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Asymmetrical OER Country Problems and Needs

Angus Scrimgeour

In my introductory post, I drew attention to the factors that are impeding the use of low-cost ICT devices as a means of transforming the creation and distribution of OERs in the developing world, and I emphasized the asymmetry of the [problems and the] solutions at each of the country, institution, and staff levels. This asymmetry was highlighted in the subsequent discussion, especially in the following areas:

ICT Devices:

Wayan Vota drew attention to Sony’s decision to adopt a common e-book format, and asked whether this could be the beginning of a unified content publishing system that would lower costs and barriers to entry. I responded that a unified system would certainly overcome some of the compatibility problems, but it would not mitigate the costs of encryption, Digital Rights Management, and host servers.

Richard Rowe welcomed the idea of a unified system, and expressed the view that Sony was way behind the Kindle with its e-Book Reader, on account of Sony’s requirement for a wired link to a computer for downloading – which he described as a non-starter.

My own view is that the current version of the Kindle is a non-starter for developing countries, because it has no web browser, e-mail facility, or applications like Word and Excel. My current preference is the Asus, but new products are being launched all the time, and I have no doubt that more suitable and lower cost ICT devices will continue to appear for the foreseeable future. However, no one device is suitable for all educational needs, and institutions in developing countries need advice on what is best for their students.


Peter Rave expressed the view that ICT devices would remain out of range for the “bottom of the pyramid” unless the price was less than US$50, or as low as US$15 in a country like Nigeria. While this may be true for children in most primary and many secondary schools, it is by no means true for all, especially if the devices are shared. Also, most university students can afford at least US$1 per week, which is just enough to purchase a notebook computer, provided the cost is subsidized, and it can be spread over 2-3 years by means of hire purchase facilities or built into the educational fee structure.


Tim Kelly endorsed my view that institutional recognition and financial rewards are needed to encourage more academic staff in developing countries to develop and/or adapt OERs. Alex Draxler agreed, and pointed out that OERs are being created to some extent in developed countries in higher education, but not at the school level. He added that “the joyous anarchy that reigns in the creation of on-line content for general audiences is not a working model for education”, and then he asked the key question: “How can we create the proper incentives in developing countries?”.

My response is advocacy, oiled by that scarce educational commodity – money. The advocacy part needs to focus on the low hanging fruit, namely, the prospective champions. These may be Vice Chancellors, academic staff, head teachers, or even Ministers of Education and civil servants in some countries.

The object is to create good examples of collaborative OER development and adaptation, underpinned by sustainable communities of practice and, most importantly, relevance to the participants. These need to be hailed as examples of best practice, and accompanied by institutional awards as well as financial rewards wherever possible. I could even envisage competitions in certain countries at national or institutional level although, in certain other countries, corruption would likely create a disincentive.

Courseware Packages:

Richard Rowe responded to Alex’s incentive question by describing a road map, which started with the creation of courseware packages covering the basics of learning to read and manipulate numbers, including lesson plans, textbooks, and workbooks – the idea being to give people something to work with.

The next stage was translation and contextualization by NGOs in partnership with government agencies responsible for curriculum development – the idea here being access to both the core content and the software tools required to convert it into something appropriate for respective regions. The final stage was teacher development, so that teachers learned how to use high quality learning resources effectively.

In my view, the road map has much to commend it, especially at primary school level; however, I do not believe that “one size fits all” and, in many countries, it would likely falter for reasons of language, capacity, ownership, motivation, and/or budget – all of which are asymmetrical. As I am sure Richard recognizes, the key ingredient for success is the quality of local input and collaboration; however, this needs to include academic staff and teachers as well as NGOs and civil servants, and I suspect it is needed at stage one, and not left until stage two.

Also, in many countries, parallel programs will be required to build local capacity in terms of courseware design, computer literacy (especially teachers at primary school level), and to deal with monitoring and evaluation. Above all, a “take it or leave it” package, supplied with the best of intentions from the US and other potential donor countries, is unlikely to fly.

One final point is that, in Richard’s introductory post, he says that “high quality, free, and open courseware… resources are readily adaptable to local conditions and are inexpensive to produce and distribute.” While this may be true of a few areas of science, my experience has generally been the opposite, especially at primary level, and when interactivity and multimedia are involved.

Global Library Network:

In Richard’s introductory post, he outlines plans to develop a federated network of national libraries, comprising free and open k-12 content. This is an ambitious program, which recognizes the asymmetry of needs and resources by establishing Open Learning Exchanges (“OLEs”) in each participating country. I believe that the program could have great developmental value; however, many obstacles need to be overcome, as I am sure he knows, notably:

  1. the concept of a multinational OER platform is not exclusive, e.g. OER Africa,
  2. many existing silos of OERs will need to be integrated, requiring compatible formats, and consistent tagging of metadata,
  3. a federated network of national libraries runs contrary to vested interests in some countries, and will require agreements at both government and institutional level,
  4. the system will need to aid selection, provide feedback, and deal with obsolescence, and
  5. the system will need to support multiple languages.


Tim Kelly expressed the view that the development of OERs works much better for widely-spoken languages, such as English, than for local languages. He thought that, while both will co-exist, the wider use of OERs might reinforce the pre-eminence of English as a teaching medium. I acknowledged that English is already the pre-eminent language in which many subjects are taught, especially at universities, and I emphasized the need to find suitable ways of supporting the teaching of language, literacy, and numeracy at primary schools with ICT, where local languages are most commonly used.

Richard thought that English was becoming the common language of the world because the world’s economy is choosing it. He emphasized, that the OLE model provides each country-based center with the tools they need for translation and localization into the languages of their region. Ideally, he thought this would enable literally thousands of local languages [to be supported], with English as the second language. He acknowledged that a centralized system for such translation and localization would, indeed, lead to an almost exclusive focus on English.

Intellectual Property (cost structure):

In Richard’s introductory post, he anticipated that commercial producers of educational materials employing Digital Rights Management systems will find it difficult to compete with OERs in the future, and that for-profit publishers will perforce modify their business models.

While I agree that publishers are modifying their business models, I think it is important to compare the cost of producing OERs and proprietory content on the same basis. In particular, educators who produce OERs may not be “in it for the money”, but they are usually paid, as are the editors, formatters, promoters, and reviewers. The difference is that the cost arises at source and is only incurred once, whereas proprietory content is paid for through the mechanism of sales.

The true cost difference therefore lies in the relative cost structures and profit/loss of the publishers and distributors, which may or may not represent value for money in terms of efficiency, quality, and awareness. I therefore don’t think that publishers are at an intrinsic commercial disadvantage, and I believe that changes in the business model are driven more by perceived new profit opportunities than by fear of competition from OERs. The real concern of publishers is breach of security, since it denies them the income from sales, while continuing to expose them to the costs of production.


The discussion above highlights, among other issues, the asymmetry of requirements in the field of education in developing countries, and it points to the overriding requirement of needs assessments when designing interventions. The maxim “one size fits all” should always be viewed with the greatest caution.

A note on Terminology: In this paper, as in my introductory post, I use the term “e-books” to describe proprietory, full text books that are available in digital format. I use the term “e-book devices” and “ICT devices” to describe the hardware upon which e-books and/or Open Educational Resources (“OERs”) can be accessed and displayed.

5 Responses to “Asymmetrical OER Country Problems and Needs”

  1. Angus has provided us with an excellent summary of the main issues that have been raised and discussed in this "debate". There has been much more agreement than disagreement.

    I agree totally with Angus' "asymmetry" observation and his point that each country, and many situations within countries, require highly customized solutions. One size does not fit all. This is why country-based catalysts that are integrated with their governments are so essential in order for Quality Universal Basic Education to be achieved.

    Devices. I also agree that none of the current "eBooks", defined as one-way "readers," fully meet the needs of teachers and students in developing countries. This is particularly true for the development of basic learning skills. That is not to say that such electronic readers cannot be useful for some purposes in some places, particularly at the university and graduate levels where acquisition of large quantities of information are a large part of the learning process.

    Regarding affordability, Angus' suggests that, adequately subsidized, laptops can be afforded at the university level. I suspect that will increasingly be the case. It is a different story at the elementary level however where the cost of a $50 machine, amortized over five years, is still beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of children. In time we will get there but, for now, the urgency of reaching millions more children with a quality basic education requires us to use technology to support more traditional methods of learning.

    Again, I agree with Angus about the need for institutional incentives to move the OER movement forward. Chuck Vest, MIT's former president, was the one that launched OER at the university level. Once started it has grown virally. There are, however, still few institutional rewards for faculty who contribute their work in an open environment. This is particularly true concerning the criteria used for academic advancement and tenure decisions. The elementary and secondary levels lack even the institutional support that has stimulated OER at the university level. Thus, one of the goals of the Open Learning Exchange is to provide visibility and credit for the creation of quality courseware for learning the basics that can grow virally as it is happening at the university level.

    Concerning courseware packages, yes, interactive courseware requiring ICT requires a lot of skill and investment. However, again, the greatest need at the level of basic education is for really good courseware that does not require a lot of hardware in the classroom. The development of such courseware should be given priority at this point.

    I m pleased that Angus like the concept of the Global Library Network and that he correctly identifies some of the challenges that need to be overcome in the development of this network. My only puzzle about his list is assertion that "a federated network of national libraries runs contrary to vested interests in some countries." That has not been our experience so far. Each country totally controls what appears in their national library. There may well be things in the Global Library Network that a given country does not want to be accessed by their students. That is something determined by their governments in collaboration with their OLE Center. Our only requirement is that everything they publish in their national library be freely available for others to download from the Global library.

    Finally, on the issue of intellectual property and cost structure, we shall see what happens. Clearly there will be competition among those who take different approaches. I believe the key question is whether the more "free and open" approach, compared with the profit-centered one, will yield high quality coursewares that are at least as good as, if not better than, commercial products. Provided the choices of what teachers and students use are made on the basis of merit, rather than extrinsic factors, the result will benefit children, their teachers and their countries. Personally, I expect, over time, the "free and open" approach will thrive at the level of basic education.

    Thank you Angus for your thoughtful participation. I look forward to continuing our discussions.

  2. Especially in the primary grades, the most important leg of the stool is the teacher. ICT cannot replace the teacher; rather it supports the teacher.

    As for content, the teacher selects which content to expose to which students, when, and under what conditions.

    So when we discuss cost, we need to look at the combined cost of teacher and ICT (assuming content is "free") and the other costs of schooling (school buidling, other materials, etc.)

    And when we discuss the function of ICT, it should be in the context of how does it support the teacher: what does the ICT add in terms of effectiveness and efficiency that the teacher alone cannot provide?

    My point is that not only is ICT just one leg of the stool, but it can't be designed in isolation of the other legs. We need to think in terms of total solutions in which ICT is used to make teachers more effective and schooling more efficient.

    Within the developing world my assumption is that the solution will not look too different from country to country or region to region (even though the content will be different). But there will need to be one solution for extreme rural poverty, another solution for village poverty and a third solution for slum poverty. I believe that we will discover that ICT is an important, and affordable, part of each solution, but in different ways for each of these three cases.

  3. Seth, I agree about the teacher being central, especially when there is one. Keep in mind, however, that in many cases there is no teacher or the teacher is present unpredictably. In those cases we need a way for the students to organize themselves to perform the teacher function. But, one way or another, the teacher function is necessary for effective learning. The challenge, of course, is helping teachers move from "repeat after me" to effective learning strategies, with or without something more than paper and pencil or a stick in the sand.

    I really like your three "use cases" (rural, village, slum) and agree that each is like to be different. It will be interesting to see just how common each of these three is in different parts of the world. Cultural differences may make them seem quite different.


  4. Here's an interesting development from Uganda on digitizing educational content:

    Ministry of Education and Sports is to spend Shs 6billion on digitizing the O’level science and mathematics syllabi. Mr Humphrey Mukooyo, the coordinator of the project, says the money will be used to buy copies of the digitized syllabus, computers, projectors and screens as well as installing solar power in some rural schools.

    The project started three years ago and already runs in 200 schools nationwide. About the same amount of money has already been spent on the first phase. Termed Digital Science, it involves animating pictures/images in science experiments to make them appear the same way the actual systems operate.
    For instance, for the blood circulatory system, one is able to see blood flowing in the veins and in and out of the heart, with the different valves opening and closing. Mukooyo says that digital science was introduced to improve performance in schools.



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