Considering open learner literacies


This post suggests the types of literacies that open learners might require to succeed in a learning space that is increasingly open. I’ll consider digital literacy as a foundation for thinking about open learning literacies.

To start, there is an existing discourse around the types of capabilities and literacies required for digital literacy. At the simplest level:

“digital literacy defines those capabilities which fit an individual for living, learning and working in a digital society” (Beetham, 2010)

The focus on capabilities is important as a capability suggests that it is a pre-requisite or foundation for other capabilities, and an implication that there should be some sort of society-wide entitlement to such a capability (Beetham, 2010). The need for digital literacy in increasingly well-established, appears in mainstream media, and although consistently evolving in meaning, there does appear to be a shift from focussing primarily on information and media literacy to encompass literacies that enable collaboration, communication and increasingly creation.

This fuller definition from the Open University encompasses many common themes:

“Digital literacy includes the ability to find and use information (otherwise known as information literacy) but goes beyond this to encompass communication, collaboration and teamwork, social awareness in the digital environment, understanding of e-safety and creation of new information. Both digital and information literacy are underpinned by critical thinking and evaluation.” (Open University)

The OU further offers a framework for students that focusses on 5 key areas of digital literacy:

  1. Understand and engage in digital practices
  2. Find information
  3. Critically evaluate information, online interactions and tools
  4. Manage and communicate information
  5. Collaborate and share digital content

The detailed framework is here. Other frameworks and rubrics to inform digital literacies  include a framework for web literacies from Mozilla and a self-evaluation guide from the University of Exeter.

Digital literacies are, therefore, increasingly important for education, for economic growth and for empowering individuals to succeed in what in an increasingly (although unequal) digitally-mediated environment. So how are ‘open learner’ literacies much different?

At a functional or operational level accomplishment of digital literacies can be in a closed course or within a specific institutional context. For example, in an online course as that offered by the OU (that is not a MOOC), students and teachers can exhibit digital literacy skills without being ‘open’. Interestingly, it’s also possible to take a Coursera course in pretty much the same way without being ‘open’.

Open learning literacies therefore focus on those capabilities that enable learners to survive and thrive in an open learning environment. This means surviving and thriving beyond a course, in the absence of a course or getting the most out of a cMOOC. More broadly, open learning literacies are those literacies that enable lifelong learning  in an digital environment with abundance of content and opportunities afforded by others’ increasing open practices.

While there are many ways of categorising possible open learner literacies, I’ve identified three areas of focus that provide a start for discussion:


The abundance of content through digital storage and dissemination is at the core of digital literacy where information literacy is the ability to cope with increasing amounts of content through strategies to search, find absorb, cite, synthesise and evaluate. In an open learning environment the role of sharing and creation of content becomes an important capability. Sharing content is a default in an open learning environment (Weller, 2012). Through sharing, open learners become producers as well as consumers, so literacies of remixing and developing new forms of representation and understanding of licencing and open access publishing become more important.


While online communication skills are essential for digital literacy, open learners require communication skills to maintain a personal learning network beyond a specific course or institutional context. Communication with networks rather than groups requires increasing familiarity of a broader range of tools and contexts, accepting the importance of loose ties and social media connections. Commenting on blogs, Google groups and social media beyond a specific context build open learner skills, while maintaining an open blog and using aggregators and social media marketing to encourage feedback and communication are examples of open learner communication practice. There is an increasingly symbiotic relationship between content and communication in that communications such as blogs, blog comments, tweets and tweet chats themselves become new content. In open learning communication is the content.


Self-identifying as an open learner or practitioner means understanding some of the implications of openness and the potential of increasing innovation and creativity that openness can foster (Weller, 2012). It is a way of being and working that values sharing, promotes wider access, encourages open access publishing, open scholarship and open teaching. Open learners will develop digital identities and footprints to build social capital, as they understand that in order to receive the benefits of openness, it is important to give through sharing. This may involve the cultivation of a personal space such as a blog, a Twitter profile and subscription to services such as social bookmarking or online community membership, taking part in open courses both as learners and convenors and experimenting with openness.

Personal reflection on being an open learner

On H817, Block Two has been run as a MOOC on open education. As we come near the end of the MOOC part, I’m reflecting on the specific literacies  I have had to develop in moving from an online (closed course) to an open MOOC.

To a large extent, many digital literacies that have remained the same, whereby communications and discussion happen through discussions forums, in closed tutor groups and in response to specific activities. In block one, I also worked collaboratively in pre-assigned groups using social tools.

However, even before the MOOC part started, I have been engaging in some open learning practices through my personal blog which is open to all and in my use of Twitter which I use to engage more broadly with a wider community of educational technologists, teachers, practitioners and other students and across international boundaries. While the practice of open learning has been positively encouraged during the MOOC, based mainly around blogging, I had maintained a reasonably frequent blog over the past 2 years or so.

Therefore, moving into an open space has been relatively painless in this MOOC. I overcame an initial resistance to joining the Google+ group (not another social network) but this community has been the core of my experience on H817open, providing an critical yet supportive environment for the exploration of ideas with individuals with very different motivations for taking part in the MOOC. I have been surprised and grateful for the thoughtful responses to blog posts I write and the ongoing discussions in the Google+ group. I have become a Google+ convert. What has changed now is that I identify as an open learner – this is how I want to learn.

This may explain why I am somewhat reluctant to move back into the closed tutor group environment as the MOOC ends and the formal course begins again, even though that is a supported space with a dedicated tutor and fellow students, who are theoretically more committed to the course (as they have paid for it) rather than MOOCers who may have many different reasons for signing up.

The experience of open learning has been a positive one for me. However, I accept that for many other students it has not been positive. Individuals have felt overwhelmed and isolated, and some existing H817 students have missed the ‘safer’ tutor group environment. Some for reasons of institutional confidentiality have not been able to blog freely or participate in discussions in such an open environment. Others have felt that the huge diversity in the types of learners (with varying backgrounds and motivations) makes it difficult to have a meaningful learning experience. Others feel that signing up to an OU distance learning course means the ability to work independently in order to get the qualification and that interacting with others should not be a pre-requisite. Openness for some learners is more of a burden than an opportunity.

And this at the end of the day is what it comes down to – learner preferences and expectations regarding identity as a learner. Yet, I am reminded of the concept of ‘network weather’ that Weller (2011) explores as ‘a metaphor for the impact of open, digital networked approaches’, where ‘changes in your environment are occurring because of other people’s use of these technologies…even if you as an individual you are not engaged in them’ (p.129). Weller’s argument is that these new behaviours (which include open approaches) are happening anyway, pointing not only to opportunities that openness affords but also to the reality that other people’s open practices will start affecting the entire environment anyway, even if one chooses not to engage. Can we afford not to be open?


Beetham, H. (2010) Review and Scoping Study for a Cross-JISC Learning and Digital Literacies Programme: Sept 2010, JISC [Online]. Available at

Weller, M. (2011) ‘Network Weather’ in The Digital Scholar, London, Bloomsbury Academic. Also available online at;jsessionid=DF97F8961B195104021693DA727411B7

Weller, M. (2012) ‘The openness–creativity cycle in education’, Special issue on Open Educational Resources, JIME, Spring 2012 [Online]. Available at jime/ article/ view/ 2012-02

Image courtesy of winnond /


8 thoughts on “Considering open learner literacies

  1. “What has changed now is that I identify as an open learner – this is how I want to learn.” And you have been such a valuable part of this MOOC, for me at least, a powerful player in my PLN with your well thought discourses and willingness to share in this community. I am curious as to why you decided to take the course. Are you in the full Masters program?
    Openness..humans are social animals, We have always relied on one another,our communities, our tribes to learn and grow. Our brains are wired for it. It would seem that open learning would almost instinctually “feel” right, for most. Even reliance on a tutor is social.

    • Hi Deborah. Thanks for your comments – I appreciate the time you give to reading and responding others’ blog posts. It reinforces my own motivation to share and keep the learning open and keep building the PLN. I am in the full Master’s program, and this module was one of the options. I was keen to experience a MOOC from ‘the inside’ and it has been very different from the rest of the Master’s (which I also enjoy very much). I agree that humans are social animals and for me, ‘open learning’ does feel right. However, there are still many students who are uncomfortable with this, and there seem to be many reasons for this.

  2. As ever, Sukaina, a very thoughtful post and I’m fascinated that you now feel some reluctance to move back to the “closed” environment. I don’t quite share this – I have enjoyed the MOOC but also found it quite exhausting trying to manage the torrent of comments and resources on multiple platforms. Restoring a bit more order will be welcome! But I am a bit of a MOOC convert in the sense that, after the MAODE is over, hopefully next February, I would like to sign up for one or two of the interesting-looking MOOCs around. I think I would enjoy these more if I really was free to dip and and out, rather than it being part of a credit-bearing programme, as this has been for both of us.

    It is very early days and we are still working out what skills are needed to navigate a MOOC, let alone how to teach them. However, I completely agree with you and Prof Weller that the “weather” around learning and teaching is changing for good.

    • Hi Daniel, thanks for your comments. Your post has made me think that it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation regarding the closed environment. The rest of H817 can still be relatively open for blogging and engaging with people outside of the course or even just outside the tutor group where relationships have formed with other H817ers. Like you, I’m also looking forward to going ‘free range’ on some MOOCs when I finish the MAODE (this should be my last module), and really enjoy them without an assessment looming.

  3. Sukaina thanks for another thought-provoking blog which is particularly so because of your personal reflection. I am wondering, as you and I have both participated in (amongst others) the BonkOpen and Change 11 MOOCs, if your level of comfort in this one was in part a result of those prior experiences? Do you think the developments in your open practice (like blogging and twitter) have been progressed by these prior MOOCs thus preparing you for this one?

    • Hi Paige. I agree about familiarity and knowing what to expect. I expect MOOCs to be completely overwhelming, confusing and full of hard-to-navigate discussion forums, so anything really is a bonus! I think as well as familiarity, it about being free enough or confident enough to not be tied to what a course should look like (linear, must do all the activities). It’s also about not minding being wrong in public (such as on a blog post) and willing to learn as you go along in the open.

  4. Hi Sukaina. I enjoyed reading your post on open learner literacies. It put things into perspective and I benefitted from the extra definitions and resources that you have quoted. I can well relate to the three foucs areas that you point out: Content, Communication and identity. You have managed to integrate a people perspective that I have missed in our readings for this particular activity. As with our discussions on PLNs open learning is very much about people and connections rather than tools and devices. That is to say that people (identities, approaches, behaviour, attitudes etc.) are at the centre of things rather than the digital tools and devices that have to be mastered.

  5. Pingback: I am an open learner :-) | Inger-Marie C's Blog

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