OER may be free, but you still need to invest to use them: Part I

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Sarmi, Papua-Indonesia, Portrait of Elementary school children learning in radio. Sarmi, Papua-Indonesia, Portrait of Elementary school children learning in radio.

This is Part I of two blogposts on Open Education Resources (OERs).

Calls for access and equity underpin the OER (Open Educational Resources) movement, but it’s yet to be seen if the potential impact of OER will materialize in education. Perhaps COVID-19 will change that (cautiously said). 

OER are: “...teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” (UNESCO) 

OER are often leveraged as supplemental materials that can complement existing proprietary content to address gaps and can be adapted and delivered across multiple platforms including television, radio, SMS, and learning management systems. With over 260 million children out of school due to the pandemic, many governments have shifted to online learning and learning-at-home materials, both of which require content. The surge in demand for content has intensified the spotlight on OER as one means of swiftly generating inexpensive, curriculum-linked and learner-ready content. However, it’s important to consider that successfully using OER requires a substantial investment of resources, particularly in time and capacity. Without the work, there will be no reward. The team at the World Bank has written about this before, but we felt compelled to reiterate some of these points during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three Things to Consider When You Start an OER project: 

1. OER needs to be curated for quality assurance, and curation takes skill.

OER are of varying degrees of quality, alignment to standards (if any), interoperability (if they’re digital) etc., and just because they’re free or open doesn’t mean they will meet educational needs or values. Having a thorough criteria list is essential. Even more critical is having the right team to evaluate OER, which would include subject-matter experts, legal or policy experts, teachers, and multimedia designers to determine: 1) does the OER align with cultural values and educational objectives, 2) do the OERs align to the set standards and the curriculum, 3) exactly how can the OER be used legally, 4) can the OER be used and designed in a way that will be engaging for learners, 5) what work will it take to get this OER in the appropriate format for dissemination within our current infrastructure and system, and 6) are the teachers well versed with OERs and how to use them.

Your team may also need capacity-building to understand various open licenses and what they allow you to do, how to evaluate OER against standards and where to give slack, what the remix/reuse/share/reduce model looks like in practice, and how to provide guidance to external parties developing OER and interpreting curriculum designs with the hope of pick-up by government.

2. Learning experiences are not magically built into OER, they need to be designed.

OER are learning resources, they are not necessarily designed with or around a learning arc. Teachers need learning design skills to use OER, and that doesn’t happen overnight. Most teachers have been trained in rote learning techniques, and without exposure to new pedagogies which require them to be creative, they will be unable to design new experiences with fluid resources like OER. Professional development for teachers needs to equip them with the skills to identify appropriate OER that are in line with their curriculum and learners' linguistic, cultural, and motivational needs. 

It is also important for teachers to have skills that enable them to adapt a piece of OER to meet their learners' needs. This of course assumes that they already have digital literacy skills which should be the starting point. Teachers who are content experts should be equipped with the skills to develop their own content which they can then share as OERs for the common good.

3. OER don’t usually come with assessments, add that to the to-do list. 

Some OERs support learning curriculum-linked objectives. But there is still the need to assess the success of students’ learning. During the teaching/learning process, teachers need to conduct formative assessment, particularly in the conditions that emerge from remote education. So that they understand whether individual students and the entire class are mastering the content. 

The potential for in-process (or formative) assessment will generally be built into the platform that is being used to present the OER, and will generally include quizzes, exercises (or practice) and/or homework. Students and teachers with adequate internet bandwidth can engage in one-on-one sessions that help the teacher gain insight into the student’s understanding. In addition, most platforms will enable teachers to view reports of student assessments over time, helping the teacher pinpoint areas where the student’s understanding gets derailed. 

To use any of these means, teachers require professional development. They need to know not only the technical aspect of assessment — such as how to create a quiz, but the pedagogical aspect — how to interpret the quiz results and how to respond. (Is the challenge shared by the entire class, which might benefit from review? Is it confined to a few students, who might need more individual attention? In addition, to generate the optimum benefit from formative assessment (which should always  be “low-stakes”), the teacher should know how to help students understand their learning and capabilities in relation to objectives or standards — what the student needs to know or do.

In addition, the government agency that has deployed the OERs need information generated by summative assessment. That information could include the results of “high-stakes” tests that determine whether a student advances (or not), but it could also include information that the authorities might use to evaluate the OER as a means of promoting student learning.

Meeting the challenges of assessment in an online environment can be difficult. With OER — and given the lack of accompanying assessments — those challenges can be compounded.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which we dive into why it’s critical to invest in OER within a local publishing ecosystem.


Ariam Mogos

Education Consultant

Edmond Gaible

Education Consultant

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