The Evolution of Learning: Taking open educational resources to the next level

Written by Lisa Petrides, President, Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education and Mark Surman, Open Philanthropy Fellow, Shuttleworth Foundation for the iCommons Annual 2007.

Mark Horner is a newly minted Ph.D. physicist educated in Cape Town. He is also an innovator and activist who just may help to transform the way we write, evolve and produce textbooks.

A few years back, Mark and some fellow graduate students set out to tackle a major challenge for education in South Africa: the lack of textbooks. Poor and rural schools in this country typically have only a few copies of the texts needed for each of their courses. Students are unable to take books home, and they even need to scramble for a look at the texts while in the classroom. Needless to say, this is a major barrier to learning.

In an attempt to address this need, they started up the Free High School Science Textbook initiative. They use volunteer teachers and open source-style collaborative writing to produce a collection of royalty free math and science textbooks. These text books will be available online and in print, and will continue to be evolve over time. The group is also in the process of submitting these texts for approval by the Ministry of Education. Once they accomplish this, it will be possible for schools in South Africa to get key textbooks for about  dollar a piece. This is cheap enough that many more schools should be able to buy the texts they need. And, if things go well, this price point could even attract a corporate or philanthropic sponsor willing to print texts for every school in the country.

The good news is that all of South Africa’s high school students may soon have their own math and science textbooks. The even better news is that people like Mark Horner are part of a growing worldwide movement to open and improve education for all. Inspired by the success of open source software, a handful of educators, content creators, evangelists, policy-makers and funders have taken up the challenge of making the world’s knowledge freely accessible and modifiable. These people have gathered under the banner of the open educational resources (OER) movement.

State of the movement

The promise of open educational resources movement is that it will serve as an equitable alternative to the rising costs and increased commercialization of education at all levels.

A recent study commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation shows that the movement has made major strides towards this goal.  Major institutions like MIT are demonstrating that policy and packaging hurdles can be jumped to ‘open up’ large curriculum collections. Thousands of resources are now online through sites like Connexions, Curriki and OER Commons. Some of these sites are also evolving to serve as community platforms where teachers and content producers form communities to create content and collaborate with others. The size of the movement is also growing with dozens of smaller initiatives starting to pop up around the world.

There is also early evidence that teachers are actually using many of these resources. A recent survey of community college instructors conducted by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) found that 92 percent searched for course-related materials online. Reasons cited in the survey included a desire to integrate materials into courses, improve teaching methods and connect with colleagues who have similar teaching interests. Similarly, MIT’s recent evaluation report of its open collections revealed that educators are accessing open educational resources to support their course planning and preparation and to enhance their personal knowledge. Ninety-six percent of these educators indicated that MIT’s collection has or will help to improve their courses. Students and self-learners indicated that they access MIT’s open content to plan future studies, complement existing courses and improve their personal knowledge.

Is it working?

All of these efforts share a common commitment to creating a cultural of innovation and providing sustainable access to educational resources for all. The question is: is the open educational resources movement actually meeting these goals?

Certainly, we are still a long way from bringing the idea of open educational resources to scale. Usability of resources and repositories present one barrier. A recent ISKME report states: “…. we are consistently told that the tools for teaching and learning need to evolve in both simplicity and depth to keep pace with and transcend what one can currently find on Amazon or Google, or what has been tried in proprietary learning management systems.” Also, the Hewlett study points out that there are significant structural hurdles to overcome before the movement can scale. These include sustainability, intellectual property and quality assessment.

In addition, there is a question about the reach of the movement. Many of the early successes in open educational resources are in the realm of university and college education, often driven and championed by centralized initiatives. However, there has been less traction in K-12 education, partly due to the decentralized nature of teaching in schools. While there are hundreds of examples of taking existing materials and digitizing them, there are far fewer examples of collaborative production and re-use of materials. Additionally, the voices of educators from developing and transitioning economies are almost completely missing from the current movement. We need to reach out and make open education relevant to the work of these economies if we truly want to be successful.

Of course, the real issue underlying all of this is that the open education movement has not yet “caught fire” beyond a core circle of activists and evangelists. A recent Creative Commons report says: “… we are still a long way from the dream of a national and international community of engaged teachers and students, at every level of education, contributing to a global commons of educational material that can be customized to local languages, needs and educational requirements, an educational commons that rivals Wikipedia in its scope and ambition.” In the end, this is the dream that most people in the open educational resources movement are pursuing. How do we make this dream into reality?

Community as rocket fuel

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales recently said: “Wikipedia is 10 percent technology and 90 percent community.” The open education movement can probably learn from this equation. The past five years have seen a huge emphasis on products like portals and courseware. The next generation of open educational resource activities need to focus instead on processes, communities and culture. These are the things can provide the rocket fuel the movement needs to scale.

Part of this is about rolling up our sleeves to take on real projects that explore the process of collaborative production and the potential to leverage teacher volunteerism. Good teachers are by their very nature innovators, adapting curriculum every day as they do their jobs. Small communities like one that has produced that Free High School Science Textbook show that the combination of teacher university student energy plus tactics learned from the open source world can be tapped to create high quality open educational resources. Of course, there are huge barriers to doing this, especially in K-12. Teachers lack spare time. Curriculum comes from above. There is no support for a culture of innovation or collaboration beyond day-to-day work in the classroom even though there is a huge amount of innovation that happens daily. However, it may only take a few successful initiatives in a handful of countries to change this landscape. As Mark Horner’s story demonstrates, these examples can emerge if we just look for the right opportunities and get to work.

Of course, communities can serve not only as an engine for collaborative production but also a place where teachers can turn to their peers for support, learning and sharing. This is an obvious goal to aim for in open education: communities of teachers who are using similar open curriculum that can swap notes and tips. These communities can help teachers take control of their own teaching, helping them understand and add context to items. They may also help to drive increased re-use and remixing of materials, as teachers may be inspired by how their peers are using materials they find online.

As Howard Rheingold pointed out almost 15 years ago, communities like these are most successful if they have both face to face and offline components. We see this principle in operation with everything from open source software (sprints and summits) to Facebook (real world friends online). BioQUEST and the Center for Investigative Case-Based Learning offer an early open education example of this principle. They have integrated the use of OER Commons into their curriculum development workshops for K-12 biology teachers. The teachers use the site both to access raw material for their face-to-face curriculum development and to keep in touch online after the workshop. With the right backing from policy makers, this sort curriculum mashup effort could easily be built into existing professional development days. Informal curriculum sprints and meet ups also offer potential here.

Creating intersections

Of course, community building is only one piece of the puzzle. We also need to find structural ways to simplify the collaborative production process, making licenses and technologies interoperable (and seamless to the end user).  And, of course, we need to get education policy makers and funders actively engaged as champions for open educational resources.

Luckily, there is growing consensus – and action – around a loose “OER 2.0” agenda. Creative Commons’ new CC Learn initiative is tackling license interoperability and loaning out experienced community builders to open educational resource initiatives. The Shuttleworth Foundation is tapping into learning from Ubuntu community to scale open education in South Africa,  combining community processes with rigour, leverage and strategic partnership building. Initiatives like OER Commons, Curriki and Connexions are working hard to create scalable community platforms. Hewlett Foundation is developing a next generation open educational resource strategy based on its recent review of the movement. And, the iCommons iCurriculum initiative is emerging to more effectively connect the movement together.

Of course, the real hope in all of this lies with people like Mark Horner. These are the people who will roll up their sleeves and take on the hard work of actually building curriculum and creating communities. Mark himself is starting down this path, organizing workshops and writing sprints for people who may want to take on new textbook subjects. One of the most important things we can do is help with this kind of practical evangelism. This is where the sparks fly.