Posted on April 9, 2010 · Posted in SF Fellow

Melissa Hagemann of the Open Society Institute introduced me to some representatives from UNESCO who wanted to discuss Open Educational Resources and specifically some the issues relating to the choice of platform. Previously I had met a number of UNESCO people working in the OER space – advocating OERs in teaching etc. at the e-Learning Africa conference in Accra, Ghana in 2008, but this was more to do with an internal UNESCO strategy.

Neels van der Westhuizen and I met with Abel Caine, Igor Nuk and Jaco du Toit on the 3rd of March. The UNESCO initiative they described is different from Siyavula and school OER projects yet highlights some of the benefits of OERs so I thought I jot down some notes about it.

UNESCO often convenes panels of experts to write framework documents, documents intended to support member states in wide variety of activities. These documents are not prescriptions and are written with a large amount of flexibility embedded in them. One particular example that we were shown was a framework document for a university level journalism degree. The document included the possibility of running the course over 3 or 4 years, as well as being easy to restructure etc. The course could easily be implemented but also adapted to meet more specific needs.

What is important here is that member states have the freedom to use and adapt these courses without penalty (I actually don’t know what licence they are released under but it is the freedom to make adaptations that is important). These courses are essentially open with derivative works being allowed. In this sense they have the same freedoms as OERs, they be copied, adapted, enhanced and distributed.

It turns out that member states do take advantage of these freedoms because, as in education, one size doesn’t fit all. Many of the member states that have used framework documents have adapted them to meet their needs. These adaptations often relate to context but also to other unforeseen needs and challenges. This is similar to the issue in education where there is no way any single educational resource can be applicable or appropriate in every context.

UNESCO are seeing the real world application of one of the freedoms of open licensing. The freedom to adapt, enhance and contextualise is one of the primary benefits that we allude to when advocating the adoption of OERs. There is little question that the customisation of resources is essential in education.

The problem for UNESCO is that many of these adaptations are being lost to the broader member state community because they are not being fed back to UNESCO. So other member states aren’t able to feed off each others time and innovation. I would argue that if all of the work and innovation were showcased in one place it would lead to further improvements.

We have exactly this problem with the FHSST project, people are using, adapting and enhancing the resources but we’re not tracking it in any way and the enhancements aren’t being fed back to the core resources (we are in the process of trying to address this).

UNESCO are looking to roll-out an internal platform that allows member states to see the innovations of other states so that they will more freedom and diversity for their own implementations. It will also provide a place to showcase the uptake, diversity and innovation of framework documents and build a much stronger community around UNESCO’s work in this area.

About the Author

Mark Horner is the CEO of Siyavula Education, a social enterprise working in the school sector in South Africa. While working as the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow for Open and Collaborative Resources, Mark was able to transform the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, which he co-founded, into Siyavula Education. In this process, openly-licensed, collaboratively authored textbooks have been printed and distributed nationally in South Africa. Working at the intersection of community, openness and technology; Mark intends to leverage this success to make Siyavula an innovative, technology provider in education that works effectively as part of the education community to ensure better learning opportunities for all. A recent notable event being the delivery of Siyavula's textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. Mark has a PhD in physics from the University of Cape Town and conducted his research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California on the results from the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. His work is carried out in the belief that the liberation of information and support of education in South Africa will lead to a peaceful and prosperous future for all South Africans.