Reflecting on epistemic injustices in open and online education

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In memory of Hector Pieterson and the hundreds of student protesters that were brutally murdered by police on the 16 June 1976 in the Soweto Uprising in South Africa. The Soweto Uprising refers to the protests by black South African high school students during apartheid against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

Over the past few weeks, there has been increasing awareness of systemic racism and anti-blackness through the Black Lives Matter movement. While the Black Lives Matter protests were re-ignited by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and many others, we note that these are only a handful of cases in a long history of violence against black bodies. On this day, the 16 of June, we remember the brutal murder of Hector Pieterson by police in the 1976 Soweto Uprising against the enforcement of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. Whether through slavery, colonialism, apartheid, indentured labour, mass incarceration or modern-day economic slavery, millions of black people have had their lives taken or have been forced to live under unjust systems designed to benefit the white and/or elite at the expense of black lives.

Systemic racism does not only impact bodies but also our minds, particularly through education systems that serve the interests of hegemonic powers (⇡Adam, 2019). These hegemonic systems reinforce the dominant’s epistemologies, philosophies, policies, languages and cultures. One of the main aims of decolonial movements is decolonising the mind through reclaiming identities and lost humanities. History, culture, identity and politics are integral to the education narrative and thus cannot be separated. For Fanon, one of the founding decolonial thinkers, a new form of education for the oppressed was the solution to countering the colonisation of the mind. The education he envisioned involved ‘opening their minds, awakening them, and allowing the birth of their intelligence’ (⇡Fanon, 1961, p. 159). 

However, the historical and present-day inequalities and injustices in education have now been carried over into online education, if not exacerbated by it. The digital divide has been emphasised through the COVID-19 pandemic, where the wealthy (who are most often white or the elite) shift to online education and the poor (who are most often people of colour) are left behind. While these material inequalities have been made starkly clear through the pandemic, I want to highlight another angle, that is, the epistemic injustices in open and online education. Epistemic injustices refer to whose knowledges are forefronted (and whose are not), as well as what counts as knowledge (and what does not).

Lack of epistemic diversity in open and online education

To illustrate the point of epistemic injustice, my recent article titled ‘Open educational practices of MOOC designers: embodiment and epistemic location’ reports on ‘the lack of epistemic diversity in producers of massive open online courses (MOOCs) through examining whose knowledges and what knowledges are forefronted in MOOCs’ (⇡Adam, 2020). I first highlight the current inequalities in open education and MOOC production: 

Santos-Hermosa, et al.  (2017,p. 106) calculated that 89% of English repositories of open educational resources (OER) come from Europe and North America, with only 1% from Africa. ⇡Lockley (2018, p. 150) further highlighted that only 1.7% and 1.1% of MOOC instructors on Coursera and FutureLearn respectively are Black. From my own research conducted in 2017, only 164 (7.3%) of the 2240 courses on Coursera were from the Global South (⇡Adam, 2019). This is consistent with⇡Bozkurt, et al.  (2018, pp. 84-85), who highlighted the dominance of open education publications, including publications on open educational practices (OEP) from the United Kingdom, United States of America, Spain, and Australia, leading them to ask, “Can openness in education serve as a means to democratise education in developing countries … when the research is predominantly conducted elsewhere?” (⇡Adam, 2020, p. 171)

The study illustrates that: 

“MOOC designers create MOOCs that strongly link to who they are, what they value, and how they understand the world, highlighting the crucial need to have epistemically diverse MOOC designers from different cultures, value systems, and epistemologies, that critically reflect on their positionalities and subjectivities.” (⇡Adam, 2020, p 171)

To highlight the importance of epistemic diversity, I have drawn on the concept of embodiment from cognitive sciences, decolonial thought, feminist standpoint theory and critical pedagogy. The term embodiment relates to the connection between the mind, the body and the world. In other words, embodiment refers to the connection between knowledge, knowledge producers, and the contexts from which they speak. Embodied cognition theorists argue that ‘the body and its sensorimotor capacities are inextricably linked with memory, emotion, language, and life experiences’ as well as being embedded in biological, psychological, historical and cultural contexts (⇡Adam, 2020, p. 173; ⇡Johnson, 1987⇡Varela, et al., 1992). Similarly, feminist standpoint theories argue that “the social situation of an epistemic agent—her gender, class, race, ethnicity, sexuality and physical capacities—plays a role in forming what we know and limiting what we are able to know” (⇡Bowell, 2019).

In this study, I investigated MOOC designers’ (particularly black and minority ethnic MOOC designers’) conceptions of openness to understand the views of openness from the margins.  These conceptions were analysed according to four categories: personal background, academic background, life experiences and political inclinations. From this, I illustrate that: 

“open education is understood and implemented differently by open education practitioners, based on their histories, worldviews, subjectivities, mannerisms, personality, and character, among other aspects.” (⇡Adam, 2020, p. 181)

More broadly, I assert that:

“OER and OEP are not passively and neutrally produced but are shaped by the worldviews of their producers. Therefore, looking only to certain regions of the world or certain types of people embedded in specific epistemologies can lead to very narrow understandings of openness.” (⇡Adam, 2020, p 174)

Regarding MOOCs and the particular imbalance of MOOC production from elite Global North universities, I argue that: 

“MOOC designers from epistemically diverse backgrounds are necessary to counter the dominance of Western-centric epistemologies in MOOC production. This serves to prevent a digital “epistemicide” in MOOCs (⇡Santos, 2014), which I define as the systematic suppression of marginalized knowledges through digital means.” (⇡Adam, 2020, p. 172)

From this study, I also call for a new way to look at open educational practices: 

“As the way in which openness is understood impacts the way in which it is enacted, this study asserts a new way of looking at OEP, from something extrinsic that is done to something to make it open, to something more intrinsic: to be someone that is more open. I have termed this the embodiment of openness. Rather than MOOC designers being seen as creators of OER or implementers of OEP, they are OER and OEP in themselves.” (⇡Adam, 2020, p. 181)

Embracing epistemic diversity

In light of the Black Lives Matter protests, the socio-economic inequalities (built upon historical inequalities) exacerbated through the COVID-19 pandemic, and the remembrance of those who were murdered in the Soweto Uprising, it is imperative that we reflect and respond to the material and epistemic injustices that people of colour have faced for centuries. While my article specifically focused on the need to include diverse MOOC designers from different cultures, value systems, and epistemologies, this sentiment is relevant across the education sector as well. Importantly, diversity is not about having an array of cultures and races sitting around a table, it is about questioning the table itself. This means questioning power structures through a ‘reorganisation of power and privilege’ (⇡Makgoba, et al., 2004, p. 22). Diversity does not mean inclusion through assimilation and homogenisation of many cultures into one but truly embracing different ways-of-knowing and ways-of-being.

You can read Open Development & Education’s statement on the Black Lives Matters protests on our blog.


A full list of references can be found here

Adam, T. (2019). Digital neocolonialism and massive open online courses (MOOCs): Colonial pasts and neoliberal futures. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(3), 365–380.

Adam, T. (2020). Open educational practices of MOOC designers: Embodiment and epistemic location. Distance Education, 41(2), 171–185.

Bowell, T. (2019). Feminist Standpoint Theory. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Bozkurt, A., Koseoglu, S., & Singh, L. (2018). An analysis of peer reviewed publications on openness in education in half a century: Trends and patterns in the open hemisphere. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 0(0).

Fanon, F. (1961). The wretched of the earth. MacGibbon & Kee.

Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. University of Chicago Press.

Lockley, P. (2018). Open Initiatives for Decolonising the Curriculum. In G. K. Bhambra, K. Nişancıoğlu, & D. Gebrial (Eds.), Decolonising the University (pp. 145–173). Pluto Press.

Makgoba, M., & Seepe, S. (2004). Knowledge and identity: An African Vision of Higher Education Transformation. In S. Seepe (Ed.), Towards an African Identity of Higher Education. Vista University.

SA History Online. (2020). The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising | South African History Online.

Santos, B. de S. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (1 edition). Routledge.

Santos-Hermosa, G., Ferran-Ferrer, N., & Abadal, E. (2017). Repositories of Open Educational Resources: An Assessment of Reuse and Educational Aspects. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5).

Varela, F. J., Rosch, E., & Thompson, E. (1992). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press.

Wikipedia. (2020). 13th. In Wikipedia.

Björn Haßler
Björn Haßler