There has been a growing buzz about the concepts of Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and how they will transform education around the world. OER has been the subject of increased attention globally, with many donor-funded projects (most often led by universities) providing space to experiment with different models of openness and research the educational effect that these might have. More recently, governments and inter-governmental organisations around the world have begun to examine the educational potential of OER and open licensing more closely. Likewise, MOOCs have mushroomed, often implemented with or by some of the world’s leading universities. Accompanying these has been a plethora of analyses of the MOOC model and its likely effect on education in the long term.
Coined at a UNESCO Conference in 2002, OER is a simple legal concept: it describes any educational resources that are openly available for use by anyone, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or licence fees. Different options are emerging that can be used to define how OER are licensed for use, some of which simply allow copying and others that make provisions for users to adapt the resources that they use. The best known of these are the Creative Commons licences (creativecommons.org). Unlike OER, the concept of the MOOC does not, by definition, imply open licensing; indeed, many MOOCs are not openly licensed.
Two studies in which I participated in 2012 provided clear evidence of the growing interest in MOOCs and OER. First, a survey on OER Policies conducted by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) collected several examples of government policies on OER and open licensing. More importantly, research that we did for COL on the business case for OER provided clear evidence of growth in OER activities extending beyond the realm of funded projects, with governments particularly showing an interest in the economic potential of using open textbooks to reduce the cost of procuring materials for schooling. Likewise, universities are showing growing interest in harnessing OER for different purposes, not least of which has been to explore alternative models of accreditation in the face of growing pressure to expand access to higher education (a similar driver behind many MOOC initiatives). In the business case research, we found four areas in which emerging data demonstrates actual or potential economic gains to be had from harnessing OER.
- Harnessing OER in the creation of new, contextually relevant courses. A case study from Guyana demonstrates powerfully, if only anecdotally, the significant cost reductions that this approach can yield.
- Applying open licences in the textbook market. The economics of the textbook market, especially in places where economies of scale are readily applied, indicate clearly that significant efficiency gains can be attained by shifting to open licences. This approach is accompanied by clear evidence from around the world that governments are increasingly understanding its potential and starting to shift decisively towards such models.
- Releasing research under open licences. Although not OER per se, research is a critical resource requirement for effective education, particularly at the higher education level. Harnessing OER to create alternative accreditation pricing models [which includes the MOOC experiments]. This work is still in its infancy and thus there is no concrete data to demonstrate actual economic gains, but it will be interesting to monitor progress in this area over the next few years.
On the face of it, these trends hold great potential in African countries, where finances are generally scarce and openly licensed resources offer the possibility of providing cheaper access to high quality educational and research materials for use in both schools and universities.
However, these developments leave me feeling uneasy. I see in the growth of open textbooks and MOOCs a replication of models of education that are no longer meeting the needs of our societies. It is true that open textbooks may help to drive down the cost of delivering textbooks to schools, but they are still largely driven by an assumption that the underlying curriculum and classroom-based organisational models, with defined roles and responsibilities for teachers to ‘teach the content’, are what will best prepare young people for their subsequent entry into society and further education. Likewise, the vast majority of MOOCs seem to emulate the logic and structure of traditional university courses. Sadly, many MOOCs also appear not to be open at all, despite their marketing claims to the contrary. These new models are now predominantly old educational ideas, repackaged: old wine in new skins.
At the moment, we are primarily harnessing the innovation of OER predominantly to reproduce content-heavy, top-down models of education that were developed hundreds of years ago to meet the needs of societies in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, models in which the student is still primarily a passive ‘consumer’ of educational content whose main task is to complete standardised assessment tasks in order to receive accreditation. Open textbooks tend to reinforce these models rather than allowing a fundamental reconfiguration of the interaction between educators and students.
Thus, the urgent imperative – and the real transformative potential of OER and MOOCs – is to evolve new systems of education that can help our societies, and especially our youth, to navigate their way through a world in which the disruption wreaked by information and communication technologies requires a completely new approach to knowledge, skills and competence. Continuous and ever-present access to open content and open courses offers us the opportunity to rethink the basis on which we organise the educational experiences of both school and university students.
In doing this, we have the opportunity to overhaul resource use (especially the use of our human resources) and the nature of teacher-student interaction so that students can develop key attributes required for success in the knowledge society, including higher order thinking skills, lifelong learning habits and the ability to think critically, communicate and collaborate, as well as to access, evaluate and synthesise information. To do this, we should be harnessing OER and MOOCs to liberate the time of educators so that they can focus on providing more meaningful support to students.
If OERs and MOOCs simply replicate the models and curricula of the past we will have lost a great opportunity to usher in these critically needed systemic changes. Thus, although we cannot know for sure what these new models and curricula might look like, it is a significant opportunity lost if we do not engage proactively and rapidly in working out what they might be, instead just using new technology to recreate the models we grew up with and that are most familiar to us.
Neil Butcher is Director at Neil Butcher and Associates and OER Strategist at OER Africa, an Initiative of the Southern African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE)
 Two examples of reviews of MOOCs are referenced below, but a simple web search yields extraordinary volume of writing on MOOCs: