Universal Access to Quality Content: The Role of Open Education Resources (OER)

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The theme of this session is ‘Universal Access to Quality Content’ and I will speak about the role of Open Education Resources or OER in helping us to achieve this.

The Commonwealth of Learning, is an intergovernmental organization and our core mission is to promote access to learning that leads to development.

I’ll speak briefly about the context, the trends in OER that we have seen emerge in the last three years, the issues that still remain and how we might harness OER to achieve development objectives.

Let us first look at the context.

We have just come from the World Education Forum where the Incheon Declaration was adopted and strategies discussed on how to achieve Goal 4 which focuses on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030. One key dimension will be how to use ICTs for providing universal and equitable access to quality content.

As governments introduce tablets and computers in schools, new learning materials are needed. In 2005, the UN Millennium report pointed out that what is missing is not devices but the lack of content. Five years later, an ITU reports finds that the lack of content is a major barrier governments need to tackle. We are in 2015 now and during both the World Education Forum and the discussions here, we still hear that the challenge persists.

In 2002, UNESCO hosted a meeting of experts to discuss open courseware and that was when the term OER was first coined.

As we know OER are educational materials in any format, print or digital introduced with an open license so that anyone can use reuse or adapt them as required.

How can we harness OER to provide universal access to quality content?

In which ways have OER supported learning? What do we know? The UKOU Research Hub conducted a survey to assess the use of OER by formal learners in India, the small states of the Commonwealth and the Open Learn UK. Students in developing countries showed high levels of satisfaction with OER in terms of increased interest, better collaboration with peers and improved grades.

UNESCO and COL organized the 2012 World OER Congress in Paris, with generous support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation which resulted in the Paris Declaration on OER.

This has been a landmark development and as the recent Hewlett evaluation report states ‘The declaration provides an anchor and a direction for COL, UNESCO…and other advocates. It is an important reference for OER work’.

What are the key trends that have emerged after 2012?

More developing countries have now joined the OER movement. Even though we still note a great need for advocacy, many countries and institutions are moving from policy to practice. Open textbooks are beginning to capture the imagination of policy makers and practitioners. While initially OER were primarily available in English, there are more multilingual OER available today. With the rise of MOOCs, we find that while many still use ‘closed’ content, there is a move towards integrating OER into MOOCs. Let me give examples of each of these trends.

COL has developed the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC), a consortium of institutions from 31 small states of the Commonwealth which have come together to develop needs-based courses which are freely available, as OER.

COL has developed free collaborative content on English Language Teaching which has been used to train teachers in Kenya. Teachers have indicated that students are already demonstrating better learning outcomes.

COL also maintains an online directory service for OER from the Commonwealth countries. Looking at the data, we find that universities from developing countries are publishing large quantities of OER. The open universities in India, Nigeria, South Africa and Pakistan are significant producers.

The second trend is that more countries are developing OER policies. You can see that countries in the Commonwealth such as South Africa, Mauritius and India, among others, have developed OER policies at the national level.

COL supported the government of Antigua and Barbuda to embed OER in their ICT in Education Policy. The Ministry will adopt an open license for all publicly funded materials and have started implementing open textbooks in Maths. Grenada and St Vincent & the Grenadines are next in the process of developing policies.

The third trend is open textbooks which make it possible to provide high quality content to learners either free or at low costs. COL has developed a prototype for developing open textbooks and this is being piloted by Antigua and Barbuda, to be taken up by the other OECS countries.

Three provinces in Canada have signed an MOU to share OER. The province of BC has a Textbook Zero Program which means students don’t pay for the OER-based textbooks.

What of quality? This issue has been raised by several participants. COL has developed Quality Assurance Guidelines for OER, which are available on our website, along with several useful resources for you to download and use freely as OER

The fourth trend is that today an increasing number of OER are available in different languages. Khan Academy is translating its content into various languages and their materials in Urdu are being offered in some schools in Pakistan. Jinpinke is the Chinese government’s repository in OER in Mandarin. The European Union has developed a platform for translating OER into different European languages.

The fifth trend is that OER are introducing a new degree of openness to MOOCs. COL in partnership with IIT-Kanpur offered three MOOCs: on mobiles-for-development, a MOOC on MOOCs and an audio MOOC for gardeners delivered. The content of these MOOCs are available as OER.

We have seen some of the ways in which OER are being used in developing countries. Yet some key issues remain.

The digital divide across the world is still alive and well. While in North America, there are over 80 internet users per 100 persons, in the LDCs, the number of internet users is less than 5 percent. So if we look at OER as ‘technology’ we certainly start with a disadvantage. We need to consider 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 and provide universal access? 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. Similarly teachers in low-resource contexts cannot participate in this movement to the extent that their more privileged counterparts can…because they lack the planning time, broadband access, etc .

In fact it is these teachers in remote locations that need OER most. As teachers are the primary stakeholders, can the OER movement flourish without their participation?

COL is working to include the most remote and the marginalized teachers to join the OER movement and has developed Aptus or the Classroom Without Walls. This enables teachers and students to access good quality digital materials at low costs. This is a small server and wireless router that can carry thousands of OER. We have loaded the Wikipedia for schools containing over 6000 articles, and over 2000 Khan Academy videos and a whole library of free books. In addition teachers can upload their own content and up to 20 students can connect to this device and download quality content. This costs approximately USD $ 100.

This has been deployed in small island states and here you can see the Hon Minister of Education, Vanuatu presenting it to his officials in the aftermath of cyclone Pam.

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 their transformative potential. OER cannot be viewed entirely from the cost and technology perspectives. What of the social dimension? After all, OER emerged as a social process of sharing and collaboration using ICTs.

In light of this discussion, can we re-define OER as follows? OER is an empowerment process, facilitated by technology in which various types of stakeholders are able to interact, collaborate, create and use materials and pedagogic practices, that are freely available, for enhancing access, reducing costs and improving the quality of education and learning at all levels?

The COL approach is to involve as many stakeholders as possible. 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. COL also promotes collaboration in the development and sharing of OER across cultures. How can we work together to complement our various efforts?

What can governments do? If we go back to the Paris declaration 2012, we find clear recommendations for governments. One, governments can frame policies that enable the development and use of OER. Two, invest in ICT infrastructure for better connectivity; and three, ensure that all materials developed with public funds are made available under open licenses as OER. By doing so, we can promote inclusive and equitable lifelong learning for all by 2030.

With that, let me thank you for your kind attention.

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