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Towards Free Learning Opportunities for All Students Worldwide

Wayne Mackintosh

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) combined with the open intellectual property arrangements of Open Education Resources (OER) and networked collaboration have the potential to change fundamental business models for the education sector in Africa. In this blog post I explore the contemporary challenges we face and the opportunities for using digital OERs to implement new models of educational provision in Africa.

The concept of open education encapsulates a simple but powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that the open web provides an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge.

Internationally, the education sector is now exploring and implementing the potential of OER to provide free learning opportunities for all students worldwide. Africa has a unique opportunity to leverage the benefits of open education and digital ICTs in providing free learning opportunities for her learners, especially those students currently excluded from the formal sector.

The problem

Today, in Sub-Saharan Africa the majority of children of school going age will not have the privilege of completing the last three years of their schooling and very often do not have access to affordable textbooks. With reference to the higher education sector, Olugbemiro Jegede, Secretary General of the Association of African Universities reminds us that even if Africa were to build one new university per month, still this would not provide a cost-effective solution for the projected 7 million applicants who will be seeking university placements over the next 5 years.

OER offers two significant business enablers for sustainable education futures:

  • the marginal cost of replicating digital learning materials is near zero, and
  • sharing course design and development costs among institutions is cheaper than doing this alone.

Therefore, it is possible to provide affordable access to high quality learning materials and textbooks, even for learners who may not have reliable or low-cost access to the Internet. Moreover this would not necessarily require new money or investment.

Within the publicly funded education system, the educators’ salaries who produce learning materials are already to some extent sponsored by the taxpayer. Rather than investing new money, all that is needed is a policy shift to re-license selected outputs produced by state-supported educators under open content intellectual property arrangements where the respective institutions provide permissions for others to reuse, adapt and redistribute learning materials at no cost.

  • Why should taxpayers have to pay twice for their learning materials?
  • Why do publicly funded education institutions restrict access to knowledge through restrictive copyright regimes when we have the digital technologies and legal tools to share freely?

We also have the technologies to produce print-based materials from digital OER repositories for learners who may not have affordable access to the Internet. In WikiEducator, for instance, educators can collate open textbooks for printing or offline editing with the added advantage of using the same digital repository for integrating teaching materials into online delivery systems for those institutions who use learning management systems.

Worldwide, there is a growing inventory of open access learning materials on the Internet. There are literally thousands of courses, research journals and OER available under open access licensing provisions, which could be integrated into selected courses for academic credit in Africa. With permissions to adapt and modify these materials, it is now easier for African educators to share and localise learning resources for the Continent.

Already Africa hosts a number of exemplary OER projects. OER Africa is a continental network supporting and driving the development and use of OER across all education sectors in Africa.

The African Virtual University has launched the OER@AVU portal which will provide 219 high quality modules of Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, ICT in Education, and Teacher Education Professional Courses available in three different languages – English, French and Portuguese. Individual institutions like the University of the Western Cape and University of Cape Town in South Africa support open content projects.

The Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA) project brings together teachers and teacher educators from across Africa working on OER in four languages to support school based teacher education and training. Siyavula is a ground-breaking project working collaboratively with school teachers to produce open textbooks for high school students.

  • Notwithstanding the pioneering work of these projects, taking into account the large number of learners excluded from the formal education sector in Africa, what are the reasons for the slow uptake and mainstream adoption of OER on the continent?
  • How can we scale-up and share the successes of these African OER projects for all African institutions?

As the global inventory of OER increases we are presented with new opportunities and challenges. Specifically, learners who access digital OERs on the web and acquire knowledge and skills either formally or informally, cannot readily have their learning assessed and subsequently receive credible credentials in recognition for their efforts. Open assessment and credentialisation services are needed. The Open Education Resource (OER) university concept is a new international initiative which aims to address these challenges.

The OER university concept

Existing delivery models cannot address the growing global demand for post-secondary education. Many countries do not have the resources to build the number of conventional universities that would be required to meet the future demand for tertiary education.
The OER university (OERu) is nurturing the development of a sustainable and scalable OER ecosystem for the formal sector. The OER university concept aims to create a parallel learning universe based solely on OER for learners excluded from the system to augment and add value to the formal education sector. These learners may choose to enrol at formal education institutions in the traditional way or participate in free learning provided through the OERu network. Assessment and credential services will be provided by participating institutions on a cost-recovery basis or may be funded through scholarships or grants from the respective Ministries of Education.

A Scenario

Ibrahim Omowale has worked as a carpenter for twenty years in Nigeria and is now teaching at the local technical college. He wanted to upgrade his qualifications for his new career in vocational education. Due to work and family commitments, he couldn’t pursue full-time study. Ibrahim did not have the financial resources to register in the formal system and there were no scholarships available in his home country.

Ibrahim was undecided about his preferred area for degree study but wanted to combine his work experience and interests with the flexibility to move into new subject areas. Free access to the learning materials for the OER university (OERu) courses provided a “try before you buy” scenario. Ibrahim decided to start with a Diploma of Arts which offered the flexibility to select first-year degree courses across different disciplines. He chose three business related courses combined with a course in international relations and another in communication skills.

Ibrahim did not have affordable Internet connectivity at home but was able to utilise WikiEducator’s features to download offline digital versions of the course study guides. During the week, Ibrahim worked off-line preparing portfolio assignments and noting questions. On Saturday mornings, he visited the local cybercafé, uploaded completed assignments to his online e-portfolio, consulted online discussion forums and posted support questions to the “Academic Volunteers International” website selecting the SMS message feedback option for his learner support questions. Taking the free trial examination, Ibrahim felt he was ready to present himself for assessment. Paying the assessment fee, he submitted his e-portfolio to the University of Southern Queensland in Australia and successfully completed the remote challenge examinations and graduated with the Diploma of Arts — the first step towards a Bachelor of Transdisiplinary Studies.

Ibrahim decided that he wanted to specialise in vocational education and apply for assessment of prior learning. Using the open support materials provided by the OERu website, Ibrahim prepared a portfolio of his prior experience mapped against the graduate profile of a Diploma in Construction Management (second-year degree level). He presented his assessment for prior learning at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand and decided to continue his OERu learning in the area of Tertiary Teaching, incorporating third-year bachelor-level subjects. Ibrahim’s credits for the Diploma of Arts were recognised under the OERu’s approved Transnational Qualifications Framework and he decided to use the assessment services from Otago Polytechnic for his prior learning and tertiary teaching subjects. Ibrahim decided to complete his remaining subjects at the local national university through the conventional system and graduated with a Bachelor of Transdisciplinary Studies (Vocational Education).

Ibrahim Omowale is now Head of Department at his technical college and is leading a strategy aimed at enhancing the professional development of staff throughout the region.

Note: At the time of authoring this blog post there were no participating institutions from Africa. Therefore, I could not use African institutions as examples in the Scenario text. In time we hope to see a number of African institutions sharing in the benefits of this global tertiary education network.

How will the OERu work?

Concept for an OER university initiative (Adapted from Taylor 2007).


OERu students will gain free access to high quality courses that are designed for independent-study using OER. OERu learners will receive student support through a global network of volunteers and peer support using social software technologies. Students can be assessed for a fee by participating institutions and earn a credible credential.

From an investment-decision perspective, participation in the OERu network would not require new money, but rather a reallocation of existing staff time to releasing selected development outputs under open content licenses for the OERu network. The OERu model anticipates that no more than 1% of existing budget time would be required for release under open content licenses. The institutional costs of assessment and credentialisation services are recouped on a cost-recovery basis from student fees and/or other sources.

  • Is the OER university network a viable model for widening access to learning opportunities in Africa?

I firmly believe that OER is the means by which education at all levels can be more accessible, more affordable and more efficient. OER is a sustainable and renewable resource. What do you think?

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14 Responses to “Towards Free Learning Opportunities for All Students Worldwide”

  1. Bernard


    I definitely agree that OERu is the way to provide access to many people in Africa who are disadvantaged by their economic background. I look forwards to the implementation of the initiative.


  2. Experieced

    This project already failed before it even started . Why because it is free.

    Come on look around, where have free things succeeded really. Look at Linux compared to paid Windows. Hundreds of millions of paid Windows machines are sold compared to the small number of Linux machines.

    Look at the number of not free software used compared to the small number of free software.

    The reason, people need to earn a living and do not live on fresh air. When you have a dearth of qualified people to run any project and if it does not pay then it will not work because it is the people that matters most not the free software.

    • Thanks for your contribution Experienced.

      We agree on the fundamental rights of individuals to earn a living.

      I would suggest that the conventional higher education model has failed. In most industrialised countries the rate of increase in student fees has exceeded the inflation index over the last decade. The conventional system which is predominantly based on closed proprietary content is fundamentally broken.

      UNESCO predicts that over the next 15 years the post-secondary system will need to cater for an additional 98 million placements. This equates to building about one new university per week for the next 15 years. It is simply not cost effective to continue replicating the traditional model and most governments do not have the level of funding required to build enough conventional universities to satisfy the future demand for education.

      In most countries, the post secondary system is supported by public funding (taxpayer revenue) – -so educator's salaries are paid by the system and therefore these educators do not need to live on fresh air. All that is needed is a shift in intellectual property policies to release teaching materials under open content licenses to radically reduce the costs of design and development for independent study materials.

      The OER university concept has not failed before it has started. There are already a critical mass of institutions who are participating and we will be able to provide recognised credentials within 3 countries and the list is growing. We welcome accredited institutions from Africa to join this network.

      The OER university network collaboration will provide free learning opportunities with pathways for learners to gain formal academic credit. Assessment and credentialing services wiil be provided on a fee for service basis as determined by the participating institutions. In some countries, these costs will subsidised by government grants.

      The difference with the OER university model compared to the traditional model is that we will be able to scale and serve more learners in acquiring credible qualifications when compared to the traditional model so we have more qualified people to build local economies,

      I agree with you — people matter most and this is why we are building the OER university network, that is to provide more affordable access to high quality education for all people.

    • Thanks for your contribution Experienced.

      I'm separating my response with reference to the free versus non-free software issues you raise because the OER university concept is not fundamentally about the free software movement.

      I'm not sure whether the number of free software users versus non-free software users is necessarily a reliable indicator for your argument in Sub Saharan Africa. I think it is more useful to consider the rate of unauthorised use of closed software on the Continent.

      For many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa the rate of unauthorised software use is typically in excess of 80% of the software installed. This is understandable given the costs of licensing.

      Drawing on the statistics of the Global Software Piracy Report you will find that the majority of proprietary software in use in Africa is unauthorised. (see: http://portal.bsa.org/globalpiracy2010/downloads/… ) Consequently your metric of comparing free versus non-free software use needs to consider the rates of software piracy on the Continent.

      I do not advocate the illegal use of software, particularly when there are free software alternatives available. No user should be denied the rights and benefits of software and digital ICTs for lack of money to purchase legally licensed copies. Fortunately — there is no reason for any user to sacrifice their freedoms as there are free software equivalents of all the tools educators and learners need to succeed.

    • Arturo Muente

      1. 90% of the 500 most powerful supercomputers use Linux. I use Windows because I still can't collaborate effectively with my peers without it (but believe me, I try). To say that Windows beats Linux because of the business model is too simplistic. If they were launched at the same time (no network externalities), it may be different.

      2. The definition of Free is a little tricky: "The Free Software Foundation, an organization that advocates the free software model, suggests that, to understand the concept, one should 'think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer'".

      3. Think Red Hat (S&P 500), Google Earth Pro, any service built over open source APIs that still charge a fee. Look at Khan Academy (http://www.khanacademy.org/) which by the way is free (that doesn't mean nobody pays their checks, just that it is not the users). Look at the sillabus of MIT online, accessible to anyone, or online videos of complete courses from top universities in Academic Earth (http://academicearth.org).

      4. There is a lot going on out there in terms of volunteerism, collaboration, donor funding, etc. to be optimistic about OERu. Just by eliminating the cost of content, you might be able to give students a certificate at a fraction of the cost of an alternative with (most probably) equal or lower quality content.

      5. BTW, I had not heard of the initiative before reading this post, and I don't know the implementation details (the devil is in the details), but the idea has a lot of potential.

      Cheer up, Experienced! It is not about free software, it is about sharing and collaborating while earning a living 🙂

  3. Sugar Labs is collecting a list of such resources at

    You are welcome to add any you find to our list.

  4. simonfj

    I think that OER may help. But your assumptions are based around this idea that a certain degree of cyber-infrastructure exists. i.e. a cybercafe, and that there is ready employment for teachers, or a graduate. This is a supply side model, not a demand side.

    I can not go as far as Experieced as i know volunteerism is fundamental to providing the tools he uses every day. E.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apache_HTTP_Server

    But the comment is real. We are trying 2 figure out a sustainable "business model" and we all know that the OER model has an irresistible logic. This problem always comes back to this need to have a single (bricks & mortar) institution act to assess & issue "their" qualification. Considering the vast discrepancy in wages, that's highly unlikely. At best, it's very restrictive.

    That said, I can see that the idea of a (Academic) Volunteers International has the beginnings of a way to bring together all the dreams that OER throws up. From what i can see (re the African end), this will need some cooperation between development agencies and education institutions. That's the only way that I can see OERers identifying courses which are relevant. http://www.nepad.org/humancapitaldevelopment/educ

    Perhaps that's the way forward here. We need to focus on just one course/project. In just the same way that Apache's projects do. http://www.apache.org/

    Maybe that way we'll get some communication between people, on the ground, in Africa, like Alex http://alexlittle.net/blog/2011/05/14/digital-cam… so that we begin to coordinate the development of the content and the infrastructure.

  5. Two comments for this esteemed discussion.
    1) There is a substantial shift of 'openness' occurring. "Free" with be associated with this opening, and have a very different place. I agree with "Experienced's" perspective, but the good news is the shift has already begun in business and education.
    2) When speaking of ICTs in developing countries I believe we need to look at Mobile, not internet based learning. Reality is that internet availability is not going to give access for a long while — even with efforts such as IBM. The availability will come, but in the meantime let's go with what is already available.

  6. Ramesh Sharma

    Input from Mr Harbans Singh Sidhu:
    In coming years it seems sustainability will be the major issue in conventional education model in the world. International students are becoming the income source of educational institution. Some students lack the objective to avail quality learning opportunity. Others do not have adequate base to keep themselves going on with the standard of quality education. Youth is most valuable asset of the world. They are more important than as oil, iron, and gold to prosperity of the world. We need competent students as said (Baxter and others1996) “Competent student should be able to provide coherent explanations, generate plans for problem solutions, implement solution strategies and monitor and adjust their activities’’.
    Some educational institutions have different story such as Cambridge is Briton’s richest university. Similarly a student who used to get 15 replies in 15 minutes, completed 3 year degree from London school of Economics by paying ₤3500 where as annual fees in England used to be ₤3225 is challenging to funds hungry educational institutions. How long will they depend on taxpayer’s money? How can they ensure their sustainability without digital content?
    Free learning world wide opportunities for students could be bonanza of internet. Net has given open access gift. The free sharing of course content is powerful tool to encourage the growth of public institutions. Sharing will not result net loss for the delivering institution. The reputation of sharing institution will be enhanced. The value of saleable service will increase .So sharing will result net gain.
    As we feel the need to learn current information. The internet is so forceful tool that we are losing the control of our learning because information is changing continually… This has forced universities to have mid way turn. It is becoming difficult for them to ignore digital content. Students in general are more tech savvy than educators who are in advanced stage of age. The social net working has significant impact on all sectors in the world. Even political aspect could not remain unaffected Sales of personal computers surged 14 percent globally in 2010, compared with just 4 percent in the previous year. Under the high growth of ICT, education sector needs special attention. To channelize the abundant potential of ICT towards free learning opportunities for all students in the world is the most hopeful antidote to errors of ignorance that menace our civilization and planet.

  7. How about to use Internet and offer "All Included Education " carried by LMS and mobiles. it has been a real option at least 10 years . Education Finder and MKFC borned in Sweden and Finland dont only talk we work and educate all the time. Join the movement ! Join now !

    • Agreed, the Internet and open access materials provides unique opportunities to contribute to education for all. In the case of OER, I think the value addition lies in the permissions to adapt and modify the materials without restriction (as opposed to merely accessing resources available on the web.)

      Specifically the OER university concept aims to overcome a major challenge, namely providing pathways for learners to gain credible qualification using OER materials freely available on the web.

      I agree — lets join the movement to widening access to high quality learning for all!

  8. What we need is alternative business models that can generate development funds without restrictive licensing. That is the goal of the INGOT project. http://www.theingots.org. It will take time but we are making progress.

    • Hi Ingotian,

      The ingot project is an amazing initiative — we need to find ways of replicating and scaling these ideas across the education sector.

  9. Maria-ritta and Ingotian, I found your websites and am so impressed with the progress you are already making. Wonderful! Pheo 🙂


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