Open Education in the 60s and 70s

icon of footprints with three arrows at the top, pointing in different direction, indicating the concept of choice

Learner choice and autonomy as important to open education in the 60s and 70s. Icon purchased from The Noun Project.

As I’ve been thinking lately about open pedagogy (see all posts on this blog with that tag), I’ve been looking back over some of what others have said about it, and was reminded that a couple of people in the last year have talked about how “open education” has been used/defined in the past and how some of that appears similar to how “open pedagogy” is used today. In this post I dig into some of the earlier work that other people have pointed to, in order to try to understand at least a little bit about some of the history of these concepts, while fully recognizing this is only a tiny taste of what is likely out there.

The things I’ve seen lately from others are from Tannis Morgan (Open Pedagogy and a Very Brief History of the Concept) and Vivien Rolfe (slides for “Open. But not for criticism?” ). Looking at these led me down a bit of a rabbit hole about the open education movement in England & North America in the 60s and 70s. I start here with a bit of general background on the movement, and then look at some of the things Morgan & Rolfe point to.

A general overview of open education in the 60s and 70s

I found an article by Larry Cuban from 2004 called “The Open Classroom,” which gives a history of open education in the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s. He states that the open education movement at the time sprang from informal classrooms in primary education in the UK in the 1960s. It was seen as a good way to respond to criticism of the school system at the time, including that formal schooling was “crushing students’ creativity.” And it fit well with other social and political movements at the time in the U.S., including civil rights, anti-war movements, criticizing a culture of conformity, etc.

Cuban describes open classrooms pretty succinctly as follows:

In both Britain and the United States, open classrooms contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests, and no detailed curriculum. The best of the open classrooms had planned settings where children came in contact with things, books, and one another at “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small work groups. They helped students negotiate each of the reading, math, science, art, and other interest centers on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing. …

Teams of teachers worked with multiage groups of students and created elementary schools where children were no longer assigned to grade levels. Some school districts started alternative open education programs at the high-school level and gave teachers discretion to create new academic courses where students directed their own learning, worked in the community, and pursued intellectual interests. At both the elementary and secondary levels, open education meant teachers were acting more as coaches in helping students than as bosses directing children in every activity.

He notes that the idea of students directing their own learning as much as possible was key: “At both the elementary and secondary levels, open education meant teachers were acting more as coaches in helping students than as bosses directing children in every activity.”

Cuban points out that there was a conservative backlash against the open education movement, as there was against some of the other social, political and cultural movements of that era. But things didn’t completely fizzle out–the emphasis we see today on student-directed, rather than teacher-directed learning is a continuation of the values and principles of the open education movement, Cuban suggests.


With this general background on some of what was going on under the guise of “open education,” next I want to look at some of the articles discussed by Tannis Morgan and Vivien Rolfe.


Morgan reflecting on Claude Paquette

In a blog post called Open Pedagogy and a Very Brief History of the Concept (2016) Tannis Morgan points to a 1979 article by Canadian Claude Paquette (in French) called “Quelques fondements d’une pédagogie ouverte.” She also talks about an article from 2005 by Paquette called “La pédagogie ouverte et interactive.” He also apparently published two volumes under the title Une pédagogie Ouverte et interactive, as can be seen in this library entry.

Morgan summarizes some of his ideas in “La pédagogie ouverte et interactive” as follows (the bold in the quote was added by me):

Paquette outlines 3 sets of foundational values of open pedagogy, namely: autonomy and interdependence; freedom and responsibility; democracy and participation. He goes into some detail about these, but us ed tech folks will recognize some of the themes – individualized learning, learner choice, self-direction, – to name a few. He even talks about “open activities” as the big innovation in open pedagogy, whereby students simultaneously use their multiple talents in learning situations, and this process of learning is “interactional” (aka social and connected). For Paquette, open is very much about learner choice, (albeit for him this is really about creating a classroom environment where this can be optimized).

Looking at that document myself, I notice also that he is really focuses on individuality and says that his view of open pedagogy renounces uniformity and conformity (renonce à l’uniformisation et à la conformité). In terms of the first dyad bolded above, he says that autonomy must also be understood through a social life of interdependence, because each of us lives in constant interaction with others. Regarding the second he says that students should have a choice (freedom) amongst activities and projects, but such choice also brings responsibility (presumably, to follow through?). About the third he says that democracy and participation have to do with freedom of expression in the class as well as cooperation amongst students through things like dealing with disagreements or difficulties.


I’m going to do some pretty mediocre translating of parts of Paquette’s 1979 article to see if I can add a bit more to all this. My abilities in French are okay, but not great, so some of what follows may not be quite right and may sound awkward.

His article is organized around 4 basic principles (principes de base) and 3 foundations of open pedagogy practice (fondements d’une pratique de la pédagogie ouverte).

Basic principles:

  • La pédagogie ouverte est fondée sur le respect des différences individuelles: open pedagogy is based on respect for individual difference
    • Students are different and how they learn differs too, including rhythm, previous experiences, cognitive style, and more
  • La pédagogie ouverte est fondée sur la croissance individualisée: … based on individualized growth
    • Each person is unique and needs an environment that permits them to develop according to their individuality (Chaque être est unique et il est nécessaire qu’il se retrouve dans un environnement qui lui permet de se développer selon son individualité). This includes not just being given information but also being able to understand and develop relations between self and other, self and the social world, and being able to develop according to one’s individual potential.
  • La pédagogie ouverte est fondée sur une influence indirecte de l’éducateur: … based on an indirect influence from the educator
    • Education is an act that influences others, and the influence of the educator ought to be indirect. The educator doesn’t intervene to make students assimilate information but to help them progress according to their differences and potentialities.
  • La pédagogie ouverte est fondée sur un processus d’apprentissage naturel issu de dynamisme interne de l’étudiant: … based on a natural learning process issuing from the internal momentum/energy/drive/enthusiasm of the student
    • To do this requires an environment rich and diverse enough for students to react/respond and to free/liberate their learning. (… un environnement suffisament riche et diversifié pour que létudiant puisse y réagir et en dégager des apprentissages.)

Foundations of open pedagogy practice–there are a number of bullet points under each of the following; I’m going to just translate a few of those.

  • L’aménagement physique d’une classe: the physical arrangement of the class
    • The organization of time and space should be the joint responsibility of teachers and students
    • Time should be flexible
  • Les activités d’apprentissages: the learning activities
    • Students should be able to choose between several activities according to their interests and concerns
    • Students (in addition to the teacher) should be able to propose learning activities
    • Learning activities should be open–i.e., promoting diverse results, answers; allowing students to approach them from their own experience & potential;
    • Learning activities should promote integration of different disciplinary fields
  • L’intervention de l’enseignant: the intervention of the teacher
    • The class rules (règles de gestion) should be jointly established by teacher and students
    • The teacher intervenes more at the level of process of learning than product
    • The teacher’s process of analyzing learning has an intention of understanding what is happening with the learning more than judging it. Students are asked to collaborate in this analysis.


Rolfe on open education in the 1970s

At the Open Education Conference 2016, Vivien Rolfe gave a presentation called “Open. But not for criticism?” Among many great things in that presentation is information about how discussions around open education were happening in English in the 1970s and we aren’t really paying attention to those.

She cites three things in particular:

I don’t have time to look at these in great depth (and I don’t have the Barth book), but I will mention a few things here.

Katz (1972)

Katz talks about the difficulty in defining open education in a way that present discussions I’ve heard mirror. She says that a common definition hasn’t been found, and that even the attempt to define it specifically has been resisted by those who say that trying to give it specificity betrays “the spirit of openness …” (2). Nevertheless, she points to some commonalities, including “rejection of traditional-formal academically oriented education” and “commitment to ‘humanistic’ values including self-determination, freedom of choice and aesthetic appreciation” (1; emphasis mine).

She also connects “open” education to “informal” education, the latter term coming from the UK. Open-informal education is opposed in her article to formal-traditional education, which she says is more routinized and fixed. This means the space and activities in open education will be more flexible and open to continual changes. There will be more learner choice in activities, guided by their own interests. And teachers will be focusing more on individual students, less on instructing the whole class as a group.

In a section of the article called “Why Open-informal Education?”, Katz argues that open education can not only give students skills and knowledge they need (which formal-traditional education can also do), it also does so “while at the same time strengthening and enhancing their feelings of self-respect, self-responsibility, and sense of dignity, their capacity for curiosity, exploration, investigation, for tenderness, compassion, understanding and insight” (9).

Resnick (1972)

Resnick begins her article by noting that open education advocates of her day reject things such as:

  • using education to provide skills for the sake of technological or other productivity, excluding or pushing out what’s needed for self-fulfillment (p. 1); “one of the points of consensus of the open education movement is the concern for a less utilitarian and more humanistic set of goals for education” (p. 30).
  • focusing on “efficiency as an end in itself” (p. 1)
  • the tendency in education to “concentrate knowledge in the hands of a relatively narrow band of specially trained individuals” (p. 1).

(Page numbers are from the article in the PDF linked to this ERIC entry)

Instead, she argues, open education advocates promote an “open society,” which includes open access to knowledge for all and autonomy in one’s own learning (what, when & how): “putting control of the learning process as much as possible in the hands of the learner himself” (p. 2).

Resnick speaks of student choice in curricula in a way that resonates with many of the things I’ve read about regarding open pedagogy: “Learner control in education requires flexible curricula with many points of entry, many methods of instruction, and many options as possible among objectives “(p. 7; emphasis mine).

And along with such choice and autonomy comes self-assessment: learners themselves should evaluate whether they are reaching the competencies needed for their desired goals (p. 19).

In the concluding section of the article Resnick notes what she takes as a “central social concern” of the open education movement: “increasing the degree of control the individual exercises over the shape of his own life” (p. 22).


Tunnell, Hill (1975)

I found a collection of essays called The Philosophy of Open Education (ed. David Nyberg, Routledge, 1975), and skimmed through some of the essays. This was not a terribly easy book to get my hands on; our library at UBC doesn’t have it, and even though it’s from 1975 the only copy available to purchase online is quite expensive because it was reprinted in 2010. I ended up renting an ebook version for more money than I should have had to pay to buy the thing, which is my darn fault because I wanted quick access (interlibrary loan works too).

At any rate, here are some things from two articles from that collection.


In “Open Education: An Expression in Search of a Definition,” Don Tunnell notes that numerous people have pointed out the difficulties in trying to define “open education,” in part because it is itself an open concept that is undergoing continual modifications. Nevertheless, he provides what he takes to be a list of characteristics many conceptions of open education share (p. 12 of Kindle edition; emphasis mine):

(1) Students are to pursue educational activities of their own choosing;

(2) Teachers are to create an environment rich in educational possibilities;

(3) Teachers are to give a student individualized instruction based on what he/ she is interested in, but they are also to guide the student along educationally worthwhile lines;

(4) Teachers are to respect students. The following count as exhibiting respect for the student:

(a) the student is granted considerable freedom; he/ she is, for the most part, autonomous,

(b) the student’s interests and ideas are considered to be important and he/ she receives individual instruction and guidance based on his/ her interests,

(c) there is considerable interaction between teacher and student; they are considered to be equal in some sense,

(d) students are rarely commanded; uses of authority are minimized,

(e) students’ feelings are to be taken seriously.



In “What’s Open about Open Education?”, Brian V. Hill provides a critical perspective on open education. Noting that it works like a slogan, Hill connects it to advertising:

As any ad man knows, the best slogans are those which, irrespective of whether they actually denote anything about the product and the uses for which it is designed, do the most effective job of evoking useful mental associations and feelings of approval (p. 2 in Kindle edition).

Such slogans are powerful if they evoke emotions such as “boo” or “hurrah,” or, as Hill puts it, if they evoke a “yuk-yum” response. And “open is yum”:

An excellent candidate for sloganizing is the word ‘open’. Immediately one uses it, the options polarize. To be open (depend ing on context) is to be not closed, restricted, prejudiced or clogged; but free, candid, generous, above board, mentally flexible, future-oriented, etc. The opposite [sic] does not bear thinking about, and there can be no third alternative. ‘Open’ is yum (p. 2).

That still makes sense today, and it’s probably why “openwashing” is a thing. Though I’m not sure that “closed” is still seen necessarily as all “yuk”–privacy concerns may make being closed off, restricted, private appear not so bad.

Hill goes on to talk about three senses of openness in the literature on open education, corresponding to different ways people use the term.

  1. Procedural openness: Sometimes people talk about openness in education by referring to “spatial, temporal or procedural” aspects (p. 2) such as: space may be open if children aren’t restricted to a particular space or place in it; time to do certain tasks may be flexible; students may be mixed into groups of multiple ages and levels. This may not include other aspects of openness, since what knowledge & skills students need to learn may still be decided by the teacher (even if flexible in how they do so, and there is a choice of activities, the teacher still structures the activities to be chosen among).
  2. Normative openness: “Into this category fall those viewpoints which advocate that the choice of learning tasks and activities shall be entirely the prerogative of the students” (p.5). In normative openness, the teacher shouldn’t be anything more than a facilitator, as it would be “presumptuous … to prescribe another person’s direction of growth” (p. 5). According to Hill, this view could be taken to the point of not being compatible with the entire concept of “education.”
  3. Revolutionary openness: Proponents of this sort of openness view “the availability to oppressed classes of genuine openness in curriculum choices and learning procedures as a means of accelerating cataclysmic social change” (p. 6). Hill points to Freire’s view as connected to revolutionary openness in that it calls for a pedagogy that will “liberate the oppressed.” Ultimately, Hill argues, such views can become themselves a form of indoctrination–insofar as they claim that dominant views have no value and thus do not warrant serious consideration.

Hill states that these three kinds of openness are “neither conceptually nor normatively compatible with each other,” and using the same term for them simply confuses matters and can unhelpfully lump things together that shouldn’t be so (p. 7). Plus, anything that smacks of more formality gets thrown together with “gradgrind indoctrinators” (p. 7). Finally, “teachers are drawn along the path of normative and revolutionary openness when often their real desire is to obtain the benefits of procedural openness in serving commonly accepted social and intellectual values” (p. 8).

Hill concludes that it would be better to use more specific terms to describe what people are doing than try to put them all together under “open education.”


Open universities

One more quick thing: Tony Bates, in Teaching in a Digital Age Chapter 10, notes: “In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a rapid growth in the number of open universities that required no or minimal prior qualifications for entry.” An early (the earliest?) one was the Open University in the UK, established in 1969: “a distance teaching university open to all, using a combination of specially designed printed texts, and broadcast television and radio, with one week residential summer schools on traditional university campuses for the foundation courses” (Bates). Bates states that there are nearly 100 publicly funded open universities around the world (including Athabasca University in Canada), though none in the U.S.

The open universities are “open” in the sense of providing access to more people to higher education through lack of or less stringent entry requirements, and in some cases (especially in the past) providing no-cost or low-cost access to course materials (e.g., providing lectures via tv or radio broadcasts).

This is a different wing of ‘open education” than the discussions in the literature above, though, which focus on primary or secondary education and how pedagogy works within a class.

Some reflections

I, like Morgan says in her blog post, am struck by how similar a number of these themes are to discussions we’re having today around open pedagogy. There is a lot here around sharing authority, agency, responsibility between teachers and students, and providing students with greater opportunity for self-determination in their learning. And even Hill’s point about how many different things get lumped together as “open education” resonates with my sense of “open pedagogy” right now. And yet, the “open” in both is quite “yum” at the moment.

“Open,” in these few things I’ve read so far from the 60s and 70s, seems associated with reducing hierarchies & promoting more collaboration between teachers and students; allowing students more choice in topics, activities, methods of learning; promoting flexibility in use of space and time. It feels to me like open as “free” in the sense of freedom rather than free like free beer.

There is little here about open access to education in the sense of providing materials and courses for free as in “free of cost.” That’s unsurprising, given that at the time materials were produced on paper and providing them free of cost would have been more difficult and less obviously feasible than today. But most of what I have heard in the past 4 years or so that I have been connected with today’s “open education” movement in North America has been around content and licensing that content in certain ways (and providing it for “free”).

Still, there has been a swing towards more emphasis on open pedagogy in that movement of late, in addition to focusing on open content, and I do see some similar values and recommendations to what has come before, in the work discussed above. In the things I’ve read so far there is little about content, little to nothing about cost, and lots of focus on what one does in education, as a student or a teacher. And that sounds a lot to me like the difference between content and practice that is reflected in some people’s desire to move from a main focus on open content to more of a focus on open pedagogy (or open educational practices).

None of this means that the open education of past decades is the same as the open pedagogy of today. Clearly the historical context of each is different, and unsurprisingly there are differences in what people mean by the terms, then and now. But it is interesting to consider the similarities, and in my next post I address some of these as I try to answer for myself, once again (as in an earlier post), what’s “open” about open pedagogy.

Addendum Oct 25, 2017

I just found this post by Tannis Morgan, about a keynote she gave earlier this year: Innovation in Higher Education … And Other Blasts from the Past. This post has more information and references about open education in the past, connecting it to open pedagogy. Great stuff I haven’t yet had time to dig into but I wanted to put it here so I (and others!) could find it later.


Works Cited

Barth, R. S. (1972). Open Education and the American School. Agathon Press, Inc.

Hill, B.V. (1975). What’s open about open education? In D. Nyberg (Ed.), The Philosophy of Open Education (International Library of the Philosophy of Education Volume 15). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Katz, L. G. (1972). Research on Open Education: Problems and Issues. Retrieved from

Paquette, C. (1979). Quelques fondements d’une pédagogie ouverte. Québec français, 36, 20–21. Retrieved from

Resnick, L. B. (1972). Open Education: Some Tasks for Technology. Educational Technology, 12(1), 70–76. Retrieved from

Tunnell, D. (1975). Open education: An expression in search of a definition.  In D. Nyberg (Ed.), The Philosophy of Open Education (International Library of the Philosophy of Education Volume 15). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


  1. Hi Christina

    Thanks for another really thoughtful and useful post addressing this question of what it means to be open. This is something I am working on too as I begin my doctoral journey in this area. I have always been convinced that OER is part of a much bigger picture, and that Open Education has to mean something wider than education involving OER. I think people who are very involved with OER are fairly connected to the ‘Open Education Movement’ but I am also very interested in the values underpinning practices that we might conceptualise as open, even if the practitioner doesn’t describe it in that way. That’s why the concept/s of Open Educational Practices and Open Pedagogies really resonate with me. It’s great to know fellow travellers! All the best, Leo

    1. I didn’t realize you were doing doctoral work in this area! Looking forward to following along and seeing what you find! I agree that many who are very involved in OER are connected to a wider movement and think about broader values, though I’ve met a few who do use OER (w/o describing it that way) and may or may not share the same values but could if they really thought about it. I noticed that at the Open Ed 2017 (which I didn’t attend, but watched from afar) there was more of an emphasis on broader values. Interested to see where that discussion goes….

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