From where I sit - Everyone wins in this free-for-all

February 10, 2011

The term open educational resources (OER) encapsulates the simple but powerful idea that the world's knowledge is a public good. The internet offers unprecedented opportunities to share, use and reuse knowledge. Sadly, most of the planet is underserved when it comes to post-secondary education.

The notion of sharing-to-learn underpins the scholarly pursuit of knowledge. Researchers know that a rigorous literature review of existing knowledge is the natural starting point in tackling a research question. But while in our research we have no problem with sharing and building on the ideas of others, in education the perception is that we must lock teaching materials behind restrictive copyright barriers that minimise sharing.

Sometimes universities justify this position on the grounds that the open licensing of courses will damage their advantage in the student recruitment market. These publicly funded institutions expect taxpayers to pay twice for learning materials.

But let's consider the facts. The marginal cost of replicating digital knowledge is near zero. Furthermore, sharing the costs of developing high-quality learning materials among post-secondary institutions is cheaper and more effective than doing it alone.

Individuals are free to learn from OER hosted on the open web. It is, therefore, plausible that we can design and develop an "OER university" that will provide free learning for all students worldwide. The problem is that learners who currently access digital OERs on the web and acquire knowledge and skills cannot readily have their learning assessed or receive credible certification and academic recognition for their efforts. But with the help of the formal education sector, the OER Foundation aims to resolve this problem.

The OER Foundation is an independent charity that provides leadership, international networking and support for educational institutions to achieve their objectives through open education approaches, and is leading the collaborative design of the OER university concept. Working with Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, the University of Southern Queensland in Australia and Athabasca University in Canada as founding anchor partners, we aim to help provide flexible pathways for OER learners to earn formal academic credentials and pay reduced fees for assessment and credit services under the community service mission of modern universities.

This does not necessarily require new money. A reallocation of existing resources and staff time to collaborating on the implementation of the "OER university" will go a long way in realising the vision of free learning for all. The OER Foundation will host an open planning meeting on 23 February to lay the foundations for this significant intervention. With support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the meeting will be streamed on the web, and we invite all educational leaders to join us at this meeting in planning for the mainstream adoption of OER in post-secondary institutions.

The OER for assessment and credit for students project will create a parallel learning universe to augment, complement and add value to traditional delivery models. We hope that you will join us on this journey. When years from now we look back at the development of OER, will we wonder why it took so long?

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