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Open Sourcing Education

After weeks of intermittent rain, the sun finally came out – bright but chilly – for a gathering of open education activists from around the world, meeting at the Shuttleworth Foundation’s offices, set in beautiful gardens in the Cape Town suburbs. We were there to discuss the possibility of drafting a Declaration on Open Education Resources, The model for the exercise was the OSI’s Budapest Open Access Initiative, so influential in profiling and driving the Open Access movement over the last 6 years. The Cape Town meeting followed on from the workshop sessions held at the iCommons Summit in Dubrovnik in June (which are reported on by Mark Surman and Phillipp Schmidt on the iCommons blog), and sought to codify and consolidate the understandings of open education mapped out in Dubrovnik.

The workshop was supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation and the Open Society Institute and was attended by an impressive array of leading names in open education, from Mark Surman, who helped facilitate the workshop, Darius Cuplinskas and Melissa Hageman from the OSI Information Programme, Helen King, Karien Bezuidenhout and Andrew Rens from Shuttleworth, Phillipp Schmidt from the University of the Western Cape, James Dalziel of Macquarie E Learning, Richard Baranuik from Rice University, Paul West from the Commonwealth of Learning, David Wiley from Utah State University, Peter Bateman from the Open University, Delia Browne from the Australian Copyright Advisory Group, Werner Westerman from Chile, student textbook activist David Rosenfeld from the US PIRG consumer group, Lisa Petrides from IKSME – and many more. The proceedings, which were very interactive, were tracked in a wiki during the course of the discussions, as the facilitators used a number of workshop techniques to collectively map the terrain, agree on values, identify strategies and brainstorm the selling points of open education resources.

What came out of this meeting for me? First of all, a realisation that the OER terrain is very complex, from a number of perspectives. Drafting a statement is going to  be an even more complex task than the Budapest Initiative and it will need to incorporate the diversity that emerged across the education system, vertically and geograhically, in the course of our discussions. Most importantly, there are major differences between the provision of resources at different levels of the education system – not always acknoweldged in the OER discussions. At schools level, there are much stronger local differences, of language, curriculum requirements and cultural imperatives. At all levels, it was acknowledged that the provision of content on its own was not enough, but that process and educator support needed to be built in. A revelation was the emerging realisation that, although the emphasis tends to be on textbooks for the classroom, it is in providing resources and training in how to use them for teachers that might have the biggest impact.

Important for me was the issue of local production and cultural diversity. The OER debate has moved on from the early days in which, all too often, an easy assumption was made that the provision of quality content from the North would solve problems of access to knowledge in one easy move. Interestingly, there was some agreement among the workshop delegates, not only that there needed to be globally distributed OER development and collaborative partnerships for adaptation and translation, but that sustainability was perhaps to be found in partnerships with commercial entities in new business models for the production of learning materials.

Brainstorming on what the world of education would look like in ten years’ time produced some really exciting visions of a very changed education system, much more lateral, much more distributed, but one in which the role of the teacher as mentor remained of vital importance. As James Dalziel said, “If we get open education right, we can change the world.” Although there was disageement on a number of issues and some robust debate, what emerged in the end was a manageable terrain, where the disagreements could be built into diversity, rather than being disruptive of the consensus that was reached. The most contentious issue turned out to be that of the kinds of licence that would be appropriate and that would signal true openness. This is something on which consensus is going to need to be reached over the next few months.

The availability of technology in the poorer countries of the world is a major concern and it was clear that this would need to be addressed if the vision of this group was truly to be a global one. Also, the interrelation between open access and open source software is important in education provision, given the role of delivery platforms and content repositories and the need to provide maximum support for teachers and learners.

The next steps? A draft declaration will be drawn up by Mark Surman, working with three ‘stewards’, Ahrash Bissell of CC Learn, Delia Browne, an IP lawyer working for the Copyright Advisory Group of the Australian government and  James Dalziel from the E Learning Centre of  Excellence at Macquarie University, also Australia. This will then be circulated to the broader group for feedback before being more widely canvassed. High profile supporters from academe and the educational world will be sought as champions for the initiative.

As Darius Cuplinskas said, “We’re about to launch a wave of creative disruption.” I am looking forward to it.

Lively debate in Cape Town

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