How good are Open Educational Resources?

Moses Mwale

Open Educational Resources (OERs), unveiled at UNESCO’s 2002 Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation are educational materials and resources offered free and open to anyone and usually free to be re-mixed, improved or redistributed. They can be found on the Internet, but how good are they? How efficient and effective are the teachers who employ the OER? Moses Mwale, National Chairperson of SchoolNet Zambia, reports on research findings to evaluate OER. High school teachers from Zambia evaluated OER using the Internet.

By Brenda Zulu, Lusaka

New mechanisms in national education policies may now be required for using Open Education Resources (OER). Institutional stakeholders need to understand how teachers locate, access, adapt, use and reuse resources and which content has the highest potential for use in the framework of school curricula. This is important in underveloped areas of the world where Information Communication Technology (ICT) deployment is still at a very early stage and still hard to find.

[callout title=]SchoolNet Zambia is part of SchoolNet Africa, operating in over 35 countries on the Continent. SchoolNET Zambia has established a Technical Services Centre (TSC) at Matero Boys’ Secondary School, Lusaka, and a secretariat at the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, School of Engineering, University of Zambia, Lusaka. The partnership between CAI and SchoolNet Africa is a campaign aimed at bridging the “digital divide” by providing one million computers to schools in Africa, mainly for educational purposes.

SchoolNet’s vision is to transform educational systems from an industrial model (learning by assimilation) to a knowledge-based model (learning by participation) in order to prepare the youth of Zambia to effectively enter a global economy based on knowledge, information and technology. SchoolNet Zambia’s mission is promoting ICTs in Zambian schools.[/callout]

This is one of the main insights from a survey project conducted among high school teachers in four provinces of Zambia.

Moses Mwale at Schoolnet Zambia says: “There is a need to provide recommendations for how stakeholders can develop new mechanisms or a framework within which quality assessment and validation of OER can be undertaken by an international network or community of teachers.”

OER Teachers Network Project, was an initiative led by the European SchoolNet (EUN) and supported with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, funded by the founder of the information technology firm Hewlett-Packard. SchoolNet Zambia’s participation was supported by the Global Learning Portal (GPL).

The survey consisted of a feasibility study and surveys conducted between January 2008 to September 2009.

Research results revealed that the main reasons given by teachers for choosing a resource were that the content should be up-to-date, match the grade level of the students and be ready-to-use. Mr Mwale pointed out that over fifty percent of the respondents gave these reasons.

The results, however, showed a small positive correlation between “It could be adapted to meet my needs” and “It can be broken into smaller pieces to remix”, indicating that the ability to be modified does not always mean breaking the resources into smaller pieces. Only 41 percent of the materials classified as modifiable were viewed as important.

Mwale further tested for a correlation between being modifiable and whether users actually said they had adopted it; he found a weak correlation between the two. Those resources that were found useful by the Zambian teachers were likely to be useful in other countries as well, as under analysis, the results showed a rather small correlation coefficient between the responses “would use it again” and “appropriate for teachers in other countries”.

The teachers appeared to make this judgment based on a number of assumptions, including the role of language: some saw it as a barrier, whereas others considered it an enabler. Other assumptions were related to the value of the content to learning and teaching, its relevance to learning, as well as its currentness, credibility and the quality of the information.

Another issue was whether the content was valuable in other contexts, that is whether it is universally valuable irrespective of the school’s geographical location. Themes with universal interest were global warming, cyclones and earthquakes. Interest in earthquakes was not restricted to schools established on geological fault lines.

Other themes included the presumed ease of understanding, simplicity of use, the effect of the use of visuals and the general usefulness in the classroom context (both online and in print). The survey also involved student discussions or activities, multi-disciplinary topics and the topics’ appropriateness in terms of the level of difficulty. Finally, it also elicited suggestions on how to discuss the topics with students, and sought to link teachers from various locations.

Moses Mwale observed that these topics were important to those in higher education and who want to adopt eLearning. The results of the survey indicated the need for an increase in consideration of educational issues and ways to remove barriers to the use and reuse of OER. They also revealed the requirement for strategies to help remove the perception that computers were just “toys in schools”.

He pointed out that the subject needed a much higher level of information exchange between the key education players, Ministry of Education officials, teachers and learners on one hand, software developers and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) on the other. He saw limits on how much the lessons learned about OER in education would apply to the school sector. These issues should be discussed during workshops and meetings where the introduction of ICT in schools is being discussed, such as the upcoming eLearning Africa conference.

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