OER in Africa - Undue Modesty of Aspiration?

The Open Education Global Conference was well-represented by our team earlier this year.

Catherine Ngugi

In recognition that 2017 marks the 10 year anniversary of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, it was extremely fitting that this year’s Open Education Global conference was held in Cape Town earlier this year. The conference has been an annual gathering of researchers, practitioners, policy makers and educators, coming together to collectively explore and learn from each other how open education is impacting global education. Saide’s OER Africa Initiative was well represented at the conference. Catherine Ngugi, the project director reflects.Prof. Narend Baijnath, CEO of Council on Higher Education, South Africa opened the conference with a keynote entitled, The End of the OER Crusade: Towards a New Evangelism, noting that the social justice mission of OER is undermined by the real challenges of digital reward systems, broad band access, smart phones, cost of data / airtime, institutional reward and recognition barriers. These barriers, he argued, have resulted in a situation where the potential of OER to improve teaching and learning, has yet to be fully realised. That said, Prof. Baijnath asserted that OER is nonetheless here to stay and urged those present not to fall short on this journey to achieve equitable access across the continent and globally, to quality content and excellent education, because of an undue modesty of aspiration.

Building on this theme of OER’s possibly stifled potential, Rajiv Jhangiani, a professor of Psychology from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in British Columbia, Canada, contended that OER advocates are currently facing a crisis of identity between pragmatism on the one hand and idealism on the other. In the conference’s first session entitled Opening Higher Education, Jhangiani argued that for users of OER, the criterion of cost is at the bottom of their list: OER users, he posited, are drawn to the freedom to adapt resources and thereby achieve the full potential of OER. Given this, he wondered why it is that OER is so frequently positioned as a free version of a static textbook. In his view, OER advocacy which engages faculty in conversions about why they do NOT use OER, is wrong-headed because it suggests that those who do not use OER are somehow ‘wrong’.  Instead, Jhangiani felt that the conversation should shift from OER to Open Educational Practices (OEP). This, he considered would be to take cognisance of the face that the audience for OER is a differentiated one. Faculty, he felt, would be far more likely to resonate with an aspirational argument about improving the practice of teaching and learning, than a ‘guilt-laden’ message about using resources.  In concluding his presentation, Jhangiani suggested that deliberate use of an argument that resonates with our differentiated audiences – and indeed on innovative pedagogy – might well be the key to shift the OER movement away from a reliance on donor funding to create OER. His full presentation is available here.

Jhangiani’s presentation echoed OER Africa’s trajectory over the past decade. In its nascence, OER Africa focused its efforts on proof of OER concept pilot projects with various African university partners. For example, faculty at Malawi’s Bunda College of Agriculture, needed a cross-cutting textbook that would cover various subjects taught by different faculty; their colleagues at the Kamuzu College of Nursing required relevant case-studies to support a newly introduced case-based curriculum. Working closely with faculty, together we successfully demonstrated the efficacy of OER as a means to fill a materials gap within a curriculum. Building on such experiences, OER Africa gradually shifted its focus to building a deepened understanding of how OER can be embedded into the normal practice of teaching and learning within universities.

This ongoing work formed the basis of my own presentation at OE Global. I shared initial findings from our current Institutional OER Practices Grant in which OER Africa is working, over 3 years, with 4 universities in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa, to support deepening pedagogical practices that employ OER and ICT to improve teaching and learning; and concurrently, to build an evidence base from the emerging lessons of experience to inform application of similar strategies in other African HEIs. Drawing from our own observations and from a mid-term external review, OER Africa has noted that each of the partner institutions recognise a need for resource-based flexible provision, e.g. flipped classrooms, part-time studies, distance education, and / or, online learning and have engaged in diverse activities and approaches towards harnessing OER and ICT to institutionalize improved pedagogies. It also appears that a heightened awareness of the practical value of resource based provision – coupled with the evolution of a very different ICT landscape than existed at OER Africa’ inception – has influenced a far more open approach to deploy OER practices to improve teaching. Thus, despite constraints faced by faculty to institutionalize OER practices, which range from the burden of time demanded for academic administration, to a widespread culture of creating educational content from scratch, there is a growing sense that judicious use of OER can help to improve the quality of courses: this is what faculty are interested in doing.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the extent to which the OER discourse in North America has been dominated by discussion on the need for affordable textbooks, this finding by OER Africa was echoed by Richard Baranuick, Founder and Director of OpenStax: , which he described as a USA-centric open textbook publisher. In his contribution to the closing Panel Discussion chaired by Philipp Schmidt, co-author of the Cape Town Declaration, where panel members from Canada, Australia, the USA and Poland considered whether the world is on the cusp of a revolution in teaching and learning, Rich argued that what colleges are truly interested in, is adopting and adapting curriculum.

As the conference drew to a close, there was a general consensus that policy – be it institutional or national – could be a bane or a boon to institutionalizing open practices. As noted by Sanjaya Mishra of the Commonwealth of Learning, understanding at national level, varies quite dramatically over what constitutes a Policy v Guidelines v Recommendation. This was a position supported by Alek Tarkowski, co-founder and coordinator of Creative Commons Poland, who argued that policy robs teachers of choice as it obliges them to follow a particular path. Delia Brown, Director of Australia’s Copyright Unit, which, amongst other things, supports teachers to practise their craft more effectively, offered a more nuanced view. She argued that as “policy helps government to do the things they want to do without wasting too much money”, advocating for copyright reforms which would result in increased availability of materials in the public domain, would inevitably be more effective than advocating for totally new OER policies. However, 10 years since the Paris Declaration, all seemed to be agreed that the biggest barrier to OER remains a lack of generalised awareness – a finding shared by OER Africa – and a need for advocates to demystify the concept by focussing on what OER can do for faculty and for their students: help them to improve the practice of teaching and learning.