UNESCO-COL: Planning for open educational resources

Unesco and the Commonwealth of Learning should play a leading role in informing governments and education practitioners of the benefits of open educational resources (OER), and in promoting policies to maximise their use in both developing and developed countries, participants agreed at an OER policy forum held in Paris this month.

Open educational resources are those that are freely available, often but not exclusively online, for teaching, learning and research. They can range from complete courses to a single diagram.

Experts and delegates from more than 60 member countries of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) attended the forum on 'Taking Open Educational Resources Beyond the OER community'. Discussions ranged from the current state of affairs and trends, through projects' experiences, to the way ahead for OER - as well as issues such as quality assurance and copyright.

Unesco's 2009 World Conference on Higher Education recognised that open and distance learning (ODL) and information and communication technologies provided opportunities to widen access to quality education, especially when OER could easily be shared by many countries and higher education institutions.

This year Unesco and COL launched a joint initiative to promote wider understanding, creation and use of OER in developing and developed countries, and to encourage greater support and investment for the resources by government and institutional decision-makers.

So far the focus of the 'Taking Open Educational Resources Beyond the OER Community: Policy and Capacity' initiative has been on higher education in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

Four workshops took place between April and November in Cape Town (South Africa), Windhoek (Namibia), Bamako (Mali) and Kochi (India) for university leaders and academics, quality assurance experts and representatives from developing and developed countries. Three online discussion forums brought together 352 participants.

Issues they raised included: the development and dissemination of quality teaching and learning resources; mass expansion of higher education; maximising investment in education; and copyright and licensing.

At the opening of this month's conference, David TG Killion, Ambassador and Permanent Delegate of the US Mission to Unesco, told participants that the purpose of the forum was to raise awareness of OER at policy level. OERs were free to use and thus affordable; they could be easily printed, downloaded and translated; and they permitted real-time sharing of information, which was good for giving students rapid access, he said.

Qian Tang, Unesco's Assistant Director-general for Education, said OER could transform learning for academics and students across the world, enabling them to draw on materials and adapt them to local needs.

Unesco had been involved with OER for years - the term was coined at the organisation's 2002 Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries - and Unesco launched a portal in 2005 providing web-based materials for teachers, researchers and learners. The resources were developing first at the higher education level, said Tang.

Janis Karklins, Unesco's Assistant Director-general for Communication and Information, said the organisation had built an OER platform for teachers and education professionals to freely copy and share educational resources.

His division was developing journalism education OER, successfully adopted so far by 57 journalism schools. Two other initiatives concerned quality assurance and development of an OER literacy project to make software programmes available.

Sir John Daniel, CEO and President of the Commonwealth of Learning - and former Vice-chancellor of the UK Open University and Unesco Assistant Director-General for Education - identified "a dichotomy challenging governments" and "a paradox confusing higher education".

The dichotomy was between open content, and proprietary or restricted content, and some governments were being led to introduce contradictory policies, "encouraging open content on the one hand, but, on the other hand, revising copyright legislation to place further restrictions on the fair use of copyrighted material".

The paradox concerned ODL, which was booming - but, while encouraged by some institutions, it was experiencing a backlash, with others trying to limit or suppress it "often within the same government or the same institution".

Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic, Unesco chief of section for reform, innovation and quality assurance, recalled that 10 years ago there were two opposing trends - towards the commercialisation of higher education and towards openness.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology putting hundreds of courses publicly online was a "big revolution". But at the same time there was lots of reaction from governments and institutions about the World Trade Organization's General Agreement on Trade in Services, "whereby for the first time higher education...was a service to be traded".

There was much concern over the effects on education and research, and loss of sovereignty, said Uvalic-Trumbic. Now, "cross-border education is in a new phase because of open educational resources. We have come from trading to sharing".

In a session on 'What works' Catherine Ngugi, Project Director of OER Africa, emphasised that it was important that Africans were creators of knowledge, not just users. Videos from the University of Ghana had demonstrated to medical students at the University of Michigan - a partner in an OER health project - the realities and treatment of the buruli ulcer, which they previously knew only from textbooks.

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 that faculty members "come up with their own ideas".

Ngugi also said it was a mistake to think of OERs as uniquely concerning distance learning and online resources - they were often printed materials. "The important point is availability of free licences, with permission for free use."

She later delivered the presentation of Peter Donker, a professor at the College of Health Sciences of the University of Science and Technologies Kumasi, in Ghana, who was unable to attend. It described his experiences with the OER health project, which was set up after faculty members were consulted on how funds should be spent.

"Many books were outdated because universities can't afford updates; it was very difficult to access modern, topical resources appropriate to the kinds of graduates we would like to produce." Participation in the project was voluntary, there was much collaboration and quality assurance was done internally.

Interactive videos of clinical cases were set up on the university website. "It made the clinical easier to understand; students are familiar with material before they get into the classroom. The level of student interaction...was definitely higher." Problems were hardware costs, limited infrastructure, and "not much awareness outside the project".

Martin Bean, Vice-chancellor of the UK Open University, traced the history of the 40-year institution whose mission had always been "open to people, places, methods, ideas".

"We have always used the technology of the day to provide high quality education to as many people as possible," said Bean, citing systems including OI Net, OLearn, YouTube and ITunes. He said the OU had many partners collaborating around two of the Millennium Development Goals - teacher training and health education.

Professor Emma Kruse-Vaai of Samoa University described the Virtual University of Small States of the Commonwealth, of which she is chair of the management committee. Preparation involved intensive workshops - so-called 'boot camps' - and training of team leaders in Vancouver, said Kruse-Vaai.

Today the university has developed courses relevant to needs such as agriculture, health skills, disaster management, tour-guiding, business and entrepreneurship, fisheries, building and construction, online development and professional development for education.

"Materials and resources are free for use, reusable, digital," said Kruse-Vaai. "We keep in touch with how we are doing in our universities, take content and develop it into courses which are recognised in quality assurance.

"In Small States we believe our teachers are still learners. We also recognise most of the course material will be in English, but it must be in an English understandable by our learners, most of them second-language speakers. We aim to make it adaptable so each of us can contextualise and translate into our own languages. Because it is digital it is portable; many don't have advanced ICT skills so during the workshops we enhance their skills so they can go back to their own countries and train others."

As remote developing countries, their challenges included costs of infrastructure and computers; connectivity; keeping up with technology - "we are always a bit behind" - and networking which, said Kruse-Vaai, is "important to sustain and keep development going".

Zeynep Varoglu, a Unesco programme specialist, gave an overview of OERs and projects worldwide: "There is a lot going on". Governments and higher educationists needed to be made aware and develop the capacity of the resources.

Policy issues had to be addressed: "How do we go about using OERs? Where do we start? Do we do a general course, or one very specific to the institution? This includes financial and pedagogical concerns." Regarding copyright, "what is being done to share information while giving recognition to creators?" And what about incentives for staff - would participation in OER count towards promotion?

Under Unesco-OECD guidelines each stakeholder had different needs and areas of concern - governments, higher education institutions, students, teachers and accreditation bodies, said Varoglu.

Dirk Van Damme, head of the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD, addressed the innovative capacity of OER to become an agent of change in higher education.

He examined four scenarios - local-regional focus, new public responsibility, open network modes, and commercial nodes. He injected a note of caution: "We hear success stories, but there are failures too; many attempts don't work." OER was a "very powerful tool for systemic innovation", he concluded, but added: "We must be critical and put many more questions on the table".

Barbara Chow, Education Programme Director of the Hewlett Foundation, said this was "a very propitious moment" for OER. "The global economic crisis has put pressure on education budgets and we have seen a lot of interest growing in the world because of that." More foundations were starting to support OER, and "changes in publishing - Itunes, Apple, Google - are changing the face of OER."

She described innovations that could radically reduce costs, such as the 'Flexbook' California textbook, and increase accessibility for all. Governments should facilitate the sustainable implementation of OERs. For example, in the US Department of Education, "OERs will be given preference as publicly funded materials are put out".

Tobias Schonwetter, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town, outlined the situation on licensing issues, especially copyright. Many people did not understand the complexities, and were deterred from using material in case they were sued.

Schonwetter explained Creative Commons licences, which offer a range of six permissions for use of resources, given in advance by the copyright holder. "It's not perfect, but people should know what it is and make informed decisions as to when it is right for them," he said.

Among concerns raised at the forum was that, at a time when higher education budgets were being slashed and it seemed OERs' time had come, quality control must be maintained. Another observation was that as the role of materials in higher education was changing, publishers and industry must be involved as well as the teaching and learning process.

There was agreement that Unesco and the COL must play a major part in promoting open educational resources, through facilitating networking, conferences, formulating policy briefs and guidelines, publishing their own high quality open resources, informing governments and educational communities of their benefits and persuading them to make policies and investment in favour or OER.

Closing the conference Tang said Unesco would have to decide its future entry points: "We should not repeat or duplicate other partners." While preparing the budget for the next two years, the organisation would "formulate our programme to see where we should focus; we shall do this with many partners, we cannot do it ourselves," he said.