Skip to content

Blog post

Exploring open approaches to digital literacy

Richard Pountney, Principal Lecturer, Curriculum Development at Sheffield Hallam University

The notion of open educational resources (OER) was set out in the ‘Cape Town Open Education Declaration’ (2007), calling on educators, authors, publishers and institutions to release their resources openly and to share them freely through open licences. This notion of openness, including the use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone, is implicit in the definition of OER as teaching and learning materials freely available online for everyone to use. Importantly OER are highly customisable and allow for reuse and sharing with few copyright restrictions, given that they either reside in the public domain or have been released under a licence (most commonly a creative commons licence). Mackintosh (2011) has broadened this definition to incorporate three interrelated dimensions: educational values (in terms of barrier-free access to the resources), pedagogical utility (anyone accessing OER should be able to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute the resources) and technology enablers (that is, OER should be in a format which ensures that they are ‘meaningfully’ editable). This means that potential (re)users of OER are positioned not as mere consumers but as active participants in the process of creating and sharing the resources. Supporting this are online repositories, such as MERLOT, which consists of tens of thousands of discipline-specific learning materials, providing access to free learning and teaching resources created and contributed by teachers.

In terms of UK higher education (HE), a recent report (MacNeil & Beetham, 2022), looking at approaches to curriculum and learning design across UK HE, suggests that developing OER may be a route to encouraging open educational practice. However, a study of 11 HE institutions in the UK found lecturers reticent to share their teaching resources openly (Pountney, 2019). Indeed lecturers doubted that students would welcome an open curriculum and would perceive it as extracurricular and external to their learning. The promise of open education in HE to bring about the ‘negotiated curriculum’ in which teacher and student act as co-constructors of knowledge therefore remains largely unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, in the context of teacher education in the school sector, the debate about digital literacy has circulated since Gilster (1997) first coined the term, with subsequent promotion of digital literacy in schools and proposals for an ‘open-source curriculum’ to encourage teachers’ freedom and autonomy. More recently the potential for digital literacy/ies for openness has become topical and has been picked up in the English context by the emergence of the Oak National Academy and the announcement by the Department for Education to establish a new independent curriculum body to ‘support teachers’ in the creation of curriculum content. This has attracted criticism from educational publishers that it is a major intervention into the school resources market which teachers neither want nor need.

‘While teachers are keen to share their resources online with their immediate network, they are much more reluctant to share beyond the circle of people they know and to release the materials openly to educational repositories.’

However, the idea that OER can be embedded in teachers’ work is also problematic. While teachers are keen to share their resources online with their immediate network, they are much more reluctant to share beyond the circle of people they know and to release the materials openly to educational repositories. For the most part, they cite fear of negative feedback to explain their reluctance; some also state the perceived lack of control once resources are shared more widely. These accounts reflect the tension between understandings of digital literacy as a technical competence and a communicative practice, in which accounts of digital literacy and the (re)use of open resources are incomplete or only partially realised in school contexts (Gruszczynska et al., 2013). Therefore, while ‘openness’ covers a range of concepts in relation to digital teaching and learning practices, a clearer connection between OER and digital literacy is needed in order that practices continue to evolve, and in which learning packages and tools can be developed in close cooperation with their potential users and linked directly to classrooms and schools as the site of their production.


Gilster, P. (1997). Digital literacy. Wiley.

Gruszczynska, A., Merchant, G., & Pountney, R. (2013). ‘Digital futures in teacher education’: Exploring open approaches towards digital literacy. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 11(3), 193–206.

Mackintosh, W. (2011). OERU planning meeting: Information pack.

MacNeil, S., & Beetham, H. (2022). Approaches to curriculum and learning design across UK higher education. Joint Information Systems Committee.

Pountney, R. (2019). Sharing and building the higher education curriculum: Course design in an open collegial context. European Journal of Curriculum Studies, 5(2), 853–873.