AU establishes research chair in open educational resources
February 07 2011
All too often, education is available only to those who can afford it. And cumulatively, poverty and other barriers prevent billions of people from taking part in educational opportunities.
Groups like the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) are working with educators to explore means for improving access to education. One of the educators pursuing this goal in partnership with them is Athabasca University (AU), which has been awarded a UNESCO/COL Chair in Open Educational Resources (OERs). The chair was announced and celebrated on January 31.
"There are nearly seven billion people in the world. There are all kinds of problems. But I know this: whatever solutions we come up with, education is going to be part of those solutions. And we've got to find ways of educating six-and-a-half billion people," said AU's associate vice-president of research Dr. Rory McGreal. McGreal is leading the team of people at AU who will work on initiatives related to the chair.
"We've got to look at new ways of going about it. And I think OERs are going to play a major role in promoting that mass education."
An OER is a tool for learning that can be found online and is free. "It could be a textbook, a group of lessons, a program, a game, an application... It could be anything that's used for learning and is available online," said McGreal.
Technology is transforming some OERs into resources that are radically different than their printed counterparts. These OERs offer students rich learning experiences quite unlike being in a classroom or reading a textbook.
"OERs are not just about putting text and documents up online," McGreal said. "They can offer a whole new range of learning experiences that will help people around the world learn faster and better."
Consider textbooks, for example. "We don't want to just put the old type of textbook online," he said. "We want a textbook that adapts to the way you learn. And we want to use semantic technology so you can find the textbook instantly, the exact type of textbook you want, by just popping online and doing a quick search."
In his role as chair-holder, McGreal will lead research on how to make the best use of OERs. "We're talking about action-based research to find out how we can mobilize people to use OERs for the benefit of everyone," he said.
Another crucial part of the chair work will be forming a network of organizations that actively share, use and promote OERs. While interest in OERs is growing rapidly, there is still much work to do in propelling their use to the realm of common practice. Part of the challenge lies in persuading educators to adopt a new approach towards curriculum development.
"The idea is you don't create courses anymore -- you assemble them from OERs," explained McGreal. "You take a lesson here, a lesson there, this piece over here, and you assemble your course. That cuts down costs tremendously. Then, after you do that, your full course is still open-access, so others can use it."
McGreal described how a colleague used OERs to fast-track a course in green computing. "He was going to design his own course from scratch. I said, ‘Look online first.' He did a simple Google search and found a whole course from Australia, and all he had to do was add a few Canadian examples to it. And having added the Canadian examples, the Australian professor who originally wrote the course said, ‘Great, I want to use those!'
"The grand concept with OERs is that everyone contributes, and this creates a huge pool of resources that people can use and adapt for their own purposes. It's cheaper than buying proprietary resources and more efficient than developing courses from scratch. And everyone benefits from each other's knowledge and expertise."
McGreal sees a critical need to move away from proprietary ownership of educational resources. "You can't do anything with them. They come with a huge group of restrictions," he said.
"We want to get out of that milieu. There are all stratifications of copyright licenses, so you can make your resource public domain, and anyone can use it. The most popular one is the Creative Commons license where you own it and anyone can use it or change it, but they have to give you credit for the original work."
While copyright restrictions make sense for some types of creative work, they just don't make sense for educational resources, McGreal concluded. "We must move toward making more educational resources open," he said.
Another key priority for the chair is investigating how OERs can promote gender equality and benefit marginalized groups in developing countries, particularly countries in Africa; Aboriginal Peoples in Canada; youth; and people living in rural and remote areas.
There are almost 700 UNESCO chairs at universities around the world. AU's chair is the first UNESCO chair in Alberta and the Prairie provinces.
One other UNESCO Chair in Open Educational Resources has been established at the Open University of the Netherlands. "We're working with that Chair to promote OERs internationally and to enlist UNESCO chairs on each continent to propagate the use and creation of OERS," said McGreal.
AU's UNESCO/COL Chair in Open Educational Resources is supported by:
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Commonwealth of Learning (COL)
The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
Alberta Advanced Education and Technology's Access to the Future Fund
Education for All
UNESCO's Education for All movement strives to overcome barriers such as poverty so that education is equally available to everyone.
Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa (TESSA)
TESSA, a program developing OERs for teachers and teacher educators in Sub-Saharan African countries, is another initiative supported by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL).
KIP and CAF Projects at Athabasca University
Funding from the Government of Canada's Knowledge Infrastructure Program (KIP) and Community Adjustment Fund (CAF) has supported the development of OERs at AU through several innovative information and communication technology infrastructure projects.
AU Press is AU's open access scholarly press. All of its books and journals are available online for free.
By Erin Ottosen