Open education as a real utopia

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This is the cover to the Verso Books publication.
Click on this cover of the Verso Books publication for a link to Wright’s scans of the text.

Thanks to the interest and support of my newfound friends and colleagues at GO-GN, I have pinned down one third of my dissertation research. On the last day of the #oeglobal conference in Krakow, I holed up in my hotel room and drafted proposals for the #OpenEd16 conference coming up in November. I share one of them below. When I introduced the idea of Eric Olen Wright’s “real utopia” project in the GO-GN seminar, I was happy to hear such enthusiasm for the approach. Although I am still very new to the work, I am excited by Wright’s bridge between the idealism of an “emancipatory social science” and the need for viable, achievable alternatives to existing institutional structures. I am excited about exploring open education through this lens, hopefully presenting it as a much-needed theoretical framework. Here’s a copy of what I submitted to the Open Education Conference, fingers crossed, because the deadline would keep me on track, if nothing else.

Open Education as a Real Utopia

This paper explores the application of Wright’s (2010) “real utopias” framework for a theoretical and ethical grounding in open education.

The proliferation of open educational resources, practices, and policies across the globe is presenting a promising array of potentials for change in education. Yet, Cronin’s (2016) intriguing prompt for the OER16 conference keynote, “If open is the answer, then what is the question?” highlights the rather uncertain ambitions and ambiguous principles that permeate the movement. Propelled by the material possibilities of the Internet, the networks that flow through it, and the liberation of intellectual property through open licensing, open education has been focused on exploration of the possible to the neglect of a theoretical or ethical grounding. Indeed, Wiley (2015) too has recently argued for a deepening of engagements with notions of care and sharing in open education to ground open practice beyond mere rules or directions.

For instance, in North America the focus of the open education movement lies squarely upon the provision of open textbooks. This development is a well-warranted response to an educational context rife with exceedingly expensive educational materials. It is a powerful approach to embedding open principles in education by highlighting the alignment to “access” and “affordability” that dominate in North American educational policy discourse. However, this focus limits broader understandings of open education such as open research, open pedagogies, and other open educational practices. Further, the focus on open textbooks shies away from an explicit engagement with political and theoretical underpinnings of “open” and as such limits exploration of the emancipatory potentials of open education.

In this paper, I lay out a framework that balances theoretical and ethical formulations with an eye towards practical implementations. In development for over 20 years, Wright’s (2010) framework of “real utopias” is an approach to constructing “a normative theory of the possible” (2012, p. 2). Following Wright, the paper is laid out in four parts. First, referencing Farrow’s (2016) nascent development of an ethics for open education, I review a set of moral principles by which we can judge existing educational institutions. Second, I mobilize those principles as an analytic for diagnosis of problems and critique of practices in education. Third, I explore how open can be applied as a viable alternative to the problems exposed. Finally, I conclude with some reflection on how “real utopias” can offer a grounded theory of what is possible in open education.


Cronin, C. (2016, April 18). If open is the answer, Then what is the question? Keynote address for the OER16 conference. Edinburgh, UK.
Farrow, R. (2016). A framework for the ethics of open education. Open Praxis, 8(2). Retrieved from axis.8.2.291
Wright, E. O. (2010). Envisioning real utopias. London, UK: Verso.
Wright, E. O. (2012). Transforming capitalism through real utopias. American Sociological Review, 78(1), 1-25. doi: 10.1177/0003122412468882
Wiley, D. (2015, January 15). The deeper ethics of education and open: Generosity, care, and relationships. Retrieved from

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