The OER Movement: A 21st Century Solution for Improving Education
Posted on April 12, 2013
The past decade has seen a shift in global power. That there is no longer a preeminent Western superpower becomes increasingly clear with time, as does the economic rise of the Global South. One reason for this can be attributed to education. Many countries in the Global South emphasize education as a key method for improving economic realities. The desire for improved education systems is there but the resources often are not. A recent movement championed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aims to change this. The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement encourages educators to share, and allow others to amend and distribute, their content for free. Educators worldwide can then access the best of what is available to meet local needs saving research time and increasing action time. While OER is young, it has the potential to play a key role in improving education worldwide both within a country and across global borders.
History Behind the OER Movement
There is no universal definition for the “open” in OER, or for its sister terms open access, open source, or OpenCourseWare. However, the origins of OER’s definition can be narrowed to July 2002 at the conclusion of a UNESCO forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries. Attendees united to define it as,
“Technology-enabled, open provision of educational resources for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes [that] are typically made freely available over the web or the internet.”
They went on to describe such resources to include lecture material and syllabi, references and readings, and experiments and demonstrations.
To date, prestigious global organizations such as UNESCO, MIT, and the Hewlett Foundation have led the OER movement but for the movement to be sustainable, information flows need to be more than top-down. Developing a “culture of contribution” where educators both download and contribute resources will take time, but feelings of collective responsibility to share resources are growing. The 2011 Horizon Report notes,
“Because open content is more widespread, schools are beginning to feel a social responsibility to create and share their content. Utilizing and developing content is no longer about being experimental; it has become the mark of a world-class institution.”
For educators and students in the Global South to reach this stage, a number of challenges need to be overcome.
Changing the Power Structure
Education has long been viewed as the path toward a better future, but many global citizens are unable to obtain this to their desired extent. Societal and familial pressures to work, provide, and contribute often take precedence over formal school learning. Unfortunately, this perpetuates a cycle where the privileged continue to be the best educated and obtain the best paying jobs. With OER, a mobile phone or shared computer can be a gateway into a trove of quality educational resources. The tools may be simple, but the knowledge gold.
Lack of appropriate infrastructure can be problematic for many in the Global South with outdated software, unreliable network coverage and lack of technology skills as three common issues. But with connectivity costs falling and mobile usage rising rapidly, there will be more channels through which OER can be adapted to reach global users whatever their circumstances than ever before.
Potential Impact on the Global South
While traditional elements such as textbooks and other print materials are often lacking in developing regions, soft materials shared through open sources can change this. Materials can also be adapted beyond the classroom for self-directed use in everyday life, to be consumed during a long commute or waiting for customers at a market stall; their very nature provides the ability to iterate changes and improvements quickly. Localizing resources is a fundamental necessity because, as Panke explains,
“local content development is crucial in order to avoid the risk of training students who are useful for other markets rather than providing education and training that is relevant to the regional conditions and demands.”
The OER movement helps changemakers improve their local circumstances while hoping that new and effective practices will be developed and shared back with the rest of the global community.
A Fast-Paced World
Today’s society moves fast and is highly competitive. Learning to be nimble and entrepreneurial are essential traits. As General Eric Shinseki, former Chief of Staff to the US Army has often said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” With the OER platform, educators worldwide can share their ideas and lessons learned instantly allowing successful practices to be shared, adapted, and even collaboratively developed. Globally renowned institutions have thus far played an important role in leading this mission; their efforts will increasingly help the oppressed find their voice and contribute to the dialogue as not just consumers but partners. An age-old proverb teaches, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It will also take the global village to raise marginalized citizens in both the developed and developing worlds.∗