Open education resources to shape post-pandemic world

For the past two decades, the world has been building open knowledge on a massive scale, with open educational resources as a cornerstone. The 2001 launches of MIT OpenCourseWare and Creative Commons formed a solid foundation of this global open educational resource movement, which now supports many millions of learners from all walks of life.

Now, as we begin to grapple with the long-term impacts and changes in education brought on by the pandemic year, it’s crucial to assess how open educational resource (OER) tools and resources are reaching those who need and use them most. In this article, we’ll focus on students in Africa.

Free access to knowledge

MIT OpenCourseWare (MIT OCW) is an open-licensed publication of teaching materials from thousands of MIT courses, plus faculty perspectives on teaching methods and illustrative samples of student coursework.

MIT OCW flows directly from MIT’s mission to “advance knowledge and educate students [to] best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century”, and to “work with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges”.

The great contribution of MIT OCW is to extend that knowledge, not only to MIT students, but to anyone, anywhere, and in a form that anyone can reshape and apply toward their own goals.

MIT’s mission makes clear that no institution can do this alone; OCW realises this vision by empowering learners and institutions everywhere, which is the essence of OER.

A bold and transformative idea at its inception 20 years ago, today that ethos is part of the fabric of MIT, an unquestioned part of how we go about realising our mission.

We have made great progress on giving people free access to the world’s knowledge, via the internet, digital technologies and open licences.

Learners, teachers and communities around the world are now empowered to create, share, adapt and apply knowledge in the service of their particular needs.

Today, the OASIS OER search tool lists more than 388,000 open-licensed courses, online books, learning modules and other free resources.

With materials from over 2,500 courses, the MIT OCW website alone has delivered more than 1.65 billion page views for more than 210 million unique learners, 65% from outside the US.

Meanwhile, with so many people still lacking reliable high-speed internet connections, we’ve delivered ‘mirror drives’ containing complete copies of all MIT OCW content to hundreds of schools and institutions, with about 210 of these operating in Africa.

That’s a lot of knowledge unlocked. That’s a lot of people who have been given the keys to expanding their perspectives, satisfying their curiosity, advancing their careers and, each in their own way, making their corner of the world a better place.

Breaking barriers, thanks to free resources

The free resources on OCW scale from individual learners pursuing subjects that interest them, to educators using and augmenting materials for their classrooms, to schools and educational organisations building programmes to support their communities.

Consider, for example, Ahmed Elmagbri, who was a teenager in Libya during a civil war when all the universities were forced to close.

He turned to OCW to learn independently, and used that knowledge to participate in an effort to build prostheses for people affected by the war. Now, he is a masters student in neuroengineering at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, the first Libyan student to be represented there.

Mebale Tsige, a college physics lecturer and researcher in Ethiopia, began using MIT OCW while an undergraduate student nearly 20 years ago, as a ‘second hand’ supporting him through challenging topics, and OCW continues to support his teaching and continued learning.

And Usman Abdullateef, a professor at Fountain University in Nigeria, has used MIT OCW resources to help educate students who are globally competitive.

Spike in users

OER is situated in a rich open knowledge environment that takes many forms and serves the needs of many distinct communities. From the dynamic, crowdsourced richness of Wikipedia, to rigorous peer-reviewed journals that publish under open licences, the ethos of open sharing has taken hold and grown.

This open knowledge progress has not come a moment too soon. During the peak of quarantines in 2020, global visits to MIT OCW spiked by 75%, and this increased use carried through 2021, with over 1.2 million visits from African learners and teachers.

Other free educational resources, from edX to open-licensed journals, to other OER resources, saw a similar rise in interest as people sought to learn from home.

Widespread open sharing of COVID-19 research and intellectual property, through efforts like the Open COVID Pledge, used well-established open knowledge practices and platforms to build a global response of unprecedented speed and scale.

As disruptive as the pandemic-driven scramble to online learning was, these decades of investment in OER helped soften the disruptions in education.

Educators and learners could quickly find and use complete open courses, online textbooks, free high-quality video collections, simulations and interactive question-answer modules.

Investments to create locally relevant OER and build the capacity of teachers and schools to use OER, such as programmes organised by OER Africa, have been instrumental.

Learners, especially, have benefited from the agency that their own access to all these materials gives them and, even more, from the growing experience of dedicated educators who create, adopt and adapt these materials.

Inclusive, resilient, interactive, scalable

Since the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency on 11 March 2020, the MIT OCW website has been visited more than 27 million times, and videos on MIT OCW’s YouTube channel have been viewed for more than 460 million minutes.

While our most popular introductory computer science, maths and physics courses have more use than ever this year, we have also seen extra interest in biology, psychology, economics and finance topics.

Meanwhile, our new Chalk Radio podcast is sharing MIT faculty stories of inspired teaching with a growing community of educators.

Beyond its role in sustaining education through the pandemic, OER like MIT OpenCourseWare has several qualities that will be essential in the rebuilding and progress to come, supporting efforts to increase equity and live more sustainably as framed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

• OER is inclusive, because it’s open for all to adapt for diverse needs and have all voices reflected.

• OER is resilient, always there when you need it, free to use in classrooms and carry with you through any future disruptions.

• OER is iterative, a collective work in progress that admits the latest insights into what’s working, and what’s not working, as knowledge is created and applied.

• OER is scalable, enabling hyper-local knowledge and lived experiences to be shared and built into a global pool of knowledge.

These qualities – inclusive, resilient, interactive and scalable (IRIS) – have been a foundation of MIT OpenCourseWare and will continue to shape what comes next.

Our team has been hard at work on a substantial upgrade of our platform and programmes, which we refer to as Next Generation (or Next Gen) OCW.

Twenty years after MIT OCW began, Next Gen OCW celebrates the vitality of the dynamic OER ecosystem and its promise to build greater educational equity for people all around the world.

Looking ahead

Our inspirations for Next Gen OCW are many.

We aim to support learners with a wide range of backgrounds and goals. They may be students enrolled in a formal programme, or dedicated independent learners following their curiosities and improving their lives.

They might not have reliable internet access or a computer, but their desire for knowledge won’t quit.

The flexibility and portability of OER empowers any and all of them to take the initiative, keep learning at their own pace amid the complications and challenges of daily life, and build capacity to transform their communities.

Through open pedagogy practices, learners are increasingly contributing their own voices, questions and insights, creating richer and more authentic learning experiences, and making OER profoundly inclusive.

Meanwhile, educators are using OER in ever-expanding ways, as they strive to create the most effective learning environment for their students.

Initiatives like OER Africa are key to this progress, supporting content creation and adaptation grounded in local needs and ongoing educator professional development.

Because OER is openly licensed, educators are able to freely download, remix, and share their content adaptations with the world as inspiration and foundation for future classes.

And as they experiment with innovative new practices, such as for hybrid in-person or online environments, OER-minded educators can share pedagogical insights along with their teaching materials to inspire others and build community.

And of course, Next Gen OCW will continue to be a vibrant, up-to-date sharing of the MIT curriculum as that curriculum continues to evolve.

This includes the latest teaching approaches, new content formats, and the latest knowledge on ‘grand challenge’ topics like social justice, sustainability and the future of computing.

The pandemic year has accelerated shifts to using more digital and blended learning, which means even more built-for-online content that’s well suited to OCW learners. We’re doing all we can to share it rapidly with the world.

Support to achieve educational goals

The Next Gen OCW platform will feature a modern mobile-responsive website, with seamless support for smartphone users, and new ways to discover content best suited to each person’s needs.

For learners who lack a reliable high-speed internet connection, we’re enhancing our Mirror Drive program and other tools to support more effective offline use of OCW content.

For educators, MIT OCW content will become easier to remix and adapt into diverse learning contexts, with integrations into learning management systems and other learning platforms.

As we continue to build upon the access to knowledge that MIT OCW offers, we’re particularly excited to invest in collaborations within the OER ecosystem that create ever-greater educational equity.

We know that content alone isn’t enough to achieve equity goals, but that education relies on the bonds of community and culture to make knowledge come to life.

Those bonds may be with OER librarians who support teachers to find, adopt and adapt OER; educators and educational institutions who know how best to shape OER in the service of their unique communities of students, in their contexts, with their preparation; NGOs building educational capacity and justice for under-represented or marginalised communities; new platforms that build individualised scaffolded learning sequences out of OER components; and so many more.

In short: if MIT OCW can play a part in your achieving your educational goals, we want to work with you, support you, help make this happen.

We’re looking forward to supporting and learning from everyone with a deep understanding of the needs, challenges and opportunities in their communities, whose rich relationships are the basis for creating a more sustainable and equitable future.

Curt Newton is the director of MIT OpenCourseWare and Krishna Rajagopal is the MIT dean for digital learning and professor of physics. This is a commentary.