The eLearning Africa Debate 2011 – it certainly was not the typical end to a conference! The debate reflected the nature of the eLearning Africa community: a passionate, informed discussion from a community that is diverse in perspective but united in its commitment to use technology to improve education. This year, the eLA Debate wrestled with the issue of the Open Educational Resources movement and its role in education in Africa.
By David Hollow
The eLearning Africa debate has become a classic feature of the conference in recent years and many participants say it is their favourite session of all. The atmosphere is high-energy, with plenty of opportunity to provoke, heckle and challenge – all within the strict rules of engagement based on the old-style UK Parliament. The motion this year was typically controversial: ‘This house believes that the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement is fundamentally flawed because it is based on the false assumption that education institutions are willing to share resources freely and openly.’
There were four debaters who spoke in turn, with two arguing in favour of the motion and two against. We began with each of them presenting their case in turn, and then discussion was opened up for all to contribute. Dr Harold Elletson and Charles Senkondo presided as chairpersons, demonstrating considerable skill in guiding us through the debate.
The first proponent was Dr Rory McGreal, UNESCO/COL Chair in OER, who opened his speech by emphasising to the audience that nothing worth having in life is free! He focused on the potential negative implications of OERs, suggesting that their proliferation may result in students not attending classes because they can access materials remotely, a lack of quality control and limited incentive for educators to engage: Why give away for free the resources you have worked for years to develop? Alongside this, he argued that the bureaucratic systems choking education institutions mean that the scaling of OERs will remain a pipe dream for the foreseeable future.
Following this introduction, Dr Larry Cooperman, director of the OpenCourseWare project at the University of California, took the microphone and responded by painting an alternative vision: a vision where OERs are the key to ensuring that access to good quality education becomes a reality for all rather than just for the privileged few. He supported his case by pointing to the 77 million people that have made use of MIT OpenCourseware. Cooperman argued strongly that OERs serve to facilitate a culture of continual improvement and at the same time provide a solution to the current overcrowding within African education systems.
The second speaker in favour of the motion was Dr Neil Butcher, OER Strategist for the Southern African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE). He challenged Cooperman’s idea that most educators are willing to share, suggesting that for every one educator that is, there are one hundred that aren’t – because sharing is not compatible with personal career development. Butcher thentook the debate down a fresh channel, arguing that rather than being the solution, the OER movement is a distraction from the more fundamental challenge facing education: the fact that the whole sector is fundamentally, structurally broken. As a result of this, educators are so overloaded with administration and bureaucracy that they have no time or energy left to deal with content issues. Although the OER movement may have many positives, he argued that it perpetuates the myth that educational challenges can be solved by focusing on content issues. Instead, he proposed that energy should be spent on restructuring the entire system, to facilitate an environment where content can be well used.
The final speaker was Dr Bakary Diallo, Rector of the African Virtual University (AVU), who responded to Butcher by making a passionate case for the OER movement, aligning it with the essence of progress itself. He defended the movement by highlighting the significance of early adopters, innovating to create an environment in which the masses can follow. This was illustrated through the example of the AVU, working with ten universities in Africa but with people from 114 countries downloading the available materials.
After the initial contributions the microphone was passed to the floor – and that was when the debate really heated up! We heard animated, informed, articulate opinions –a healthy representation of the diversity amongst the eLearning Africa community. We were challenged to remember the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, that if you desire immortality then you must share your knowledge with others. We heard rallying calls to follow the example of revolutions across North Africa: let young people lead the way and fight the commercialising of education, forcing institutions to fundamentally change the work they operate. We also listened to inspiring stories of African user-generated content and the spread of OERs across African universities.
But alongside this, several participants were sceptical and repeatedly emphasised that the most valuable things in life are not often made to be freely and openly available. They noted that the widespread lack of appreciation for things that are free constitutes a major limitation for the OER movement.
Another key contribution identified the need to recognise the range of activity that falls within the generic label of free or ‘open’ content – with the label sometimes being used by corporations in order to entice users, create dependency, and then apply financial charges. Unsurprisingly, there was sharp disagreement as to whether OERs were overallmore likely to lead to negative standardisation of content or to promote increased positive cooperation and collaboration – an issue we were never going to fully resolve!
After all this, Neil Butcher took to the stage once again, pleading for systemic reform of education systems, recognising the lack of OERs but calling for a far more radical transformation. Yes, educational institutions should share more content – but this is only the tip of the iceberg and we should not be distracted into thinking it is the only thing that needs to change.
When it came to the final count, the house voted against the motion with the majority deciding that the OER movement is not fundamentally flawed. The purpose of the eLearning Africa debate is not to try and reach consensus but rather to learn together, wrestling with controversial issues, recognising that we are diverse in our perspectives but united in our commitment to improve education. The debate encapsulates the real spirit of the eLearning Africa community: We look forward to next year!