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Report identifies emergence of open educational resources movement

With the race on to build knowledge economies worldwide, many academic institutions are looking at new ways to increase the diffusion of their knowledge. One option is the use of open educational resources (OER), which, according to a new report from the Organisation for Econo...

With the race on to build knowledge economies worldwide, many academic institutions are looking at new ways to increase the diffusion of their knowledge. One option is the use of open educational resources (OER), which, according to a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is a rapidly growing phenomenon that offers learning opportunities to an unprecedented number of users worldwide. At the same time, this new trend is challenging established views and practices of how teaching is organised and carried out, and how knowledge is shared. OER refers to 'digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research'. These include learning content, software tools to develop, use and distribute content, and implementation resources such as open licences. The OER movement complements the already established trend of sharing software (open source software) and research outcomes (open access publishing). Although no definite statistics are available, the report 'Giving knowledge for free: the emergence of open educational resources' estimates that there are some 3,000 open courseware courses available from over 300 universities worldwide. The institutions involved so far seem to be well-reputed internationally or in their countries. While English is the dominant language so far, translations are gradually catering for greater language diversity and increased global use. This willingness to share previously password-protected knowledge is driven by several reasons, according to the report. With continued globalisation and a growing ageing population, there is growing competition between higher education institutes both nationally and internationally to find students. The report suggests that developing open educational resources that can expand access to learning to a larger number of people, both old and young, could be a sound strategy for universities and institutes to employ in order to meet these challenges. Open sharing of resources would also speed up the development of new learning materials, stimulate internal improvement, innovation and reuse, and help institutions keep better records of the materials they use internally and externally, note the authors of the report. However, OER will also be a challenge in itself. With vast amounts of open courseware from internationally reputed universities available for free, teachers will need to consider that students will compare their curriculum with others. The OER movement is likely therefore to accelerate changes to traditional teaching roles and the evolution of more independent learners, since a teacher's role as a supplier of reading lists and teaching materials will diminish. Sharing course work will also have implications on universities' intellectual property rights. Already, academic worldwide have started to circumnavigate legal restrictions on the reuse of copyright material. They are using an open license system called 'Creative Commons' licences to share their material online. In the long term though, the report calls for the need for a review by policymakers of the existing copyright regimes. Special consideration should be given to actions to create at least a neutral policy regarding commercial actors involved in the OER movement, it notes. In terms of sustaining OER projects in the long term, the report suggests a number of business models. These include: the foundation, donation or endowment model, in which funding for the project is provided by an external actor; the segmentation model, in which the provider offers 'value-added' services to user segments and charges them for these services; the conversion model, in which 'you give something away for free and then convert the consumer to a paying customer'; as well as the voluntary support model or membership model, which is based on fundraising campaigns or paying members. The report also suggests that governments willing to promote OER should earmark a small proportion of funds made available for education for openly publishing education materials developed within publicly funded institutions, as well as for opening up national digital archives and museum collections to the education sector. Another recommendation is the development of more public-private partnerships as a way to combine know-how and resources from both sectors. Wherever possible and reasonable, open standards should be used, and open source software. Meanwhile, universities and higher education institutes willing to embrace open education resource methods should introduce incentives for faculty members to participate in such initiatives, while the use of OER should be encouraged and training offered. Whatever the chosen funding and sharing model might be, OER is here to stay, and the report warns educational authorities to seriously weigh up the risk of doing nothing.