GLOBAL: Open resources - dichotomy and paradox

There was a 'dichotomy' challenging governments and a 'paradox' confusing higher education, with the growth of open and distance learning and the use of open educational resources, Sir John Daniel told a policy forum on 'Taking Open Educational Resources Beyond the OER Community', held by Unesco and the Commonwealth of Learning in Paris this month.

Daniel - CEO and President of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and formerly vice-chancellor of the UK Open University and Unesco's Assistant Director-general for Education - said Unesco's task in promoting OER was "only just beginning - it's an important and exciting task ahead".

He added: "Education is sailing through stormy economic seas, while above us the development of educational technology is flying ahead at supersonic speed."

He identified "a dichotomy challenging governments" and "a paradox confusing higher education" that were "felt more keenly in some parts of the world than others, but they have policy implications everywhere".

The dichotomy was between open content, and proprietary or restricted content. As media and publishing industries reeled under the impact of technological changes mostly related to the internet, governments reluctant to see these important industries in trouble were reviewing their copyright legislation to create new ground rules about making money from intellectual property in the internet age, said Daniel.

Meanwhile, the gathering momentum of the OER movement was "challenging institutions and governments to make openly available the intellectual products they themselves have produced".

So 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 for higher education concerned open and distance learning (ODL), which had developed rapidly in recent decades with tens of millions of students now involved in it.

ODL "depends critically on the use of learning materials, whether open or proprietary", said Daniel, and OERs made it easier for institutions to launch into ODL while improving the quality of their offerings. He cited universities whose staff were discouraged or banned from developing coursework themselves because they could find relevant material freely available on the internet.

"But this boom has created a backlash," said Daniel. "The paradox is that while some are encouraging the spread of ODL, others are trying to limit or suppress it - often within the same government or the same institution."

There were both noble and ignoble motives behind opposition to ODL, said Daniel. The noble ones were concerns about quality: "ODL operates with more consistent quality than classroom teaching, but that quality can be either consistently better or consistently worse than the average of face-to-face teaching." The ignoble ones derived from "fears of loss of institutional income as students choose less costly and more convenient modes of study".

This was relevant to OERs because the quality of open and distance learning depended on the quality of learning materials used, and having an abundance of quality open resources available for adoption and adaptation was sure to raise the quality of ODL - and also the quality of classroom education, said Daniel. "We observe that campus students already seek OERs to compensate for poor teaching of key concepts."

The backlash against ODL was "an attempt to resist an unstoppable trend, the increasing availability of educational content of all kinds. Any monopoly teachers might once have had on knowledge is eroding rapidly.

"Since good educational material on any topic is only a few mouse clicks away, the role of teachers must change" from displaying their own distillation of knowledge to advising and assisting students "as they try to find their way in a world of abundant knowledge", he said.

Daniel put forward three proposals for action.

First, to simplify working with OER. He referred to the Open Learning Content Editing Console, an international collaborative effort led by Allyn Radford, Managing Director of Learnilities of Australia, that will provide OER communities with a simple set of tools to author, edit, remix and 'publish' OER content in a structured format.

Second, governments should insist all material of educational value developed by them or with public funds should be made freely available for onward use under open licences. "The moral and financial cases for this seem incontestable; such a policy would catch the spirit of transparency and accountability of our times."

And third, said Daniel, Unesco, "which also creates quantities of valuable educational material with public funds from member states, should not only adopt a policy of open licences for its own output, but should initiate and lead a worldwide campaign to open up all useful content.

It should start by advocacy for open content with other UN and international agencies, and continue by urging its member states to embrace the open content movement and "showing them how to do it".