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How Open Educational Resources Can Increase Opportunites for Everyone

Richard Rowe

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.

1. Content

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.

2. Teachers

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.

3. Technology

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.

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18 Responses to “How Open Educational Resources Can Increase Opportunites for Everyone”

  1. Some good points here but it is still equating ensuring "access" with ending the Digital Divide which is simplistic, if praiseworthy. The importance of the character of the content made available was identified as a critical factor by research carried out by The Children's Partnership in 1999. http://www.childrenspartnership.org/Report/DigitalDivide...
    OERs whilst seemingly a praiseworthy contribution can become a "content-push" approach not a "learning-pull" one.
    I am part of the Learner-Generated Contexts Group who have further identified the importance of Context and the need for more collaborative learning processes in, as we describe it, the Open Context Model of Learning; have a look at the Craft of Teaching 2011; http://www.slideshare.net/fredgarnett/the-craft-o
    Hope this helps, keep up your great work.

  2. Richard,I am intrigued by your idea of a "Challenge Prize" for low-cost hardware. I think the prize could already be won.I listened to the Data Wind CEO's presentation at the World Bank, and the real technology kicker is that he is taking the Amazon Silk browser approach – offloading the client work onto a server so its minimal specs actually work (albeit slowly) and he has a strong business case that does not rely on government funding.I see it as a commercial success in India as a cheap web access device. I don't think its a great edu device in its own right – not without content, & curriculum tie-in for teachers to use it as an additional instruction device. But if paired with a School BeLL, and quality teacher training/curriculum integration, it could be a game-changer in India where getting 10% of 1.6 Billion online would be a serious business.

    • Thanks for your encouragement Wayan. As you know, getting really good OER content for basic education is one of the necessities, albeit not a sufficient condition, for ensuring that all children have access to a quality basic education. That piece of the puzzle is what the School BeLL is designed to deliver.

      We are beta testing the BeLL in Ghana this coming year. With two terabytes of Just in Case and Just in Time content, a projector, printer, video camera and wi-fi router it provide teachers and students a feast of books, worksheets, and videos. And it can be used to localize content and create new content such as a village newspaper and school reports. You can see our dream of what is possible at http://ole.org/the-dream/.

      This is a way to bring a wealth of OER to the remote classroom in a place off the electrical grid and with no direct access to the Internet. However, we still need a scalable ($40?) device with wi-fi that students and teachers can use to download the content they need at the moment and to create their own content.

      Then there is the challenge of helping teachers use these OER effectively so that their students achieve their potential. To that end, the BeLL is being used for to help teachers as well as students in OLE's Ghana LITE project this year.

      Trying something like the BeLL that is new and risky takes persistence, time and courage. But just doing more of what we have been doing will not get us where we want and need to be. So let's move!

  3. Richard, I have been following your work and even bought the device to check every game about literacy…you have been part of my inspiration… maybe we should connect…

    However I believe that good content also has to be in the language kids speak, therefore the application I am developing also addresses this issue, and it should be fairly easy to localize it with the languages spoken.

    An other organization is also applying the same principle, they focus on teaching English as a second language and math, it's a Danish company, check http://www.mingoville.com, it's great content and they have free or partially free content available on the web,whiteboard and mobile phone. They localize their content

    isabelle Duston

    • Thank you for your reply Isabelle. We are in total agreement that for early literacy the language should be in the language the kids speak. Although many developing countries are eager for their citizens to master a more global language, such as English or Spanish, there is good research that shows chldren can learn a second language faster and more effectively if they first are fluent in their first language. Thus many recommend learning the first language in the first two or three grades before adding a second language.

      It almost goes without saying that the first language content needs to be developed by those who are themselves fluent in that language. However it is important to provide tools, such as the School BeLL, and possibluy the mingoville approach, that facilitate those localizations.

  4. I think one of the best ways to helps kids and teachers in developing countries to get the best of technologies is to teach and train them to create their own content by providing them hardware and templates. From my own experience I can say that technology is better learned when learners use authentic learning materials. Technology makes people not only information consumers but also information creators. This should be taken into account. For example, train teachers and children use wikis and ask them if they could create something like a book of their own in their own language.

    • Hi Ibrahimjon, I agree totally about the importance of information and knowledge creation in addition to the importance of having access to a world of knowledge. The challenge in developing countries, as you know, is that both short-term cost and the lack of the infrastructure required to support ICT makes it difficult for such opportunities to be widely available. As a result, as this debate has pointed out, ICT can have the unintended result of increasing the divide between rich and poor rather than reducing it.

  5. From Seth,

    Richard, I am currently reading a provocative book by Steven Pinker called Better Angels of our Nature that uses statistical analysis of a mountain of data to conclude that the world is actually growing less violent and more peaceful with each passing century. He tests various theories for the cause of this trend, and concludes that the major factor for the reduction of violence was the rise of literacy in the 16th century. Humanism flourished because a critical mass of people could be influenced by factual treatises, reasoned argument and even fiction that shone a spotlight on man's inhumanity to man.

    This scholarly research buttresses the Rwandan government's intuitive appreciation that the best way to prevent future genocides is via the literacy of its people. As literacy spreads throughout the developing world, it could have a monumental impact on human progress.

    As Pinker points out, and as we all know very well, the reason literacy grows in the 16th century has a direct and fundamental technological cause: the printing press.

    Now imagine what impact can be leveraged from technology that is thousands times more powerful than the printing press of the 16th century!

    I wish all my fellow Guttenberg's of the 21st century a peaceful New Year.


  6. Thanks Seth. It is of course complex but I agree with the critical role of literacy, combined with open access to content. One of the most important influence of Guttenberg was that is expanded dramatically access to knowledge and not just ability to read, although the latter requires the former. But you can have places like the Soviet Union where literacy was high but content was totally controlled. North Korea is more or less another such example. So, as I have said so often, to have the effect we need,very low cost technology must be aligned with open content or the divide becomes deeper.

    Happy Holidays!

  7. From Seth:

    Is it necessary for progress that information be unrestricted by government censorship?


    Is it necessary for progress that information be affordable?


    Is it necessary for progress that information be free and open?

    Nothing in history suggests so. And I question whether it's even desirable, except for a limited subset of information that requires broad authorship like encyclopedias.


  8. Seth, Your three questions require more discussion than is feasible in an exchange of emails. In my humble experience, addressing complex issues by email tends to increase their complexity rather than reduce them. That said, because your questions raise such deep issues, I feel compelled to begin a response. See my comments below.

    Q: Is it necessary for progress that information be unrestricted by government censorship?

    Seth's answer: Yes.

    Richard's reply: The phrase "unrestricted by government censorship" is confusing to me. Surely you don't mean that I should have access to the formula for Coke, or that you should be able to read my private correspondence with Frankie. Both of those are restrictions created by government that I presume we both approve of. So government restrictions are not the issue. The issue is what the rules are that government uses to place restrictions concerning information upon its citizens. That is not a simple, "yes" or "no" issue. In its root form, our answers define one of our society's core values. Ideally these decisions are the result of a thoroughly democratic process. See Frankie Lappe's latest book: EcoMind.

    That said, the rules can indeed be bad ones. I am keenly aware of the deleterious effect of the decisions of the Texas State Board of Education regarding their textbook requirements. Their censorship concerning evolution, in my opinion, harms the children they are responsible for. However it is appropriate to make sure that anyone who brings child pornography into a school goes to jail. That is a government rule that quite appropriately censors certain information.

    Q: Is it necessary for progress that information be affordable?

    Seth's reply: Yes.

    Richard's reply: Yes, but affordable to whom? I presume you mean by "affordable" that those who cannot pay for basic life-serving information should nevertheless have access to such information, the cost of which is paid for by someone else. That's the free public library model. In which case, we agree. Again, distinguishing between different kinds of information is essential. The tradition of free public libraries and free public education in the US is widely accredited for much of our economic and social development over the years. OER seems like a logical evolution of that principle, increasing significantly the benefits of that basic social.


  9. Q3: Is it necessary for progress that information be free and open?

    Seth's answer: Nothing in history suggests so. And I question whether it's even desirable, except for a limited subset of information that requires broad authorship like encyclopedias.

    Richard's reply: Again, there are many different kinds of "information". We also need to distinguish between "free" and "open." They are not the same thing. Lumping all of these different things into one gigantic bundle just confuses things.

    As indicated above, we probably agree about the importance of some information being private. But the lines are not easy to draw and they keep changing. It wasn't that long ago that the vast majority of government information was tightly held, effectively secret. Then we passed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This opened up for public review a whole raft of information that was previously closed. I believe that was a good move. The Internet has opened that door even more making it even easier to see inside of government and, hopefully, making it more accountable to its own rules. So what should be "open" and what should be "closed" are important questions that shape our society as a whole.

    Today a rapidly increasing amount of government information is, in effect, OER. It is freely available on the Internet to the users. However the development of that information can be costly. In that sense, it is not free to create but is free to the users. Individuals and oranizations, such as MIT and Harvard and over 400 universities around the world are now offering a substantial amount of their coursework freely on the Internet. That's got to be a good thing. OER is a convenient way for those wishing to make their creations freely available. In many cases that including permitting those resources to be easily changed to suit the circumstance of their users.

    I believe that OER increasingly will be openly available to all for the basic essentials of learning and living, including health, nutrition, and governmental information and well as the resources needed to acquire verbal and numeric skills. For those who prefer to keep their educational resource closed, that is their choice. Aside from information that is paid for by governments, no one is suggesting that one's personal knowledge creations be appropriated or that it cannot be sold. But I do believe that, in time, even the least of us will have open and free access to those basic elements of knowledge, as well as those basic physical resources of food, health care and home, that they need to thrive. This evolution of knowledge will lead to more vibrant lives and more fair and sustainable societies for us all.


  10. From Seth:

    We agree on the ends, but not the means.

    I'm glad you put free information and free food in the same pot, because as you say for information, but is even more obvious with food, making it free to use doesn't make it free to create. Somebody has to pay for the creation.

    Everything I've seen in my lifetime suggests that the free market is far better than government (or NGOs!) in allocating resources towards creation. So I prefer that everything consumed by man is paid for by man in an open and transparent market.

    Which leaves the problem: how do poor people pay for things they need? The answer is threefold :

    1). We need efficient markets that create low cost alternatives whether it's food, housing or information.

    2). There needs to be a minimum wage paid to anyone capable of full time work that enables him and his family to afford a basic standard of living including food, housing health care and education. Especially with education, "basic" should be a very high standard equal to what upper middle class children regularly get.

    3). To the extent someone is incapable of working, then there needs to be a safety net in place that provides equivalent income.

    Very little is free in this model, but everything that is needed can be acquired in the free market by everyone in society.

    The US is close to this system now except that the safety net has too many holes, the minimum wage is grossly low and not universal, and efficient markets are sometimes restricted by monopolies, special interests, etc. You could look at all those deficiencies and conclude we are far away, but really it would only take tweaks to make it work right, not wholesale makeover.

  11. Seth, My basic response: there is no such thing as a "free" market. Allen Greenspan discovered that to his dismay. He had believed that the "markets" would behave in the interests of all but publicly admitted that he had been wrong.

    All markets operate according to rules set by people, not by some fixed and independent "market." If the market rules are "fair" ones, then markets work quite nicely but those rules must be set in the interests of all of us rather than just a few. Today the market rules have been set up to favor the few and are thus grossly disfunctional. The evidence of that is being played out throughout the world.

    On the "free market". It's interesting that English has only one word, "free", for two quite different concepts. Spanish does a better job by using "gratis" to mean "free, as without payment" and "libre", meaning free to be used without constraint. These are very different concepts. When we use the phrase "free market" we tend to mean "libre", without outside constraints — letting it operate according to its own inherent rules. That is a fundamental flaw requiring more than a few "tweaks".

    I am, quite frankly, impressed that, there continues to be such widespread faith in the unfettered "free market", given the experiment in that model that we have been trying for some time now. The repeated breakdown of the banking system over the last few decades and the accompanying exponential rise in the concentration of wealth into the hands of a very few.

    The banking system functions today with essentially the same rules as the ones that led us to the continuing worldwide financial debacle. We argue strongly for a "free market" system until its beneficiaries get into trouble by following their own rules. Then we plead for governments to bail out the beneficiaries with taxpayer funds. Once that is done, we argue again for a return to the very system that got us into trouble with as few changes in the system as we can get away with. What a game that is!

    The evidence is clear that such gross disparities in society that the current financial system is now creating undermines and destabilized economies and the societies. Why is it that this strong evidence of the need for improved rules to govern the way the market functions has not led to changes that go beyond a few symbolic tweaks. It seems clear that either we have learned very little or that we continue to be persuaded by the few beneficiaries of this syteem that, despite evidence to the contrary, the "market" works best when it is unfettered by government rules. That is a formula for disaster.

    So, call it "tweaks" if you will, but we must have a new set of rules, created by government, that prevents future breakdowns in our financial system, which is now worldwide in nature. And to do that we must have elected officials that are not deeply beholden to those very interests that maintain such vulnerability. A tall order, but the alternative is certain disaster for at least 99% of us.

    So, back to where we began this discussion, OER.

    As a child I spent my summers at my grandparents' farm in Iowa. At harvest time, our neighboring farmers came to help my grandfather bring in and into the barn our alfalpha and oats. We could not have done it without their help. In turn, we went to their farms and helped them. There was no money exchanged. The "host" farm provided a sumptous noon-day meal for all of the harvesters, at a table I now have in my home. Was that "free"? In the sense that nothing is free, it was not.

    In many ways OER is similar to our Iowa harvests. Everyone pitched in to help the other, without payment, with a result that everyone benefited. That is the core of OER — that we are all connected and that helping each other ulimately helps us. It also makes us feel good.

  12. From Seth,
    Agreed, all markets are based on rules, and rules can be made that create large inequalities. But you will need to inform me about which rules in the US are responsible for such large inequalities. Because while I agree there are inequalities, I don't believe that "bad" rules are the culprit.

    I believe the major culprit is a horrible public education system. I believe the major culprits for the horrible education system are mismanagement from the top and lack of funding, both of which causes voters could fix under the current rules. To my astonishment, decade after decade goes by and voters don't fix these problems, partly because they are not educated enough to understand the problems and solutions, and partly because not enough good leaders step up on behalf of the poor and middle class to solve these problems. None of these problems are caused by rules of the market.

  13. Interesting discussion. Thank you for sharing.

    In the OER community we definitely should do a better job in supporting content creation in local languages. WIth the 'free / libre' discussion we shouldn't forget such basic 'knowledge infrasturcture' and services as libraries, independent public media, free press, communication infrastucture (postal service, phones, etc.). ICT can emulate many of these but when dooing this we easily forget their primary function. Putting money on these should also be seen as an investment, a long term investment, that pays off. About its return there are a lot of examples in so called 'developed world', from United States to Finland. With infrastucture you just must keep on investing in it again, again and again – if you care about the generations coming after you.

  14. Yes, about the long-term investments that are required to support a society that is knowledge-based. That becomes far more difficult, as Seth as mentioned, when the socio-political frame is focused on short-term rewards and doubtful about the benefit, or even the need, to make longer-term investments in things like libraries and public schools.

  15. There should be no difference in Education to educate the kids around the world or in specific community.


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