Can learning be free? : an investigation of open access from a learner perspective

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This thesis addresses the question of access to education, focussing particularly on the potential opening up of access to higher education that open educational resources (OER) seem to offer. Starting with MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative, continuing with massive open online courses and emerging commercial start-ups, OERs promise free access to anyone, anywhere at any time. I am interested in open access that is expressed as the learner's ability to claim his or her learning (or educational) opportunity to achieve his or her learning goals. My research is conceptualised as a 'project of exploration' (Smith, 2005). I want to know how open access to learning is enabled through open educational resources, from the learner's perspective. I propose three avenues for understanding open access. First, I draw on the little explored history of open learning to chart its development, ground the current discussion and provide a basis for understanding ways in which OERs may help meet today's opportunities and challenges. I explore how openness was then, as it is now, a matter of degree, the importance of the context in which open access becomes enabled and reconsider notions of literacy, technology, time and location. I also highlight the importance of association and stress the significant role that awareness plays. Second, I investigate learner experience with OERs and use analytic autoethnography (Anderson, 2006a) to develop theoretical understandings of access through my own practice. I then move to a macro level perspective and use Institutional Ethnography (Smith, 2005) to analyse that experience in the context of an ambiguously bounded, emerging, global education. I expand on the theoretical discussions around the possibilities afforded by analytic autoethnography and institutional ethnography. The two methodologies in conversation allow me to extend the framework for understanding access and learner profiles. They also throw light on the role of both traditional and new texts in organising experience, unmasking more profound instances of power, as embodied by search engines. These insights challenge me to address a third dimension to examine the imaginary of access as it comes into existence and understand avenues for possible interventions. I examine how media representations come together to produce the imaginary around open access to learning. I also examine how institutional ethnography’s commitment to social justice can be achieved by revealing the complexities of this phenomenon and setting the terms of current debates, if people are to achieve access for themselves.
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