I am in Eskisehir, Turkey currently for the final meeting of the Edushare project. This has partners from Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia and the Maldives. Two weeks ago I was in Jamaica for a meeting of the Sidecap project, which has partners from Mauritius, Fiji and the West Indies. I took over both of these projects when Robin Mason sadly passed away earlier this year. They both came from EU funding and are both looking at the use of OERs in higher education in what we might call 'developing' (though I'm not keen on the term) countries.
Several things have struck me during these meetings, which I thought I'd share. Many of these are blindingly obvious, but it's when you put them together that the case for OERs becomes strong.
- The context within which higher education operates varies enormously. Many of these universities are operating across huge geographical areas for instance, but also factors such as internet access will vary from 7% of the population in one place to nearly 80% elsewhere. The demographics will vary, and when you add in political factors such as different governments or regions attitude towards education, it becomes very difficult to make many of the general assumptions we use in higher ed.
- The financial crisis has hit education very hard in many of these countries. One person told me their funding was 40% of what they had last year. That doesn't leave much room for experimentation with curriculum or technology.
- The issue of sustaining and developing local communities is becoming increasingly important. If you don't want all your smart people to disappear to get educated elsewhere, then you have to offer them decent education in their home location. Many people would like to stay, but feel they can't and thus the brain drain continues meaning the poorer areas lose the very people who might help them improve.
These three factors have made me rethink my feelings towards OERs. Obviously I was all for OERs from an idealistic perspective, but I was beginning to wonder if the institutional approach of MIT, the OU, etc wasn't a bit, well, learning objects. It is well-intentioned, it is professional, it is academic. It's also a bit dull, not very reusable, doesn't lend itself well to all the tools we like, and is a bit worthy. In short, it wasn't the sort of reusable 'learning' (or any) resource I tend to use every day - such as YouTube, Flickr, Slideshare, etc.
But, I've come to appreciate the value of university generated OERs, because they help address the three factors I set out above and also because they have one crucial advantage over the sort of user-generated, web 2.0 resource listed previously, namely status. Status is important in many countries (all?) and many partners reported resistance to the use of OERs because the academics felt that using a YouTube clip (or whatever) wouldn't be seen as proper academic material (by themselves, colleagues or students). But using OERs from internationally recognised universities where the status is not in doubt removes some of this anxiety. It also legitimises the concept of reuse and raises the status of 'free stuff'. More than one partner commented that there was a perception that if content was free, it couldn't be of good quality.
So, given the three factors outlined above it may be that OERs are the only way many countries can realise a sustainable higher education system that meets the needs of their population. And given the status issue, university-generated OERs are a major part in this.
In a response to my pedagogy of abundance talk Michelle Hoyle raised the issue about the cost of OERs, and used the term 'big and little OERs', which I think is a useful distinction (or you might prefer to think of them as top-down and bottom-up OERs).
Big OERs are institutionally generated ones that come through projects such as openlearn. Advantages = high reputation, good teaching quality, little reversioning required, easily located. Disadvantages = expensive, often not web native, reuse limited
Little OERs are the individually produced, low cost resources that those of us who mess about with blogs like to produce. Advantages = cheap, web (2) native, easily remixed and reused. Disadvantages = lowish production quality, reputation can be more difficult to ascertain, more difficult to locate.
A mixture of the two then is complementary and viable I would argue.