The ecology of the open practitioner: a conceptual framework for open research
The ecology of the open practitioner: a conceptual framework for open research
Adrian Stagg 0
0 University of Southern Queensland , Australia
Open Educational Practices (OEP) have gained traction internationally over the last fifteen years, with individuals, institutions, and governments increasingly interested in the affordances of openness. Whilst initiatives, policies, and support mechanisms are evident, there is an ever-present danger of localised contexts being unintentionally unrecognised, which has a negative effect on mainstreaming the practice sustainably. This paper presents a conceptual framework for open research based on Bronfenbrenner's' Ecology of Human Development (1979) and asserts that it is through an understanding of complex influences and contexts of practice that strategic and operational processes to enable open education are manifested. It presents the framework through the lens of an emerging research project examining the experience of OEP in four Australian universities which will apply the framework as a guide for not only survey and interview question design, but also data analysis with the aim to inform broader policy development locally and nationally.
open educational resources; open educational practice; theory of ecological development; higher education; academic development; affordance theory
The term Open Educational Resources (OER) has been researched for fifteen years. Over that
time the Cape Town Declaration and the Paris Declaration have reached an international audience,
operationalised by global progress in institutional and national policy, legislation, funding initiatives,
research projects, conferences, symposia, and communities of practice. Despite this, awareness
and capacity-building remain two of the seemingly indefatigable barriers to widespread engagement
with Open Educational Practice (OEP).
The position of OEP has been at the nexus of educational change as it relates to teaching practice,
teaching resources, and the role of the student and teacher in an open and connected learning
environment. As student and teacher context and prior experience is accepted as an integral part
of constructivist, and connectivist pedagogies, so too should this inform the sustainable, embedded
transformation that open education promises.
This paper will propose a framework that aligns Bronfenbrenner’s ecology of human development
(1979), and Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory (1995), and situates the resulting framework
within the context of open academic development. It is suggested that by examining the practitioner
from an authentic perspective, more effective understanding of the key stakeholders in OEP will
be possible. The ‘authentic perspective’ sought is one informed by actual, lived practice that
recognises the effects of enablers and barriers within an individuals’ environment. It seeks to do
so concurrently with an examination of the value proposition of openness in a global educational
environment that provides a rationale for engagement with OEP to accompany the proposed
framework. Finally, the application of this conceptual framework is considered as it relates to an
emerging research project.
Open educational practice: a question of context
Whilst the promise of OER has been equity of access to education, to reduce the associated
costs of education, broader participation and opportunities, and opportunities to raise the quality
of education internationally, the priorities for OEP differ by geographic region. The results of an
international community of practice across nine geographic areas
perceived priorities for resource investment to support OEP (Table 1). Whilst there are some areas
of common concern, very few of the priorities are listed in consistent order. This is unsurprising
when one considers that each geographic region has differences in culture, education, infrastructure,
access, and equity of education.
respRoengsieonnuamndbers Priority 1
Sub-Saharan Africa Awareness
Latin America &
Caribbean (n= 28)
South & West Asia
East Asia (n=15)
The Pacific (n=14)
Central & Eastern
Arab States (n=8)
Note that only priorities that were identified by at least 50% of respondents were included in this table.
Whilst ‘awareness raising’ was identified as a key issue by many stakeholders, issues such as
copyright, quality assurance, research, and even policy were not well represented. When the data
is aggregated by stakeholder type
(D’Antoni, 2008, p. 25)
, the three highest ranked priorities for
higher education institutions are research (81%), learning support services (74%), and awareness
raising (71%). Capacity development is ranked fifth (66%) and communities and networking is ranked
eleventh (of twelve, at 54%). The aggregate data presents a very different priority focus. Table 2
shows the representation by region in the response count. In the aggregate data, North America and
Western Europe account for 52% of respondents, whilst others are represented significantly lower
such as Arab States (2%), The Pacific (4%), and East Asia (5%). The contextual differences between
each region make the aggregated data problematic for international strategies, but when viewed by
region, an actionable list becomes more apparent.
In order to gain traction globally, open education resources, and OEP need to focus on enabling
reuse and repurposing for localisation of education. Creative Commons and Public Domain licensing
remain key levers for this process, but providing resources in non-proprietary formats (rather than
assuming access to software) is an essential part of a sustainable movement. It is this reliance
of proprietary formats that have hampered reuse in Sub-Saharan Africa
(Muganda, Samzugi &
for example, and a criticism of MOOCs
which had previously
promised to reach new learners. The considerations that drive repurpose-enabled resource and
learning design only arise from a combination of awareness raising and regard for the context of
other practitioners. Discounting the role of context in open education, however, implicitly empowers
a very different, marginalising agenda.
Almost a decade has passed since the publication of these research findings, but more recent work
reinforces geographic differences in open education adoption. Latin America still focuses on capacity
development and policy implementation as government policy making education mandatory and free
does not have universal traction, and expenditure on education does not show marked increases
(Toledo, Botero & Guzman, 2014)
. The capacity of teachers to improve the quality of education,
especially in Argentina, Chile, Columbia, and Uruguay, remains a priority for action, as does the
development of models for creation and dissemination of OER
(Toledo et al., 2014)
, and general
. Brazil’s government has actively invested in open education,
open science, and open government initiatives
in response to citizen expectations for
transparency, accountability and affordability.
African researchers report similar needs for awareness-raising and capacity building
. A 2016 survey
(Muganda et al., 2016)
found evidence of a strong desire among
educators to work with OER, driven by challenges in effectively purchasing and disseminating
commercial proprietary learning resources. The priority for community (as noted in the D’Antoni
outcomes) has acted as a mechanism for partnerships such as the Open University UK
& Raisomo, 2014)
, and the active participation of
OER Africa (2016
) in the higher education
environment. Recent research conducted in Turkey
(Islim & Cagiltay, 2016; Islim, Koybasi & Cagiltay,
mirrors the findings for Eastern Europe; again showing that awareness-raising (this time
focused on students), and perceptions of quality and standards were particularly salient. In direct
contrast though, Turkish Faculty responded that the greatest priority for action was the protection of
their intellectual property rights, and establishing incentives for (re)use of OER (Kursun, Cagiltay &
Across these regions, it can be reasonably argued that similarity remains in articulated priorities,
despite nearly ten years of OER research and practice. This demonstrates that local context is still
critical to understanding OER and OEP; that is, a universal approach is neither appropriate nor
beneficial for increasing the traction and acceptance of open education globally. The affordances of
openness, therefore, are interpreted locally, and the practitioner environment mediates the ability of
the individual to fulsomely engage with OER and OEP.
The role of context
The term ‘affordances’ is used interchangeably with ‘opportunities’ in higher education; most often
when describing educational technology. Open Educational Resources (OER) are no different.
Tracing the term back to Gibson’s (1977) work is useful as it reinforces the need to reconsider
language, or at least, purposefully understand and consistently use language meaningfully. Gibson’s
lens was ecological physics, stating ‘the affordances of the environment are what it offers animals,
what it provides or furnishes, for good or ill (1977, p. 68). That is, the ‘combination of properties’
(p. 67) found in an environment or component of that environment are judged by the inhabitants
of the environment, who ultimately ascribe worth or value. As each species of animal occupies an
environment niche, pre-existing conditions first need to be evident to support the species to occupy
the niche. The pre-existing conditions, therefore, enable the affordances, and also shape ease of use
of these affordances.
In the same way, pre-existing conditions need to exist in an educational environment (and the
levels will be explored using Bronfenbrenner’s work as a lens in the next section) for the affordances
of OEP to be judged as ‘worthy’ or valuable’ by practitioners. The extent to which an affordance is
evident, or perceived as such, is entirely dependent on environment inhabited by the practitioner.
For example, the pre-existing condition of reliable, stable Internet access enables global sharing of
resources. The Creative Commons licence is another pre-existing condition.
When this ‘combination of properties’
(Gibson, 1977, p. 67)
is realised, the affordances of OEP,
namely accessing existing resources to save time and build on the work of others, and sharing local
content, become apparent. If one has access to Creative Commons licensing, but an unreliable
(or inaccessible) Internet connection, the affordances are interpreted differently –and the resulting
action– is likewise different. Obviously, the above example is simplistic in its failure to recognise
awareness levels, individual alignment with open philosophies, technical proficiency, pedagogical
and licensing support, platforms to enable sharing, and even the presence of policies that support
(or act as a barrier to) sharing.
Furthermore, Gibson explicitly references the environment as shaped by humans to yield certain
affordances, especially as they relate to making life easier and more controllable. In the same manner,
OEP advocates seek to alter their environments, whether by policy, strategy, or support, to make the
environment more ‘hospitable’ to OEP. Interestingly, Gibson does note that in making changes to the
environment to benefit one species, others are either disadvantaged, or their survival becomes more
difficult. This manifests as a commercial reality for entities that rely on closed or controlled access
to proprietary sources of information –such as privatisation of research outcomes, and textbook
publishing models– thus positioning free culture and open education as counter-movements to
All of these ‘conditions’ form part of a larger contextualised ecology of practice – thus leading to
Engagement with Bronfenbrenner’s’ ecology of human development and its application to OEP is
predicated on value propositions of education requiring articulation prior to an exploration of the
Firstly, if we accept the integral role of context in not only OEP, but in education globally, it is
accompanied by a commitment to the notion that each educator and learner applies their own
experiences, assumptions, knowledge, and values to an educational encounter. Paolo
pedagogy of the oppressed (1997
) notionally rejects education as ‘banking’ – that is, that students
are ‘empty accounts’ that are enriched only when the teacher makes a ‘deposit’ (of knowledge).
Freire argued that accepting the banking metaphor was tantamount to ‘dehumanising’ the learner by
actively discounting and devaluing their existing knowledge and experience in favour of prevailing
information (which he linked to education as a tool of the oppressor). Constructivist and connectivist
pedagogies explicitly build upon this position by actively applying student-centred learning design.
Secondly is the somewhat problematic nature of semantics in the open education discourse.
‘Adoption’ of open practice has become part of the vernacular to describe the process whereby
a practitioner accepts (‘adopts’) OEP; with an implied outcome of transforming practice to include
openness. A more realistic description would be ‘engagement’; wherein a practitioner explores OEP
through the lens of their own context. The outcome of engagement is conceptual and practical
alignment between aspects of OEP and the practitioners teaching approach, mediated by influencing
It is possible to repurpose a definition of student engagement and propose that a higher education
‘the time and effort that practitioners put into their teaching practice, that leads to experiences and
outcomes that constitute success, and the ways an institution allocates resources and organises
professional learning opportunities and support services to induce staff to participate in, and benefit
from such activities’
(adapted from Garrison & Vaughan, 2013, p. 27)
The way in which practitioners are engaged with OEP, and how the institutional factors influence this
will be discussed further in this paper.
Bronfenbrenner’s work was heavily influenced by Wilhelm Dilthey who stated that generalised laws
of psychological process were impossible, and instead argued for a descriptive psychology that ‘would
capture the unique complexity of the individual with all its idiosyncrasies’
. Bronfenbrenner sought a middle ground of descriptive and explanatory psychology, believing
that explanations of behaviour ‘are to be found in interactions between characteristics of people and
their environments past and present’ (1979, p. X). Rather than seek ‘truth’ in laboratory settings,
this approach advocated for understanding/comprehending/studying the enactment of behaviours in
authentic settings underpinned by the belief that one’s environment is part of an overlapping, complex
ecology that includes four distinct inter-connecting systems (described below). This complexity is
observed as the inter-relationships between the practitioner and the broader environment (such as
whether the local environment permits open practice); discrete parts of the environment (such as
the interaction between government proprieties and educational funding); and even between the
practitioner and aspects of the environment (such as how national research agendas can be linked
to government funding, and how these two agendas then influence the publishing behaviour of an
Whilst the ecology is equally as valid for describing the student experience this paper will focus on
the practitioner only. The inter-relationship of practitioner and ecology is expressed at four distinct
• Microsystem. These are the inter-relationships present in an individuals’ most immediate
environment - including peer relationships and the personal working space – that impact on a
• Mesosystems occur when two or more microsystems interact and an individual is able to
correlate these systems. This could be in terms of expectations of others in the setting, or
behavioural norms between settings. Whilst the conceptual bridging can often provide an
individual with a sense of shared role across the microsystems, conflict can occur when an
individual perceives that two entirely different roles from two distinct microsystems are now
present in a single mesosystem – leading to a crisis of role identity.
• Exosystems are the larger forces that have an (often) indirect influence over the individual.
Institutional policy, expectations for graduate outcomes, requirements of professional
accrediting bodies, and changes to work environment or structure are all examples of exosystems
encountered by academic staff.
• Macrosystem are the highest tier of the ecology, representing culture, socio-economic status,
typology of country (such as developing, developed, industrialised, and semi-industrialised).
The macrosystem is a societal construct of shared values, history, and identity, and can be
altered or reconstructed through generational change.
Each level has inter-dependencies and inter-relationships that influence an individual’s practice,
assumptions, values, and ability to conceptualise change and development. In an educational setting,
all four levels of the ecology informs the practitioners approach to teaching and learning, and frames
their response to enhancing, transforming, or challenging their own practice. For OEP researchers,
the ecology becomes a map of influencing factors providing a macro- and micro-view of an institution
and how OEP may distinctly manifest (or develop) under those conditions, and how perceived role
aligns with openness.
What is development?
The focus on the ecology levels (systems) acknowledges that developmental change is predicated
on a change of role for the practitioner –whether actual or perceived– which is supported by
the open education literature. Once empowered by a model of scarcity, higher education (and
education more generally) has needed to adjust their role as information resources become
both easily-accessible, and freely available. One such approach, the ‘pedagogy of abundance’
is founded on changing economic models that are outmoded due to abundance,
and non-economic models such as teaching practice. Previous models of education privileged
the centrality of the ‘scarce expert’ (p. 226) who was responsible for the provision of
informationas-knowledge (akin to the aforementioned ‘banking metaphor’ of Freire). This teacher-centred
pedagogy has been challenged by information digitisation and broader access; the result being a
repositioning of the teacher in the educational space. Approaches such as connectivist pedagogy
is an example of student-centred learning and teaching which presents a
catalyst for re-positioning the teacher – often from creator-of-content, to curator-of-content, and
guide. In part, connectivism was a response not only to the digitisation of resources, but also the
availability of OER.
When a practitioner experiences examples of open practice, this alone can be a catalyst for change
in role, as Bronfenbrenner states that ‘active engagement in, or even mere exposure to, what others
are doing often inspires the person to undertake similar activities on her own’ (1979, p. 6). The
success of these endeavours is contingent on the presence of supportive networks or processes
that both present in the meso-, and exo-systems within the ecology and, are valued by the culture
or subculture. Thus, the role of mediating artefacts
, or those people and resources
that can explicitly articulate, contextualise, and support open practice (whether as library guides,
websites, access to learning designers, membership in a network), becomes integral to successful
change and development.
Development is influenced by the ability to correlate a range of settings and apply these settings
to one’s own environment.
Sperber and Wilsons’ (1995)
relevance theory asserts that individuals
always try to seek relevance in any setting (and thus establish value), and that they will usually
expend as little energy as possible (a path of least resistance) to assimilate relevant knowledge
into practice. Recognition of the epistemological, contextual, and situational value of change is
part of the evolving nature of teaching experience; with relevance as a driving force for individual
change in teaching practice. Thus, any type of professional learning support for open education
needs to be purposefully and deliberately aligned with the micro-, meso-, and exo-systems of the
ecology to maximise relevance, although there is space in this model to acknowledge that
macrosystems will influence priorities and desired outcomes for professional learning. Traction for OEP is
therefore established through relevance-making, and value proposition. The latter can be reasonably
argued as part of relevance-making, but assumes different guises at each level of the ecology,
that is, institutional policy-makers may ascribe a different value on openness at the strategic level
than practitioners seeking the operational value of openness. When viewed through the lens of
professional learning, this applies ‘contextual positioning’
(Amundsen & Wilson, 2012, p. 109-110)
development initiatives. This positioning chooses to focus on activities that will lead to ‘improving or
enhancing an instructor’s individual teaching practice versus activities that engage faculty in teaching
enhancement as a socially situated practice’ (p. 109), and that support is identified and implemented
for individual use.
Bronfenbrenner describes development as ‘a lasting change in the way in which a person perceives
and deals with his environment’ (1979, p. 3; gendered language retained from the original text).
Mindful of this definition, support, relevance-making, and value all become part of a sustainable
change in practice – which is not possible without an understanding of context, or the ability to create
Reshaping reality: OEP as aspirational reality
Bronfenbrenner was influenced by Piaget’s notion of child development as a series of
rationalisations between the self-constructed imaginative world and the ‘constraints of objective
(Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 10)
, and that this internal environment is in a constant state of
refashioning to become more compatible with achievable reality. The highest form of development,
he argues, is the ‘growing capacity to remould reality in accordance with human requirements’
(1979, p. 10). This stance is mirrored by
in the construction of ‘the lifeworld’
(that an individual is the product of history and culture) that he asserts exists not only as an
individual reality, but as part of a communal whole. The lifeworld is therefore influenced by, and
able to influence, broader reality. A concurrent, cyclical development process is thus possible as
the individual undertakes internal development (such as capacity- and knowledge-building that
may alter values and priorities) that allows greater agency for external development within the
achievable reality. That is, new realities are more achievable as a result of internal development
The role of individual and communal realities is an important touchstone for OEP as it is
not just the individual’s ability to conceive changes to their reality (and the means by which
to achieve them), but also the positioning of openness. It could be argued that if openness
is presented as a too radically ideological reality, it dis-incentivises engagement. Presenting
OEP in combative terms (i.e. ‘the battle for open’) or as a ‘disruptive’ idea that will lead to the
destruction of traditional education systems may be counter-productive to gaining traction in
A more strategic approach for OEP to gain a significant foothold in higher education is
one designed around achievable, local aspirational realities, coupled with opportunities for
professional learning and support – all of which requires contextual understanding for success
Ecology, development, and reality: applying Bronfenbrenner an OEP research project
Thus far, this paper has established –based on context– the need for a deeper understanding of open
education practitioners (both emerging, and established) environments of practice and the manner
in which these environments act as enablers and barriers to OEP. The ecology of development has
been leveraged as a mechanism for articulating and exploring contextual influences on practice, as
well as the role of constructed and mediated realities in development. This approach privileges the
role of contextual focus for strategic and operational initiatives related to OEP and provides a lens for
communicating the value of openness in higher education, and will be enacted (as described below)
by the author as part of emerging research.
The role of the conceptual framework is to organise the aspects of inquiry contained within the
research project as a way of representing them to an end-user, or reader
provides purposeful articulation of the phenomena to be observed, and in whom they will be observed.
Additionally, it seeks to represent (often visually) theory that demonstrates alignment between the
phenomena to be researched, and the methods employed to do so
(Ravitch & Riggan, 2012)
, as a
foundation for empirical research.
Table 3 provides a sample representation of the data sources within a proposed survey that are
linked to the levels of ecology. Each level provides a conceptual ‘boundary’ for data, but these are
porous boundaries due to the relational nature of the influencing factors. When applied to the author’s
emerging research on the Australian higher education (HE) experience of OEP, an analysis of the
influences on engagement with OEP is sought to establish ‘institutional identities in openness’ across
four case study sites.
The case study sites have been selected as a mix of metropolitan, and regional; research-focused,
and teaching-focused, and a selection of those teaching primarily on-campus, as well as those
teaching primarily online cohorts. Each of these characteristics describes a type of institutional focus
and environment that may demonstrate differences in the engagement with, and value proposition of,
OEP. It is initially hypothesised that even within a single country; contextual differences will be evident
based on the key characteristics of the participating institution.
Age, length of time employed in the HE
sector, professional or academic staff.
Degree level taught, primary mode of
teaching, ‘ownership’ of course design.
Awareness of open resources within
their discipline, influence of commercial
publisher resources in course design,
types of material included in course
Institutional policy, disciplinary
requirements, accrediting professional
• Demographic questions
• Who has the decision-making power
over the resources included in your
• Please tick from the list the types of
self-authored resources included in
your course (examples include but are
not limited to videos, eBooks, textbooks,
recorded lectures, study guides).
• Please tick from the list the types
of commercial publisher-authored
resources included in your course
(examples include but are not
limited to videos, eBooks, textbooks,
recorded lectures, study guides).
• Does your institution have policies
that support openly licensing your
• What mechanisms or resources are
in place at your institution to support
open practices? (select from a list
including but not limited to general
websites, librarians with specialist
knowledge, copyright officers)
High-level barriers to OEP engagement, • Please select from the list any
national policy, disciplinary culture. barriers you have experienced to
open practice (list includes but is not
limited to access to internet, access
to technology, no support within
the discipline for openness, lack of
access to specific software packages)
The case study method will be used as it supports the investigation of a phenomenon in context
, rather than seeking an artificial divide between context and activity. It is applied when
the researcher approaches continuing phenomena situated in complex circumstances and to
examine the behaviour of groups within a particular structure
. The method therefore
directly supports studying and comprehending the complexity of contextual open practice. Whilst
(Bossu, Bull & Brown, 2015)
have examined the Australian OEP environment, this
was undertaken at the ‘exosystem’ and ‘macrosystem’ levels only. This study uniquely contributes
to an understanding of OEP by examining the impact and inter-relationship between all systems in
the ecology in order to propose processes for guiding OEP initiatives that recognise and operate
alongside local practices.
Analysis of the survey indexed against the ecology levels is anticipated to illuminate areas for
further investigation through semi-structured interviews with practitioners, referred to by
as ‘the most important form of interviewing in case study research (p. 85). As the research
is positioned to inform change and improve engagement with OEP, the ‘methodology of friendship’
(Fontana & Frey, 2008, p. 117)
is intentionally aligned with the desired outcomes. Arising from
Mahoney and Plummers’ (2001
) work, the methodology of friendship assumes that the neutrality of
the interview as data collection is compromised by complex contextual factors; thus the interviewer
takes ‘an ethical stance in favour of the individual or group being studied. The interviewer becomes
an advocate and partner in the study, hoping to be able to use the results to advocate social policies’
and change in practice
(Fontana & Frey, 2008, p. 117)
. As openness contains an ideological
component, and the author is dispositionally empathetic to openness, this method pragmatically
frames the interview component for this research. The research design intentionally embraces the
idea that ‘the more methods we use to study [practitioners], the better our chances will be to gain
some understanding of how they construct their lives and the stories they tell us about them[selves]’
(Fontana & Frey, 2008, p. 152)
It is this deeper emerging narrative of OEP that is sought by engaging with, and implementing this
This conceptual paper forms the model for emerging mixed methods research of the Australian
higher education experience of OEP. The conceptual model informs and is interwoven in the mixed
methods approach for this research, with explicit links to all questions in the initial survey and the
semi-structured interviews that form the secondary data collection phase. A case study approach has
been selected for four Australian institutions to provide a deep understanding of individual cases as
a basis for a broader meta-analysis. Over the course of this research, the conceptual model will be
tested, refined, and re-presented as part of the overall research outcomes. It is suggested that such
an approach is transferable across the sector (and to other geographic regions) as it is inherently
disposed to revision and repurposing based on context.
Context is the foundation for understanding teaching and learning practice, and the influences on
practitioners are evident at varying levels of a complex ecology. In order to gain momentum, OEP
must be positioned in such a manner as to offer a value proposition to practitioners, whilst incentivising
change of practice. Successful implementation of any OEP strategy requires a fulsome understanding
of this ecology to present achievable aspirational reality shifts for the sector, institutions, faculties,
and individual staff, whilst concurrently operationalising support mechanisms to purposefully engage
practitioners in professional development related to OEP.
Presenting OEP as a direct threat, challenge or radical reconceptualization of teaching role is
counter-productive, but institutions should instead seek approaches that are consistent with
incremental change aligned with institutional and individual values in education.
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