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Global 21 fourth quarter 2015

network Commonwealth in Action commonwealth Calculating the value of open resources 80 l www.global -br ief ing.org four th quar ter 2015 global Many of the open learning resources available online are failing to help learners. The Commonwealth of Learning is making high-quality resources available to students in small states through a new virtual university – and getting a good response from its users Alicia Swinamer Millions of open educational resources (OER) have been produced, but not all of them are helpful or even being used. The digital movement has created a push towards digitising content, but just like a good book doesn’t necessarily make a good movie, not all materials are cut out to be OER. Unlike commercial products that follow the laws of supply and demand to ensure profitability, OER, by definition, are free and can bypass these requirements. As a result, a lot of OER exist that are of varying quality and usefulness. However, OER have great potential for helping achieve sustainable development via mass sharing of quality materials that can be adapted to meet the local context. For this reason, the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) has embraced the OER movement and is developing and sharing high-quality OER through its Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC). VUSSC is a network of 32 small states in the Commonwealth, created and supported by ministers of education to collaborate and develop open content resources for education, training and capacity building, and the use of information and communications technology (ICT) to broaden access to education. Through the VUSSC Transnational Qualifications Framework (TQF), endorsed earlier this year, students from different countries have access to the same quality of education and credentials. In other words, a master’s student from Saint Lucia will have the same educational standards and qualifications as a master’s student in Malta. This allows young people to transfer their skills easily and work in different countries in the Commonwealth. The underlying premise of VUSSC is to help its members overcome their lack of capacity, due to their small size, and enable them to provide access to quality education via OER. When Leigh-Anne Perryman, a researcher at the Open University in the UK who had been conducting research on OER in the UK and India, met John Lesperance, COL’s education specialist for VUSSC, at the Seventh Pan-Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning in Abuja, Nigeria, the idea to study VUSSC took form. At the time, Perryman was a researcher with the awardwinning OER Research Hub, a project that is dedicated to conducting research on the impact of OER on learning and teaching. The OER Research Hub is funded by the Open University in the UK and the Hewlett Foundation. Perryman’s VUSSC research was conducted as part of an OER Research Hub Fellowship and in April 2015 she visited the COL offices to present her research findings to COL staff. She was accompanied by fellow Open University academic Tony Coughlan, with whom she researches OER outside academia. Perryman’s deep research on OER has led her to some controversial conclusions. For example, she notes that there is a divide in the OER world between academic elites from developed countries and those who see OER as a powerful tool for sustainable development. On the one hand, OER are developed for their own sake, textbooks are converted into OER and materials are created “as the output of discrete short-term projects that start and end and tend not to learn from each other”. In this view, large amounts of learning materials are being converted to OER without consideration of learners’ needs. Coughlan points out that “open textbooks may save a lot of money in principle, but aren’t necessarily being used to improve learning outcomes. For example, in some countries people don’t actually read printed textbooks, so they’re not likely to read an open textbook either”. Responding to the open education movement’s emphasis on open textbooks, Coughlan adds that “it’s easier to write something big, a big textbook is easier than getting your point across in a few lines on a mobile phone. Big digital textbooks aren’t the solution to achieving educational inclusion”. Perryman continues: “There is a view that OER is the solution, that openness solves everything. However, this view of the power of openness doesn’t reflect the barriers, like limited internet connectivity. The focus on creating OER for its own purpose neglects the user, which can make the materials irrelevant or worse.” An alternate view of OER positions the user as the primary focus. Materials are created to meet a need in a way that is easy and accessible to the learner. In this way, materials are often made into small chunks to be downloaded and consumed offline. Coughlan notes that the focus is on distilling the material into small file sizes and “getting it down to tiny things” to increase the user’s likelihood and ability of accessing the information. This is the view that VUSSC embraces. All the materials that are created seek to improve quality and access to the learner, and are adaptable so that local context can be applied to assist the learner without compromising the quality of the materials. After conducting a comparative study on OER creation and use with VUSSC, Perryman is convinced that VUSSC has found an educational development model that is unique and effective. Instead of the “neo-colonial notion of pushing content”, VUSSC is different, she says. “It works with people who collaborate to produce materials. There is a sense of empowerment; it’s not development being done to people.”


Global 21 fourth quarter 2015
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