Openness as a threshold concept

Open Education Week

This blogspost is in response to a call for initiatives to promote Open Education Week 2015. Since I discovered social media for teaching, I have worked towards opening up my lessons in Teacher Education as much as possible.Furthermore, I have tried to help my student teachers at the University of the Balearic Islands, in the off-campus centre in Ibiza, learn about Open Education from the very beginning of their training. And this post, in fact, is my first attempt to argue that Openness is much more than a technological concept but a true threshold concept.

Openness as a threshold concept could be seen as a fundamental approach that goes further beyond technological issues and represents a shift in the way we envision education. Openness changes the way teachers, stakeholders and institutions address their own teaching and educational policies. Therefore, as well as extending OER and open practices, openness has to be addressed from the point of view of the development of professional identity. Being aware that it is a fundamental principle that guides and changes the whole educational practice is crucial for its successful spread worldwide.

 Threshold concept framework

Threshold concepts were first described by Meyer and Land (2003) and later developed by many authors such as Cousin (2006). Following these authors, threshold concepts have some key attributes. Nonetheless, it is not necessary for all such attributes to exist in order to be considered as such.

Meyer and Land (2003) firstly stated that there are some concepts that have helped in our understanding of economics. These authors argue that a threshold concept is different from a core concept because it implies a “qualitatively different view of subject” whereas the latter “progresses understanding of the subject” (Meyer and Land, 2003, 4). In brief, a threshold concept is introduced as a door to a new way of understanding a subject in greater depth:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view (Meyer and Land, 2003, 1).

There are five main attributes defined originally by Meyer and Land (2003) but three more have also been listed stemming from comments made by the authors (UCL, 2013): transformative, troublesome, irreversible, integrative, bounded, discursive, reconstitutive and liminal.

Openness as a threhold concept

  1. Transformative

“Grasping a threshold concept is transformative because it involves an ontological as well as a conceptual shift” Cousin (2006, 4; 2010).

Ismael Peña has recently said that open education means letting our students out and allowing others in. In an extremely good post, the diverse elements of the learning-teaching process design are analysed from the exciting perspective of collaboration with others both in and out of the student groups. The open perspective in each of these elements brings about a dramatic transformation of the teaching and learning design.

Going beyond teaching and learning design, openness is also about commitment towards education: commitment about increasing access to learning opportunities of high quality, which means fostering the democratic principles of educational systems; and, commitment towards transforming education. Thus, opening means transforming traditional educational systems mainly based on individual acquisition of content.

Conole (2012, 6) argues there are five principles related to openness, two of them have a great deal to do with the transformative attribute. Firstly, Conole argues that “adopting more open practices will mean being open in as broad a sense as possible”, which implies transforming the whole educational practices by teachers and others. And secondly, she argues that “adopting open practices will encourage serendipity, lateral thinking and new perspectives, hence fostering creativity”. Therefore, openness transforms cognitive processe as well.

  1. Troublesome

“Mastering threshold concepts often requires the acquisition of knowledge that is troublesome. Depending on discipline and context, this knowledge might be (…) characterised by supercomplexity or perhaps troublesome because the learner remains ‘defended’ and does not wish to change or let go of their customary way of seeing things” (UCL Department of electronic and electrical engineering, 2013).

Troubles for open education can arise from technical issues, the lack of digital skills or other pedagogical aspects such as the adaptability in different educational curriculums as claimed in research – see for example the work by Clements & Pawlowski (2011).

  1. Irreversible

“A threshold concept is often irreversible; once understood the learner is unlikely to forget it” (Cousin, 2006, 4; 2010).

Who of us having understood open teaching will go ever back to closed classrooms, individual paper-based assignments and traditional textbooks?

  1. Liminality

“Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of liminality, a suspended state of partial understanding, or ‘stuck place’, in which understanding approximates to a kind of ‘mimicry’ or lack of authenticity. Insights gained by learners as they cross thresholds can be exhilarating but might also be unsettling, requiring an uncomfortable shift in identity, or, paradoxically, a sense of loss” (UCL Department of electronic and electrical engineering, 2013).

Liminality is very close to troublesome in openness as a threshold concept. Achieving open practices may be a progressive process: sometimes openness can be accepted for some aspects but some others, e.g., using resources but not commenting and rating on Learning Open Repositories (LORs) or sharing ones’ own (Clements & Pawlowski, 2011). Therefore, this means partial understanding that may evolve into total open practice.

  1. Discursive

“It is hard to imagine any shift in perspective that is not simultaneously accompanied by (or occasioned through) an extension of the student’s use of language” (UCL Department of electronic and electrical engineering, 2013).

Openness also means an extension of vocabulary and many educational aspects have been transformed so they are also qualified by the adjective “open”: OER, OEP, open access, open scholarship, open research, open teaching, open badges…

To sum up, in this blogpost it is argued that some attributes related to threshold concepts can also be applied to openness. Therefore, from a theoretical point of view, openness can be considered a threshold concept considering some of its attributes.


This is the theoretical framework for future research about openness as a threshold concept. Higher Education and especially Teacher Education has a key role in working on openness as a fundamental principle of future teachers of all levels. Teachers, stakeholders and institutions should embrace open practices so that all students live open experiences that may help them understand and progressively achieve openness as a threshold concept. However, more research is needed to get data that would give light on how to address each particular attribute.

 Openness in Teacher Education

From this perspective, I have always asked my student to open their minds and open their learning. For instance, I have always worked with open eportfolios through the use of blogs.  In the eportfolio approach every blogpost is considered as a learning evidence of an OER by students, just as Cormier does (2012): “every piece of reflection shared, every published assignment, every comment on classmates’ eportfolios is an OER, an open practice to open education”. Further research on students’ perceptions will help in defining each attribute in a more accurate way, as has also been done in other disciplines (Holloway, Alpay and Bull, 2010).

This year, as a meta-activity, I have also asked MA students to reflect on the implications of Open Education for their prospective professional careers. The work by my students is published in this storyfy artefact. The following Wordle artefact gives an idea of what my students have written about on their blogposts. Since it is in Catalan I translate some of the more significative words that Wordle has detected as the most repeated ones: education, information, license, resources, open, sharing, being, being able, willing, allowing, creating, knowledge, networks, person, quality, accessing, world, everybody, anything, always …

wordle 2

 That these future teachers have reflected on the influence of Opennes in both their learning and their future teaching, is something which makes me truly happy. And my inner hope is that very soon I will read their blogspots about their Open Teaching for Open Weeks in the years to come…


Clements, K.I. & Pawlowski, J.M. User-orientated quality of OER: understanding teachers’ views on re-use, quality and trust. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28, 4-14. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00450.x

Conole, G. (2012). Chapter: New approaches to openness – beyond open educational resources. Retrieved 8 March 2015 from

Cormier, D. (2012). Ed366- learning contract- prior to student input. Dave’s educational blog. Retrieved 8 March 2015 from

Cousin, G. (2006). An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet Special Issue on Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, 17, 4-5. Retrieved 8 March 2015 from

Cousin, G. (2010). Neither teacher-centred nor student-centred: threshold concepts and research partnerships. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 2. Retrieved from[]=64

Holloway, M., Alpay, E., and Bull, A. (2010). A quantitative approach to identifying threshold concepts in Engineering Education. Inspiring the next generation of engineer. EE2010. Retrieved 8 March 2015 from

Meyer, J., and Land,R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses. Occasional Report 4. Retrieved 8 March 2015 from

Peña-López, I. (2015). “Open social learning: let me out, let them in” In ICTlogy, #137, February 2015. Barcelona: ICTlogy. Retrieved 8 March 2015 from

UCL Department Of Electronic And Electrical Engineering (2015). Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and Professional Development. A short introduction and bibliography. Retrieved 8 March 2015 from

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