UNESCO Steps Up To Universalize Open Educational Resources (OER) With… A Declaration?

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Is quality learning content a universal right?

If UNESCO statements are any indications, yes. In 2012, The Paris OER Declaration coined the term for “Open Educational Resources.” Based on principles an statements including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Millenium Declaration, OER are conceived as content resources that permit no-cost access, use, redistribution and adaptation. Clearly open licenses or the public domain are optimal vehicles for OER’s ideal forms of use and exchange.

But we focus on the work UNESCO has been done for years until recently, the landscape does not strike as optimistic. Almost one by one, the recommendations have not become a modus operandi for education governing bodies, let alone media production companies. Keep in mind these are 8 years old:

  1. Foster awareness and use. OER continues to grow, but the efforts are limited and disjointed. Part of the reason could obey to the appeal of “Open” as a marketing buzzword, making “Openwashing” a bigger focus of energy than effective advocacy.
  2. Facilitate ICT environments. A role that seems made for an open source LMS remains void of an integrative platform that coalesces efforts on infrastructure and hardware, modern pedagogy and seamless delivery.
  3. – 10. Strategies, policies, promotion, capacity building, alliances and so on. There are 10 principles in the OER declaration, where government, research organizations, educational and cultural institutions bear most of the burden for making OER more common.

Across the declaration, the word “student” is missing, and “teacher” appears once in “Support institutions, train and motivate teachers and other personnel.” Teachers are mass creators of learning resources, the vast majority of which goes unlicensed. Perhaps this is the underlying problem with OER. If UNESCO is the entity in charge of ensuring impact, and it can only do so through large multilateral institutions, the largest hurdle it will face is to overcome its own chasm the places and instances of actual OER implementation.

SDG 4 Challenges versus… UNESCO policymaking guidelines

The document Guidelines on the Development of OER Policies by UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning and the Hewlett Foundation, was the latest product on OER policy by the entity. At first look, it does not seem to advance the conversation forward. On a second look, it could become the basis for more organized training materials for producers and consumers of OER.

Section 1 provides a narrative behind OER under the light of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the SDG #4. A discussion on licenses and a series of tools to examine the context-specific status and interests for OER for a given country and region.

It provides the most direct link between implementation of OER and the SDG 4 targets. It also recognizes openness as a sustainable way to address issues of access to information and skills, perhaps the only one.

  • Flanking measures: Learning environments, Scholarships, Teachers and Educators
  • Skills agenda: Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship, Skills for Work, Adult Literacy
  • Formal education system: Pre-primary, Primary, Secondary, Technical and Vocational Education and Training, Higher Ed; Equality for All

It is interesting to note that transversal issues including inclusiveness, accessibility and lifelong learning opportunities are still a novelty across national policies, programs and education systems. And yet, as the document highlights, promotion of access to cultural content is widely recognized in the body of law of most countries. It suggests there are already principles within nations that could be the basis for more widespread OER efforts. In many cases, OER would be a way to legitimize content distribution practices that aren’t safe under the law, yet are common practice by students all over the world.


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Tragedy of the Creative Commons?

Yet once again, UNESCO fails to paint a complete picture on what I —an economist— can only call the “Value Chain” of OER. While Chapter 4 does recognize the pivotal role authors play, being responsible for the initial stage of development, it offers little guidance on the motivations that make OER creation possible. Grants seem to be the only vehicle through which authors could hope to receive some form of compensation. This only guarantees a very specific subset of government and institutions to be able to promote OER content, compromising diversity.

A troubling bullet on chapter 5 suggests another method: Coercion. Creating content and licensing it in ways compatible with the definition or OER as a job description could force authors and teachers to let go of their rights over learning content. The most likely outcome being a diminished quality of talent and the OER itself.

Another essential element of OER is sharing and exchange. Again, there is no strategy to speak of regarding tools, platforms and modalities. The result is either less dire, or more perverse depending on your views: Commercial companies are able to deliver free learning content to teachers and students, for a fee. In a recent episode, the Open Education Conference shut down for good in part for the presence of Lumen Learning (owned by the organizer of the Conference), Cengage, McGraw-Hill and Macmillan. Open Education advocates no longer have a supported place to exchange and collaborate on OER, at little consequence for the for-profit companies.

In sum, it seems UNESCO nor the community has figured out a way to ensure fully free access to OER. In which case, economic mechanisms will inevitably step up, addressing needs and demands, assuming no responsibility for falling short of the SDG goals.

References & resources

BONUS: A disjointed list of OER efforts


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