Global declaration to boost open educational resources

In a move aimed at boosting international efforts to facilitate educational access and enhance knowledge transfer, UNESCO is to ask governments and education organisations worldwide to sign a declaration strengthening their commitment to developing, promoting and making available open educational resources.

The declaration, which was drafted by an international advisory and liaison group in May, is to be presented at the World Open Educational Resources (OER) Congress in Paris from 20-22 June. The congress is a partnership between UNESCO and the non-profit Commonwealth of Learning.

In terms of the ‘Paris declaration’, signatories will foster research on the development, use and reuse of OER and their impact on the quality and cost-efficiency of teaching and learning.

OER, a term coined at UNESCO’s 2002 Forum on Open Courseware, can cover a range of content – from course materials, content modules and journals to digital images, music and video clips.

It designates teaching, learning and research materials – in any medium, digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain, or have been released under an open licence that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no, or limited, restrictions.

Open licensing is built within the existing framework of intellectual property rights, as defined by relevant international conventions, and respects the authorship of the work.

“If adopted, the declaration would represent a considered and positive development,” Richard Gold, an expert on innovation and development and a professor in the law faculty at McGill University in Canada, told University World News.

"Sharing of knowledge continues to be a key factor in training the next generation of scholars, providing students with the technical skills required to actively participate in innovation within their countries and to build networks and partnerships," he said.

"The declaration properly recognises that accessing resources is not simply a question of legal rules concerning licensing but also the need to develop the infrastructure through which students and scholars can access literature in the online environment – as slow download speed is as much a problem as the lack of materials," Gold indicated.

"Further, the declaration recognises that, in making materials accessible, we need to ensure quality.”

The declaration also recognises the local nature of implementation and the participation of a broad segment of the local population.

"Overall, the declaration represents a balanced and thoughtful statement that, if adopted and implemented, will enhance skill and knowledge development across the world," Gold concluded.

Dulce Mourato, a lecturer and e-learning platforms administrator at the University of Lisbon, told University World News: “The declaration could be implemented by providing free software availability and implementation; ICT accessibility and interface simplicity for all; and Moodle as a free e-learning platform...” Pilot studies could be conducted on implementing e-learning in a typical university degree.

The draft declaration calls for signatories to foster awareness and use of OER, facilitate enabling environments for use of ICT, reinforce the development of strategies and policies on OER, and promote and adopt legal frameworks for open licensing.

It also urges capacity building for the sustainable development of quality learning materials, strategic alliances for OER, the development and adaptation of OER in a variety of languages and cultural contexts, research on OER, funding for the finding, retrieving and sharing of OER, and open licensing of educational materials produced with public funds.

"The OER declaration is a good step towards increasing access to higher education, whatever the economic, geographic or health situation that students are experiencing, especially in developing countries," Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre, told University World News.

"The declaration is paving the way for setting up free learning resources such as MIT OpenCourseWare, established by the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as free degree programmes, such as the bachelor degree programmes in business administration and computer science offered by the University of the People,” said Abdelhamid.

OER received a boost in February 2011 when the OER University initiative held its inaugural meeting in New Zealand. The OER University is a virtual collaboration of like-minded institutions focused on providing flexible pathways for learners across the globe who have accessed open education courses, to be assessed and earn formal academic credit for their work from recognised educational institutions at reduced fees.

Related OER projects include WikiEducator, which facilitates the development of OER materials for educators worldwide to reuse, adapt and modify, and Learning4Content – the world's largest training project, which has successfully enabled thousands of educators from 140 countries to access training in the ‘wiki skills’ they require to contribute to the development of OER.

But Hassanuddeen Abd Aziz, dean of the centre for postgraduate studies at the International Islamic University Malaysia, told University World News: "Although OER offer free educational materials, students still need to have a computer and an internet connection along with power supply, which could be considered big challenges in most of poor countries.

"It might be more practical to join the OER movement with ‘books without border’ initiatives, for printing teaching materials and distributing them to students who would not otherwise have access to them, especially in developing countries," Abd Aziz concluded.