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Open Educational Resources: where do we stand?

November 16, 2011 by Flavie | Comments (0)

UNESCO’s Director-General, Irina Bokova, launched the first UNESCO Open Educational Resources (OER) Platformon 1 November. The UNESCO OER Platform is an innovative online platform, developed with a FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) framework, by the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, within the Africa Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources (AVOIR) Consortium. It will offer selected UNESCO publications as Open Educational Resources in order to support adapted and improved quality teaching.

It is the occasion to glance back at how OER have succeeded in being officially accepted as resources with full educational potential.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning or research materials that are in the public domain or released with an open property license (such as Creative Commons). The OER movement is a world movement initiated by universities, teachers, education professionals, and foundations to create and distribute education resources that are free and open, that is to say that pre cited practitioners and learners can adapt this content and create new and customized versions.

OER include learning content, software tools, and implementation resources such as open licenses.


Different steps of “openness”: UNESCO OER will start from 1) to 3)

© author retains full and moral rights – all rights reserved

 (cc) author retains moral rights + some rights reserved

1) BY (whom) NC (non-commercial) ND (non-derivative)

2) BY NC


3) BY SA (share alike) Free culture

4) BY

Public domain


2001. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) released nearly all its courses on the Internet for free access, thus sparking a global Open Educational Resources Movement in 2001, paving the way for a number of institutions. MIT OpenCourseWare.

2002-2010. Since the very beginning, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation was one of the main supporters of OER having spent more than 100 US$ million (of which 14 US$ went to MIT), together with the Shuttleworth Foundation.

UNESCO has since taken a leading role in mobilizing countries and making them aware of the potential of OERs, and initiating debates promoting access to education as a basic human right.

The United States of America, along with Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Uruguay and Bangladesh, were among the first countries to develop OER projects.

2002. The term Open Educational Resources (OER) was created and first adopted at the first Global OER Forum organized by UNESCO in 2002, entitled Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries.

2005. With the support of the Hewlett Foundation, UNESCO created a global OER Community wiki, now WSIS KC, to share information and work collaboratively on issues related to OER.

2007. OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) analyzed the scope of OER’s initiatives in a report entitled Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources.

2007. OECD identified over 3000 open coursewares available from over 300 universities worldwide and main repositories such as: MERLOT(Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching); Connexions ; OpenLearn(part funded by the Hewlett Foundation)

2008. The Open Society Institute (renamed in 2011 to Open Society Foundations, started by George Soros) and the Shuttleworth Foundation published a manifesto: The Cape Town Open Education Declaration that urged governments and publishers to propose publicly funded educational materials for free via the Internet.

2011. Launch of the UNESCO OER Platform on 1 November together with the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning (COL) Guidelines on OER in Higher Education. UNESCO has now a very strong OER Programme including the OER Community on the WSIS KC which is the world’s largest OER community, OER Research Chairs, projects such as the LMD (License-Master-Doctorate) UEMOA (Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa) Project, and the OER Gateway in the Commonwealth of Independent States.

2012. UNESCO will host the upcoming 2012 World Open Educational Resources Congress (20-22 June 2012) with the support of the Hewlett Foundation and in partnership with the Commonwealth of Learning. The event will showcase best practices, celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 UNESCO Global OER Forum, and release a 2012 Paris OER Declaration to call on governments to mainstream OER in education planning.

What is at stake?

A revolution into the world of education

For UNESCO, OER can significantly improve the quality of education by facilitating policy dialogue, knowledge sharing and capacity building. It is a very simple and low cost concept whose impact is far from being modest: it offers vast new opportunities for learning. Until recently, most learning materials were either only accessible through teachers, or locked up behind passwords. Furthermore, learning resources have always been considered as key intellectual property in an increasingly competitive higher education environment. As such it is a revolution.

By proposing a radical new approach to the sharing of knowledge, they also raise basic philosophical issues including the nature of ownership, of collective goods and even altruism. In a world where learning resources and knowledge are key to economic success, this is a very paradoxical situation.

Facing new challenges in education

OECD believes that, as higher education faces a number of challenges (including globalization, growing competition between institutions, huge technical development), OER offer another strong challenge whilst at the same time being a sound strategy to meet all these demands.

OER provides new access to learning for everyone but most of all for non-traditional groups of students. It mainly covers higher education and teacher education but will also be relevant for school and adult education. Education is now a life-long learning process and competencies will not be acquired once and for all.

Since the teacher’s role as supplier of reading lists and teaching materials is diminishing, the evolution of more independent learners accelerates change in traditional teaching methodologies. Therefore, OER can be expected to affect curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.

The revolution also lies in the fact that OER accelerate convergence between formal and informal education. It will consequently enhance the demand for assessment and recognition of competencies gained outside formal learning settings.

Reasons for sharing for free

For institutions, OER offer an improved, less costly and more user friendly education system. New economic models are also emerging based around the distribution of free content. OERs can enhance institutions’ visibility by communicating also on altruism related values.

Some barriers may be technical (broadband availability), social (lack of skills to use innovations), and cultural (against sharing or using resources developed by others that could be seen as threat to the teacher’s authority).

For governments, support to OER projects would expand access to learning and widen participation, as well as promote lifelong learning.


The majority of OER projects comes from English speaking countries in the developed world and from internationally well-reputed institutions. The imbalance between the provision of OER and its utilization may consign less developed countries to playing the role of consumers. There lies the accusation of intellectual neocolonialism, often put forward by OER opponents.

Nevertheless, some initiatives do not come from the northern part of the world. For instance, stand alone solutions like Freedom Toasters or TESSA.

Freedom Toasters was originally conceived and developed by the Shuttleworth Foundation in an initiative to deliver open source software to the masses. While much of this software is available on the Internet, in South Africa restrictive bandwidth and the “pay-per-megabyte” structure of telecommunications makes it impossible for many people to obtain software for free in an environment where technology is continuously becoming more important to economic success.

TESSA is a research and development initiative creating OER and course design guidance for teachers and teacher educators working in Sub-Saharan African countries. Sir John Daniel, President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning quotes TESSA as “perhaps the most successful of all the OER projects we have heard about".

What are the concrete implications ahead?

  • · Take a holistic approach for digital learning resources including OERs.
  • · To be sustainable, OER initiatives need to raise some capital (public-private partnerships should be encouraged), identify a number of models, and be embedded within a wider institutional national, regional and international policy framework.
  • · Inter-operability such as harmonization of copyright legislation and standards.
  • · Neutral policy regarding commercial actors and OERs vs Education material developed with public funds should be made publicly available.
  • · Projects should be participant driven and avoid donor led projects.
  • · Methodological diversity should be a pre-requisite for promoting individualization of the learning process.
  • · Construction of a solid knowledge base.
  • · Awareness-raising on the concept of OER.

Will a further analysis start to tackle the issue of opening up national digital archives and museum collections to the education sector?

UNESCO OER Community –former OER wiki (WSIS KC): http://www.wsis-community.org/pg/groups/14358/open-educational-resources-oer

OER useful resources: http://oerwiki.iiep.unesco.org/index.php/OER_useful_resources

In partnership with key European institutions, UNESCO is a member of the Open Educational Quality (OPAL) Initiative: http://www.oer-quality.org

Creative commons: http://creativecommons.org/

OER commons: http://www.oercommons.org

WikiEducator: http://wikieducator.org

Wikiversity: http://www.wikiversity.org

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