How Open Educational Resources Can Increase Opportunites for Everyone
Let me begin by suggesting a different question than “Do Open Educational Resources actually increase the digital divide?” Instead, let me ask: How can OERs be used to reduce the digital divide? Or more importantly, how can OERs be used to increase the opportunities for everyone to maximize their potential? To me, that is the underlying criterion we should use to determine which innovations for learning are desirable, and which ones are not.
Let’s begin by stipulating that the deep divides that are increasing today throughout the world, between the “have’s and have not’s”, create dangerous instabilities that impact all of us. Let’s also stipulate that, as with free public education and free public libraries, OERs are, in and of themselves, a good thing. Widespread free access to basic information forms the foundation of a sustainable society. OERs may become a key driver for the next stage in the evolution of public knowledge and democracy.
However OERs require a delivery system and an environment that enables people to take advantage of them. To the extent these conditions are unevenly available, OERs can indeed increase the opportunity divide and destabilize societies.
To be effective, an educational system must involve a comprehensive, systemic approach. No one piece, by itself can do the job. First, we need learners who are fed, healthy, and safe. Then we need access to quality content that is aligned with the goals of the society’s educational system, including its examinations and certificates, plus teachers who are comfortable with and able to employ effective approaches to learning and the technical infrastructure required to sustain the physical and social learning system.
Let’s look at these three parts.
Content can be divided into two categories: “Just in Case” –available in case you might want it, and “Just in Time” –available when you need it to learn something or do something. There are lots of “Just In Case” OERs in the Cloud. That is really nice to have.
Just in Time (JIT) materials, on the other hand, are scarce. They are essential for learning that is aligned with specific educational goals and outcomes. Materials that are engaging but lack such alignments are doomed to be ignored by everyone – except possibly the students. The development of JIT resources is inherently a local task that is difficult and expensive. In addition, such OERs conflict with the interests of for-profit publishers who traditionally have provided closed educational resources. Nevertheless, given the rapid global expansion of OERs in higher education, I believe there is a good chance that, in time, OERS will become the dominant mode for elementary, secondary and continuing education as well. We should strongly support the development of high quality JIT OERs for basic learning.
There are simply not enough teachers, let alone effective ones, to meet the growing demand for them in the developing world. I recently heard of a region in Ghana where teachers may have over 100 students in their classes. Some elementary schools in Rwanda have two half-day sessions. Often the teachers have barely graduated from high school, frequently at the bottom of their class. Many require a second job because of their meager salaries. They tend to leave for a better job as soon as they can. However a quality educational experience requires teachers who are skilled at supporting learning, and who convey to their students that they are valued and are expected to do well.
To respond to this challenge, Open Learning Exchange Ghana is launching an innovative program for learning how to learn. The Ghana LITE program employs a low-cost multimedia digital library called a School BeLL (Basic e-Learning Library) containing videos and materials for coaching teachers and students together. The class will see videos of highly effective project-oriented learning and will be given the materials needed to try these new ways of learning. After practicing, they will video themselves trying it out and seeing the differences between their own efforts and the model. This is an example of how OERs using cost-effective ICT can improve teaching and learning.
Today the ICT systems needed for delivering OERs are not available to the vast majority of people throughout the world. Close to 90 percent of our world’s children have no access to OERs today. Most do not have electricity. So we have some work to do.
And it is not simply a matter of providing the hardware. Educational technology has a long history which is not that impressive. Many promises have been made but, so far, there is only scattered evidence of effectiveness. Teaching machines go back to Pavlov and the Skinner Box followed by a long list of mechanical and then computerized devices that were heralded as the “answer” to poor teaching and the different learning rates of students. I remember being entranced by the PLATO system developed in the 60s by the University of Illinois – a network of mainframes with dialup connections delivering elementary through graduate level course materials. Why did these approaches not survive? Because each of these innovations focused too narrowly on one piece of the puzzle rather than dealing with the whole learning system.
Yet many people persist in believing that technology pretty much by itself can be used to improve radically the quality of education. For many, ICT has become the “dream” solution. It has worked with telephones, why not education? Those “many” include people who manufacture ICT equipment, those who champion things like laptops for every child, and many frustrated public officials who eagerly grasp the lore of ICT as a way to leap frog traditional schooling and enable their students to develop “Twenty-First Century skills”. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, believing in the ICT dream. This is despite the clear evidence that the hardware, by itself, comprises a small portion of the total cost of its effective use and, by itself, does not deliver on the dream.
The good news is that there are a few emerging examples where ICT, involving a more comprehensive systems approach are demonstrating significant improvements in basic learning. Innovation for Learning’s differentiated learning system, the TeacherMate, is one such example. In both the US and Africa the TeacherMate system has documented major increases in basic literacy over a short period of time using low-cost hand held devices. We need more such examples.
Nevertheless there is a real danger that the high cost and uneven availability of educational technologies will dangerously increase the opportunity gap among the most marginalized of our people.
A Challenge Prize
We don’t know how soon the prices of tablets and other devices that can be used for formal learning will come within reach of most children in developing nations. At today’s prices it is primarily those families and communities that do have reasonable incomes who have access to the hardware. Under these conditions, the opportunity divide will continue to increase.
But there may be another possibility.
We could create a Challenge Prize with specs for a $40 educational tablet that can be used, off the grid and the Internet, by poor children and their families to narrow their opportunity gap. That would address one of the requirements for enabling OERs to become gap-closers rather than gap-wideners. Who among us is interested in creating such a Challenge?
More than OER
In summary, I believe that OERs are a necessary and critical element for achieving our shared goal of ensuring every person on our small planet unfettered access to an ongoing high quality basic education. But, Tahrir Square not withstanding, there is no guarantee that a thoroughly digitized world infused with OER will increase meaningful opportunities for the 99% so long as the 1% are the sole deciders.
Thus, while dealing with some of the symptoms of unequal opportunity, we must also address their root causes by employing a total, democratic systems strategy – one that aligns the rules of our economies and our governments with our universal needs for food, health, a home and learning. Since everything is connected, only that will enable us to have the lives we want for ourselves and for the rest of us.