Open Education and the Sustainable Development Goals: Making Change Happen




Open education, Sustainable Development Goals, systems thinking, power, theory of change


Education for All has been a concept at the heart of international development since 1990 and has found its latest instantiation within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as SDG 4, ‘Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’. Open education, in the form of resources and practices are both seen as contributors to SDG4 as evidenced by the recent 2nd World Open Educational Resources Congress. The ambition for open education to contribute to the SDGs is clear from this and other gatherings but the means to make it happen are not as clear, and many have claimed that little has happened since the SDGs were launched in 2015. To help address this apparent gap, this paper: (1) sets out the scale and scope of the SDGs; (2) reviews the potential contribution of open educational resources and practices to support the SDGs, and (3) uses a framing of power and systems thinking to review the way open education activities might be fostered within tertiary education in all local, national and regional contexts in order to support the SDGs, and not just SDG 4. It will also tentatively propose a theory of change that brings together power relationships, systems thinking and open education as key components and provide a case study of how this might work in practice through a newly funded project proposal. It is hoped that this theory of change and proposal will be a starting point for wider debate and discussion on how to make change happen in this important arena.

Author Biography

Andy Lane, The Open University, UK

Andy Lane is Professor Environmental Systems at the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics, School of Engineering & Innovation, The Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. Email:


Blackmore, C., Ison, R., & Reynolds, M. (2014). Thinking differently about sustainability: Experiences from the UK Open University. In W. L. Filho, U. M. Azeiteiro, F. Alves & S. Caeiro (Eds.), Integrating sustainability thinking in science and engineering curricula. (pp. 613-630). Cham: Springer.

Chapman, J. (2002). System failure: Why governments must learn to think differently. Retrieved from

Draper, S. (2016). Systems thinking, unlocking the sustainable development goals. Retrieved from

Gookol-Ramdoo, S., & Rumjaun, A. B. (2016). Education for sustainable development: Connecting the dots for sustainability. Journal of Learning for Development, 4(1), 72-89.

Green, D. (2016). How change happens. London: Oxford University Press.

ICDE. (2016). Open Educational Resources. Retrieved from

Ison, R. (2017). Systems practice: How to act. In situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world. (2nd ed.). London: Springer-Verlag.

Lane, A. (2017). The systemic implications of constructive alignment of higher education level learning outcomes and employer or professional body based competency frameworks. In Proceedings of the Online, Open and Flexible Higher Education Conference: Higher Education for the Future; Accelerating and Strengthening Innovation, 25-27 October 2017, Milton Keynes UK.

MacKinnon, T., Pasfield-Neofitou, S., Manns, H., & Grant, S. (2016). A meta-analysis of open educational communities of practice and sustainability in higher educational policy. Apprentissage des Langues et Systèmes d’Information et de Communication, 19(1). Retrieved from

OECD. (2013). Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators. Paris: OECD Publishing. Retrieved from

OECD. (2017). Education at a glance: OECD indicators. Retrieved from

Rao, A., Sadler, J., Kelleher, D., & Miller, C. (2016). Gender at work: Theory and practice for 21st century organisations. Abingdon: Routledge.

Reynolds, M., Blackmore, C., Ison, R., Shah, R., & Wedlock, E. (2017). The role of systems thinking in the practice of implementing sustainable development goals. In Walter Leal Filho (Ed.), Handbook of sustainability science and research. London: Springer.

Stensaker, B., & Harvey, L. (2011). Accountability in higher education: Global perspectives on trust and power. New York: Routledge.

UNESCO. (2015). Education 2030: Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action. Retrieved from

Uvalić-Trumbić, S., & Daniel, J. (2016). Sustainable development begins with education. Journal of Learning for Development, 3(3), 3-8

Wals, A. E. J., & Jickling, B. (2002). Sustainability in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 3(1), 221-232

Wright, C. R., Dhanarajan, G., & Reju, S. A. (2009). Recurring issues encountered by distance educators in developing and emerging nations. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(1), 1-25.



How to Cite

Lane, A. (2017). Open Education and the Sustainable Development Goals: Making Change Happen. Journal of Learning for Development, 4(3).



Invited Articles
Received 2017-10-12
Accepted 2017-10-12
Published 2017-11-20