This blog post is an initial contribution to a workshop I’ll be co-presenting at OER22 (26-28 April): ‘Applying the Capability Approach to Open Educational Practice’ with Gabi Witthaus. The workshop arises from our recent discussions about overlaps in our work and our visions for open education. Next week, Gabi and I will publish a joint post on the OER22 blog offering some additional details about the upcoming workshop. However, we each wanted to blog first about our own work and the perspectives we  are bringing to the workshop.

Gabi is currently completing PhD research exploring engagement in online higher education by students who are refugees and asylum seekers, using the lens of the Capability Approach. She has written an outstanding 12-part blog post series narrating her exploration of the approach (highly recommended!). Please see Gabi’s most recent post, published this week: The capability approach Part 12: mapping journeys towards valued “beings and doings”.

Although I now work independently in open education research and policy, my work between 2019 and 2021 related to practice and policy in the Irish HE sector, as Digital and Open Education lead for Ireland’s National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. In this role, I drew on the Capabilities Approach to help to frame the Forum’s approach to supporting open education nationally. We described this in terms of developing open capabilities. In the remainder of this post I’ll describe: (i) a brief overview of the Capabilities Approach, (ii) links between the Capabilities Approach and critical/social justice approaches to open education, and (iii) how such links were effected in practice in the National Forum in Ireland.

(i) Capabilities Approach, very briefly 

Amartya Sen introduced the Capability Approach in 1979 as a multidimensional theoretical approach to considering what people are actually able to do and to be, i.e. what real opportunities are available to them. The Capability Approach advocates considering each person as an end, focusing not just on total or average wellbeing, for example, but on the opportunities available to each person. The theory was a significant contribution in the field of human development, encouraging a move beyond blunt indicators like GDP and income levels to assess poverty (Nussbaum, 2011a) and providing new ways of evaluating the quality of the lives of individuals and societies (Robeyns, 2017). Robeyns has documented in detail how the Capability Approach has made a “crucial foundational contribution to the growth of the human development paradigm” (2017).

Since 1979, many theorists have built upon and expanded Sen’s original work (e.g. Martha Nussbaum, Ingrid Robeyns, Melanie Walker, Elaine Unterhalter, Alejandra Boni) and it has been applied in a range of fields including public health, education, environmental policy and more. Nussbaum (2011b) claims that by situating itself in the narrative context of human lives, the Capabilities Approach alters what policy-makers notice in these lives – thus altering “the ability of policy to construct meaningful interventions that show respect for and empower real people”. Nussbaum also introduced a semantic alteration, using the plural “capabilities” in order to emphasise the multiplicity of elements that comprise the quality of people’s lives, e.g. health, education, bodily integrity, etc. Throughout my work and in this writing, I follow this convention also, referring to the “Capabilities Approach”.

So what are capabilities? In the simplest sense, they are opportunities, or what Sen calls “substantial freedoms”. Capabilities are answers to the question: What is this person able to do and to be, if they chose? Thus, the freedom to choose is built into the notion of capability. Most importantly:

Capabilities are not just abilities residing inside a person but, freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment. (Nussbaum, 2011b)

Paired with capabilities are functionings, i.e. beings and doings that are the realisations of one or more capabilities. Again, context and conditions are crucially important:

Whether someone can convert a set of means (resources and public goods) into a functioning (i.e., whether she has a particular capability) crucially depends on certain personal, sociopolitical, and environmental conditions, which, in the capability literature, are called ‘conversion factors. (Robeyns, 2020)

This is a very brief overview. Again, I recommend Gabi’s blog post series to dig into differences among the various theorists.

(ii) Open education & the Capabilities Approach

Inherent in the Capabilities Approach is an understanding that different individuals may require different types or quantities of resources if they are to acquire the same level of ability to choose and to act, depending on their different social, cultural, political, economic, educational and/or environmental contexts. Here, an understanding of the Capabilities Approach clearly links to critical and social justice approaches to open education. Critical approaches to open education often focus on issues related to access, equity and agency:

Access arguments are foundational in every rationale for open education, i.e. how to enable access to education for all. Making resources legally accessible (e.g. through open licensing) is a significant move towards this, but we know that open licensing alone does not facilitate access by everyone.

Equity considerations in relation to open education focus on questions such as who has access to education and resources; who creates/authors and who consumes/uses educational resources; who is represented; who is missing; and why? In considering such important questions, we can uncover further layers of injustice to be addressed. Drawing on work by Fraser (1995, 2006), Lambert (2018), Hodgkinson-Williams & Trotter (2018), Bali, Cronin & Jhangiani (2020), Cox, Masuku & Willmers (2020), and others, we can consider economic injustice, cultural injustice and political injustice. Thus, for example, simply providing existing textbooks in open formats fails to fully address injustice.

Agency is a third key consideration in critical approaches to open. This may include freedom for individual teachers and students to choose whether to be open in their practice, as well as when, where and how; freedom for creators to select their own open licences; and of course, fostering informed agency around all aspects of open. It is increasingly understood that true harm can be done, particularly to already marginalised individuals and groups, in the absence of a critical understanding of openness and its effects (e.g. Czerniewicz, 2016; Bali et al., 2020; Roberts, 2021).

My efforts at developing and theorising critical approaches to open education have considered many of the questions noted above and I am continually learning. Grappling with the Capabilities Approach, particularly Nussbaum’s work, has provided a useful foundation. During this time, I became aware also of Helen Beetham’s work in conceptualising “digital capability” and wellbeing, specifically for the Jisc Digital Capability model:

I think it’s useful, and potentially radical, to suggest that digital capability includes self-care, and that self-care requires a critical awareness of how digital technologies act on us and sometimes against us, as well as allowing us to pursue our personal and collective aspirations in new ways. In using the terms ‘capability’ and ‘wellbeing’ in a digital space I am consciously drawing on Martha Nussbaum’s work on human development. (Beetham, 2016)

(iii) National Forum “developing open capabilities”

So what does all this have to do with supporting open education in practice – the perspective I am bringing to our OER22 workshop? During 2019-21, the National Forum’s practice-focused approach to open education was underpinned by needs and developments across the Irish HE sector, by ongoing research in open education, and by national, European and international policy and recommendations, most notably the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Educational Resources (OER) (2019). The UNESCO Recommendation outlines five objectives – in our open education work within the National Forum we aimed to progress all five of these: (i) building capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER; (ii) developing supportive policy; (iii) encouraging inclusive and equitable quality OER; (iv) nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER, and (v) facilitating international cooperation.

In relation to Recommendation #1, we specifically defined our aim as “developing open capabilities” rather than “building capacity”. This was partly due to our broader scope, focusing on both open educational resources and practices (OER and OEP). However, it was also a means of intentionally linking our work to the Capabilities Approach, emphasising the importance of critical and social justice approaches to open education (within higher education and more broadly), and in Nussbaum’s (2011b) words, “constructing meaningful interventions that show respect for and empower real people”. In practice, this meant (i) designing support for OER/OEP based on wide consultation across the sector, drawing on a diversity of student and staff voices, (ii) offering support for OER/OEP within an explicitly equity-focused context (as described in this resource, for example), not limiting guides, materials or language to open licensing or open textbooks alone, and (iii) emphasising the importance of each individual, and their context(s), in determining appropriate avenues for support.

Although this is my own short summary of the National Forum’s approach, I want to emphasise that this work was truly a product of the entire Forum team as well as many colleagues across the sector. I also want to acknowledge conversations and collaborations with many of the scholars cited above that have helped to inform both my thinking and the National Forum’s work in this area over recent years. Thanks especially to Gabi Witthaus, Helen Beetham, Laura Czerniewicz, Caroline Kuhn, and Su-Ming Khoo.

The hope is that education can act as a capability multiplier to expand epistemic capability, practical reason, knowledge and imagination, social relationships and networks with respect, dignity and recognition. (Khoo, 2021)

For further details on the National Forum’s work in the area of open education, please see

Together with Gabi, I look forward to OER22 and the good work beyond. Details of our workshop will be available on the OER22 website; please feel free to contact either of us to discuss in more detail.

Image: Tim Mossholder (Unsplash)

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