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Education resources for all

Have you ever wondered why the government doesn’t just produce a generic set of teaching resources for each subject and share it with us?

There is a plethora of different textbooks, charts, study guides, videos and worksheets for each subject or learning area. Affluent schools can afford to acquire the best of these resources and the learning environment they create for their learners is supposedly rich and engaging.

Less affluent schools may wonder why the government strictly sets out the curriculum, yet leaves each school to scramble around looking for suitable resources limited by its meagre budget and their availability in the district. This begs the question: why isn’t there a set of quality resources available to us all?

You can also expand this question: why do affluent universities and educational institutions throughout the world create their own course materials and then hoard them? It means each institution that wants to offer a first year physics course, for example, has to develop its own learning programme from scratch. Should it not take a course offered by another respected institution and adapt it so that it reflects local needs and differences?

You can probably guess the answers. Motivations such as institutional prestige, academic rivalry and economic benefit lie at the heart of this traditional set of behaviours. The publishing of textbooks is a multimillion-rand industry and although publishers want national endorsement from the education departments, they don’t want to be locked out of this lucrative market.

Open education resources (OER) could be the solution. The thinking on how we should handle the creation and sharing of educational resources in the future is being shaped by a debate between proprietary software vendors (Microsoft, for example) and the open-source community.

The latter argues that core sections of computer code should be offered free of charge to the wider community. Developers should take this code and add value by building additional functionality to the source code. Over time the free code is improved and expanded because the large community supports it.

Proprietary software vendors, on the other hand, argue that the code they developed belongs to them and is used to create revenue. They hoard and protect their code.

The new thinking in education circles is that we also need an open community of materials developers. We should build up a store of quality education resources that are free for any educator to take, customise for its learners and then share the enhancements.

Certain initiatives have already been set up to coordinate these efforts. The Open Courseware Consortium (www.ocwconsortium.org) is a group of universities which is trying to do just that. Members include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Open University (UK) and our own University of the Western Cape.

Various university courses and even entire learning programmes are collected by the consortium and offered free of charge to other institutions to use, adapt and share again. The repository shows a growing library of materials, with courses ranging from photography to polymer physics.

An organisation called Thutong (www.thutong.org.za) is doing something similar for schools. Each subject or learning area has been allocated a “learning space” that contains a set of tools to encourage sharing materials. We need to start the OER movement at school level right here and now, using the resources we produce every day to support our lessons.

Does it really make sense when every history teacher creates a lesson plan and materials to teach grade 12 globalisation from scratch? Surely we should pool our materials and, when we start a new section, we can first check the Thutong database for materials already developed by our colleagues. It will be our task to adapt and enhance them before we put them back for others to use.

Until now sharing of materials has been restricted by strict copyright rules. Although most published materials are subject to full copyright restrictions, there is now an alternative way to protect materials. Teachers can copyright their work using the more flexible creative commons copyright system.

It protects the author’s work by reserving some, rather than all rights. Have a look at www.creativecommons.org to understand the various combinations. This copyright condition allows others to change and adapt work to suit their purposes and is perfect for the OER movement.

Andrew Moore is a former teacher. He has an MEd Degree in computer-assisted education from the University of Pretoria. He works for Neil Butcher and Associates, an education technology consulting company.

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