Researching OER in Africa and the global South

The Research on Open Educational Resources for Development in the Global South – ROER4D – project is a three-year multi-country and institutional research project whose general objective is to improve educational policy, practice and research in developing countries by better understanding the use and impact of open educational resources in the global South.

Led by principal investigator Associate Professor Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams and hosted by the University of Cape Town, the programme funded by the International Development Research Centre, or IDRC, comprises 12 sub-projects in three regions: South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-Southeast Asia.

The premise of OER

The project's overall objective is motivated by the challenges facing education in the 21st century in the so-called political 'global South'.

In a situation where the demand for high quality educational provision is constrained by limited human resources and financial pressures, the emergence of open educational resources – OER – as free, open and reusable learning and teaching materials is considered a fruitful response to these constraints.

While OER emerged in the global North through initiatives such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MITOpenCourseWare initiative in 2001, OER initiatives in the global South are increasing, as access to digital tools, hardware and connectivity grows.

This is premised on the assumption that OERs are an important part of providing educational opportunities through the resourcing of accessible, culturally acceptable, high quality and affordable educational materials in the global South.

Indeed, non-OER materials – which represent the vast amounts of digitised content on the internet – might be free to access but are not open for other uses except under certain conditions. Thus use and re-use of such materials would ordinarily violate copyright.

OERs on the other hand give educators in developing countries the opportunity and rights to access, change and improve content they require, while the availability of new tools, alternative intellectual property mechanisms such as Creative Commons, and OER repositories mean educators can now create their own OERs and share these with others globally.

Another view, however, projects a less positive outlook on the use of OERs in developing countries. OERs are not universally appreciated due to perceptions of quality, while adoption of OER may threaten organisations and individual educator beliefs about their role in the education system.

Considering the influence institutions from the global North exert on developing country higher education institutions, their curricula and teaching materials, suspicions about the importing of Western educational materials abound along with views that OER may indeed sustain a divide between those who create materials and those who consume.

African educational institutions share many of the challenges of their developing country counterparts, namely that of increasing costs of education and educational materials.

Further barriers to the use of OER in African educational contexts include limited connectivity, low levels of digital literacy and geographical remoteness, which may further exacerbate inequalities and marginalise vulnerable groups.

On the other hand, access data provided by OER repositories and portals such as MITOpenCourseWare, OpenLearn and Khan Academy indicate access from countries in the global South and in Africa – for example, MIT Statistics, 2011, 2012.

Yet the number of 'hits' does not explain how the materials are used, by whom and for what purpose, nor can they indicate influences or effects. There is a need to establish how much traction OERs have gained in Africa and in the global South.

Researching OER in Africa and the global South

A growing number of international bodies such as UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning are calling for extended commitment to OER, especially by countries in the global South – see the Paris Declaration.

This has necessitated a search for evidence to counter the current paucity of research on how OERs are created and used and how they are influencing educational policy and practices in developing countries.

Much of the current research is focussed on the global North, with global South research primarily concentrating on specific projects and often funded by global North institutions, such as the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa, or TESSA, programme.

A stronger evidence base on OER in Africa and the global South would allow governments, policy-makers and institutional leaders to make decisions about educational policy based on evidence rather than on appealing claims or counter arguments about OER.

In spanning three regions of the global South – South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South-Southeast Asia – the ROER4D project's research activities and findings aim to establish evidence of students and lecturers' OER adoption and reuse in a number of institutions as well as the impact of OER adoption on educators' practices and student performances in specific regions.

The value of many sub-projects connected into a central hub lies in the opportunity to conduct and compare research across different regions with similar contexts and enable research harmonisation practices across the network (Trotter 2014). This means that concurrent desktop reviews of OER's status in all three regions will be available and updated throughout the project, while a multi-national survey on OER practices will be conducted at 36 institutions in nine countries across the three regions.

Additionally two projects – one in Sub-Saharan Africa and one in India – are researching academics' attitudes to OER and why they share their work.

The research teams involved in all these cross-regional projects are collaborating in the design of research instruments so as to harmonise their research approaches to what are similar contexts, while accounting for contextual and local factors.

Another project stream is conducting studies on educational expenditure in five countries in South America and three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to give a baseline of educational expenditure.

Such an approach aims to move away from ad hoc and specific projects in global South and African contexts to one which aims to establish not only a stronger evidence base but also develop the capacities of researchers working in specific contexts while supported by and contributing to the broader ROER4D network.

This resonates with the statement in the inaugural #scholarAfrica article that “the African continent is in desperate need of national and regional initiatives to advance the open scholarship agenda” (Willmers, 2014).

Open collaborative research practices

At the time of writing, the ROER4D project had only recently commenced the empirical research phase with some projects beginning to report tentative findings, with datasets, evidence-based findings and recommendations to come.

However, the project intends to openly share, as far as possible, the ongoing artifacts of the research process including conceptual frameworks, research instruments, surveys, questionnaires and tools.

In ‘walking the talk’, this is intended to help other African and global South OER research projects use the various research outputs and lessons learned to conduct their own research, as well as build the capacity of individual ROER4D researchers within the broader OER network and open education community.

The ROER4D website, blog and social media channels – Twitter, Facebook and SlideShare – serve as primary dissemination channels for the project’s open research outputs.

* Sukaina Walji is based at the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, CILT, at the University of Cape Town. She is research communications advisor for the Research on Open Educational Resources for Development in the Global South – ROER4D – programme. She has a background in digital communications and online publishing and has worked in the field of educational technology since 2010. Her research interests include massive open online courses, or MOOCs, open education and online learning design. She has a masters in online and distance education from the Open University UK.