Finding the sweet spot: open educational resources in the developing world
With debate about the benefits and future of the MOOC dominating the educational blogosphere in the last year, discussions about the open sharing of educational resources are becoming more prevalent. Open Educational Resources, or OERs, offer a potential tool for impacting education in developing countries and fast growing economies, particularly in the emerging technology hubs of Africa. These open, freely available educational resources can provide top education for people who don’t have access to universities or education in developing countries, but there is fear that educational resources created in highly developed countries will be of little use to those in developing countries because of cultural and economic differences.
Open Educational Resources are described by UNESCO (http://www.unesco.org/new/en/) as being teaching, learning or research materials that are free to distribute or adapt. The MOOC is a great example of an OER, and organisations like Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/), Udacity (http://www.udacity.com/) and edX (https://www.edx.org/) are working in conjunction with top universities in the States and around the world to get university courses online and accessible the world over. Connexions (http://cnx.org/), a global repository of educational content, has resources at all levels of education, and the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) (http://www.iskme.org/) set up the OER Commons (http://www.oercommons.org/) to give teachers and students access to some 30,000 educational resources online.
There has been a huge amount of debate about the relevance of these kinds of resources in the developing world, particularly in Africa, a continent which is currently seeing rapid economic growth and technological innovation. Using open source materials in developing countries could potentially lead to a greater knowledge gap between the developed world and the developing world, with Africans becoming consumers of knowledge rather than producers. Because of the high cost involved in the creation of OERs, African countries with fewer resources may not have the means to create and distribute their own materials and resources. As the quality and quantity of OERs from the developed world continues to grow, African nations are more in danger of falling behind.
There is already a push toward open information sharing going on in many of Africa’s tech hubs. Organisations like Siyavula (http://projects.siyavula.com/) in South Africa and others around the Continent are creating OERs for use in their own countries and in wider Africa, and are creating a pan-African community of resource creators. OpenRwanda (http://www.shakingsun.com/?q=projects) is a web portal educating and encouraging Rwandans to use the open source materials available to them. The Peer2Peer University (https://p2pu.org/en/) in South Africa and the African Virtual University (http://www.avu.org/), a pan-African intergovernmental organisation both offer free online courses with the aim of increasing access to education in their home continent. While progress is being made, it is still necessary for governments and policymakers to foster the development of OER materials that are relevant to education systems across Africa.
Audience and access are not the only issues surrounding OERs. The eLearning Africa debate in 2011 focused on the subject of OERs, with the motion “This house believes that the OER movement is fundamentally flawed because it is based on the false assumption that educational institutions are willing to share resources freely and openly”. The idea that universities and professionals should be reluctant to give up their intellectual property is a concern that is slowly being overturned, mostly with the rising popularity of MOOCs in the last year. Philipp Schmidt of Peer2Peer University suggested as part of eLearning Africa’s look at the matter that private institutions need to offer OERs to keep up with demand. He also talked about how OERs promote innovation within the education sector and helps the process of researchers building on each other’s findings.
There were many who agreed with the motion, while the opposition argued that there is a lot of negative potential around OERs. Because there is no quality control, there is a huge amount of bad material and resources available. Another downside of OERs is that the availability of online courses could lead to a fall off of student attendance, and that bureaucracy in education systems meant that the widespread use of OERs was just a pipe dream for the moment. Neil Butcher, OER Strategist for the Southern African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE) (http://www.saide.org.za/), suggested that OERs were just the tip of the iceberg, and that the educational sector needed a fundamental overhaul.
There does seem to be a consensus among both supporters and opponents of the Open Educational Resource movement that this field needs ongoing development and policy change before the issue is resolved, particularly in developing countries. eLearning Africa 2013 will open dialogues surrounding innovation and discuss new methods and deliveries for OERs in the foreseeable future.