OERs in a global context – preview of eLearning Africa debate

I confess to being a little puzzled by Neil Butcher’s defence of OERs, which seems to be based around the same ‘freemium’ model touted to other ‘content industries’ like music. It goes something like: give away your core offering to build your profile, then build revenue from additional products/services sold on the strength of that profile. Can this work for everyone? Can a college in Africa build a profile comparable to MIT by producing good OERs, even if those OERs are as good or better than MIT’s? In the full original post, Butcher argues for the need to move to a demand-led approach to OERs, though without specific reference to demand in Africa.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are a very popular issue at eLearning Africa. However, do they really play such a positive role in higher education and at other educational institutions across Africa? The eLearning Africa 2011 Debate, traditionally a very lively, parliamentary-style discussion, will address the following 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.”

This week, we continue our online debate with a contribution by Neil Butcher, OER Africa strategist, arguing against the motion. Join in and share your very personal opinion with us!

By Neil Butcher

I have spent much of the last few years engaging with universities and educators about the concept of Open Educational Resources. Understandably, one of the first concerns that educators and senior managers of educational institutions raise when they are introduced to the concept of OER relates to ‘giving away’ their intellectual property, with potential loss of commercial gain that might come from it. This is often combined with a related anxiety that others will take unfair advantage of their intellectual property, benefitting by selling it, plagiarizing it (i.e. passing it off as their own work), or otherwise exploiting it.

I think an ingrained resistance to sharing resources is a major challenge to widening the sharing of educational resources. But I don’t think this means that the concept is fundamentally flawed, nor do I believe that this resistance to sharing will stop OER in its tracks.
evidence is now starting to emerge that institutions that share their materials online are attracting increased interest from students in enrolling in their programmes.
As students in both developed and developing countries are relying more and more heavily on the Internet to research their educational options, sharing of OER may well become an increasingly important marketing tool for institutions.

Based on my own experiences and the evidence I see from education systems around the world, these changes are gathering momentum and slowly overcoming resistance to sharing. For me, therefore, the much more important question to consider is: As these trends develop, will the spread of openly licensed materials be harnessed by educational institutions as a catalyst to improve the quality of teaching and learning or will it predominantly magnify the effect of bad teaching practices? I have seen evidence of both happening, but one thing is certain: simply using OER or sharing content openly provides no guarantees of improved quality.

Here, we opened the debate with a statement by Sir John Daniel, President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning. 

By Sir John Daniel

“Unquestionably, OERs are now being used. Literally millions of students and informal learners are using the Open Educational Resources put out by MIT, the UK Open University and others to find better and clearer teaching than they are getting in the universities where they are registered. The 32 small states of the Commonwealth are working together within a network called the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth to develop Open Educational Resources that they can all adapt and use.

“To give examples: the UKOU’s OpenLearn site has 11 million users and hundreds of courses can be downloaded as interactive eBooks. Furthermore, with 300,000 downloads per week the UKOU alone accounts for 10% of all downloads from iTunesU. And we must not forget the worldwide viewing audience of millions for OU/BBC TV programs. These are all Open Educational Resources.

“Martin Bean, the Australian-American who moved from Microsoft HQ to become Vice-Chancellor of the UK Open University last year, argues that the task of universities today is to provide paths or steps from this informal cloud of OER learning towards formal study for those who wish to take them.

Read more at www.elearning-africa.com


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