Open Educational Resources (OER) are seen as a solution to the dire lack of access to quality education across the world, especially in Africa. Activity surrounding open licensing and open access to education content has increased exponentially since the term OER was coined in 2001, catalysed by strong advocates for open resource sharing, especially in Africa. However, a host of issues remain open for debate. How relevant are OER that have not been locally contextualised? Do OER solve the issues of making resources accessible to learners in remote, poorly connected areas? Can access to OER really contribute to quality learning? And how should governments develop OER policies?
By Claire Adamson
In 2012, the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO embarked on a programme to open up the conversation about OER in relation to achieving the Education for All Millennium Development Goal in 2015. Their world-wide Survey revealed that only 25 per cent of responding African countries had any national policy in place, compared to over 50 per cent of countries in Europe, North America and Asia Pacific. In fact, despite many African countries referring to OER in existing policies, only South Africa has a specific OER policy in place, with other countries only having reached the development stage. According to the Survey, Malawi and Lesotho are currently developing OER strategies, and Burkina Faso has an open access policy that gives elementary schools free access to all textbooks and teaching resources required for basic education.
Speaking at the African Regional Policy Forum in February 2012, Firoz Patel of the South African Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) outlined South Africa’s policy of focusing on the creation and development of local learning resources as OER. The DHET has committed to investing higher expenditure on the design and development of learning resources, with the intention of improving the quality of provision nationally.
Proponents of open licensing realise that to mainstream OER in global education systems, governments will need to be proactive. Whilst access to primary schooling has improved in Africa, universal access to secondary schooling remains a challenge. Sub Saharan Africa has a secondary school enrolment rate of only 40 per cent, compared to the worldwide rate of 70 per cent, and according to the most recent UNESCO EFA Global Monitoring Report the fall in the number of out-of-school adolescents has stagnated since 2007, particularly in Africa.
Ideally, having local governmental policies in place will give the OER movement legitimacy and will help to facilitate a dialogue between governments, educators and practitioners. This is especially important to ensure that the needs of local educational systems are being met. Many respondents to the Survey believed that the creation of appropriate government policies on OER would help to break the dependence upon expensive licensed materials from developed countries, while promoting local innovation, local ownership and collaboration within the education sector.
Participants of the African Regional Policy Forum noted that confidence was also critical to success, and that governments needed to encourage academics and scholars to share their work. A further outcome of the forum was the suggestion that national communities needed to be built around OER to encourage discussion and innovation, and to contribute to the global OER community.
Speaking at the Forum on behalf of OER Africa, Catherine Ngugi suggested that government needs to play the role of ‘champion at the top’ for the OER movement in order to avoid issues of poor awareness and up-take in many countries, with teachers and educators reluctant to adopt a ‘learner-oriented’ pedagogy. The use of open source materials encourages student-directed, independent learning and participants in the Forum recognised a need to encourage the use of OERs from primary level onward, with the hope of increasing demand for openly licenced materials where it really counts – at the student level.
The need to have these structures in place is clearly important, not only to spread awareness of OER and bring it into the mainstream, but also to monitor and control the quality of the resources available. And nowhere more so than in Africa, where a reliance on resources from highly developed countries in Europe and North America can have a potentially detrimental effect on the knowledge economy. Scholars, journalists and opinion leaders have argued that it is essential that African nations stake their claims as knowledge producers, rather than just knowledge consumers, to ensure they can not only keep up with development and the global economy, but lead and shape it.
The Survey suggested that one of the biggest barriers facing Africa when it came to OER was connectivity and accessibility. This aligns with the findings of the eLearning Africa 2012 Survey, in which the majority of participants quoted a lack of bandwidth as their most critical challenge. Many of the African countries that participated in the COL and UNESCO Survey on Governments’ OER Policies noted that a combination of poor ICT resources, lack of infrastructure and digital illiteracy are barriers to the widespread use of OER. This is extremely important for governments to resolve in co-operation with multi-stakeholder partners in the private sector and civil society.
Many institutions in Africa have embraced the OER movement and there is already a host of resources available. OER Africa, a web portal developed by the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE), is an online directory of OER content for teachers and educators. OER Africa’s aims include developing and adapting OER content for African countries and fostering innovation and collaboration between educators and practitioners. A core tenet of the organisation’s mission is the value of integrating OER created in Africa into global OER frameworks.
The African Virtual University (AVU) offers an on-line repository of textbooks and modules in English, French and Portuguese. Another project, OER@AVU, encourages academic discourse and provides a platform for African scholars and academics to share and distribute their own content. The portal registered over a million users from 193 countries between January 2011 and June 2012.
The OER World Congress took place in Paris in June 2012 and brought findings from the worldwide Survey and the Regional Policy Forums together in a two day event. The goal of the Congress was to pass a Declaration encouraging governments to become involved in OER. The Declaration was unanimously approved by UNESCO’s member states and included recommendations for facilitating improvements in ICT, providing information about open licensing and providing OER in a variety of languages and cultural contexts.
However, the Paris Declaration is not a binding document and there is still a lot of work that needs to be done by both governments and practitioners to encourage the uptake of Open Educational Resources as a mainstream part of education. eLearning Africa will explore the wider implications of OER in Africa, the potential of the movement to contribute to the Millennium Development Goals and beyond, and how OER can be used to improve equitable access to quality education as a basic human right.
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The sad story is that African governments will continue to be slow to respond because of their preoccupation with remaining in power! So the best approach is to to concentrate on “small initiatives” such as those that can be achieved through network collaboration of schools and HEIs by channeling funds into these and training of champion leaders.