Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Dec 05, 2019

This is the analysis of the UNESCO OER resolution I provided to the Canadian Commission for UNESCO prior to the discussion and vote on the resolution concerning Open Educational Resources

It is now a matter of historical record that the resolution did pass. Here is the final resolution. Here's an article about the vote.
 

Evaluation of CL/4291 “Draft text of the Recommendation concerning Open Educational Resources”, UNESCO. Stephen Downes. 19 September 2019.

Overall this proposed policy represents well the state of the art in open educational resources (OER) and would serve to further the aims and objectives of open online education.

Having said that, the document suffers from numerous cases of ambiguous terminology, some of it in places where serious misunderstandings could arise. I have flagged all such instances below.

The document also suffers in places from a lack of clarity about the role of OER, equivocating between a perspective where OER are materials used exclusively in formal education, such as schools and institutions, and a perspective where OERs are used more widely to support informal and non-formal learning. I have noted instances where this occurs and argue in general for the latter, wider, perspective.

Related to this is the discussion of quality that occurs throughout the document. While nobody is arguing against quality, much of the language at least implies that a regulatory framework ought to be put in place, one that might be appropriate, if it is appropriate at all, for resources being developed for lower level schools and classrooms.

There are numerous cases where such a framework would be inappropriate, especially with respect to community-based OER development, and for OER intended for informal, adult and corporate learning. There is also a danger that such a framework would inhibit, rather than enhance, OER development. Rather that recommending a supportive, rather than regulatory framework, with respect to quality.

This also relates to the question of who creates OER. While the document quite rightly points to the need to support disadvantaged communities, it often offers the perspective of requiring the provision of service to those communities, rather than that of supporting and empowering such communities. This raises the wider issue of digital colonialism, and the need for communities and cultures to have a voice and ownership over their own learning resources and development.

Finally, there is some tension in the document between commercial and non-commercial OER. . I note that UNESCO’s definition of OER explicitly endorses no-cost OER. There are various places where the document could be seen as endorsing fee-based OER, and I flag those.

Please find specific my comments below. I’ve skipped the obligatory UN-style headers section. The original is indented and in italics.

I. DEFINITION AND SCOPE

1. Open Educational Resources (OER) are learning, teaching and research materials in any format and medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others. 

This is the usual UNESCO definition. A variety of other definitions are available here: https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/What_is_OER%3F

The UNESCO definition is somewhat unique in that it required “no-cost” access. Various less stringent definitions have been attempted over the years in efforts to allow the commercial sale of OERs (for example, by requiring that a CC-by license be used). In my opinion, the “no-cost” provision is important and an essential component of the definition of OER. As I write here https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=67445 there are numerous declarations and statements asserting that the purpose of OER is access for all.

2. Open license refers to a license that respects the intellectual property rights of the copyright owner and provides permissions granting the public the rights to access, re-use, re-purpose, adapt and redistribute educational materials. 

I find the phrase “respects the intellectual property rights of the copyright” redundant, as you can’t normally grant a license to property you don’t own. I also find it vague, as the nature of intellectual property rights may vary across jurisdictions. Perhaps a better way to say the same thing is that the license does not surrender ownership of the resource in question. 

I would use the word “modify” instead of “adapt”. The word ‘adapt’ presupposes a context or intended outcome, which is not an essential part of the definition.

3. Information and communication technologies (ICT) provide great potential for effective, equitable and inclusive access to OER and their use, adaptation and redistribution. They can open possibilities for OER to be accessible anytime and anywhere for everyone including individuals with disabilities and individuals coming from marginalized or disadvantaged groups. They can help meet the needs of individual learners and effectively promote gender equality and incentivize innovative pedagogical, didactical and methodological approaches. 

Many of these practices are embodied in the concept of ‘open pedagogy’. See https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ca/Ed_Tech_Hegarty_2015_article_attributes_of_open_pedagogy.pdf

I think an important point to recognize here, and something that is embodied in open pedagogy and elsewhere, is that OER enable greater agency on the part of the learner. The section 3 just quoted represents learners as passive and as individuals who are being helped, provided, supported or incentivized. OER enable individuals to define their own learning path and outcomes, as they are able to access and adapt materials based on their own needs.

4. Stakeholders in the formal, non-formal and informal sectors (where appropriate) in this Recommendation include: teachers, educators, learners, governmental bodies, parents, educational providers and institutions, education support personnel, teacher trainers, educational policy makers, cultural institutions (such as libraries, archives and museums) and their users, ICT infrastructure  providers, researchers, research institutions, civil society organizations (including professional and student associations), publishers, the public and private sectors, intergovernmental organizations, copyright holders and authors, media and broadcasting groups and funding bodies.

A major stakeholder generally omitted here may be broadly classified under the heading of ‘employers’. This especially applies to employers in SMEs who do not have access to learning resources, but who have no less a need to provide training and development to employees.

In general, there is a tendency to treat OER from the context of traditional (formal) education, despite what this paragraph says. We may see this reflected in assessment of quality and outcomes of OER, for example, evaluation of the value of OER according to whether it is reused by teachers (as opposed to accessed and used independently by learners). This tendency should be resisted. In my view the most significant impact of OER will be (and is being) felt outside traditional and formal education.

II. AIMS AND OBJECTIVES

5. One key prerequisite to achieve SDG 4 is sustained investment and educational actions by governments and other key education stakeholders, as appropriate, in the creation, curation, regular updating, ensuring inclusive and equitable access, and effective use of high quality educational and research materials and programmes of study. 

There’s a bit of an equivocation in this section. The section is of the form: “there is a prerequisite of A and B, ensuring C and D.” This could mean that only A and B are prerequisite, with C and D and a desired result, or that the prerequisite is only those cases of A and B that ensure C and D. It could also mean that C and D are the actual prerequisites, with A and B suggested as means to achieve them. Or it could mean that A, B, C and D are prerequisites.

This ambiguity is removed by using the phrase “ensuring of” instead of “ensuring”.

It’s an open and empirical question of whether all of A-D are in fact required to meet SDG 4. The phrase “effective use of high quality educational and research materials and programmes of study” is limiting rather than enabling. What constitutes “high quality” and would lower quality resources (such as, say, the early Khan Academy videos, or student-produced resources) be sufficient (especially if the cost difference is significant). Similarly, what constitutes “effective use”? Arguably, any use might serve to satisfy SDG 4. 

The danger here, in my view, is that the wording supports a view where only materials known to be high quality and effective (however defined) are considered in this context to support SDG 4, and that these assurances can be made only by large enterprises, and that this condition would therefore work against grassroots and learner-led OER initiatives.

6. As is articulated in the 2007 Cape Town Open Education Declaration and the 2012 Paris OER Declaration, the application of open licenses to educational materials introduces significant opportunities for more cost-effective creation, access,  re-use, re-purpose, adaptation, redistribution, curation, and quality assurance of those materials, including, but not limited to translation, adaptation to different learning and cultural contexts, development of gender-sensitive materials, and the creation of alternative and accessible formats of materials for learners with special educational needs. 

True.

7. In addition, the judicious application of OER, in combination with appropriate pedagogical methodologies, well-designed learning objects and the diversity of learning activities, can provide a broader range of innovative pedagogical options to engage both educators and learners to become more active participants in educational processes and creators of content as members of diverse and inclusive Knowledge Societies. 

This statement is true, but narrowly expressed. 

What is intended here, I think, is to make the assertion that the provision of OER in and of themselves does not guarantee any desired educational outcome. Stated this way, I think the statement is almost trivially true.

The question is, what is needed in addition to OER in order to achieve desired educational outcomes (whatever those may be). Is it all and only “appropriate pedagogical methodologies, well-designed learning objects and the diversity of learning activities”? I think not. There is first of all significant ambiguity in the terms “appropriate” and “well-designed”. Additionally, the term “learning object” is a technical term and has a precise meaning in this context (see http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Learning_object ). Additionally, the use of the term “application” suggests OER as a ‘treatment’ as understood in the context of literature describing instructivist pedagogies.

I personally would remove the entire first part of this section and replace it with “OER can help provide a broader range…” – this makes it clear that OER do not enable this in and of themselves, but leaves open a wider range of options as to how this potential may be realized.

8. Furthermore, regional and global collaboration and advocacy in the creation, access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation, redistribution and evaluation of OER can enable governments and education providers to evaluate the quality of the open access content and to optimise their own investments in educational and research content creation, as well as ICT infrastructure and curation, in ways that will enable them to meet their defined national educational policy priorities more cost-effectively and sustainably. 

The point of this section is to point out the benefits of “regional and global collaboration and advocacy in the creation, access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation, redistribution and evaluation of OER.” I agree with the face that collaboration (or better, ‘cooperation’) would produce benefits. This section is however too narrow, in my view, in its explanation of howthose benefits would be created, and for whom the benefit would be realized.

With respect to ‘how’, this again is oriented toward a provide-consumer model of OER, with students as passive recipients. I would amend it as follows:

-  From “…can enable governments and education providers to evaluate…” to “…can enable stakeholders to evaluate…” (thus enabling learners, employers, etc., also to make assessments)

-  From “…to evaluate the quality…” to “…to assess the suitability…” thus allowing for more dimensions of assessment than ‘quality’ (however that would be defined), and to allow for multiple types of assessment of the same resource, from varying perspectives.

There is also ambiguity in the type of benefit produced. There is a lot of debate around the following point: “in ways that will enable them to meet their defined national educational policy priorities more cost-effectively and sustainably.” The argument here is that the purpose of OER is not to achieve efficiency or cost-effectiveness, but rather, to enable improved educational outcomes, broader participation, a diversity of benefits, etc. 

Finally, with respect to the question of whom OER should serve: the interests of learners, education providers, or national government (to name a few), while this section clearly identifies national governments as the recipients (which makes sense, given that it is directed toward national governments) it remains true that the actual benefits of cooperation are realized by all stakeholders, and that this actually makes a stronger case for cooperation.

9. Noting these potential benefits, the objectives and areas of action of this OER Recommendation are as follows: 

(i) Capacity-building: developing the capacity of all key education stakeholders to create, access, re-use, re-purpose, adapt, and redistribute OER, as well as to use and apply open licenses in a manner consistent with national copyright legislation and international obligations;  

Agreed. Capacity-building (as opposed to, say, resource production) is the key enabler to any OER strategy. This is especially the case with respect to non-traditional authors of OER, such as employers, research agencies, and learners themselves. 

One of the major benefits of OER is that it can be one of the major byproducts of other activities. This for example is part of the objectives of what can be characterized as ‘working out loud’ or ‘open working’, or in my domain, ‘open science’ or ‘open research’.

(ii) Developing supportive policy: encouraging governments, and education authorities and institutions to adopt regulatory frameworks to support open licensing of publicly funded educational and research materials, develop strategies to enable use and adaptation of OER in support of high quality, inclusive education and lifelong learning for all, supported by relevant research in the area; 

Agreed.

I would point out that numerous advocates, and no small number of governments, actually support mandated open access for publicly funded materials. The reason for this (as advocates such as Peter Suber and Stevan Harnad have long argued) is that without mandates, compliance rates are very low.

I found the addition of the phrase “supported by relevant research in the area” to be odd and out of place. Of course it is better to rely on research-supported methodologies. But this phase does not signify what research would support what activity. And it brings back to bear my comments on section 5 above.

(iii) Effective, inclusive and equitable access to quality OER: supporting the adoption of strategies and programmes including through relevant technology solutions that ensure OER in any medium are shared in open formats and standards to maximize equitable access, co-creation, curation, and searchability, including for those from vulnerable groups and persons with disabilities;  

Again I question the use of the term ‘quality’ in this paragraph. Of course we prefer quality, but its use here suggests that there is a class of OER (designated ‘non-quality’) that should be omitted from this recommendation (and therefore, what…? Not eligible for funding?)

I would use the word “discoverability” rather than “searchability”, because that is what we want to achieve (it’s the discovering, rather than the searching, that’s really important here), and because there are alternative mechanisms of discovery in addition to search (for example, syndication services, recommendations, etc).

Finally, and really importantly, I would change “including for those from vulnerable groups and persons with disabilities” to “including for and by those from vulnerable groups and persons with disabilities”.

This speaks to a very large issue in OER, that of colonialism. Numerous voices have expressed the concern that OER, and similar initiatives, are just another example of the privileged nations imposing their values on others. When the creation and provision of OER is just one way, I agree. It is critically important in my view to support and adopt a set of recommendations that ensure that OER support and promote not only the education of, but the identity and voice of those from vulnerable groups and persons with disabilities.

(iv) Nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER: supporting and encouraging the creation of sustainability models for OER at national, regional and institutional levels, and the planning and pilot testing of new sustainable forms of education and learning; 

The term ‘sustainable’ has two senses, and I’m not sure which of these is at work here: either (i) ‘sustainable’ as in ‘sustainable development’ (and therefore SDG 4) suggesting a sense of stewardship, especially of the environment, but also of cultures and values, or (ii) sustainable in the sense of fiscally possible, that is, with a business model, revenue model, etc.

The difficulty here is that ‘sustainability models’ of the second sort imply the development of some sort of commercial model, so that the initiative or programme does not rely on ongoing public or government support. It is not clear to me, however, that OER can succeed within a commercial model. What we have seen in practice, for example, with the development of Massive Open Online Courses, is that providers, after initially receiving significant funder support, pivot from the provision of free learning resources, to the deployment of a commercial for-pay model. In the current case, the sustainability requirement may require just such a model of commercialization and pivot.

I don’t have a good suggestion on how to revise the wording in this document to support the former, rather than the latter, interpretation of ‘sustainability’ other than to suggest that the context of ‘sustainable’ be made explicit.

(v) Fostering and facilitating international cooperation: supporting international cooperation between stakeholders to minimize unnecessary duplication in OER development investments and to develop a global pool of culturally diverse, locally relevant, gender-sensitive, accessible, educational materials in multiple languages and formats.

Rather than address a negative (and potential straw man) in “unnecessary duplication” I would prefer to see something like “maximize the benefits”. Minimizing duplication is only one way of ensuring prudent investment, and moreover, it is often not the best way (any good system will build in some redundancy). 

Rather than say “develop a global pool”, which suggests a single common supply, I would suggest “develop an abundance”, which suggests the same result, but does not make an a priori stipulation on how that result would be distributed. I know this seems like a minor point, but in practice I think we’ll find that a decentralized network of OER would be more sustainable (in both senses) than anything like a centralized ‘pool’.

III. AREAS OF ACTION

10. This Recommendation addresses five objectives: (i) Building capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER; (ii) Developing supportive policy; (iii) Encouraging inclusive and equitable quality OER; (iv) Nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER; and (v) Facilitating international cooperation. 

These five objectives are of course the objectives just stated. My preference is always to make such references explicit, eg., by stating “addresses the five objectives stated in section 9”.

(i) Building capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER 

11. Member States are recommended to strategically plan and support OER capacity-building, awareness raising, use, creation and sharing at the institutional and national levels, targeting all education sectors and levels. Member States are encouraged to consider the following: 

(a) building awareness among relevant stakeholder communities on how OER can increase access to educational and research resources, improve learning outcomes, maximise the impact of public funding, and empower educators and learners to become co-creators of knowledge; 

Very important: “empower educators and learners to become co-creators of knowledge”. Note that this is contrary to presuppositions of producer-consumer and instructivist modes of pedagogy, as noted above.

(b) providing systematic and continuous capacity-building (in-service and pre-service) on how to create, access, make available, re-use, adapt, and redistribute OER as an integral part of training programmes at all levels of education, including assistance in initial training programmes for educators. This should include improving capacity of public authorities, policy makers, quality development and assurance professionals to understand OER and support their integration into learning, teaching, research and everyday life; 

This is a recommendation explicitly for teacher education. While I agree teachers should learn these things, I think they should also be able to teach these things, because not only teachers are implicated in the production and use of OER. So I would want the educator’s role to be supportive here. That if, if teachers are to be trained in the use of OER (as they should) then they should be trained in how to support the use of OER by other people. 

I personally think of the use of OER as a kind of literacy. We want all people to be literate in OER. And to be literate means being able to access, use, create and employ OER for a wide range of learning objectives. So yes, while we want our teachers to be literate, we also want them to be able help learners be literate as well.

(c) raising awareness concerning exceptions and limitations for the use of copyrighted works for educational and research purposes. This should be enacted to facilitate the integration of a wide range of works in OER, recognizing that the fulfilment of educational goals as well as the development of OER requires engagement with existing copyright protected works; 

I think this is a little off topic, but still raises an important point. It’s very unlikely we will in the short term be able to rely on OER exclusively, nor may it be desirable to do so, for a variety of reasons. That said, the idea here is that the use of copyright works should be the exception, rather than the rule.

I would also encourage at this point some recognition of the fact that copyright is not an absolute. It is a right granted by governments, and is subject to limitations, such as those concerning fair use and expiry into the public domain. And it is important that governments and institutions understand that they do not need to comply with every and all request or stipulation made by commercial publishers, and that terms of service may be subject to being overturned by relevant law, as just recently occurred with LinkedIn’s terms of service (see https://www.forbes.com/sites/emmawoollacott/2019/09/10/linkedin-data-scraping-ruled-legal/#69688d8e1b54 )

(d) leveraging open licensed tools, platforms with interoperation of metadata, and standards (including national and international) to help ensure OER can be easily found, accessed, re-used, adapted and redistributed in a safe, secure and privacy protected mode. This could include free and open source authoring tools, libraries and other repositories and search engines, systems for long term preservation and frontier technologies for automatic OER processing and translation of languages (where appropriate or needed), such as artificial intelligence methods and tools;   

Agreed. 

(e) making available easily accessible resources that provide information and assistance to all OER stakeholders on OER related topics including copyright and open licensing of educational material; and 

I would say “making available open educational resources that provide…”

I resist the idea that a person must become expert in copyright in order to use and benefit from OER. Indeed, the introduction of the idea of copyright and licensing to the idea of sharing educational resources seems to me to be an unwelcome distraction from the main purpose. It leads to the feeling that the free and open use of learning resources is the exception, rather than the rule, and that special permissions are required in order to do it.

My preference is to assert and make clear that copyright itself is the special permission you need to have in order to benefit commercially from the distribution of a resource. This should be especially the case in the domain of education, where in many nations education is seen as a public good, provided non-commercially by governments, with fees (especially at the lower levels) the exception rather than the rule.

I understand that not everyone shares this perspective. Nonetheless, it remains true that licensing and copyright is only one small part of the concept of OER, and not the most important part.

(f) promoting digital literacy skills in order to master technical use of software, codes and open licenses with a view to encouraging the development and use of OER.

I am unsure what is meant here by “codes”. Moreover, ‘digital literacy’ is much more broadly defined, and the promotion of ‘digital literacy skills’ entails much more than the limited description set out here. 

I think that the two points, e and f, should be combined and rephrased as a broad statement about the need to promote resources and skills development needed to support the broad-based development and use of OER by the general public.

(ii) Developing supportive policy

12. Member States, according to their specific conditions, governing structures and constitutional provisions, should develop or encourage policy environments, including those at the institutional and national levels that are supportive of effective OER practices. Through a transparent participatory process that includes dialogue with stakeholders, Member States are encouraged to consider the following: 

(a) developing and implementing policies and/or regulatory frameworks which encourage that educational resources developed with public funds be openly licensed or dedicated to the public domain as appropriate, and allocating financial and human resources for the implementation and evaluation of policies; 

As mentioned above, it may be better to support, or at the very least, suggest, open access mandates.

This should be more precise: “…and allocating financial and human resources for the implementation and evaluation of policies” and should probably conclude with “…evaluation of open access mandates or policies.”

Note that I said “open access” rather than “openly licensed or dedicated to the public domain”. I said this because it ties to the wider issue of open government, open science, and open data, using a similar terminology. And also because “open access’ entails more than just open licensing. Open access requires actually making the resource available to people where they can access it, rather than simply attaching a license to what may otherwise be a private and unshared resource.

(b) encouraging and supporting institutions to develop or update legal or policy frameworks to stimulate the creation, access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution of quality OER by educators and learners in a manner consistent with national copyright legislation and international obligations; and to develop and integrate quality assurance mechanism for OER into the existing quality assurance strategies for teaching and learning materials; 

What I think would be really important here is that the assessment and evaluation of quality not become a burden that prohibits some entities (especially small and non-commercial entities) from creating and distributing OER.

There are good lessons to be drawn from the implementation of the ADA in the United States. The ADA is a well-intentioned and much needed piece of legislation and was important in ensuring that people with disabilities are able to properly access resources and facilities. An undesirable side-effect, however, was that in some cases ADA complaints prompted resources to be withdrawn entirely. See https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/20/berkeley-may-remove-free-online-content-rather-complying-disability-law

So what I think is more important than evaluation and assessment for quality is the provision of mechanisms that are more likely to promote quality outcomes. So instead of becoming a barrier, quality becomes something an OER policy can help people achieve.

A simple example: rather than develop a policy requiring that (say) all videos have closed captioned, a better approach would be to support the development of an application that can automatically (and reliably) generate closed captions for any video.

(c) developing mechanisms to create communities of practice, promote teacher professional development using OER, create networks of experts of OER and properly recognize the OER creation as a professional or academic merit; 

I would just say “recognize” rather than “properly recognize”.

(d) developing mechanisms to support and incentivize all stakeholders to publish source files and accessible OER using standard open file formats in public repositories;  

This could be worded a bit better (for example, using the term ‘source code’ rather than ‘source files’, and ‘standard open file formats’ could be worded more precisely) but the intent is important. The idea here is that in order to allow people to modify, reuse and redistribute OER the OER needs to be in a format people can actually use to do that. 

In software licensing this is enabled through the provision of open source; this is the actual programming code used to define the resource, rather than the compiled executable file. This is important because it is difficult or impossible to read or modify the executable file. So software isn’t ‘free’ unless it is open source (note that the converse isn’t true; software can be open source but not free).

(e) embedding OER policies into national policy frameworks and strategies and aligning them with other open policies and guiding principles such as those for Open Access, Open Data, Open Source Software and Open Science; and 

Yes, I’ve mentioned this in passing above.

(f) addressing the inclusion of OER in transforming education, adjusting, enriching or reforming curricula and all forms of learning so as to exploit OER potentials and opportunities, and encouraging the integration of different teaching methods and forms of assessment to motivate the active use, creation and sharing of OER; and assessing the impact of OER on inclusive and equitable quality education; 

Quite so. This is why it is important (as I suggest above) to ensure that the definition of OER and the definitions of the objectives do not in some way entail one particular resource model or pedagogy.

(g) encouraging and supporting research on OER, through relevant research programmes on OER development, sharing and evaluating, including the support of digital technologies (such as AI);   

This could be and probably should be more precisely worded. Presumably (for example) the ‘support’ of digital technologies would be with respect to their use in the development and use of OER, and not just generic support for digital technologies.

I think there’s a danger of getting the cart before the horse here, in the sense that this recommendation would support conducting research on OER prior to implementing OER. I think that at this point (17 years after the 2002 UNESCO declaration on OER) the research to be done ought to be research on actual implementations of OER, and not merely on (say) how to develop, share and evaluate OER. So I’d want to word it something like this: “supporting research programs that assess the development, evaluation and sharing of OER.”

(h) developing and implementing policies that apply the highest standards to privacy and data protection during the production and use of OER, OER infrastructure and related services.

I’m not sure what the “highest standard” would be in this case. Many nations would support something like GDPR, while others may argue that such a standard sets the bar too high. In education, especially, there are instances where the bar is often set lower, to facilitate the deployment of (say) learning analytics and adaptive learning.

I would say this is currently an area more suited to investigation rather than declaration of policy. Certainly there is a good deal of discussion taking place in the field now about data privacy and ethics in open and online learning (see eg. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/35165080/Practical_approaches_to_big_data_privacy_over_time.pdf?sequence=1 for a discussion of many of the factors involved.

(iii) Encouraging effective, inclusive and equitable access to quality OER. 

Again, while nobody wants to be an advocate for non-quality OER, its repeated use throughout this document suggests a framework where quality would be assessed a prioriand deployed as a constraint on the potential for individuals and small distributors to create and distribute OER. I think this would be the opposite of what we would desire as an outcome from OER.

I agree that access to OER is key (hence the emphasis on no-cost access, above, but elided in the document here). But also equally important is access to (if I may borrow a phrase without prejudice) the means of production of OER. Many people (including myself) would argue that one without the other merely replaces one form of consumerism (and perhaps even colonialism) with another.

13. Member States are encouraged to support the creation, access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution of inclusive and equitable quality OER for all stakeholders. These would include those learners in formal and non-formal education contexts irrespective of, inter alia, age, gender, physical ability, socio-economic status, as well as those in vulnerable situations, indigenous peoples, those in remote rural areas (including nomadic populations), people residing in areas affected by conflicts and natural disasters, ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees, and displaced persons. In all instances, gender equality should be ensured, and particular attention paid to equity and inclusion for learners who are especially disadvantaged due to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. 

And I would point out that it is so important, and widely understood in the educational community to be important, that the people listed here have a voice in the development of and use of OER, and not merely access to those created and produced by others.

Member States are recommended to consider the following: 

(a) ensuring access to OER that most suitably meets both the needs and material circumstances of target learners and the educational objectives of the courses or subjects for which they are being provided. This would include offline (including printed) modalities for accessing resources where appropriate; 

On the one hand this section has the useful purpose of discouraging the production or distribution of resources that can’t be used. A good example is the provision of computer disks (CDs, DVDs, etc.) to communities that don’t have power. Hence the recommendation that paper-based resources be deployed where appropriate.

On the other hand, it is also true that a cottage industry has developed whereby individuals print and resell paper-based OER to such communities, hence creating a cost to accessing resources where the intent was originally to provide no-cost access. Such cases are used to justify the use of ‘permissive’ licenses in OER allowing commercial redistribution.

My perspective is that this cottage industry should be discouraged. Rather than depending on commercial providers, it should become a priority for governments to either (i) provide electricity and computing resources, or (ii) provide and distributed free printed versions of the resources in question. While it may be true that in some cases commercial providers of printed materials are required, such cases should not be subsumed under the definition of OER.

(b) supporting OER stakeholders to develop gender-sensitive, culturally and linguistically relevant OER, and to create local language OER, particularly in indigenous languages which are less used, under-resourced and endangered; 

Rather than (say) paying some southern university to develop and distribute (say) Inuktitut-language resources, it would be better (to my mind) to fund Inuit communities to develop and distribute Inuktitut resources themselves.

I think there’s an important policy point here. A lot of advocacy comes in the form of one person recommending that another person be required to perform a specific service. But as a policy it may be more effective to deploy resources to enable the person needing the service to obtain or produce this service for themselves.

(c) ensuring that the principle of gender equality, non-discrimination, accessibility and inclusiveness is reflected in strategies and programmes for creating, accessing, re-using, adapting, and redistributing OER; 

Again, for the most part, people do not oppose these provisions (I certainly don’t). But again, rather than taking a stance that leans toward management and regulation, it is probably more effective to adopt a stance that is supportive and inclusive, in other words, to enable rather than require gender equality, non-discrimination, accessibility and inclusiveness, etc., and to employ regulation only where the provision of support is insufficient to move individuals or the community as a whole.

(d) ensuring public investments and incentivising private investments in ICT infrastructure and broadband, as well as other mechanisms, to provide increased access to OER, particularly for low-income, rural and urban communities;  

There’s a policy question here of whether private investments should be incentivized, or whether they should be required as a part of public licensing. If the outcome can be realized with incentives and support, great, but often (and currently, I would argue, in Canada) this outcome will not be achieved without public regulation of ICT infrastructure.

(e) incentivising the development and research of OER; and

I think this has been covered above, and the statement here is perhaps too vague to be useful.

(f) developing and adapting existing evidence-based standards, benchmarks and related criteria for the quality assurance of OER, as appropriate, which emphasize reviewing educational resources (both openly licensed and not openly licensed) under regular quality assurance mechanisms. 

I think there’s a concern here and the potential for greater policy implications.

Resources used in the educational system, and especially the primary educational system, are reviewed and assessed for suitability. In this content, ‘quality’ means ‘appropriateness for use in schools’. This is true both for resources used in public (ie., government) schools, as well as private schools and home-schooling. 

The use of OER therefore raises two questions: first, how do we ensure OER meet the same criteria for use in schools, and second, should these criteria apply more broadly to encompass OER not intended for use in schools? As mentioned above, proponents often assume the stance that OER means only resources used by teachers in educational settings, and so we have proposals that address the quality of OER, to ensure inappropriate resources are not used in schools.

But who pays for this? It goes without saying that assessing each OER potentially used in schools would create a lot of cost overhead. It would not be feasible to assess all possible resources that could be used in a school. So the ‘qualify assurance’ recommendation creates a built-in limitation on the quantity of OER that can be produced, and by implication, a limitation on who can produce OER. Is this desirable? Are “regular quality-assurance mechanisms” the appropriate response here? I would argue that they are not. As suggested above, in my view, it would be more appropriate to promote initiatives that support quality as opposed to initiatives that create mechanisms that require quality.

The question becomes even larger when we consider the larger application of OER outsidethe domain of formal educational curricula. Many people – millions! – produce OER. It would not be acceptable (I would contend) to require that all these people satisfy an OER quality framework before they are allowed to distribute their OER. At the very best, any quality enforcement mechanism would have be a posteriori – that is, it would apply only after the resource is distributed, and apply as a corrective. Even so, the expense required could be considerable. 

Finally, there is a significant question: what counts as quality? There have been some suggestions for quality frameworks (for example, TIPS http://oasis.col.org/handle/11599/562 and CARE https://careframework.org/ and ECEC https://nesetweb.eu/en/resources/library/the-current-state-of-national-ecec-quality-frameworks-or-equivalent-strategic-policy-documents-governing-ecec-quality-in-eu-member-states/ ). But in all cases, what counts as quality depends on purpose, and in the world of educational resources, there is no single purpose, but multiple purposes, as evidenced by the list of stakeholders above. 

From my perspective, the issue of quality in OER is a straw man. It deflects (and is used to deflect) from the objective of OER, which is to provide access to learning resources. While nobody can reasonably argue against quality, the case for quality is notoriously slippery and difficult to make, especially with regards to pedagogy, outcomes, and minimum acceptable standards.

(iv) Nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER

14. Member States, according to their specific conditions, governing structures and constitutional provisions, are recommended to support and encourage the development of comprehensive, inclusive and integrated OER sustainability models. Member States are encouraged to consider the following: 

(a) reviewing current provisions, procurement policies and regulations to expand and simplify the process of procuring quality goods and services to facilitate the creation, ownership, translation, adaptation, curation, sharing, archiving and preservation of OER, where appropriate, as well as to develop the capacity of all OER stakeholders to participate in these activities; 

Again, nobody argues against quality goods, etc., but the including the word here creates more confusion than clarity.

(b) catalysing sustainability models, not only through traditional funding sources, but also through non-traditional reciprocity-based resource mobilisation, through partnerships and networking, revenue generation such as donations, memberships, pay what you want, and crowdfunding that may provide revenues and sustainability to OER provision while ensuring that costs for accessing essential materials for teaching and learning are not shifted to individual educators or students; 

Above we discussed the meaning of the word ‘sustainable’. Here we have the word used explicitly in the second sense, that is, sustainable in the sense of fiscally possible, that is, with a business model, revenue model, etc.

I address sustainability of OER in my paper on the subject: https://www.oecd.org/education/ceri/36781698.pdf

Since then, many (if not most) of the models discussed above have been found to be deficient. In particular, there has been no wide-spread success of donations, memberships, pay what you want, and crowdfunding. Such models (DonorsChoose https://www.donorschoose.org/  is a good example) tend to disproportionately reward a small number of contributors (an example of the Power Law phenomenon) (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/12460125.2019.1587133?af=R&journalCode=tjds20   ) and to shift the cost of materials onto teachers, to the point where they have been disallowed in numerous jurisdictions. http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2019/03/donors_choose_district_ban.html

Therefore, it could be argued that ‘sustainability’, as defined here, is an undesirable outcome, and that the purpose and objectives of OER would be better served as a public benefit rather than as a self-sustaining enterprise.

I would also argue, in relation to this, and congruently with other points about the informal uses of OER, and the need for various communities to have a voice in the creation and use of OER, that community-based OER initiatives are mostly likely to provide the best outcomes from a national government and funder perspective.

As I stated in 2006, we need to rethink the idea of ‘producing’ OERs at all. Rather than think of OER in terms something that is done for learners, and supported through some sort of sustainable (or commercial) program, we need to think of the production and use of OER as something that learners do for themselves.

(c) promoting and raising awareness of other value added models using OER across institutions and countries where the focus is on participation, co-creation, generating value collectively, community partnerships, spurring innovation, and bringing people together for a common cause;  

There is something that should be explicitly discouraged, in my view.

The idea of a “value added models using OER” is that the OER is used as free content around which other goods and services are wrapped, effectively enclosing the OER in a commercial container.

In addition to concerns about this creating cost to what would otherwise be free resources (thereby running counter to the premise that OER support no-cost access) there is a wider concern about the commodification and commercialization of individual labour and community culture.

We see this concern raised in other areas as well. In the realm of social media, there is the argument that sites such as Facebook and YouTube commercialize and monetize public discourse, using member contributions as free labour. Additionally, in the realm of big data and machine learning, there is the concern that companies such as Google and Facebook commercialize and monetize activity and social graph data, again using member contributions as free labour.

Now it is possible that this is not the intent of section (c) as cited here. However, it could certainly be interpreted that way, and so perhaps more neutral wording could be employed that does not employ the concept of “value added” in the context of OER.

(d) enacting regulatory frameworks that support the development of OER products and related services that align with national and international standards as well as the interest and values of the OER stakeholders;  

As suggested above, regulatory frameworks as such are more likely to inhibit, rather than promote, the development and use of OER.

(e) fostering the faithful linguistic translation of open licenses as defined in this Recommendation to ensure their proper implementation; 

I would use the word “supporting” rather than “fostering”, as these translation exercises, at least in the case of Creative Commons, have been underway for many years now.

(f) providing mechanisms for the implementation and application of OER, as well as encouraging the feedback from stakeholders and constant improvement of OER; and

(g) optimizing existing education and research budgets and funds efficiently to source, develop and continuously improve OER models through inter-institutional, national, regional and international collaborations.

(v) Promoting and reinforcing international cooperation

15. To promote the development and use of OER, Member States should promote and reinforce international cooperation among all relevant stakeholders, whether on a bilateral or multilateral basis. 

Member States are encouraged to consider the following: 

(a) promoting and stimulating cross-border collaboration and alliances on OER projects and programmes, leveraging existing transnational, regional and global collaboration mechanisms and organizations. This should include joining efforts on collaborative development and use of OER as well as capacity-building, repositories, communities of practice, joint research on OER and solidarity between all countries regardless of their state of OER development; 

 

I find that in this document ‘cooperation’ is generally interpreted as meaning ‘collaboration’. Where possible, the term ‘cooperation’ should be use, in my view, because to ‘collaborate’ means to work together for a common goal, while to ‘cooperate’ means to work together for mutual benefit, even where goals may be distinct. I think we’ll find there are far few cases of common goals available than there are cases of mutual benefit.

(b) establishing regional and international funding mechanisms for promoting and strengthening OER and identifying those mechanisms, including partnerships, that can support international, regional and  national efforts; 

(c) supporting the creation and maintenance of effective peer networks that share OER, based on areas such as subject matter, language, institutions, regions and level of education at local, regional and global levels;  

The term ‘peer networks’ in this context can be a technical term, and it’s not clear whether the document intends it to be used that way.

A ‘peer network’, sometimes called a ‘distributed network’, is one in which there is no central service, but rather, numerous member-to-member (aka peer-to-peer) connections, so that functionality (such as work, data storage, data transfer, computing, or other activities) are distributed across the network. See eg. https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/win32/p2psdk/what-is-peer-networking-

It is possible that the authors intended the term ‘peer network’ to mean a social network composed of people who are peers with each other (aka a ‘community of practice’ (see https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/ )) to organize based on subject areas, language, etc. If this is the case (as seems likely) then the term ‘community of practice’ should be used instead of peer network. 

Having said that, there is a lot of merit to the idea of deploying OER using peer networking ( I write about it here https://www.ijoer.org/a-look-at-the-future-of-open-educational-resources/ ). But this document is probably not the place for sucha recommendation.

(d) incorporating, where appropriate, specific clauses relating to OER in international agreements concerned with cooperation in the fields of education; 

Without knowing what “specific clauses relating to OER in international agreements” it is not possible to evaluate the merit of this proposal, and I certainly wouldn’t sign on to it without knowing what it means, given its potential to constrain future agreements.

(e) exploring the development of an international framework for copyright exceptions and limitations for education and research purposes to facilitate cross-border exchange and cooperation on OER; and 

I have expressed in the past strong opposition to the idea of “of an international framework for copyright exceptions and limitations for education and research purposes” despite the apparent merits of the idea.

The difficulty with such a provision concerns the definition of ‘education’ (and in wider contexts, ‘research’). In particular, ‘education’ is typically thought to be only the activities conducted by and in the context of educational institutions such as schools. 

However, a significant proportion of the benefit (arguably, most of the benefit) of OER and of access to learning resources generally occurs in the context of informal and non-formaleducation. But ‘exceptions and limitations for educational purposes’ do not typically apply to these contexts, and so (for example) people learning on their own, or learning in the workplace, are not able to take advantage of these exceptions and limitations.

Further, limiting these exceptions and limitations to educational and research purposes privileges educational and research institutions, and enables people who attend them (usually paying tuition or other costs) to enjoy privileged access to learning resources. It also creates a need for and demand for commercial resources that may persist after leaving the institution, creating an ongoing demand for these commercial resources.

It may be the case that these results are desirable; that is a policy question. But these results are not consistent with the aims and objectives of a policy supporting OER, in my opinion.

(f) supporting the contribution of intercultural communication skills, the management of multicultural groups, the design of communities of practice and community adjustment strategies in the local implementation of OER to promote universal values.

IV. MONITORING 

16. Member States should, according to their specific conditions, governing structures and constitutional provisions, monitor policies and mechanisms related to OER using a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches, as appropriate. Member States are encouraged to consider the following: 

(a) deploying appropriate research mechanisms to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of OER policies and incentives against defined objectives;

I’m not sure there’s a need to limit research to ‘defined objectives’ here. It would be prudent to be watchful for unexpected risks and benefits.

(b) collecting and disseminating progress, good practices, innovations and research reports on OER and its implications with the support of UNESCO and international open education communities; and 

This is already being does by the OER Research Hub http://oerhub.net/ and the OER World Map https://oerworldmap.org/

(c) developing strategies to monitor the educational effectiveness and long-term financial efficiency of OER, which include participation of all relevant stakeholders. Such strategies could focus on improving learning processes and strengthening the connections between findings, decision-making, transparency, and accountability to inclusive and equitable quality education and research.   

The definitions of ‘educational effectiveness’ and ‘long-term financial efficiency’ would be difficult to obtain. It may be more prudent simply to monitor the long-term social and economic impacts, if any, of OER. The outcomes of such research would determine how it can be best applied.

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Overall, I think it should be adopted. I think the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. And many of the criticisms I have may have been the result of compromises required to get it to this point in the draft. If it’s yes or no, I would vote yes.

If, however, there is the possibility of revising the draft document, addressing some of the concerns I have outlined, then I would recommend taking this opportunity, if the delegation agrees with the substance of my comments on the document.

 

Mentions

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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada
stephen@downes.ca

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Last Updated: Oct 21, 2020 9:54 p.m.