Open Educational Resources International Symposium: Opening keynote

Mary Lou Forward, Executive Director, OpenCourseWare Consortium provided a whistlestop tour of open courseware developments around the world, highlighting Open Educational Resources as a global movement and a learning revolution.

Sarah Porter set the context for the day with an introduction that highlighted the progress that has been made with Open Educational Resources. “It’s an exciting time for OER and open,” Porter said, but emphasised that “we have to be very clear about the case we’re making and why we’re making it. There has been lots of good work but there are also barriers and issues to tackle”.

Without a doubt, one element of the “good work” has been JISC’s OER programme that, thanks to funding from Hefce, has been exploring the potential of OER through projects from three different perspectives: subject-based (14 projects), institutional (7 projects); and individual (8 projects) with the aim of learning about the best approaches. “It’s a programme, not a set of projects,” emphasised Porter – a coherent and combined effort that has brought people together to learn from each other, with a support function, evaluation and synthesis.

The second phase of the programme is now underway and will focus on areas such as teacher skills in HE, studies to see how to get the most impact from OER and different business models, putting resources into cascade support with people from the first phase helping others to build up their knowledge, and building UK OER into the global community.

The global community was Mary Lou Forward’s focus for the hour that followed as she took the audience on an exhilarating whirlwind tour demonstrating how open courseware is being taken up across the globe, from Europe and America to Africa and Asia.

She kicked off with a brief explanation of her organisation, the OpenCourseWare Consortium. Its mission is

“to advance formal and informal learning through the worldwide sharing and use of free, open, high-quality education materials organised as courses”

and it is global itself with 250 members around the world and 13,000 courses in about 20 different languages. The open movement is “taking off” said Forward, and she sees the current roles of Open Courseware as:

  • expanding access to education;
  • showcasing quality of education available in different countries and institutions; strengthening teaching and curricular alignment with an institution;
  • providing services to students and institutions

Gazing into her crystal ball, she also suggested some of the future areas where OER will become increasingly important. She believes that it will have a role as a bridge between secondary and higher education for those that are concerned about making the shift; it will be critical in meeting the need for workforce retraining; it will aid faculty engagement and global knowledge generation through examining critical global issues; and it will promote cultural understanding and citizen diplomacy.

But the keynote really took off when Forward started to provide some concrete examples of the different ways in which OER is working in practice and making a difference in countries right now. Forward’s background is in African studies and she started her voyage with the African Virtual University. Created by an inter-governmental charter, the AVU brings together six African nations who decided to think about what was most relevant for African learners and create networks for localised content and sharing. The courses, which are in English, French and Portuguese, are geared to the kinds of things that African universities said they were interested in rather than importing courses from Canada and Australia. For example, a teacher education project was created with modules to train teachers in various subjects – all 73 modules are open.

In contrast to the institutional approach is South Korea‘s governmental take on OER. Forward explained that, in South Korea, a high value is placed on education and university ranking is a big factor in economic and social success. A huge amount spent on private tutoring to supplement state education with high income families spending 11 times more than poor income families. The government looked at the figures, recognised that the income divide will only perpetuate social divide – and its solution was OER. Initiatives include a free college prep course from which the college entrance exam is taken, a government-sponsored open courseware site called K-OCW, a project to use OER as a means to improve teaching and the quality of education, and a grant programme to 10 universities to put materials online. The next step – a very big step – is getting openness to be part of the university ranking system.

In Brazil, there has been a grassroots movement which has sought to influence Parliament – notching up a success in just the last two weeks with a congressional hearing that has produced a recommendation of a five point strategy.

From a country to a town and Manor, Texas has a population of around 6,000 and not a lot going on in terms of economic growth. Leaders decided that the way to improve Manor is through innovative, interactive technology, with participants (perhaps through blog feedback or other contributions) rewarded with Innobucks – virtual online currency that can be traded for tangible products from the Manor Labs Store. Now Manor Labs has announced it will reward individuals for participating in open courseware programmes, giving them a certain amount of Innobucks per course.

Moving eastwards, and the International University of Iran is interested in an OCW consortium – it feels it might help to break down some of the stereotypes about the country – while Israel is very active with open textbooks. The Thomas Edison project in India is a group of investors who are working on an e-learning programme for rural areas based on handheld devices, and Japan is taking a societal approach with institutions looking to partner with industry to move the open programme on.

It’s an impressive roundup but, said Forward, “there is still a lot to be done…”

Her list of futures areas of work encompasses:

  • the need to promote research into OER and disseminate it
  • the need to show the impact on a global scale
  • the need to continue OER advocacy – keep pushing
  • the need to make sure people are re-using material
  • the need at an institutional level to say that the value is not who developed the materials but how they are having an impact on students
  • the need to work on metadata and categorise things so people can find them

The list may be long but Forward ended on a rallying cry to the troops in the room: “One person CAN make a difference in OER. One person’s tenacity CAN move things on in this area. Continue to be part of the learning revolution!”

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