Mapping the open education landscape: citation network analysis of historical open and distance education research
Mapping the Open Education Landscape: Citation Network Analysis of Historical Open and Distance Education Research
Martin Weller 0 1
Katy Jordan 0 1
0 Irwin DeVries Thompson Rivers University , Canada
1 The Open University , United Kingdom
The term open education has recently been used to refer to topics such as Open Educational Resources (OERs) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Historically its roots lie in civil approaches to education and open universities, but this research is rarely referenced or acknowledged in current interpretations. In this article the antecedents of the modern open educational movement are examined, as the basis for connecting the various strands of research. Using a citation analysis method the key references are extracted and their relationships mapped. This work reveals eight distinct sub-topics within the broad open education area, with relatively little overlap. The implications for this are discussed and methods of improving inter-topic research are proposed.
Open education; distance education; citation network analysis; social network analysis
The purpose of this paper is to enrich current scholarship by exploring and identifying key historic
papers, authors and themes in open education research. The work builds on a systematic approach
that identified a corpus of historical open education articles from the 1970’s which are almost entirely
non-cited in the literature today
. It is intended that this study will provide an accessible
starting point for researchers to deepen their understanding and further explore and incorporate
earlier open and distance education research into their current work.
Open education is an evolving term that covers a range of philosophies and practices aimed at
widening access to education for those wishing to learn, with the current focus predominantly on practices
based around reuse and sharing. This current focus can be traced back to the Open Educational
Resources (OER) movement, and the use of open licences, such as Creative Commons licences.
Current interpretations of open education are often shaped by the OER movement with an
emphasis on the ‘5Rs of reuse’
(Reuse, Revise Remix, Redistribute and Retain - Wiley 2014)
, 2017) defines open pedagogy as the ‘set of teaching and learning practices
only possible in the context of the affordances of open educational resources as enabled by the
5Rs’ and talks of OER enabled pedagogies. The profile of open education has been further raised
in recent years by the popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Although they do not
always meet the 5Rs criteria, MOOCs are open to all and freely available. The growth of awareness
and use of open textbooks, as a specific form of OER, has also gained a great amount of attention
over the past few years, particularly in North America through projects such as OpenStax and BC
In addition, the advent of policies around open access publishing has raised the profile of openness
in general for many working in higher education. The Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates
and Policies (ROARMAP) tracks open access policies at the funder, research organisation and
multiple organisation level and indicates 887 at the end of 2017, in 68 different countries. These
open access policies have expanded more recently to encompass open access to research data,
with support from funding bodies and policy makers.
Policies relating to OER are similarly increasing.
Keskin et al. (2018)
examined OER and
MOOCs policies USA, UK, Canada, South Korea and Turkey and found that each had policies of
varying forms to promote the development and use of OER and MOOCs. A European Framework
for the Digital Competence of Educators
proposes that a key competence for all
educators is to “effectively identify resources that best fit their learning objectives, learner group
and teaching style, to structure the wealth of materials, establish connections and to modify, add
on to and develop themselves digital resources to support their teaching” (p. 20). Understanding
open licenses and the use of OER is stated as a key means to realise this. UNESCO made
OER a central method for realising their Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and
quality education for all and promote lifelong learning, with the 2017 Ljubljana OER action plan
The formalisation of open principles into policy could be seen to indicate that open education in
its various forms has entered much of the mainstream educational practice, since the inception
of the OER movement in 2001. However, concepts and practices associated with open education
have a longer history than the OER movement.
Peter and Deimann (2013)
highlight open education
practices stretching back to the Middle-ages with the founding of universities which “contained in
them the idea of openness, albeit by no means comprehensive. This period highlights ‘open’ as
learner driven, resting on a growing curiosity and increasing awareness of educational opportunities”
(p. 9). Open education can be traced through the 17th Century with coffee-houses and then into the
industrial revolution with schools and working clubs. Then in the 20th Century the founding of ‘open’
universities such as the UK Open University and the University of South Africa developed a model
of large-scale provision.
This longer historical perspective highlights that open education is a shifting concept. The authors
Historical forms of openness caution us against assuming that particular configurations will prevail, or
that social aspects should be assumed as desired by default. […] After a period of open movements
many times there have been slight but important shifts from ‘pure’ openness towards ‘pretended’
openness, i.e. some aspects have been modified to offer more control for producers and other
stakeholders (Peter & Deimann, 2012, p. 12).
From the current perspective,
proposes three core antecedents for the current open
education movement, namely open universities, open source software, and web 2.0 culture. From
these a number of coalescing principles can be derived, including: freedom to reuse; open access; free
cost; easy use; digital, networked content; social, community based approaches; ethical arguments
for openness; and openness as an efficient model. These shared principles are significant for the
work that follows, as it suggests that even though practitioners may be working in tightly focused and
defined areas of interest, there are commonalities across much of open education. However, while
this suggests that the current manifestation of open education has its roots in previous interpretations
and developments, much of the current literature in what can broadly be defined as open education
fails to acknowledge or cite this earlier work.
analysed publications from an OER
research repository (the OER Knowledge Cloud), and derived the following categories: Project Case
Study; Technical; OER as subject; Research with impact data; Policy; Practitioner; OER in developing
nations; MOOCs; Pedagogy; Open practice.
There is a strong tendency to be self-referential across all of these categories, with little reference
to open education prior to OER movement. A preliminary systematic search
education” across a number of databases, retrieved over two hundred articles and revealed that
there was an initial peak in the period 1970-74, with articles deriving largely from the concentrating
on open pedagogy in UK infant schools, and also from the founding of the Open University. The
next significant peak in publications is found in 2010-15 as MOOCs, open textbooks and OER gain
traction (Figure 1).
There is little connection between these two peaks of open education publications however.
were two of the most frequently cited papers (41 and
21 respectively) that deal with broadly applicable open education issues, but are rarely cited beyond
As the work above highlights, research and definitions of open education continues to evolve
and branch into new areas of focus. However, many of its themes bear certain similarities to
earlier research starting from the late 1960s and developing through to the ‘80s and beyond. For
example, the popularity of MOOCs was hailed as a revolution in higher education, democratizing
learning for millions
, with 2012 being declared the ‘Year of the MOOC’
. However, completion rates were very low
, the demographics of learners
favoured those with an existing high level of education
, and they were expensive
(Hollands & Tirthali, 2014)
. By 2013, even MOOC pioneer Sebastian Thrun declared
that they were ‘a lousy product’
. Much of the early MOOC literature ignored
existing literature on distance education and e-learning, declaring them ‘the first generation of
. The literature on supporting students at a distance
(e.g. Tait, 2004)
(e.g. Bates, 1995; Weller, 2004)
, or student retention (e.g. Tinto, 1975) may well
have provided useful contributions to this development, but was largely ignored. Similarly, much of
the current provision in distance education can learn from the development of tools, and production
techniques in MOOCs.
It is the authors’ contention that providing connections between these bodies of research in open
education is mutually beneficial for researchers and practitioners. The studies into practice since the
1970s have produced an extensive body of theory in open and distance education, which can add
valuable insights for current researchers and practitioners. In addition, researchers and graduate
students will be able to enrich their studies by tracing ideas, connections, discontinuities and patterns
gleaned from the analysis of earlier studies. Further, current discourses about the meaning of
openness in education may well benefit from an understanding of historical patterns of open and
distance education research, in particular the challenges faced.
Social network analysis (SNA) approaches were used to build a network of the literature cited in
the field. SNA is not a single approach but rather a toolkit of different metrics and analyses which
can be used in a range of contexts where social relations can be conceived of as links between
(Borgatti, Mehra, Brass & Labianca, 2009; Kadushin, 2012; Wasserman & Faust,
. By viewing social relations as a network, novel insights can be gained in terms of the structure
of communities and importance of key connections
(Borgatti et al., 2009)
. By thinking in these terms,
the literature cited in an academic publication can be conceived of as a network where each reference
is a node, linked to another node (the publication it is cited in) through a tie which represents the
social practice of a citation.
This approach has been widely used to visualise the structure of scientific knowledge and map
(Börner, Chen & Boyack, 2003; Small, 1999)
. When applied to a variety of
subject areas, this approach has yielded insights into the sub-domains within a field and areas
of overlap between them. Dawson, Gašević, Siemens and Joksimovic (2014) used this approach
to examine the network of literature cited by papers at the Learning Analytics and Knowledge
annual conferences from 2011 to 2013, with a view to “to identify the emergence of trends and
disciplinary hierarchies that are influencing the development of the field to date” (Dawson et al.,
2014, p. 231).
As such, using citation network analysis serves the goals of the present study to an extent, as a
way of identifying sub-domains within literature related to openness and education. However, a key
distinction between existing studies and the present study is the exploratory and historical nature
of the research. Whereas citation networks typically start with a well bounded and defined set of
(Dawson et al., 2014, for example)
, the term openness is not clearly defined and draws upon
multiple subject areas, making a well-defined set of literature to include is a challenge (this problem
also reflects the aims of the study itself). We also set out to trace the links between contemporary
and historical perspectives on openness, which also calls for an exploratory approach to uncover the
citation links to earlier works.
To this end, an iterative approach was used to generate the sample of papers selected for inclusion
in the citation network. An initial sample of 20 documents were selected, on the basis of literature
database searches for items which referred specifically to the history or definition of openness
((“open education”, “open learning”, openness)AND(history,definition)), listed in Table 1.
Fisher, C.W. &
Evans, T. &
Friesen, N. &
Peter, S. &
Dalsgaard, C. &
Guri-Rozenblit, S. 1993
Closure on openness: Describing and
quantifying open education
Open Education: a slogan examined
Open Education as a “Heterotopia of Desire” Learning, Media and Technology
What is open learning?
‘Open learning’, ‘distance learning’, and
the misuse of terms
Theorising open and distance education
Differentiating between Distance/Open
Education Systems: Parameters for
“Open Learning 2.0”? Aligning Student,
Teacher and Content for Openness in
On the role of openness in education: A
The Prehistory of MOOCs: Inclusive and
Exclusive Access in the Cyclical Evolution
of Higher Education
The Battle for Open: How openness won
and why it doesn’t feel like victory
Dimensions of Openness: Beyond the
Course as an Open Format in Online
From openness to permeability: reframing
open education in terms of positive liberty
in the enactment of academic practices
Defining openness: updating the concept
of “open” for a connected world
Journal of Interactive Media in
Open Learning: The journal of
open, distance and e-learning
Open Learning: The journal of
open, distance and e-learning
Open Learning: The journal of
open, distance and e-learning
International Review of
International Review of
Research in Open and Distance
E-Learning and Digital Media
Journal of Organisational
Transformation & Social Change
International Review of
Research in Online and Distributed
Learning, Media and
Living Reference Work Entry,
Encyclopedia of Educational
Philosophy and Theory
K&aElzb,nMer.,, MKh.alil, M. 2017
Editorial for the special issue on
advancing research on open education
Journal of Computing in
Openness as social praxis
The references were then extracted from each of the above (forward citations were not included).
The literature and references were checked for consistency and duplicate items in a two-column
spreadsheet (references in a first column of ‘source’ items and the articles in which they are cited
in a second ‘target’ column). The data were then exported as CSV files and imported into Gephi
for network analysis
(Bastian, Heymann & Jacomy, 2009)
. The steps involved in the process are
illustrated in Figure 2 using some of the references from one of the initial sample of ‘seed’ papers.
The papers which were cited by at least two of the original sample items were then added to the
sample to include their references in the next iteration. Although this process could be repeated
indefinitely, four iterations have been carried out and it was felt that meaningful clusters had emerged
at this point. It is worth reiterating that the nature of the network is exploratory rather than exhaustive.
At this point, the network included 5,217 references from a total of 172 publications. Note that it was
not possible to include references for some multi-cited items due to not having any references, or not
being accessible online (books or chapters).
The full final citation network is shown in Figure 3. Articles which were included in the sample
and their references used to build the network are shown as magenta nodes. Those which were
cited more than twice but whose references were not included are shown in blue. There were
several reasons why this would be the case, including articles not having references, references
not being accessible online, or having achieved >2 citations in the fourth iteration (i.e. those which
would have been included in a fifth iteration of the network). Nodes which were only cited once
are shown in grey.
The network visualisation in Figure 3 uses the Force Atlas 2 algorithm
(Jacomy, Venturini, Heymann
& Bastian, 2014)
. The algorithm is based on two simple principles: “Nodes repulse each other like
charged particles, while edges attract their nodes, like springs”
(Jacomy et al. 2014)
. As a result,
clusters of papers have emerged based on the extent of sharing the same references, which raises
questions of both what the clusters represent, and which key publications act as links between different
clusters. In order to clearly characterise the network further, the same layout will be maintained but
items for which references were not included will be removed. Highly cited items (>4 citations) for
which references were not included will be kept, as this will include notable publications which did not
have references or references were inaccessible. The resulting network is shown in Figure 4, with
nodes colour-coded to show categories applied by the researcher in order to distinguish the nature
of different communities1. Items which did not immediately lend themselves to a particular category
are shown in grey.
These categories are partly a subjective interpretation of the clustering. Each of them is now
considered in turn, and the type of subjects they address.
The Open Education in schools (or Open Classrooms) movement is the earliest cluster present
in the network, receiving greatest focus in the early 1970s. The term originated in the UK in the
wake of the
Plowden report (1967
), a comprehensive review of primary school provision at the time.
The concept subsequently proved popular in America. In this context, ‘open’ can relate both to the
physical layout of classroom spaces, and approaches to designing educational tasks.
Distance education emerges in the network from 1980 onwards, with a focus on the growing
phenomenon of open and distance universities. Two no table shifts occur which link distance
education to other subsequent themes in the development of openness. From the mid 1980s,
the term ‘open learning’ becomes more prominent, signalling a shift towards learner-centred
pedagogy and removing barriers. Towards the end of the decade, technological advances such
as computer-mediated communication and the nascent World Wide Web become increasingly
important. Both lay some of the groundwork for the subsequent theme of ‘E-learning and online
1A browsable version of this network, including full references for all nodes, can be found online at http://www.katyjordan.
E-learning and online education rose to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, bridging the
gap between distance education and OER. This period saw a mainstreaming of many of the issues
relating to open education, as e-learning became an area of interest for traditional universities and
not just open education providers. Over this period, e-learning (and related terms, such as technology
enhanced learning) become increasingly synonymous with the Internet and web-based technologies,
while largely not losing sight of the importance of pedagogy and adapting teaching practices rather
than relying on new technology alone.
Open access publishing entered the network as a concept towards the end of the 1990s, with
a focus on metrics and how OA compares to traditional scholarly publishing during the 2000s. In
contrast to the other themes so far, this cluster is not primarily concerned with education in terms of
teaching, but rather focused on the research activities and outputs of higher education. As such, it is
not widely linked to the other themes in the network, but has been an important contributor towards
open practices in terms of digital scholarship.
The Open Educational Resources (OER) theme is a tight-knit community at the heart of the network.
The OER theme emerges around the year 2000, initially focusing upon learning objects, open source
education, and OpenCourseWare. The theme is central to the citation network, both drawing upon
existing work in e-learning and distance education, and influencing subsequent themes of MOOCs
and open practices. While the discourse around OER emphasise opening up quality educational
resources on a global scale, later in the theme a recognition that access is not enough and need to
be combined with open educational practices emerges.
Social media emerged as a theme in the network, from the mid 2000s. While the majority of
papers included in the network are written from a more general Internet Studies or Communication
perspective rather than focused on education or academia, the position of the theme suggests that
this body of work has been influential in thinking about open practices and scholarly activities online.
Use of online social networking tools is particularly prominent, but the theme also includes ideas
related to ‘Web 2.0’ and social media more broadly, such as blogging. In very recent years, this
theme has been less well represented as the focus has shifted towards use of tools as part of Open
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) represent one of the most recent themes within the network.
Although ‘open’ is ostensibly foregrounded, being part of the acronym itself, the relationship with the
discourse surrounding openness in education is less clear. The group of papers on the theme of
MOOCs have some shared connections to the OER and e-learning clusters, but are distinct.
The theme of Open practices is one of the most recent and ongoing areas for research in the
field. Its location within the network shows how it sits at the intersection of social media, open
access publishing, and OER. It includes articles focused upon digital scholarly practices, and open
educational practices, spanning both the research and teaching remits of higher education.
In addition to identifying research themes through characterising the clustering within the network,
viewing the connections in this way also gives insight into their relative proximity. Open practices
have emerged as the connection between three of the major communities - OER, Open Access
publishing, and social media. MOOCs appear to be most closely related to OER, whilst the two
oldest communities (Open education in schools, and Distance education and open learning) are only
weakly linked to the main body of the network, and only to each other through more recent work. The
temporal development of the network can be seen more clearly through Figure 5.
In addition to the two communities (Open education in schools, and Distance education and open
learning) highlighted as some of the oldest papers in the network in Figure 5, there are also a
handful of older, highly-cited papers at the heart of the network. These nodes are also not easily
classified within a particular community (Figure 3). The most highly cited nodes (>7 citations) within
the network are listed in Table 2, and their positions within the network are labelled in Figure 6.
For items in Table 2 which were highly cited but did not clearly sit exclusively within one particular
community, the ‘category’ field is left blank.
Atkins, Brown & Hammond (2007
Lave & Wenger (1991)
Distance education and open learning
In addition to considering the number of citations as a way of identifying key papers within the
network, betweenness centrality is a network metric which can be used to identify papers based
on their position within the network structure. Betweenness centrality is calculated based on the
number of shortest paths; that is, the shortest way to navigate through the network between any
two given nodes. The 20 publications with the highest betweenness centrality are listed in Table 3,
and their network positions shown in Figure 7. Note that some of the ‘category’ fields in Table 3 are
left intentionally blank, as these items did not fall clearly into one of the emergent communities or
another in the network, i.e. they correspond to some of the nodes which are colour-coded as grey
in Figure 4.
Dholakia, King & Baraniuk (2008)
Discussion and Conclusions
This research is not intended to be exhaustive, nor are the identified prominent studies intended
to be canonical. It would be possible realise a different network with different seeding inputs.
However, this research does offer a new and interesting view on the development of the field of
open education over time. The eight distinct sub-topics within open education over the past four
decades were identified as open access, OER, MOOCs, open educational practice, social media,
e-learning, open education in schools and distance learning. These communities are perhaps not
surprising, although in some ways the relationships between them are. For instance, large islands
exist consisting of such areas as open education in schools, MOOCs, and distance education and
open learning. While e-learning has a preponderance of citations, it again exists by itself with little
connection to the other areas. The lack of connection between MOOCs and e-learning literature for
instance, reinforces the anecdotal sense that this field has developed without recognition of work
that has preceded it.
There has been a temporal aspect to much of this development which is represented in Figure 5.
Distance education morphed into e-learning literature during much of the 1980s and 1990s. The
initiation of the OER movement since 2002 has also coincided with open access as a field of interest.
The rise of web 2.0 and social media in the late 2000s led to research relating to academic use of
these tools. Social media, OER and open access can be seen as precursors to MOOCs and open
practice respectively. Open education in schools has seen different periods of interest, but remained
largely distinct from the others. Each of these practices might make reference to its precursor
movement, but rarely beyond that.
However, the linking between the sub topics in the network should not be viewed simply as newer
developments, such as MOOCs, acknowledging and learning from prior developments, but also
established areas benefiting from new insights. For example, Tait (in press) analyses the future of
open, distance education universities and highlights a lack of innovation as a potential threat to their
long-term sustainability. Similarly,
argues that open universities have been resistant to
adopting many of the digital methods in delivery, allowing other providers to ‘steal their clothes’ in
, p.2) phrase. The research in topics such as MOOCs, social media and OER are
closely related to open university practice and so provide a route for innovation that falls within the
remit of such universities. Strengthening the relationship between these research areas then might
be seen as a first step in addressing this innovation lag.
Of the eight areas identified there seems to be a relationship between how tightly clustered the
references are and the clarity of definition. For example, clear definitions exist for open access
(e.g. Suber, 2004)
(e.g. UNESCO, 2002)
. E-learning comparatively is less well defined,
covering any aspect of ICT in education, online learning, learning management systems, and so
on. The references here are thus less well connected. Similarly, open educational practice (OEP) is
an emerging field which does not have a clear definition, as
states, ‘the value of
OEP as a concept is in its more wide-ranging remit’. Thus, what is included in this classification is
more disparate than for others. It can also be seen however as a connecting thread between all the
other fields. OEP addresses the manner in which each of these other areas are implemented and
educators adapt their practice.
These and other patterns in the diagram give evidence of a lack of solid connections between
what intuitively would appear to be strongly related areas. It also highlights the importance of
publications that act as nodes between these ‘islands’, forming possible bridges between the
different communities. Open education does not constitute a discipline, in the manner of a hard
science for example, so there is no agreed canon of research that all researchers will be familiar
with. It is also an area that practitioners tend to move into from other fields, often because of
an interest in applying aspects of openness to their foundational discipline. This can be seen as
an advantage, in that different perspectives are brought into the domain, and it evolves rapidly.
However, it also results in an absence of shared knowledge, with the consequence that existing
knowledge is often ‘rediscovered’ or not built upon. In order to partly address this issue, the authors
have created a Beginner’s Guide with a summary of key articles in each of the eight areas identified
(Jordan & Weller, 2017)
There are limitations to the research which should be acknowledged. The first of these is that
there is a backward perspective as the citation network builds on past papers, so there may be a lag
between significant papers and their recognition via this method. The method therefore provides a
means of establishing a historical perspective but does not reflect the current state of the field and
leading edges of research. Further, it is not possible to get a sense of the history of highly cited items
which do not have references themselves to the same extent, in a network they tend to be
deadends rather than nodes. Perhaps most significantly here are biases inherent in the social practice of
citation and academia more generally, such as gender
(Savonick & Davidson, 2016)
hemisphere bias which this work could serve to reinforce. One method of addressing this would
be to reseed the initial citation network with explicitly sourced references to prioritise a particular
perspective, for example publications from the global south. Also, the inaccessibility of references
within print publications privileges electronic journal articles. Finally, in this approach certain types
of paper tend to be more highly referenced, as noted by
Dawson et al. (2014)
, “The analyses also
indicate that the commonly cited papers are of a more conceptual nature than empirical research
reflecting the need for authors to define the learning analytics space” (p. 231). The results of the
method then can be influenced by the initial seeding articles. This can also be seen as a benefit
however, as different versions of the network can be created to serve different purposes.
However, accepting these limitations, the method and findings of this research represent an initial
attempt to provide a conceptual mapping of the broad field of open education. The findings provide
some evidence that sub-topics within this area operate largely in isolation, with little cross referencing.
Given the shared principles outlined previously, as well as commonality in many of the motivations
and problems and techniques, this can be seen as detrimental to the development of the field as a
whole. It is hoped that this work will provide some means of addressing these silos of practice.
This paper was presented at the 2018 Open Education Consortium Global Conference, held in
Delft (The Netherlands) in April 24th-26th 2018 (https://conference.oeconsortium.org/2018), with
whom Open Praxis established a partnership. After a pre-selection by the Conference Committee,
the paper underwent the usual peer-review process in Open Praxis.
Papers are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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