Open Education Resources (OER): What, Why, How?
26 March 2015

This workshop is about ‘Open Education Resources: What, why, how?’

I shall first review some of the landmark developments in OER in the last ten years and look at the lessons learned. I will then share some of COL’s contributions that may be of interest, identify the issues that remain and look at future directions. I will then raise three questions that you will discuss in smaller groups and report back your recommendations on how policy on OER can be translated into practice.

Let us first look at some key developments in the last decade that have had a lasting impact on the way we think about teaching and learning.

We have seen a global movement towards collaboration in the development and sharing of content. The emergence of a global commons powered by the collective intelligence of the masses led to the global community coining the term Open Education Resources or OER at a UNESCO meeting in 2002.

Let us look at one often-cited definition of OER. OER are educational materials which are free and freely available. One key difference between OER and other educational resources is that OER have an open license, which allows adaptation and reuse without having to request the copyright holder. This definition looks at OER as content or product.

OER are educational materials which are free and freely available, are suitable not just for higher education but for all levels including primary and secondary education. OER can be reused and repurposed to suit different needs and could be available in any medium, print, audio, video, digital. One key difference between OER and other educational resources is that OER have an open license, which allows adaptation and reuse without having to request the copyright holder.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT)  Open Courseware (OCW) initiative, in which teachers placed their lecture notes online for free use, inaugurated the movement globally. The Open University UK’s Open Learn followed by placing existing self-instructional materials, in online format. Another shift took place when the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth, or VUSSC, took a different approach by building capacity to develop courses collaboratively using free authoring tools. (Daniel, Kanwar and West, 2007).

As you know, COL and UNESCO have been working for several years now to promote the development and use of OER. The 2012 World OER Congress was organized jointly in Paris to mark the tenth anniversary of the term OER, with generous support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The Paris Declaration makes 10 recommendations. Let me just refer to three that may be of interest to you:

  1. Foster awareness and use of OER
  2. Encourage the development and adaptation of OER in a variety of languages and cultural contexts
  3. Encourage the open licensing of educational materials produced with public funds.

This is an important development as governments tend to take such internationally-agreed documents led by multilateral organisations like UNESCO and COL, seriously.

What are some of the advantages of using OER? They have the potential to cut costs, increase access and improve the quality of education.

OER penetration  in the developing world has been slower than in industrialized countries, with the exception of China India Japan Vietnam and Indonesia. Yet there are emergent examples which give an indication of how OER are being used in low-resource contexts. The students of Bunda College of Agriculture, Malawi, had no text book on Communications Skills and were entirely dependent on lecturers. Now they have a textbook, 75 % of which is based on OER harvested from the web and supplemented with locally relevant activities, examples and assignments. A lecturer at the University of Jos, Nigeria discovered this textbook and has adopted it, an instance of south-south collaboration.

Access can be opened up to new constituencies through translations. China Open Resources for Education (CORE) has translated MIT OCW materials into Chinese. COL’s Instructional Design template, an OER, has been translated and adapted by the Open University of China. Materials from COL’s website have been translated into Ukrainian, German and other non-Commonwealth languages.    

Many of you are familiar with the Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs. These premier institutes, in partnership with the government, have made their engineering and technology courses available as OER. These are being used in over 600 institutions, most of them in remote locations with very limited resources. Both teachers and students are using the free IIT resources to improve the quality of their teaching and learning.

One way in which OER can cut costs is through the use of textbooks. Textbooks are a costly proposition. In the USA, under the Utah Open Textbooks project, the cost of printed textbooks has come down to $5, which becomes zero if accessed online. Likewise the government of South Africa has decided that they will opt for OER textbooks.

COL has developed a template that can be used to create textbooks using OER.

What have we learned in the last ten years?

First, when the term OER first emerged, the primary focus was on higher education. In the ten years that have since lapsed, the world has changed radically. There is a greater global participation in primary education, which has inevitably led to a surge in secondary schools. As more governments address the issue of providing secondary education for all, any discussion of OER must include this sector as well. 

Second, recent surveys in some of the Asian countries revealed that access to the Internet for using OER is no longer such a dire issue among institutions in the Higher Education sector. This is a welcome development. One of the most popular technology platforms in the developing world today is the mobile phone. Linking the issues of access and re-use of OER with the increased availability of affordable cell telephony is a key development.

Third, the OER movement is resulting in a multi-directional flow of knowledge. We have usually seen a one-way flow of knowledge from the developed to the developing world. OER can provide for a global exchange of knowledge, as we have learnt from the work of OERAfrica. A lecturer at the University of Ghana, Medical College developed a simple procedure for a Caesarian section and video-taped it. It is now being used in the Netherlands. Similarly a lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana, who also happens to be a world authority on the buruli ulcer has developed an OER module which is being used by the World Health Organisation and the University of  Michigan.

Open licensing as an approach to foster the spread of global public goods is here to stay. Extending copyrights for wider use without compromising the moral and intellectual rights of the creators is a sensitive task that has to be relevant to specific contexts.

Creative Commons appears to be the most significant licensing framework but licensing options can vary in different countries. Lack of understanding of copyright and open licensing at senior levels in academic institutions as well as ministries is a roadblock for OER development.

If we review the OER situation in 2014, we find that the number of institutions making their courses available as OER has increased substantially.  Developing countries have emerged as major players. India, a large Commonwealth country and Antigua and Barbuda, a small island state, have recently developed national OER policies.

In which ways has the Commonwealth of Learning contributed to the promotion and use of OER?

COL works on four areas: one, advocacy and awareness generation regarding the benefits and availability of OER; two, policy development on OER at the national and institutional levels; three, capacity building so that more governments, institutions and individuals are able to effectively harness the potential of OER and four, promote research through its publications on OER and its Chairs programme.

COL publications support advocacy efforts in opening up education.

Recent policy advocacy interventions of COL include a recent event in South Africa in which 11 SADC countries participated. The goal was to promote an adequate understanding of the rationale and processes of OER policy development for the promotion of access and quality

COL has helped the government of Antigua and Barbuda to embed OER in their ICT in Education Policy. The Ministry will adopt a CC default licence for all publicly funded materials. Grenada and St Vincent & the Grenadines are next in the process of developing policies.

COL established a six-country partnership to develop 20 sets of course materials in print and online formats, based on the secondary curricula of Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Seychelles, Trinidad & Tobago and Zambia.  The materials have been developed as Open Education Resources (OER), so that without duplicating effort, participating countries can have access to quality materials that they can adopt and adapt as necessary.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, came forward to support this work that combines the professional development of teachers with the development of OER. It is expected that providing high-quality course materials free of cost and enhancing the capacity of teachers will contribute to improving, among other things, the quality of secondary education in both open and conventional schools in the participating countries.

COL has developed free collaborative content on English Language Teaching which has been used to train teachers in Kenya. This group has found the materials useful and will train other teachers in improving the quality of their classroom practice.

COL has become one of the major publishers of the latest research and toolkits on OER. Our Asia office, CEMCA has developed Guidelines for Quality OER and these are available for free download from our website.

COL maintains an online directory service for OER from the Commonwealth countries. We have identified free courses from different Commonwealth institutions that can be used by other stakeholders in four areas—higher education, secondary schooling, teacher education and skills development—all priority areas for Commonwealth member states.

In spite of the efforts made by the international and national OER communities, there are certain major issues that need to be addressed for OER to realise its transformative potential.

First, the digital divide across the world is still alive and well. While in North America, there are over 80 computer and internet users per 100 persons, in Africa, and Asia the number of computer and internet users is less than 10 per 100 persons. So if we look at OER as ‘technology’ we certainly start with a disadvantage. The present debates in OER are too focused on technology and there is rarely any discussion on issues such as stakeholder engagement and the politics of power.

In his analysis of the networked society, Castells (2009) has elaborated the network-making power which operates on the basis of two mechanisms: the ability to constitute, program and reprogram networks and the ability to connect and ensure cooperation. Many important stakeholders of education may be far beyond this network-making power due to regional, gender, class and ethnic factors. It is obvious that Africa, South Asia and Latin America may have limited potential in network-making power. These types of power play a major role in the inclusion-exclusion of various stakeholders. 

Can OER help us address issues of equity and inequality? Justin Reich argues that OER by itself will not address equity issues. Institutions and groups with better access to resources and infrastructure will make more use of the educational technology innovations such as free and open resources rather than marginalized groups. He proposes two scenarios.

In the left figure, everyone benefits from new educational technologies, but low-income students disproportionately benefit. The hope here is that with new free resources, low-income students will have access to resources previously only available to students in affluent schools. In the right figure, everyone still benefits, but now the wealthy disproportionately benefit. ….. …

Teachers working in schools serving low income students simply can't make as much use of…. the technology ….. because they lack the planning time, broadband access, etc. This is still a good thing–everyone is better off than before–but the opportunity gap between wealthy and poor has expanded. If the second model is true, then virtually every education technology initiative including OER which does not specifically target the needs of particular populations will disproportionately benefit the wealthy, even if the materials are free.

The third issue is one of the challenges that OER present to stakeholders. A recent survey of how OER are being used in 13 Asian countries, sum up the key challenges that different constituencies face.

Teachers felt they did not have either the  time or the capacity to locate, adapt, and re-purpose OER material relevant to their work. 

Learners felt that OER should be fully open, half-open didnt help and materials should be accessible on alternative technologies such as mobile devices. 

Technical support personnel said there were no standard practices in the packaging and re-use of OER.

Management was concerned about the challenges relating to intellectual property and copyright issues.  Concerns regarding competition and revenues were also raised.

Another issue is how to involve a wider constituency of stakeholders. Innovative approaches are needed to include various stakeholders in the development, renewal and use of content so that passive consumers can become active producers of knowledge. What incentives can be provided to involve faculty to participate in this movement? The fundamental players are the teachers and the students. How can we reach them in remote and marginalized communities? It is these communities that need most help to improve the quality of education. Many of them have not heard of OER. How can we make them active partners in this movement?

What do these trends indicate? What policies do we need? How can we influence practice?

Palestine can promote and sustain an enabling environment in which the OER movement can flourish. This can be done by:

developing an ICT in Education policy
proposing a vision and strategy for not just developing OER but also for using them at all levels: primary, secondary and tertiary
recognizing OER-development at par with academic publications to reward faculty in promotions.

South Africa, Mauritius and India have adopted policies on OER

The former Indian Minister the Hon Shashi Tharoor in a speech at the National Council for Educational Training and Research said ‘I am glad that the NCERT has taken the initiative of declaring that the NROER will carry the CC-BY-SA license. I have been lobbied by Wikimedia and other advocates of open educational resources for this standard to be adopted, rather than the CC-BY-SA-NC which contains a more restrictive clause. This decision by NCERT is in tune with UNESCO’s Paris Declaration on Open Education Resources’. This could have a very major impact on the development of OER in a large country like India. More such political will is needed to generate awareness amongst the remotest constituencies.

What incentives and other institutional mechanisms and processes need to be put in place to facilitate the growth and mainstreaming of OER in educational institutions? Some of the initiatives need to include:

  1. developing an ICT policy within the institution
  2. elaborating a policy on copyright
  3. providing incentives for faculty members such as increments and recognition of OER towards promotions
  4. developing a strategy for involving stakeholders

From your perspective,

  • What are the THREE most pressing challenges for adopting OER?
  • How do you propose to overcome these?
  • What would be your THREE key recommendations in the Palestinian context?

With that, let me thank you for your attention.

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