AFRICA: Open resources - what works on the continent

It is important for African higher education institutions to be part of the Open Educational Resources movement as creators of knowledge, not just users of materials that originate elsewhere and are often irrelevant to their needs, says Catherine Ngugi, project director of OER Africa.

OER Africa is an initiative set up in 2008 by SAIDE, the South African Institute for Distance Education, with seed money from the Hewlett Foundation. Its purpose is to play a leading part in the development and use of open educational resources - those in the public domain or released under licence permitting their free use by others - in all sectors of education throughout the continent.

Higher education projects on health and agriculture are among its current major activities, with a new initiative just begun on teacher training.

"When we started we had a plan, we wanted to make sure African higher education institutions were part of the OER movement.

"We'd noticed the rhetoric around OER was about 'how can we help them?' and not very often 'what can we gain, and share?'" Ngugi told University World News during a Unesco-Commonwealth of Learning policy forum on 'Taking Open Educational Resources Beyond the OER Community' in Paris this month.

"From an educational perspective that way of thinking means people would be given resources that had been created elsewhere, and then there is a cultural imperative about how things are put together which might not be culturally appropriate, or relevant to the other place," she said.

"SAIDE has a wealth of experience supporting education institutions in terms of pedagogy, and from that perspective OER Africa and SAIDE have been doing lots of work. So this initiative started shaping part of the philosophy underlying our work; we were clear, we were going to need projects that would have immediate relevance," said Ngugi.

The aim is "to support faculty to improve teaching and learning, and OER is a means of doing that because it is open, it is free - no paying of any royalties. We also knew faculty and students had been struggling to find proper and affordable teaching resources in medicine and engineering - textbooks are so expensive. If faculty can't afford them, students definitely can't, so faculty have been teaching from their notes."

Ngugi cites 'connectivity' as one of the practical challenges. "You need to get on the internet, and need speeds that allow you to do more than just open email. In some places bandwidth varies from one institution to another. If it takes 20 minutes to get through, browsing on the net for resources doesn't arise. [Solutions are] in the hands of governments."

But Ngugi said it was a mistake to think of OERs as uniquely concerning distance learning and online resources - they were often printed materials, and licensing was a greater challenge than technology.

"The important point is availability of free licences, with permission for free use," she said. "Is material available for people to use freely? Whether it's PowerPoint, a lecture, or a diagram of a heart, they're all educational resources; is it licensed in an open manner so people can use it?"

She pointed out the value of 'champions' - the university dean or vice-chancellor whose support - or lack of it - could make or break a faculty initiative. And it was important for faculty members to "come up with their own ideas".

There is enthusiasm from academics. "One thing we're finding is faculty in different places who want to share their teaching resources and had been sharing before they came across the notion of open learning. Now the OER movement has come to them they have no objections to sharing with everybody, but they need to know how to do it.

"The only time people are not happy is when they are not sure if they have infringed somebody else's copyright," said Ngugi. "'Describing' means going through material and looking for anything that might be copyrighted, then trying to find a substitute. Or writing to the copyright holder for permission - replies vary."

Ngugi and her small team spend much of their time visiting universities 'face-to-face', organising workshops and providing advocacy services to fit their needs, and helping to find relevant materials.

One example was the University of Malawi's Kamuzu College of Nursing, which was having problems changing its way of teaching. "The curriculum was mapped out; we searched online and approached institutions worldwide. We got a whole lot of stuff, and took it back to Malawi and asked if it was what they wanted. They held a materials development workshop, cut and paste, sometimes had to modify. They put parts that were useful to students on CD-rom so they could take it away to study. All the resources were OER."

OER Africa's health project involves five institutions: four African universities - the University of Ghana and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, and the University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape in South Africa - and the University of Michigan in the United States.

Ngugi gives the example of the buruli ulcer from the project to illustrate how African faculty can create educational resources that are of international importance. The ulcer, caused by a germ related to the organisms that cause leprosy and TB, generally occurs in tropical or sub-tropical countries and affects skin and bones.

"Michigan was using textbooks in its course, but now it has resources from the world's leading specialists at the University of Ghana. They can see videos of patients being treated."

The Michigan students have also learned by example the importance of recording a patient's history and acting on the information to make the correct diagnosis, she says. Although those students had the use of sophisticated medical equipment during their studies, it was important for them "to see how a serious medical condition has to be treated without all the backup - when you only have a magnifying glass."

The agricultural project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and involves Michigan State University, the US' foremost agricultural university. MSU works with African partners - universities, NGOs and other community-based organisations, and content providers - building the foundation of the AgShare OER collaboration, to strengthen the institutions' MSc agriculture curriculum.

By the end of the 18-month initiative the leadership and organisational structure will ensure AgShare will be run by Africans, for Africans.