OER is about sharing, remember

Sir John Daniel, President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning

Sir John Daniel from the Commonwealth of Learning was interviewed by Creative Commons’ Timothy Vollmer recently about his ideas on open education. He is one of the wisest, most gracious members of this community, and I just loved some of the answers.

Many of the COL member states are located in the global south. How does an OER policy affect global south states differently than the global north?

I’m exaggerating quite a bit here, but we’ve observed that in the north people are more focused on producing OER and that in the south people are more focused on how they can use OER. Just a few months ago I was at the Open Courseware Conference in Boston. Perhaps three-fourths of the presentations there focused on producing OER, while only a small number were about re-purposing and reusing OER content. This has to change for the OER movement to take off.

In the south, there’s a cautious attitude of “there’s lots of stuff available, why not use it?” We’ve been encouraging the north to take a more universal approach and think multidirectionally. This is why we’re delighted that a school like the University of Michigan is using OER from Malawi and Ghana in its medical programs. Why should the University of Michigan create OERs about tropical diseases when there are folks that live in the tropics that can do it better? So, we encourage people to see OER production and use as a multi-directional flow.

Yes! Open education should certainly be about mutual sharing and cooperation! It should be about breaking down barriers that copyright industries have reinforced over the years, rather than amplifying one party’s voice at others’ expense. I think that Sir Daniel’s observations are accurate and an unfortunate trend in the OER movement which is often masked by claims about quality and access.

Open source and open access are often explained in terms of the benefits of sharing to the individual (after all, we talk about Open Educational Resources as products, things, artifacts, consumables, rather than Open Educational Systems, for example). Copyright licenses reinforce this because they’re applied to a specific work and there is little focus on an ecosystem of sharing. I guess this also has to do with the way in which we measure “how much information” we possess and how we understand quality. In the West, there is “so much information” and so we need to share it with those “in need”. But if information is truly unlike physical objects, we should see the Internet as a way not just to transfer information goods from one place to another, but to share resources the other way too. If we cared as much about cooperation and understanding, then OERs would look a lot different. Right now, one-way sharing is valued more than two-way sharing. But is it necessarily more valuable to give someone a gift continuously than to humbly receive as well? How about a structure for mutual sharing rather than a model for helping us to more easily consume?

I also really loved his answer to the question regarding international cooperation.

The work of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) is very important, but to the outside observer it is sometimes not apparent what IGOs do. What does COL do to “encourage and support governments and institutions to establish supportive policy frameworks to introduce practices relating to OER”?

If I may be so bold, I think your question reflects an American bias. The United States and other large, powerful countries tend to operate bilaterally. Smaller countries prefer the facilitative, collaborative approach of working via intergovernmental organizations. UNESCO is the extreme example, where 193 countries operate democratically, and everyone’s voice is at least in principle equal. When I worked at UNESCO, I was surprised how seriously the member states took the recommendations that were developed. They trust that sort of process more than directives that come at them bilaterally.

You can read the whole thing here.

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