Opening up to Open Educational Resources

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Technology has a profound impact on our lives. A few days ago, an inmate who spent 44 years
behind bars was released from prison and could not believe what he saw on the streets: people with wires in their ears using strange devices to talk to invisible friends. Maybe his confrontation with the modern world would have been less of a surprise if he had visited a school first.

Technology has indeed entered the classroom; but it has not yet changed the ways we teach and learn to the same extent that it has transformed our way of communicating in the outside world. In our private lives we freely share experiences, thoughts and feelings with friends all over the world; but in classrooms we tend to stick to the traditional carriers of knowledge – textbooks, which are certified for use by the bureaucracy and well-aligned to a prescribed curriculum.

But maybe this is about to change. Technology could give education access to the nearly unlimited teaching and learning materials available on the Internet, which are often in much nicer and pedagogically better-designed formats than can be developed by individual teachers. “Open Educational Resources”, or OER as we call them, are not new, but we are now seeing a real breakthrough in availability, usability and quality. In 2007, the OECD analysed the emergence of OER in its book, Giving knowledge for Free. A new publication, Open Educational Resources: A Catalyst for Innovation, supported by a generous grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, takes stock of where we are in 2015.

The most immediate benefit of OER is the open (through open licenses) and free (in most cases at no cost) access to quality teaching and learning materials, often in multimedia formats. OER provide an alternative to costly textbooks and, hence, might lead to significant savings for both schools and learners. International organisations, such as UNESCO, and national governments, such as the federal government in the United States, see an enormous opportunity in OER to widen access to high-quality teaching and learning resources in poor countries or among disadvantaged communities of learners.

A few years ago, the development of free and accessible resources was stymied, partly because of some resistance among education publishers and ill-adapted intellectual property regulations. But over the past few years we’ve seen OER mainstreamed into several education systems.

But OER has an even much richer potential. As the title of the new book suggests, OER is also a catalyst for innovation in education. For example, we know from the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) how important teacher collaboration is for the development of professional practice, efficacy and job satisfaction. We also know how difficult it is to convince teachers to work together, even within the same school. One of the most interesting characteristics of OER is that, if licensed properly, they invite users to continuously improve and update educational resources. OER enables teachers to engage in communities of practice not only for exchanging resources, but also for modifying and developing resources collaboratively. Teachers willing and able to enrich their teaching practices beyond the prescribed curriculum and available textbooks will find OER to be a fantastic way to connect to colleagues all over the world to jointly develop new resources. The OER depositories are full of resources that have been developed by inspired teachers working together.

Some people and organisations fear that technology will lead to the de-skilling and disempowerment of teachers. Yes, there is a risk that the availability of an infinite wealth of information on the Internet may deprive teachers of their authority as being the possessors of knowledge, or that it may engender a laissez-faire attitude among teachers. But the professional responsibility of teachers goes well beyond asking students to look for information in Wikipedia. OER invite teachers to reinvent their professional responsibilities and add to their pedagogical expertise and experience to enable students to turn information and knowledge into real learning.

The potential of OER to catalyse change and innovation in education is not yet well understood by many governments. But that is changing, too. A small survey, the results of which appear in the book, found that most governments are now considering various policies to support the production and use of OER, such as indirectly or directly funding them, developing codes of practice or guidelines for the production or use of OER, launching information campaigns aimed at schools, legislating the use of OER, supporting the development of OER repositories and/or encouraging research into OER. In the end, perhaps OER will be one of the most significant and substantive ways that technology will transform teaching and learning.

Photo credit: © vege –

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