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OER and open content - definitions
UNESCO meetings - exploring the potential
OER initatives - some developments
The OER movement - looking forward
Creating a community - and awareness
Open Educational Resources
Open content for higher education

Forum 1 Session 1 – Background note
Open Educational Resources and open content: an overview
24-28 October 2005
Sally Johnstone

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Open Educational Resources promote the sharing of knowledge worldwide to increase human intellectual capacity…UNESCO can encourage the development of OER in education, culture and religion to enhance mutual understanding for international peace.
(UNESCO Second Global Forum on International Quality Assurance, Accreditation and the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, "Widening Access to Quality Higher Education", Paris, 28-29 June 2004.)

While it is clear that higher education systems and institutions worldwide face unprecedented challenges in meeting the increasing demand for initial and continuing education, it is also clear that there are developments that will increase access, make learning opportunities more flexible and help contain costs.

As Information and Communication Technologies have become more available, those involved in teaching and learning have found that a vast number of resources are available from many sources. However, such resources are hard to find. And once found, it is hard to know whether they are of high quality. Searching the World Wide Web on a specific topic normally generates too many references – somewhere in the links may be the information sought, but who has the time to search through them? There needs to be a better way for educators to find resources to help them in their research and teaching.

Many faculty members in universities are using the Web in their courses and this means that the amount of course content available in electronic format is growing. Yet, until recently much of this material was locked up behind passwords within proprietary systems. The OER movement aims to break down such barriers and to encourage and enable the sharing of content freely. One can compare the concept of Open Educational Resources with that of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). Just as FOSS allows users to modify software as needed, OER allow users to adapt content to suit their own needs. In fact, academic researchers have shared their work in scholarly journals for a long time, realizing that knowledge in their fields of study will grow more rapidly if everyone is not forced to repeat the same studies. OER applies that concept to teaching materials and tools. Through the use of OER, academics worldwide can build on the pedagogy, knowledge and tools created by their colleagues to enhance student learning.

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OER and open content - definitions

The term, Open Educational Resources, was coined in July 2002 at the UNESCO-hosted Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries. Participants at that forum defined Open Educational Resources as:

The open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for noncommercial purposes.

OER is a very broad concept. A wide variety of initiatives and online materials can be classified as educational resources – from courses and course components, to museum collections, and open access journals and reference works. And over time, the term has come to cover not only content, but also learning and content management software and content development tools, and standards and licensing tools for publishing digital resources, which allow users to adapt resources in accordance with their cultural, curricular and pedagogical requirements.

Since OER are so diverse, this forum will focus on the open provision and use of course elements and materials only – in other words, open content for courses. This still offers scope to explore a very wide variety of projects – from initiatives that seek to develop and provide complete learning programs, to institutions that publish the materials they use in their own teaching (e.g. syllabi, lecture notes, reading lists etc.), to sites that gather course elements from many different institutions. Other initiatives support the provision and use of open content, through, for example, developing software tools or building communities of use. Open content may be a valuable resource, support and catalyst for teachers and learners, but is not intended to replace institutionally supported open and distance learning. Open content does not imply a credential for the user.

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UNESCO meetings - exploring the potential

The Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries convened by UNESCO in July 2002 included representatives of universities from 11 countries, as well as from international and non-governmental organizations. The goal of the forum was to examine the possibilities and the issues associated with open courseware (a term which was changed during the Forum to “Open Educational Resources”). The delegates concluded that the worldwide success of Open Educational Resources would depend upon a community that can – within minimal technical constraints – access, adapt, translate, use, produce, and offer the material. This meeting was supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has made OER a major part of its education program and has supported a wide range of projects.

At the 2004 UNESCO Second Global Forum on International Quality Assurance, Accreditation and the Recognition of Qualifications in Higher Education, a full session was devoted to Open Educational Resources. Following the presentations, a working group elaborated the list of OER to include:

learning resources;
courseware, content modules, learning objects, learner support and assessment tools, online learning communities;
resources to support teachers;
tools for teachers and support materials to enable them to create, adapt and use OER, as well as training materials for teachers, and other teaching tools;
resources to assure the quality of education and educational practices.

The participants in the meeting pointed to a role for UNESCO, as expressed in the quotation at the head of this paper. In addition, they underlined the fact that although OER have the potential to increase the quality of information and teaching, they also have the potential to contribute to a homogenization of education. OER, created in only a few countries and disseminated to the others, could constitute a threat to cultural diversity.

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OER initatives - some developments

The OER movement gained considerable visibility when Charles Vest, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), first announced in 2001 the intention of the institution make the materials of all its courses available on the web for anyone to use. This decision resulted in the OpenCourseWare project which now includes over a thousand courses. In addition, open content consortia are being formed in response to MIT OCW, either to widen access to MIT’s materials (e.g. China Open Resources for Education), or to develop their own open content projects (e.g. Japan OCW Alliance).

Several American universities have followed MIT’s example, but are choosing to focus on specific subject areas to make available as open content, including agricultural engineering, public health, dentistry, instructional technology, and many others. While much of the development of open content is coming from universities, there are also several initiatives at the community college level.

Although MIT’s OpenCourseWare is one of the better known and more widely copied models, other important OER developments have taken different approaches – with very different results. The Connexions project of Rice University in Texas has two components. The first is the Content Commons of collaboratively developed, freely available material that can be modified for any purpose. The second component is FOSS tools to help students, instructors and authors manage the information available in the Content Commons. Faculty from all over the world are contributing to and using the materials in the Content Commons, especially in the areas of engineering and music education.

Another approach is exemplified by The Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University. It was developed from a collaboration among cognitive scientists, experts in human-computer interaction and faculty, and is described as “creating a new paradigm for online education”. OLI’s complete courses have innovative features such as cognitive tutors, virtual laboratories, group experiments and simulations.

An initiative that will facilitate the development and use of OER, the Creative Commons is a project that addresses the issue of Intellectual Property Rights. It is a non-profit organization that offers a flexible copyright for creative work. This project was developed by lawyers to give web-content producers more options than either “open to all” or “open to no one”. The goal of Creative Commons is “to build a layer of reasonable, flexible copyright in the face of increasingly restrictive default rules”.

There are many other OER projects. Wikipedia, for example, is an online, community-developed and maintained encyclopedia that offers the visitor 1,800,000 entries, written in over 100 languages. EduTools provides course management software product reviews and a decision support tool, in addition to course reviews, and was supported by the Hewlett Foundation. The African Digital Library is another growing resource. The Knowledge Commons opens up an entire set of information resources that are freely available. The Open Content Alliance represents the collaborative efforts of a group of cultural, technology, non-profit and governmental organizations from around the world that will help build a permanent archive of multilingual digitized text and multimedia content. The OER world is already a rich one, but there is much more to be done.

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The OER movement - looking forward

Dr. Marshall Smith, the Education Project Officer of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, holds out the following vision for the OER movement:

There is a lot of educational material available on the web, but it is rarely organized in a way that can actually help increase the quality of instruction. Open courseware projects allow a professor anywhere in the world to see exactly how his or her colleagues present a specific body of knowledge to students. This growing set of resources has the potential to increase the quality of teaching worldwide.
(Personal communication, October 2005)

Support for the OER movement is a major part of the Hewlett Foundation’s education program. They supported many of projects mentioned here. However, creating and sustaining the OER movement will be a complex undertaking, and not all of the related issues and variables can be identified in advance. It began with a very small, deliberately diverse group of institutions exploring and developing resources. As more institutions and more materials from more courses are added to the mix, the movement will be able to serve a broad group of learners. At this point in time there are content providers in Africa, China, Japan, Spain, the UK and the US.

The initial providers are contributing course content, but other projects are being developed to create library resources, teaching resources and online communities of learners.

To succeed, this movement will require many creative people willing to both contribute and use the resources. The OER movement can be seen to represent a grand, but achievable undertaking to share intellectual capital. In 10 years time, the pioneer providers and users of OER may look back to early developments and not even recognize the movement. If it is to be effective, it will evolve and change in order to meet the evolving and changing needs of the higher education community.

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Creating a community - and awareness

One of the barriers to the use of Open Educational Resources is lack of awareness of current initiatives and available material. The UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning is supporting the OER movement by convening a broad, international group to create a community of interested individuals, institutions and organizations to examine one aspect of OER – open content. This community can then share information even more widely through the networks of the individual participants.

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