Guest Blog: Can we decolonize OER/Open? #DecolonizeOpen


Taskeen Adam (South African PhD student at the University of Cambridge) @taskeeeners
Maha Bali (Associate Professor of Practice, American University in Cairo) @bali_maha
Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams (Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town) @cherylHW
Tannis Morgan (Researcher, Open Education Practices at BCcampus) @tanbob


Decolonization, diversity, and inclusion are themes that have emerged in the broader Open movement in recent years and represent an important shift in the discourse around open practices. The project of decolonizing open is multi-layered and may seem somewhat daunting.  On the one hand, open promises to improve access to education and the well-being of livelihoods through practices that enable the sharing of educational content through (largely) digital means (a decidedly modernist narrative in its universalism and approach to progress).  On the other hand, it can unwittingly reproduce many of the existing inequities of the systems it seeks to change. The latter is a thorny issue as the altruistic motivations that appear to drive the open movement in general, and the open practices that underpin open educational resources (OER) in particular, may seem to be above reproach. These are not recent concerns. As early as 2009, Lane underlined that the open of the OER movement “may actually widen rather than bridge the digital and educational divides between groups, both within and across national boundaries, through the increasing sophistication in technologies and the competencies expected of learners” (2009, p.1). Underlying many OER is the assumption of the universality of knowledge systems (often dictated by hegemonic knowledge groups), without giving relevance to the particular. As Asgharzadeh explains:

Because education is not and cannot be value free, neutral, or impartial, the values and principles should be promoted that do not contradict multiplicity of identities and perspectives: diversity, pluralism, freedom of expression, creativity, mutual respect, and democracy. These values should foster feelings of self-esteem, self-respect, self-reliance, as well as the ability to self-define, self-identify, and self-express. (Asgharzadeh, p. 339)

It could be argued that part of the reason for this is that the philosophical foundations (ie. axiological – value, epistemological – perspectives of knowledge, ontological – nature of reality) foundation from which open stems has been largely assumed or undeclared. In other words we need to critically interrogate in whose eyes open education is deemed ‘valuable’; whose knowledge is being foregrounded and whose view of reality is being entrenched? As Andreotti et al. (2015) highlight, modernity (discourses of seamless progress, democracy and universalism we often find in educational technology discourses as well as open education) needs to be examined for its conditioning of how we ought to think and ought to be. This conditioning  is done through the interlinking of ontology, epistemology, and axiology such that it becomes evermore difficult to resist or challenge. In striving to challenge settled knowledges and ways of being, Andreotti et al. (2015, p. 26) highlight ‘strategies of empowerment, ‘giving voice’, recognition, representation, redistribution, reconciliation, affirmative action, re-centering of marginalized subjects and/or ‘transformation’ of the borders of the dominant system’, whilst also acknowledging the risks of adverse incorporation whereby it is “not only assumed that previously excluded groups desire to be a part of mainstream institutions, it is also assumed that they will benefit from this inclusion.” These philosophical foundations are what the broader decolonial project aims to address.

What does decolonisation mean?

The meanings of decolonisation are varied and contested, from the period in which colonial rule collapsed, to the process of the removal of colonial legacies. Some Latin American scholars, such as Maldonado-Torres, differentiate between colonialism and coloniality which is useful in understanding decolonisation:

‘Coloniality is different from colonialism. Colonialism denotes a political and economic relation in which the sovereignty of a nation or a people rests on the power of another nation, which makes such a nation an empire. Coloniality, instead, refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labour, intersubjectivity relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations. Thus, coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self-image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breathe coloniality all the time and every day.’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2007, p. 243)

Drawing upon this conceptual distinction, Maldonado-Torres (2016, p. 440) defines decoloniality as: ‘the dismantling of relations of power and conceptions of knowledge that foment the reproduction of racial, gender, and geo-political hierarchies that came into being or found new and more powerful forms of expression in the modern/colonial world.’ It is from this definition that he extends decolonisation beyond economic and political relations to the ‘decolonization of knowledge, power and being, including institutions such as the university.’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2011, p. 1).  Whilst Maldonado-Torres highlights one interpretation of decolonisation, Andreotti et al. (2015) provide a useful landscaping of various decolonial agendas , ranging from the soft-reform space, to the radical reform space, to the beyond-reform space (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Social cartography of general responses to modernity’s violence (Andreotti et al., 2015, p. 25)

Even if one aligns with one definition of decolonisation, more variance arises when we look at methods of implementing decolonisation, particularly with regard to conceptions of knowledge and pedagogical processes. Jansen (2017, p.163 -167) highlights some of these variances, ranging from the decentring of European knowledge and recentring of relevant indigenous knowledge, to the replacement of European knowledge by indigenous knowledge, to the acknowledgement that knowledges are entangled and can’t be separated. He goes on to look at decolonisation as pedagogy, such as critical engagement with settled knowledge, also highlighting the teacher’s interpretation of knowledge and teaching methods as more important than the content itself.

Applying this to Open

Given the multi-layered, intersectional dimensions of decolonisation, how can we apply these concepts to the work we do in the Open movement?  Without enforcing any one definition or method of decolonisation, we ask the question, ‘Can we decolonise OER/Open?

Decolonial thinking by Andreotti et al. (2015) compares “soft-reform”, where the work involves including marginalized groups and improving access to existing spaces, versus “radical-reform”, where epistemological dominance is recognized and redressed via reforming processes to be more representational of otherwise marginalized groups and challenging hegemonic power structures.  This “soft-reform” and “radical-reform” are akin to Fraser’s (2005) concepts of “affirmative” (ameliorative) and “transformative” change that she uses to explain responses to economic, cultural and political injustices. Where Fraser complements Andreotti et al.’s works is that she distinguishes economic injustices (maldistribution), cultural injustices (misrecognition) and political injustices (misframing),which directly addresses (Maldonado-Torres’s (2011) emphasis on decolonizing knowledge, power and being. Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter (2018) used Fraser’s work as a way to interrogate a meta-synthesis of OER and open practices in the Global South.

With respect to OER/Open, countering cultural inequality or misrecognition with ameliorative modifications or symbolic change could assist in valuing local languages and respecting various cultural interpretations; the process and outcome that Fraser refers to as “recognition” (2005). A more transformative approach could involve what Hodgkinson-Williams and Trotter (2018) have termed “re-acculturation” (Fraser does not specify a particular term for a transformative response to misrecognition) which would respect alternative epistemic positions and acknowledge alternative authorities on what is considered to be worthwhile worldviews, knowledge and dispositions. On the political front, ameliorative solutions would focus on representation of marginal groups, whereas a more transformative approach would involve a reframing of systems by marginalized and the “hegemonic” groups to ensure parity of rights.

Table 1: OER, OEP and Social Justice Framework (adapted from Hodgkinson-Williams & Trotter, 2018, underpinned by Fraser, 2005 with additions from Andreotti, 2015 and Maldonado-Torres, 2011)

Dimension Injustices Affirmative (Fraser, 2005) or “soft-reform” (Andreotti, et al,. 2015)

Addresses injustice with ameliorative reforms

Transformative (Fraser, 2005) or ‘“radical-reform” (Andreotti et al, 2015)

Addresses the root causes of inequality

Economic Maldistribution

  • of resources: economic inequality

  • Printed OER
  • OER available in various formats, including Open source Software MOOCs where the resources are OER

  • Stable power supply, adequate access to functional computing devices and affordable and stable connectivity in rural environments in particular
  • Government and/or institutional funding for OER creation, adaptation and dissemination
  • Mechanism for acceptance for use of OER or MOOCs as microcredentials
Cultural Misrecognition

  • attributes of people & practices accorded less respect, status inequality

  • Locating and incorporating OER used “as is” within local epistemological and cultural contexts
  • Translating OER into local languages prudently
Re-acculturation (Hodgkinson-Williams & Trotter, 2018)

  • Re-mixing OER critically to engage with and challenge hegemonic perspectives – “decolonising knowledge” (Maldonado-Torres, 2011)
  • Sharing their remixed teaching and learning materials publicly
  • Creation of original OER
Political Misrepresentation

  • who has a right to have a voice?

  • Permission by employer to create and share OER created in the course of educators’ work
  • Creating and sharing OER on a publicly accessible platform

  • Internationally alter current IP rights to allow for properly attributed educational resources to be created, adapted & shared without formal permission
  • Creation of OER and engagement of OEP that balances power and authority in use of educational materials – “decolonising power” (Maldonado-Torres, 2011)

Join us for our workshop at OER19

The authors of this blogpost would like to invite you to join our hybrid workshop at OER19 where we will encourage you to deliberate and decide on the extent to which the three open projects, close to our hearts, can be said to be decolonizing open.

We propose using simplified version of the framework (Table 1) to provide a conceptual palette for interrogating the three open projects: OER in Other Languages, ROER4D, and Virtually Connecting.

Our workshop takes places April 11, 2019 at 15.30 Ireland time (Convert to your timezone). If you are attending OER19, please join us. If you won’t be onsite, you may join virtually via Zoom. Please contact @bali_maha on Twitter or sign up here.



Asgharzadeh, A. (2008). The return of the Subaltern: International education and politics of voice. Journal of Studies in International Education, 12(4), 334-363. DOI: 10.1177/1028315307308137

Costanza-Chock, S. (2018).  Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice (June 3, 2018). Proceedings of the Design Research Society 2018. Available at SSRN:

Fraser, N. (2005). Reframing justice in a globalizing world. New Left Review, 36, 69–88.

Hodgkinson-Williams, C.A. & Trotter, H. (2018). A social justice framework for understanding open educational resources and practices in the Global South, Journal of Learning for Development. Journal of Learning For Development, 5(3), 204-224. Retrieved from

Jansen, J. (2017). As by Fire: The End of the South African University, 1st Ed. Tafelberg.

Lane, A. (2009). The Impact of Openness on Bridging Educational Digital Divides. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(5).

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On the Coloniality of Being. Cultural Studies 21, 240–270.

Maldonado-Torres, N.G.E. (2011). Thinking through the Decolonial Turn: Post-continental Interventions in Theory, Philosophy, and Critique—An Introduction. TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1.

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2016). Césaire’s Gift and the Decolonial Turn. In: E.N., Hernández, D.M., Kim, J., Redmond, S.L., Rodríguez, D., See, S.E. (Eds.), Critical Ethnic Studies. Duke University Press, pp. 435–462.

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