What makes a university great? In 2002 MIT decided that it was not the educational resources they shared with their students with, but the quality of interactions between students and their teachers, so made a foray into distance education by starting to put their course materials online so as to provide access to quality educational materials for anyone who wanted to access them. This was the beginning of the Open Educational Resources (OER)movement. At the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in 2005 an initiative was launched in a partnership between the Development Gateway Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to connect anyone with Internet access and the desire to learn to a world of free, high-quality open educational materials. The Development Gateway Foundation’s “Open Educational Resources” portal aimed to equalize access to education and help people in developing countries improve their chances for a better life. OER are now available from a multitude of universities across the world and, with the introduction of iTunesU, there are no shortage of materials in a range of multi-modal formats available on almost any academic subject you care to choose.
Cisco has also supported a number of open educational resources through the Cisco Networking Academy, in which all its content is made freely available to registered Academies across the world, and through some of its social investments in education including hairdressing resources for Africa and the global programme, Teachers without Borders.
For developing countries the opportunity to obtain free, quality resources can only be beneficial, but if it is the collaboration and instruction on such resources that provides the maximum value, then universities and other educational institutions accessing OER need to ensure that they are able to support students effectively. Additionally such resources may need customisation and localisation, as the style and mode in which they are presented may not be appropriate to another culture. Infrastructure constraints and insufficient bandwidth may also need to be addressed so that media-rich content can be streamed and stored.
There are additional tensions around the provision of OER as overseas students are lucrative sources of funds for universities. Why would universities in the developed world help those universities in the developing world by providing support for improving teaching quality and help those universities to become more proficient and economically viable through dual-teaching and mentoring using OER? Why would they help find opportunities to keep the brightest brains in country to teach the next generation? Why would they encourage students to study overseas and risk perpetuating the brain drain which is hitting continents like Africa particularly hard?
If OER is to benefit those less fortunate or unable to benefit from an education at the leading universities of the world, then there needs to be a willingness to support developing world universities, access to all resources needs to be affordable, and adaptation of OER may often need to be undertaken to make sure that:
resources are culturally, pedagogically and technologically aligned
the language of instruction is appropriate
assessment models associated with OER are robust
links are made with books and other media
OER resources are accessible on low cost and low power access devices
there is an ability to partnering with radio and TV stations for either podcasting, broadcasting or both
With the multitude of collaboration tools available today, an effective way for universities across the world to work together will emerge which will result in a win-win situation for all.