieve for more than 25 years (Billsberry, 2013; Gourlay, 2015; Koh, 2017).

Invisible control of knowledge

Many open educators adopt big, corporate technological platforms like Twitter, Facebook and MOOC platforms to support their efforts. Might there, however, be risks associated with that approach?  Truscello (2003) described a secretive discourse taking place within an operating computer that reinforces the status of the ruling class without its subjects understanding the terms of their subjection; meaning is hidden from the masses through its compilation within, most often proprietary, source code. Gajjala (2011) compared computer software to railway tracks and roads that enable access along only some routes and for only some populations. Gajjala (2013) further explained:

While bodies and cultural objects are coded as interchangeable and made visible as agents of difference, democracy and multiculturalism codes are standardized and these individual agents of so-called change are placed on naturalized technical platforms. Code is made invisible. (p. 136)

Cottom (2016) further reiterated that “digitization is not a neutral process in social relations” (p. 12). She argued that new digital technologies and processes cannot be expected to be democratizing, but instead will reproduce the unequal social relationships of the society that produces them. Although in the above quotes Truscello, Gajjala and Cottom were speaking about technological platforms in general, Gajjala et al. (2017) suggested that the tools used within the field of open education are not immune to these realities:

The contradiction of individual control over learning counters online surveillance and digital platform design. Algorithm and community bylaws together produce opaque hierarchies and invisible control over the process where the rules of so-called participation and the level playing field have the potential to exploit and oppress. Centralization of power still exists as MOOCs render very little opportunity for knowledge production beyond the limits of the MOOC’s objective. Furthermore, [they] promote education through the guise of neutrality. The MOOC professor assumes the position of the omnipotent gatekeeper of knowledge who draws from fact (p. 146)

As a result, within large-scale open education initiatives, learners and teachers fall under invisible forms of control, many of which are not aligned with their values and interests. Funes and Mackness (2018) pointed out the exclusionary implications of using social media platforms like Twitter, Google and Facebook, whose design issues include algorithms that “demote posts that lack engagement ensuring only the loudest voices are heard” (p. 122). Both open education and the technologies that support it are, therefore, never neutral or objective.

Instead, open education initiatives based on the use on large-scale, mainstream tools often normalize the use of features like personalization, automation, gamification and data tracking. At the same time, both students and teachers are frequently exposed to the largest-ever surveillance network without their knowledge or informed consent (deJong, 2015; O’Brien & Farris, 2014). Simpson (2014) eloquently explained the risks of such as approach. She warned that if we “learn to normalize dominance and non-consent within the context of education, then non-consent becomes a normalized part of the ‘tool kit’ of those who have and wield power.” (p. 15). As a result, rather than opening up new ways of interacting with and learning from one another, the use of mainstream large-scale tools to support open education initiatives further regulate educators and learners, standardizing our actions via code that decides, for us, what is and is not possible.

Big open and power

Selwyn and Facer (2013) explained that “digital technologies are now an integral component of the new governance of educational institutions and those who work within them along neoliberal principles… of control” (p. 4). Jones (2014) further connected open education to neoliberal ideologies explaining that:

The development of networked learning largely coincided with the development of neo-liberal politics in advanced industrial countries and the technologies deployed to enable networked learning are largely the outcome of design and development carried out by large multi-national US based corporations… The drive for productivity gains, a drive for ‘more for less’, informs the hype and policy motivation behind xMOOCs because they seem to offer a way to enable cheaper and wider access to higher education. (p. 170)

The advent of contemporary open education and advance of neo-liberalism may have started as a coincidence, but the field’s subsequent growth was no accident.  Lyotard (1984) explained that “capitalism solves the scientific problem of research funding in its own way: directly by financing… private companies, in which demands for performativity and recommercialization… and indirectly by creating private, state and mixed-sector research foundations” (p. 45). Both of these “solutions” have had a significant impact on the trajectory of open education research.

Foundation funding as power

The history of large-scale funding of the open education movement began with the Hewlett Foundation’s investment of 170 million dollars in OER over 15 years. Between 2004 and 2010, their agenda focused on global adoption of OER to the traditionally underserved in both the developed and developing worlds (Caswell, Henson, Jensen & Wiley, 2008; Bliss & Smith, 2017). Correspondingly, research centered on topics like “giving knowledge for free” (Hylen, 2006) and addressing the “digital divide” (Smith & Casserly, 2006;  Lane, 2009; Haßler & Jackson, 2010; Kanwar, Kodhandaraman & Umar, 2010).

By 2011, Hewlett had shifted their focus. As “they provided grants for creating more polished, market-ready primary resource products, such as full end-to-end K–12 curricula and complete textbooks aligned to higher education courses” (Bliss & Smith, 2017, p. 17), academic research also shifted its focus; a significant body of research related to the use of OER as a solution to high textbook costs emerged (see Redden, 2011; Silver, Stevens & Clow, 2012; Raneri & Young, 2016; Bliss, Hilton, Wiley & Thanos, 2013; Wiley, Hilton, Ellington & Hall, 2012).  While there is significant research on the dollar savings related to the use of open textbooks (Weller, de los Arcos, Farrow, Pitt & McAndrew, 2017), the critical open education literature addressing their potential consequences for faculty, students and research has, however, remained scarce (Almeida, 2017; Knox, 2013).

Venture capital as power

While interest in OER began to shift to the pragmatic, MOOCs quickly captured the imagination of the private foundations. The Gates Foundation allocated millions of dollars to support the edX platform (Rhoads, 2015) and the popularity of MOOCs exploded soon after (Solomon, 2012; Meyer, 2012; Losh, 2017). More money followed as MOOC platform developers found themselves “at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley” (Caulfield, 2012, para. 10). Udacity, for example, received $15 million from a single venture capitalist and Coursera raised $43 million from investors that included the World Bank. Quickly these start-ups with close ties to Ivy League schools racked up millions of course registrations (Lewin, 2012; DeSantis, 2012). These investors have however become increasingly interested in seeing a return on their investment. As a result, although the MOOC movement emerged from the OER movement, over time there has been a shift among the big MOOC platforms towards placing both legal and defacto restrictions on the use of content within these proprietary tools. In these ways, corporate interests have leveraged their power to fund large-scale initiatives and research. In the process, they have successfully set and re-set the agendas of large-scale research in open education and related fields over the last 25+ years.

Long-term consequences

Like much of the educational technology that preceded it, big open education initiatives in the form of both big OER and big MOOCs have not resulted in the transformational changes envisioned by their wealthy funders. Despite inducing significant research and seducing the media, they have neither revolutionized education nor generated a significant return on investment. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, some funders and researchers are again looking for new alternatives. One such example is another emerging field learning at scale. Funded by the Gates Foundation (Gasevic, Kovanovic, Joksimovic & Siemens, 2014), learning at scale is described “as the study of the technologies, pedagogies, analyses, and theories of learning and teaching that take place with a large number of learners and a high ratio of learners to facilitators” (Roll, Russell & Gašević, 2018, p. 473). In this iteration of foundation-funded educational research, the concept of “open” has been marginalized and scale has become the primary variable of interest.

As the attention of powerful funders shifts to other emerging fields, what does it mean for researchers and practionners who are unable or unwilling to pivot? Wiley (2007) identified the as an early concern.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has put millions of dollars into university-based open educational resource projects around the world. Given the current budget climate for education, a concern naturally arises about the future of the university-based open educational resource projects. What will happen when the targeted external dollars dry up? Will the initiatives themselves also dry up? How are these initiatives to sustain themselves over time? (p. x)

These questions, however, received little attention. Reviewing the limited literature associated with big open education funding models that dos exist, sustainability and increased demands on faculty arise as concerns. Sclater (2010) noted an overreliance on impermanent sources of revenue. Moreover, most large-scale OER initiatives, including Utah State’s high-profile Open Courseware Movement, have failed to survive beyond the usual span of start-up funding (Friesen, 2009; Kanwar, Kodhandaraman & Umar, 2010).

Winn (2012) stressed that big open education initiatives do not offer an alternative to “the capitalist form of social domination” (p. 134). He further contended that under capitalism, big OER ensure that “employees are as productive as possible within the limits of time and space” by creating an object that defies constraints while creating continuous value for institution (p. 141). Where OER initiatives do continue post-funding, there is growing evidence that they are maintained most often to educators who receive no monetary benefits, a situation that might lead to this form of work becoming, at once, both expected and devalued (Almeida, 2017; Crissinger, 2015). Moreover, in many cases big OER have become a source of marketing for universities and revenue for governments (Bogost, 2017; Huijser, Bedford & Bull, 2008; Lawson, 2015; Watters, 2014; Weller, 2010). In these ways, big open education initiatives appear to have, often inadvertently, ceded ground to techno-libertarians (Bogost, 2017; Kember, 2014).

Almeida (2017) asked, “Why has a movement that at its core questions who has the right to access and contribute to scholarship, not prompted a sufficient critical confrontation of these relationships already?” (p. 6). Using the academic literature, it is difficult to link this scarcity of critical research within open education directly to the powerful of funding organizations as discussed in the previous section, but it is also difficult to believe there is no connection; investors and private foundations have no incentive to fund critical research in the field.

“Digital feudalism”

Beyond funding research, power has and continues to be exerted within open education in a variety of ways. Gajjala (2011) noted that the re-entrenchment of current power structures “occurs through acts ranging from legislation labelling some internet users ‘pirates,’ to purchasing social networking sites” (p. 96). As mentioned in the previous see, corporations exert a form of invisible control. Through their algorithms, proprietary platforms select what we see and see first; they further moderate who and what is allowed via their terms of service. In so doing, they support a form of “digital feudalism” (Schneier, 2013) or “digital imperialism” (Watters, 2014) in which the privacy and security of users is decided on their behalf by others, with neither their input nor consent, thereby allowing those already with power to “rearticulate new forms of hegemony” (Gajjala, 2011). Although educators are continuously making choices related to the use of online tools, their impacts are rarely discussed (Morgan, 2019).

Big open, authority and media hype

Lyotard (1984) explained that the games of scientific language “become the games of the rich, in which whoever is wealthiest has the best chance of being right. An equation between wealth, efficiency, and trust is thus established” (p. 45).  Just as the trajectory of big open education was set by powerful funders, it was equally shaped by the media attention it received. In what Vaidhyanathan (2017) called “the dawn of a new era of unfounded hyperbole” (p. 296), many promises have been made regarding the transformative potential of open education.

Large-scale open education initiatives have regularly been positioned as a response to a crisis (Almeida, 2017). Early in the OER movement that crisis was the lack of access to high quality educational content in the developing world. OER and MOOCs were heralded as innovations that will enhance the quality of life, bring people out of poverty and transform society (Caswell, Henson, Jensen & Wiley, 2008; D’antoni, 2008; Weissmann, 2012; Wiley, 2008). Proponents of open education have regularly touted it as a mechanism to provide “access to learning opportunities to those who would not otherwise be able to obtain them,” (Downes, 2010) and as “a great step forward for humanity” (Koch, 2012, para. 10). More recently, big open education has been touted as the remedy for global school closures due to the COIVD-19 pandemic (everyone, everywhere).

In what Beer (2000) might consider a narrative swerve, open education has however also became a response to the perceived need for more efficient and modern teaching practices. Seely Brown and Adler (2008), for example, described open education as a “perfect storm of opportunity” capable of both addressing both a “growing global demand for education” and the inefficiency of “current methods of teaching and learning” by leveraging the internet’s capacity to share information at infinitely increasing scale.   Large-scale open education has therefore often been presented as “the key not only to solving the global education crisis but to unlocking sustainable global growth in the 21st century” (Daniel & Killion, 2012, para. 2).

In so doing, however, excellent work being done by professors to integrate digital and multimedia tools into their small traditional face-to-face and online classes has been obfuscated, as has the fact that developing and running large-scale open education initiatives costs rather than saves professors and institutions money (Vaidhyanathan, 2017). Almeida (2017) further argued that a specific type of “open rhetoric” has significantly increased the profile of open education initiatives and has led to the creation of an “open brand” that “replicates inequities inherent in our current education system while using the language of emancipation.” (p. 6). Despite these realities, the hype surrounding big open education persists because “spectacle-driven corporate media” continues to repeat them (Nixon, 2011, p. 23). As Watters (2016) explained, “if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized” (para. 10).

In summary:  What might be wrong with “big”?

As discussed throughout this section, big approaches to open education tend to form and be formed by specific relationships between knowledge, power and authority. Based on the academic literature, it appears that scaled up approaches to open education might be having a significant impact on how we think about learning and knowledge. Big approaches to open education might support a move towards learnification, re-entrench colonial ideas and enable control of the system by powerful actors via invisible forms of control.

Large scale approaches to open education might therefore also, at least among some proponents, support the contention that learning can and/or should be unharnessed from human relationship and community. Moreover, the influence of heavy funding from venture capitalists and foundations may have influenced the trajectory of the open education research agenda, resulting in a lack of critical research and sustainable approaches to open education. Furthermore, there is evidence that big open education initiatives and the hype that has surrounded them, often unintentionally, might further re-entrench neoliberal agendas. As a result, big, heavily funded the risk that big open education projects might not be driven by the needs of students or educators, but instead attend to the needs of massive corporations seeking to sell us all another vacation, medication or pair of shoes might be significant.

Throughout this section I have explored the academic literature of open big education. If I could take only one thing away from this exploration, it would be that the answer to questions of access to education and the development of knowledge will not likely be solved by “big.” Drawing from Doctorow (2018), I believe that big, both in “big tech” and “big open education” represents a big problem. In Stewart (2013), however, I also see an opportunity to decouple open education from big scale approaches to education.  She wrote:

The decentralized, distributed nature… of one’s learning builds on the particular capacities of digital technologies: replicability enables remix and repurposing, searchability enables navigation of decentralized environments, and scalable sharing may lead to unintended audiences. (p. 233) [strikeout added]

Is any of the teaching and learning potential of open approaches to education lost by removing the word “scalable” from Stewart’s quote? Might it be possible to achieve remixing, repurposing and decentralization without seeking scale? Might working at a smaller scale enhance, rather than detract from these possibilities? Because of the impact of scale has had on shaping the field of open education, these increasingly feel like questions worth asking.

What benefits might smaller-scale approaches to open education afford?

In the previous section, I focused on untangling the concepts of big open education by considering its relationships between knowledge, power and authority.  Critically questioning the impact of scale and searching for alternatives is something that, in terms of dollars, pays me, but also nothing costs me nothing (unless I include my doctoral student fees ). Moreover, I am not alone. Many technologists and open educators have had first-hand experiences with learning within open communities where achieving scale was not the primary objective (Mackness & Bell, 2015).

In this section, I review the academic literature of small(er)-scale approaches to open education. In the previous section I focused on the relationships between knowledge, power and authority within large-scale approaches within the open education. To that end, I explore the relationships between knowledge, power and authority have been expressed within the academic literature of smaller-scale approaches to open education. While remaining mostly silent issues of scale, these authors tend to downplay the need to scale enrollments, funding and technologies. They instead advocate for a process of learning that involves collectively making and sharing. Moreover, they do not position their work as large-scale solutions to structural global issues, but instead focus on developing and empowering people on a distinctly smaller, perhaps a more human, scale.

Small(er) open and knowledge

As discussed earlier, the original definition of connectivist learning was silent with respect to scale. It was instead defined as the process of a “learner focusing and repeating creative acts, of practising something that is important and reflecting on this practice” (Downes, 2012, p. 11). This definition points to the possibility that when scaling up is not the primary consideration, the concept of knowledge might itself be different; a reasonably-well studied connectivist-inspired MOOC series entitled Rhizo 14/15 offers some additional clues.

Within the Rhizo 14/15 MOOC series, Honeychurch, Stewart, Bali, Hogue and Cormier (2014) highlighted the positive outcomes for a group of about 50 participants that came in the form of “sustained channels for meta-discussions—and heated debate—about community, learning, and dissemination in an era of knowledge abundance” (p. 28). Within the same MOOC series, however, Bozkurt et al. (2015) used the quantitative Social Network Analysis approach to demonstrate an inverse relationship between the number of learners and interaction; as learner numbers went up, interaction decreased. These findings seem to be reinforced by the work of Mackness and Bell (2015) who, using an anonymous survey format to gather data, revealed “both the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ sides of participating in an experimental MOOC” particularly when the number of participants grew (p. 26). The findings from Rhizo 14/15 amplify Knox’s (2014) research within another large connectivist-inspired MOOC in which he found that massiveness was frequently perceived negatively by participants surveyed and support my contention that smaller-scale might support re-conceptualizing knowledge within the context of relationship and community.

Community as knowledge

Within the context of a smaller subset of the Rhizo14 MOOC, Bali et al. (2015) described the “sense of something emerging that [they] hadn’t seen before.” They further asserted that “the course community became the curriculum” (p. 111).  As noted earlier the participant experience within Rhizo14 was uneven but within this smaller group, the course served as a counter-example to a typical big MOOC. They found it to be centered on participants bringing and sharing their own knowledge and geographically-dispersed contexts rather than on the mass-scaling of content.

The focus on the importance of relationships within smaller scale approaches to open education aligns with the early development of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). von Krogh and von Hippel (2006) found that software developers were motivated to contribute to open-source projects where monetary rewards were not present for reasons of participation and improving a tool for the benefit of themselves and others (von Hippel and von Krogh 2003), especially where the work is non-trivial and highly visible by the community (Dalle and David, 2003). Bergquist & Ljungberg (2001) further found that the culture within these open source software communities could be understood as a “a kind of amalgamation of collectivism and individualism: giving to the community is what makes the individual a hero in the eyes of others” (p. 319).

In a rare shared auto-ethnography that considers the experiences of open educators across several MOOCs, Bali, Crawford, Jessen, Signorelli, and Zamora (2015) identified the importance of a “willingness to share, make oneself vulnerable and take risks” (p. 111). They further described how “making, sharing, creating, and finding our way led each participant to the discovery that ‘our way’ is a collaborative affair rather than an exclusively personal path” (p. 113). A series of contemporary open pedagogues are also beginning to emphasize similar collective approaches to open education (Weller, 2014; Hegarty, 2015). More recently, DeRosa and Robison (2017) have defined open pedagogy as using “OER as a jumping-off point for remaking our courses so that they become not just repositories for content, but platforms for learning, collaboration, and engagement with the world outside the classroom” (p. 118). Small-scale approaches to open education, therefore, appear to emphasize the importance of building relationships and community.

Local approaches to knowledge

In her criticism of mainstream open access and open education, Christen (2012) asked:

Can the imagination and technological prowess that promoted open access publishing, open source software, and Creative Commons licenses exist side-by-side with those alternative systems of knowledge production that rely instead on social relations maintained and forged through negotiated interdependencies, which have as their goal the mutual gain between stakeholders in social, economic, and cultural terms? Can we imagine a digital landscape of social media that provides access controls but does not simultaneously invoke individualistic notions of privacy or abusive systems of censorship? (p. 2880)

Like Bali et al. (2015), in her questions Christen (2012) has centered the importance of context with respect to knowledge. Further rejecting the argument that “information wants to be free,” she suggested that information wants to be contextualized in ways that give power back to local communities. She went on to highlight a series of powerful examples of small scale open education projects in which:

Indigenous peoples, historically shut out of national public spaces and civic life, are collaborating on a variety of projects that highlight alternative ways of imagining information creation, circulation, and the practices of access. Off the grid, Latin American and Australian indigenous peoples have used pirate satellites and radio programming to connect politically, socially, and culturally between dispersed communities. (p. 2881)

In these examples, local communities were themselves creating, generating and sharing knowledge in meaningful ways. Crissinger (2015) described another small open education project that considered the cultural heritage of an object “by creating licenses and a CMS that give power and autonomy back to indigenous communities” and enabled the local community “to decide if objects should be open, closed to the community, or open to a specific community or during a particular time based on the historical sharing of objects by season, status, or gender” (para. 21).

Shah (2017) offered a similarly compelling small story that demonstrated how access to education in India would be better served by paying attention to local relatively low-tech solutions in which Shyam Singh fought for his right to photocopy on behalf of the students at Delhi School of Economics. Despite receiving little attention, this fight likely did more to advance access to educational resources than any highly publicized and heavily funded OER initiative. Together, these examples emphasize the ability of smaller scale open education to empower the sharing of knowledge in culturally relevant and meaningful ways that reinstate appropriate local agency.

Hacking as knowledge

In addition to their focus on relational, communal and localized forms of knowledge, the literature of small open education also tends to focus on knowledge as a creation. Harris (2008) found that young women bloggers had “a desire to be a cultural producer; that is, to actively engage in the construction of one’s cultural world, rather than simply consume” (p. 491); reading these words, I am reminded of Weller’s  (2010) findings related to the little OER that he found contained the implicit message “that the consumer can become a producer” (n. p.). Similarly, Manifold’s (2009) description of young people within digital fan communities who “relentlessly copy, recopy, study, reflect upon, and practice difficult aspects of creating fanart. They discuss and debate others’ interpretations of favourite narratives. In-person and through internet connections, they become peer teachers of one another” (p. 19). These ideas again echo the connectivist approach to knowledge “focusing and repeating creative acts” (Downes, 2012, p.11).

Other authors have built on the concept of knowledge as a creative undertaking ithin the context of smaller scale approaches to open education.  In what Zamora (2017) described as a “massive open online collaboration” designed for educators, she explained:

CLMOOC has focused on creating things and the DIY ethos of the recent maker movement. Emphasizing learning-through doing in a social environment, maker culture has emphasized informal, networked, peer led, and shared learning motivated by hands-on production and fun. (p. 106)

Zamora (2017) “asked the community to consider hacking as playful exploration” (p. 115) drawing on Suiter (2013)’s definition of hacking as the practice of innovative customization and exploring weaknesses. Gajjala et al. (2017) advocated for a similar “rehacking” of the traditional education system, suggesting “that the researcher/ teacher and researcher/ student must engage in the production of culture and subjectivity in the specific context while interacting with others who are doing the same. This enables them to really talk about the meaning making” (p. 150).  These examples provide evidence more active approaches to learning and teaching are emphasized in smaller scale approaches to open education in which increasing enrollments is not the primary goal.

Small(er) open and power

In contrast to large-scale approaches to open education whose trajectory has largely been defined by its powerful funders, funding for smaller scale initiatives tends to be correspondingly small and non-commercial. In terms of power, therefore, I found two relevant themes: decentralization and consent.

Decentralization of power

In my own earlier work (Elias 2017a; Elias, 2017b; Elias, Ritchie, Bowles & Gevault, 2020), I also discussed the potential benefits of decentralized power structures within the context of a social media tool called Mastodon, a tool that is often compared to Twitter. The Mastodon platform, however, also has a series of other relevant differences. Mastodon began as of a small open source and non-commercial project named GNU social whereas Twitter is a large proprietary and corporately owned platform.  Mastodon’s development and maintenance costs are kept low and are supported a through small network of voluntary contributions from the user community as opposed to Twitter which is funded by shareholders seeking a monetary return on investment.  Many of the early Mastodon developers and supporters were members of the trans/ queer community, a relatively small marginalized community, unlike Twitter’s mainstream developers. Finally, Mastodon is a decentralized system using a federated model that includes many ‘small pieces loosely joined” (Weinberger, 2008), thus distributing control and power of the network, whereas Twitter is a single, centrally controlled platform. Through my initial explorations of the potential of small within the context of the Mastodon platform, I arrived at the question, “Can small acts, small dollar amounts, small projects, small cultural shifts, and small communities serve as paths to change and/ or acts of resistance in the face of political, economic, and cultural oppression?” (Elias, 2017a, p. 11).

The open education literature offers a small number of additional examples of decentralized, non-commercial approaches to learning. Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments (Scardamalia et al., 1989) and Open-ended Learning Environments (Hannafin, et al, 1999) offered early examples of learning environments through which learners constructed meaning. Downes (2010) adapted the free open source software tool gRSShopper as a prototype for a personal learning environment capable of empowering the learner rather than the instructor or an institution for his courses.  Levine, Lamb, Groom and Minguillon (2012) used a similar technologically dispersed approach to support DS106, a course they described as “a (fortunately-not-so-massive) open online course on digital storytelling… for both regular students and anybody with an internet connection” (p. 1). A goal of the DS106 course was for each student to create a digital identity and their own personal infrastructure that they could then use exerting agency over how and where they chose to share. What these examples all share is an interest in leveraging open source tools to create decentralized learning spaces that support local access controls and learner agency in ways largely missing from the literature of larger-scale approaches to open education.

Consent as power

Worth (2017) described an open course called Phonar, an example of what he called “holistic open pedagogy,” a term notably lacking a reference to scale. Throughout the course, he made it explicitly clear that the teachers did not have definitive answers to the questions being asked, but instead acted as curators and contextualizers. He further highlighted the importance of reflecting on the following powerful questions:

Have I enabled my class to give their informed consent to learn with the digital? Is there an equitable share of the power within and without the class, and if not, is that dynamic transparent? Do any of my teaching decisions constitute barriers to entry/engagement, such as geographical, cultural, technological, linguistic or academic? Who owns our data? (p. 101)

Consent, power, transparency and ownership: Important ideas that might offer more insight into the potential benefits of smaller scale approaches to open education.

Small open and negotiated authority

As I have discussed throughout this section, the relationships between power and knowledge in big and small open education are fundamentally different. The same is true with respect to matters of authority. These smaller scale projects tend to remain outside the purview of the mainstream media and heavily funded research. As a result, authority appears to be something that is more often negotiated through a process of “cooperative struggle” rather than something conferred to the media and experts.

Authority as negotiated

The field of open education has a long history that has too often been overlooked by recent analysis (Morgan, 2016; Rolfe, 2016). As part of my doctoral work, I returned to the work of the open pedagogues from the 1960s and 1970s (Elias, 2017b). There I found that Paquette (1979) had reflected on importance of three value pairs at work within the open classroom: autonomy and interdependence, freedom and responsibility, and democracy and participation, each of which highlighted the negotiation between individual and community needs. At the end of that analysis, I proposed that a pedagogy of small might be one that notices “learning quietly taking place in the cracks between the clearly defined objectives, outcomes and competencies” (Elias, 2017b, p. 11). Building on the concepts introduced in the previous section, three co-authors and I revisited Paquette’s framework within two online communities whereas early adopters we had “witnessed exploratory collaborative practices of prose, poetry, musical and creative remixing” (Elias, Ritchie, Bowles & Gevault, 2020, p. 367). Through this exploration we found that small open online communities offer unique opportunities for learners “to interact technologically, economically and socially in a complex world” (Elias, Ritchie, Bowles & Gevault, 2020, p. 367). We also found that small open communities offered participants many opportunities to learn and grow by navigating Paquette’s (1979) value pairs highlighting the important role of these tensions.  At the end of that work we concluded:

As we learn continuously from the Internet, communities and social groups that focus only on harmonisation of ideas, politics or values will often struggle to appreciate dissonant views and their efforts can too easily be diverted to excluding or shaming; conversely, users who valorise the expression of dissenting speech as a mark of independent thought will often fail to appreciate the organic and tender efforts of groups to grow and change. The dissonance this can create is difficult to resolve at scale; in small communities, however, we continue to see a willingness to entertain cooperative struggle as the basis of learning from peers who do not think as we do. (Elias, Ritchie, Bowles & Gevault, 2020, p. 385).

Although I did not know it at the time, the concept of valuing dissonance and the willingness to cooperatively struggle through it, is well aligned with post-modern ideas.

A Pedagogy of Small as an Alternate Response to a Pedagogy of Abundance

When he identified the need for a pedagogy of abundance, Weller (2011) explained that “while expertise is still rare… access to content associated with it is now on a different scale” (p. 226). He went on to ask two questions: “How can [educators] best take advantage of abundance in their own teaching practice, and secondly how do we best equip learners to make use of it?” (p. 232). As demonstrated in the previous section, the vast majority of open education projects have sought to answer these questions by seeking to maximize scale and quantifying learning, approaches that are being increasingly normalized throughout education (Eisner, 2001; McRae, 2013; Roberts-Mahoney, Means & Garrison, 2016).

Weller’s description of the benefits of “little OER,” the ones he described as having the effect of encouraging further participation might, however, offer an alternate response one that I have begun to describe as “a pedagogy of small”. These smaller scale approaches to open education might equip learners to address the abundance described by Weller, not by embracing it as definitively positive and not by creating artificial scarcity through enacting paywalls and other barriers or by insisting that learning take place only an institutional campus, but instead by teaching learners to negotiate the complex tensions that surround ideas of scale and growth and their relationship with openness. They might critically engage both educators and learners with questions about what might be wrong with big approaches to open education and the benefits that might be afforded by smaller ones. They might serve to uncouple open education from large-scale approaches to education.

As much as there might be benefits to smaller scale approaches to open education, there are most certainly also dangers. I must therefore also carefully consider the question, “What might be wrong with small?” Knox (2017) contended that Downes’s definition invited “a reading of the connectivist format as ‘small’ and ‘private’, not in the sense of restricted access to the technology or resources of the MOOC, but rather in the ways that the requirement for a particular academic ability limits the range and diversity of participation” (p. 394). Mejias (2013) further suggested that there is a tendency of online groups to retreat into filter bubbles and echo chambers, something that can lead to a lack of critical engagement (Rolfe, 2017; Selwyn, 2016).

Spivak (2012) further stated that “Programming severs the connection between intending subject and its text much more successfully, empirically, than the theorists ever imagined could be done, and it still keeps the confidence of the intending subject intact as the digital world gets more and more user-friendly. This separation is structurally necessary even when programmer and software user are the same person” (p. 10). What I find most interesting here in terms of scale is her last sentence that seems to contend that when programming is involved, regardless of its scale, structural separation creates a significant risk. Spivak (2012) raised an interesting (lack of) connection between programming technologies and scale. What merit might there be to these contentions? In what other connections (or lack of connections) between scale, the technologies and openness might dangers lurk? I cannot answer these difficult questions, but I can move forward with my work in a way that is mindful of their legitimacy.

Gaps in the literature of the implications of scale within open education

As discussed throughout this paper, there are a series of significant gaps in the open education literature. The field remains generally under-theorized (Knox, 2013) and more critical analysis is needed (Almeida, 2017). Within the wider context of educational technology, Castañeda and Selwyn (2018) further identified seven themes requiring more attention: learnification, pedagogy, acknowledging the human aspects of education, (hyper)individualization of digital education, commercialization, neoliberalization and the need for constructive criticism. As I have argued, these themes are relevant within the field of open education. Critical researchers have explored the consequences of specific pedagogical decisions (Knox, 2013; Almeida, 2017), links to neo-liberal agendas (Bogost, 2017; Moe, 2015) and Western domination of the field (Atenas, 2012; Crissinger, 2015). More localized approaches to open education have been recommended (Christen, 2012; Kanwar, Kodhandaraman, & Umar, 2010).  This type of constructive criticism is of vital importance and it is gradually being accepted within the more mainstream dialogue (Castañeda & Selwyn, 2018).

Based on my literature review, I believe that it is time to add scale to this list of emerging themes that requires attention. Weller (2011) acknowledged the importance of considering the pedagogical implications of abundance and Knox has explored scale within the context of several big open education projects (2014/2017). There however remain significant gaps within the literature with respect to the possible benefits of smaller-scale approaches to open education.


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[1] One of the principles of connectivism is that learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources. (Siemens, 2005).

[2] OER emerged from a desire to resolve the copyright issues associated with learning objects (Cronin, 2017; UNESCO, 2002).

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