Quality Open Education?

Thanks Alan for creating this space.

I’m a big fan of the notion of a “Speakers Corner” - a place where you are free to speak out loud to others sharing and unpacking your own thoughts and collectively engaging in efforts at meaning making.

I’m fascinated by what we mean by “quality” in education.
And more specifically what quality open education entails.

In this OEG Connect Idea Corner I invite you to join me in exploring just what quality means in the context of education overall and especially open education.

In the spirit of a “speakers corner”, points of view, even controversial ones, will be raised. For example:

I’m interested in any research that shows lectures are a high quality learning experience (to the best of my knowledge there is no such research). And given the absence of evidence that lectures are high quality I’m interested in understanding why lectures are the predominant form of education around the world.

I’m interested in understaning the logic of hiring people to be faculty who have specialist knowledge in a field but no grounding, background or knowledge about education. How is that supposed to result in high quality learning?

I’m interested in the way education is being commodified and outsourced. Does a deep reliance on publishers and technology vendors result in high quality education? Does outsourcing the majority of teaching to adjunct faculty result in high quality learning?

I’m interested in whether open education and market based suppliers of educaton content, tools, and services can harmoniously co-exist in ways that are reciprocally beneficial and bolster the quality of education?

Such questions a merely a small sample of the kinds of things I ponder when thinking about quality education. While this speakers corner provides a space where provocative topics such as these can be explored an essential criteria is that discussion be thoughtful and respectful. My aim is to explore not just critical points of view but also generate alternatives and suggest better ways of doing things.

Not everything in this speakers corner will be controversial or provocative. My primary interest entails exploring and understaning quality in the context of “open education”, things like:

  • world views on quality.
  • quality as it pertains to Open Educational Resources including textbooks, simulations, video, and other curricular materials.
  • what a quality teaching and learning open education experience entails and how that differs from traditional practice.
  • open education quality as it pertains to learner success.
  • what institutional and faculty quality practices are when it comes to open education.
  • Quality Assurance Programs like eQOOL and Quality Assurance Organizations like Quality Matters.
  • what open education quality looks like from a technology perspective including open standards, interoperability, export and import, editability of teaching materials, …
  • open education quality in an online learning context.

Mostly I’m interested in co-creating a shared understanding of what high quality open education means.

So let me get things underway with an initial post I call “The Elastic Triangle”.


The Elastic Triangle

My views on quality in education are shaped by hearing Sir John Daniel’s speak in Vancouver back in 2009-20210 timeframe on the Iron Triangle (Daniel, Kanwar, & Uvalic-Trumbic, 2009).


The origin of this model is that ministers of education seek to provide wide access to high-quality education at a low cost. A goal I think we all share.

The Iron Triangle Model diagram shows current state of provision, with Quality, Access and Cost the three key elements existing in relationship to each other as sides of a triangle.

Strategically there are two characteristics to the Iron Triangle:

  1. The triangle is modifiable. You can lengthen or shorten sides of the triangle and see how doing so affects the other sides.
  2. The triangle has a fixed-length perimeter. You cannot increase Quality without affecting Access and / or Cost. Changing the length of any one side involves trade-offs with the other sides.

For example, attempts to increase Access may increase Cost and / or reduce Quality.

Or attempts to increase Quality may reduce Access and increase Cost.

The fixed length characteristic of the Iron Triangle suggests there is a zero-sum relationship between Quality, Access, and Cost, hence the term “iron.”

The Iron Triangle was first conceived as a way of modeling traditional classroom based education. Back in 2009-2010, at the time when I first heard Sir John speak about the Iron Triangle, online learning was burgeoning. Daniels, and others (see sample of references at end of this post), did a good job of exploring how online learning could affect the Iron Triangle noting the use of technology allows for improvements in accessibility and quality, as well as economies of scale that classroom education simply cannot attain.


In the ensuing years it has become clear that online learning, done well, can render the iron triangle flexible. But while online learning gives the triangle some flexibility it is not until you add in the concept of open education that the triangle becomes truly elastic.

Here’s how.

The central challenge of the iron triangle is to simultaneously widen education access, make quality higher, and lower cost. This desired state looks like this:

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Iron Triangle Model is how Access, Cost, and Quality are defined. Access and Cost are defined quantitatively.

Access = number of students

Cost = per capita costs of education

But what about quality? Quality is more amorphous than access and cost, harder to define in a quantifiable way. A large part of the presentation and description of the Iron Triangle model explores what is meant by “Quality”.

Historically a characteristic of education has been that it is difficult to get into. Here quality is defined as exclusivity. Only those with high marks or other predetermined desirable characteristics (including ability to pay for tuition) are accepted.

Another dimension of quality associated with the place-based classroom lecture model of education is expenditure per student. Here the assumption is that the higher the expenditure on facilities and teachers the better the quality.

A belief that these constitute quality leads to a perception that an institution with tough admission requirements and high fees is a good institution, regardless of what happens within its walls.

Class size, ratio of number of teachers to number of students, and associated extent of teacher student interaction is also used as a proxy for quality with the argument being more students means less teacher student interaction and therefore lower quality unless the cost is increased by hiring more teachers.

More recently the emphasis has shifted to outcomes and examinations of student achievement as measured by standardized tests. Here quality is defined as student success in achieving learning outcomes.

But success in achieving learning outcomes is still predicated on support of some kind. As we move away from place-based learning into online learning three interactions and supports are seen as crucial to student success – student interactions with content; student interactions with other students; and student interactions with teacher.

While some studies show student-content interaction has the greatest effect, studies also show that self-paced independent study without student to student and / or student to teacher interaction leads to higher dropout and incompletion rates. Clearly each type of interaction is important and contributes to student performance. In the online learning context quality entails student interactions with high quality content, high quality student to student interactions, and high quality student to teacher interactions.

Breaking Higher Education’s Iron Triangle: Access, Cost, and Quality concludes:

“The aims of wide access, high quality, and low cost are not achievable, even in principle, with traditional models of higher education based on classroom teaching in campus communities. A perception of quality based on exclusivity of access and high expenditure per student is the precise opposite of what is required. One based instead on student achievement enables developing countries to scale up their higher education age participation rates without breaking the bank or fatally compromising quality.”

While online learning makes the Iron Triangle somewhat more flexible I assert that only open education converts the Iron Triangle into an Elastic Triangle.

Let’s start with Cost. The Iron Triangle quantifies Cost as cost of education per capita. This presumes the costs of education are self-contained within a nation, state or region. An essential aspect of open education is the open licensing of teaching and learning resources to be shared with others. This sharing is not constrained by the boundaries of a country but rather is openly shared with everyone around the world. This global sharing converts Cost from a country per capita basis to a global per capita basis. This is a huge change as it means all countries, including developing countries, have access to a large and ever-growing pool of educational resources at no cost. Costs each country has traditionally borne on its own for creating education are now shared and readily available existing materials reduces the current wide scale practice of redundant and repeated development of courses over and over again.

The digital nature of most open educational resources also helps transform the Cost vector from iron to elastic. The costs associated with copying, distributing, and storing digital education resources are close to zero. However, only the unique licenses of open education give everyone the right to freely copy, distribute, retain and modify digital resources. Open education frees education from being fettered and proprietary.

The cost vector can be chunked into costs associated with student interactions with content; student interactions with other students; and student interactions with teacher. In this context it’s important to note that open education is not just about openly sharing resources it also entails open pedagogies which engage students in co-creating content and in doing assignments that contribute to solving global social issues such as the Sustainable Development Goals or contributing to digital public goods such as Wikipedia. Open pedagogies not only make the cost of education elastic but contribute to reducing costs associated with global well-being.

Let’s turn now to Access. The Iron Triangle defines Access as number of students. In the traditional model this is largely defined as enrolments in place-based schools and institutions of higher education. Online learning made the Access vector somewhat more elastic by showing number of students need not be tied to a particular place or facility. Open education is increasing that elasticity even more. Open educational resources are openly shared with everyone. Their use is not constrained to formal academic settings. Open education resources are public goods accessible and available to everyone, even those not formally enrolled as “students”.

In addition to being freely shared open educational resources can be revised and remixed. They can be translated, modified, customized, and adapted to local contexts and needs. This ability to modify and adapt open educational resources ensures they are even more accessible by empowering customization of education to maximize relevance and inclusion. ​​Open education increases access by more accurately ensuring education represents location, culture and identity.

Finally lets turn to Quality. In open education, quality is made more elastic by making it a community driven process. Rather than relying on the subject matter expertise of a single author, open educational resources are typically authored in collaborative teams drawing on a broader cross section of expertise.

The open sharing of open education content, practices and pedagogies ensures they are in essence peer and community reviewed. In open source software development there is a similar practice. Linus’s law is the assertion that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. The law equally applies to open education. Open education quality is derived by making education transparently visible to all in such a way that others have the agency to use them and errors and improvements can be identified and made by all.

Once education is made “open” the very practice of education can qualitatively improve. The emergence of open education practices and pedagogies particularly around engaging students as active co-creators of knowledge is a unique attribute of open education. Having learners engage in assignments that address real needs of society through the development and sharing of digital public goods dramatically increases student engagement and motivation. It is worth asking whether student contributions to fulfilling social needs and making the world a better place are higher quality evidence of achievement of learning outcomes than those typically assessed in exams and tests. Open education uniquely converts the education process from that of being a passive recipient of education as a service to one in which you are an active participant creating and sharing knowledge in ways beneficial to all.

Stretching Your Thinking

I hope this post has stretched your thinking. I think the Iron Triangle provides an interesting interactive mental model for envisioning different ways we can provide wide access to high-quality education at a low cost.

Thanks for joining me on this thought experiment and hearing me out on my assertion that open education uniquely transforms the Iron Triangle into an Elastic Triangle.

I hope you will join me in discussing this. Questions, ideas, thoughts and suggestions are welcome. Simply click Reply to this post.


Daniel, J., “Education across space and time”, (2013)

Daniel, J. “Making Sense of Flexibility as A Defining Element of Online Learning”, (2016)

Daniel, S. J., Kanwar, A., & Uvalic-Trumbic, S. (2009). Breaking higher education’s iron triangle: Access, Cost, and Quality. Change, March-April

Power, M. & Gould-Morven, A. (2011). Head of Gold, Feet of Clay: The Online
Learning Paradox
. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed
Learning, 12(2), 19–39.

Raymond, E. S., The Cathedral and the Bazaar, (1999)


Thanks for speaking in the corner, Paul, and also for introducing an important and likely messy (which can be good) topic.

A first reaction is the questioning if quality is quantifiable, it’s spoken of as a singular thing when there is a variance across many measures. But my associate mind goes back (way back) to reading Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He wrote pervasively wrestling with the idea of Quality (capital letter) in his teaching, back in the ?? 1970s?

He relays a question posed to him as a new teacher, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” Pirsig’s response goes on to really question the grading system, decades before there were #ungrading hashtags (or any hashtags). But he went forward with it with inspiring results… okay my memory now is fuzzy, I am relying on my blogged thoughts while reading the book:

But you have some really good topics, questions posed here, and I am eager to dip into the concepts you added on the Iron Triangle.

@cogdog, I really appreciate you bringing forward Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a source for important thoughts about quality. I remembered reading that book way back in the 1970’s and finding it incredibly thought provoking and a good introduction to eastern philosophy and metaphysics. But I couldn’t remember it dealing with quality. So after reading your comments I thought I’d read it again.

First I went to the library (I love libraries) in the hopes of simply borrowing it but interestingly all the copies were out and even the ebook version had a wait list of over a dozen people (it’s ridiculous that digital versions of a book which could easily be made available to everyone are treated like paper based versions that can only be borrowed one at a time, that is definitely not a quality experience for the aspiring reader or the author - but I digress). So I went to the bookstore and purchased a copy which I’ve now been reading over the last couple of weeks.

It’s interesting to me that the subtitle for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is “An Inquiry into Values”. It makes me think that what we call “quality” is really based on what we value.

Pirsig does indeed explore what constitutes “quality” in education in this book and I thought I’d share a few of his ideas here.

In the early part of the book he makes, what for me, is a very astute observation. He points out that an essential aspect is “caring about what you are doing”. When you hurry something, it means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things. In his view there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all - caring. If you don’t care about something quality is absent.

A large part of the book is dedicated to an exploration of quality. He notes how difficult it is to define quality. Some things are better than others, they have more quality. However, when you try to say what the quality is it all goes poof! But if you can’t say what quality is, how do you know what it is. For all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are grades based on? Obviously some things are better than others … but what is the betterness? This line of thought became a central line of exploration.

Phaedrus, the main character in the story, is a college teacher. He began to think that schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Imitating gets you an A. Originality on the other hand could get you anything from an A to an F. He began to consider elminating the whole degree and grading system. When he mentions this to students they reply “You can’t eliminate the degree and grading system. Thats what we’re here for.” But he became convinced that students are conditioned to work for a grade rather than for the knowledge the grade was supposed to represent. He tries an experiment where student papers go back to students with comments but no grades, although he enters grades in his book. This leads him to realize a sinister aspect of grading that the withholding of grades exposed. Grades really cover up the failure to teach. A bad instructor can go through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of the class, curve out scores on an irrelevant test, and leave the impression that some have learned and some have not. But if grades are removed the class is forced to wonder each day what it’s really learning.

Phaedrus poses a question to his classroom of students “What is quality in thought and statement?” Initially there was an explosion of anger and frustration from the students who replied “How are we supposed to know what quality is? You’re supposed to tell us.” He explains that he genuinely can’t define quality but suggests that even though we can’t define it you know what quality is. He distributes various student papers to the class and asks them to rank them in order of quality. He does the same himself. Then he tallies the results for an overall class opinion and reveals his own rankings which are almost always close to if not identical to the class average. Is quality something subjective we just intuit? He then goes on to single out aspects of quality such as unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on. Is quality a measurable physical property?

Here is a diagram he shares of different ways to think about quality:

The exploration of “quality” in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is both philosophical and metaphysical. “Quality is the Buddha. Quality is scientific reality. Quality is the goal of Art.” Phaedrus strives to work these concepts into a practical down-to-earth context. For him nothing is more practical or down-to-earth than - the repair of an old motorcycle.

That was a deep dive indeed, Paul! I picked this up to read when I was on my extended road trip across, around north america, and there was a beautiful synchronicity when I was in a part of Idaho where summarized his characters were also driving in.

I remember being surprised at his focus on quality, yet not like the buzzwordness of it as a general concept. See I even began noticing here in Sandpoint Idaho


I too did not realize there was so much to Pirsig’s novel on his teaching efforts and was impressed that he was describing approaches (e.g. ungrading and student led) that are seen as “novel” in 2022.