OER: the UNESCO Perspective

Yesterday UNESCO hosted a policy forum “Taking the Open Educational Resources beyond the OER Community”.  The attendees were mainly the permanent UNESCO delegates and observers, heads of UNESCO-supported projects and a sprinkling of odd bods like myself.  Speeches started “Exellencies, esteemed guests, …” which lent the occasion a slightly regal air but once the formalities were passed there was plenty of substance to the presentations and discussions.

The Programme for the day can be viewed at http://oerworkshop.weebly.com.  There were strongly upbeat presentations from Sir John Daniel (President, Commonwealth of Learning which co-sponsored the forum), Martin Bean (Open University VC) and Barbara Chow (Hewlett Foundation Education Programme Director). These and other speakers made great play of the large quantity of high quality OERs now available but Quality Assurance also kept cropping up during the day.  Emma Kruse-Vaai from the Virtual University of Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC)  gently observed that for most users of English language OERs worldwide English was a second language so quality, if viewed from the perspective of fitness for purpose, was not an absolute but depended on the context.

UNESCO asked delegates what they thought the organisation could and should do to support OER.  It’s not an outfit flush with cash – indeed their current OER Programme is primarily paid for from a tiny $50,000 grant from the US Government.  The main answer that emerged was to seek to influence national policies – in particular to encourage governments to:

  • create incentives
  • remove barriers
  • fund infrastructure (to allow the digital economy to take off)
  • integrate openness into public policy
  • require open publications of government-supported research (including data), software and funded projects

It wasn’t clear to me though if the channel back to national governments through the UNESCO “excellencies” would be sufficient to bring about any change.

UNESCO has a unique global reach and its interest in OERs goes back a long way – indeed the term Open Educational Resource was coined by UNESCO in 2002.  For some excellent case studies (from CoL) go to http://bit.ly/hdbnCf.  I would also commend the OER Dossier written for UNESCO by  Neil Butcher http://bit.ly/d2jYIj.

The main thoughts I took away from the forum were:

  • it’s really important that the flow of OERs is bi-directional and not just North -> South.
  • OERs written for second language speakers of English are likely to be of more value globally than those written for native speakers
  • the most impressive OER initiatives are in the developing world – eg VUSSC which exclusively develops course content as OER and TESSA (see case study at http://bit.ly/eytj5m) delivering teacher education through the medium of OER to 300,000 primary school teachers
  • governments (eg USA) are simultaneously increasing protection for rights holders by for example extending the duration of copyright and restricting fair use provision while promoting OER as a solution to educational needs.  The two “movements” need to be brought together to achieve an optimal balance.

Jonathan Darby (Academic Director of SCORE) will be using this page to share thoughts and experiences from his viewpoint of SCORE.

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