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Open source is the future of teaching

The work of teaching in developing countries is often hindered by an absence of basic resources, a lack of infrastructure, as well as underfunding, corruption and sociopolitical instability.

Given these realities, how can we develop teachers in a way that promotes quality education for all?

Open education resources (OERs) are freely accessible, openly licensed materials that are available online for anyone to use in teaching and learning. They have the potential to build capacity by providing educators with direct access, at low or no cost, to ways in which they can develop their competence.

The transformative potential of OERs for teachers was the topic of discussion at a recent Teachers Upfront seminar. It began with an inquiry into the design of OERs to ensure they are suitable for professional teacher development. Dr Björn Hassler, a lecturer in the faculty of education at the University of Cambridge, identified four elements critical to OER design.

OERs should promote learning through effective classroom practice, as well as encourage school-based professional learning for teachers that is practical and practice-focused.

Further, when using OERs, due regard must be given to the overall design of teacher development programmes — this includes possible resource constraints and the use of digital technology. Plus, OERs should be (and generally are) in the public domain or introduced with an open licence so that they may be shared freely and adapted as needed. The latter is particularly important as it offers potential for the scaling and replication of effective teacher professional development.

However, it is not enough merely to provide these open resources. If it were, OERs could be used simply to maintain the status quo — replicating, at a distance, traditional models and approaches for teacher development.

What is required is the judicious selection of quality teacher education resources. Dr Ephraim Mhlanga, a programme specialist at the South African Institute for Distance Education, grappled with this concern during the seminar by addressing the question of quality assurance.

How do we assure the quality of OERs? Mhlanga proposed a number of solutions, including self-managed quality assurance processes, and using prospective end users to pilot resources. He also suggested using university students to check OERs for clarity, content and licensing; and using students to review OERs as part of their information literacy skills development.

In the end, responsibility for assuring the quality of OERs rests with the institution, programme co-ordinators and educators who use them.

As they have always done when crafting curriculums or prescribing textbooks, these stakeholders are ultimately responsible for choosing which resources to use. For this reason, much will depend on which resources they choose to use, how they adapt them to make them contextually relevant, and how they incorporate them into various teaching and learning activities.

The task of assuring quality was further explored by Carmel McNaught, a visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg. McNaught stressed the need to move beyond “edutainment” to identify open resources that serve a clear educational purpose. OERs should be selected based on their ability to assist with learners’ misconceptions, to help them with visualisation and to engage them in meaningful activities, she said.

Crucially, OERs should be used to support rather than supersede an educator’s existing knowledge base. “You don’t just download resources for the sake of it. As teachers, in any endeavour, you must think about what your students’ needs are and what you’re trying to achieve,” she said.

Given the breadth of open resources available and the absence of a comprehensive listing of all of them, OER repositories must also be vetted to ensure their quality. Searchers must be able to identify repositories that have developed out of a genuine need. A core of committed promoters with sustained enthusiasm needs to articulate a clear direction and focus, consult with their user communities and establish a good management process. Repositories should be open access, facilitate the easy addition of resources and have suitable granularity in searching.

The seminar considered the role of communities in producing and using OERs. Research indicates that collaborative creation and peer-to-peer sharing through learning communities are important catalysts in education interventions. To this end, communities of practice centred on OERs could offer teachers (and other users) a space in which to produce, share, discuss, evaluate and modify open resources relevant to their cultural context.

OERs have the potential to celebrate diversity and to capture local concerns without having to create new, original materials. By sharing these resources, and adapting and reflecting on their use, there is the potential to improve the materials — and the teachers who use them.

This process of continued improvement requires the buy-in of the broader education community too. So far, efforts to change traditional methods of teaching — which require learners to be largely consumers and not co-creators of information — have been slow. This, added to poor technological infrastructure, has made the sustained integration of OERs into academic activities difficult to achieve in Africa.

However, there is now a critical mass of universities in Africa with a basic understanding of OERs. What is needed is the involvement, support and uptake of these open resources by the public. Educationists must recognise their role in the “learning loop” by creating, disseminating and adapting OERs in their respective contexts.

Given the roughly 2 000 tertiary institutions and colleges of education in Africa, we cannot deny the urgent and unmet need for OERs in teacher development. This is a shared problem that requires a shared response from all in the education space.

Sarah Lubala is a knowledge manager at Bridge. The Teachers Upfront seminars are hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education

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