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Butcher deconstructing oer and its potential for african higher education

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  • 1. Deconstructing OER and its Potential for African Higher EducationNeil ButcherOER AfricaSouth AfricaOER Africa has been established to play a leading role in driving the development and use ofOER in higher education systems on the African continent.In brief, the concept of OER describes educational resources that are freely available for useby educators and learners, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or license fees. Abroad spectrum of frameworks is emerging to govern how OER are licensed for use, some ofwhich simply allow copying and others that make provision for users to adapt the resourcesthat they use.OER is not synonymous with online learning or e-learning, and indeed, in an African context,it is anticipated that many OERs produced –while shareable in a digital format (both onlineand via offline formats such as CD-ROM) – would need to be printable to be useful. Thus, weanticipate that a very high percentage of resources of relevance to African higher educationwill be shared as RTF or similar files (for purposes of adaptation) and packaged as PDF files(for purposes of printing).High quality human resources are vital to national development and the creation of globalcompetitiveness. A key component to producing these human resources is an effective,quality higher education system. While in most African countries higher education wasregarded as a vital instrument of development immediately after independence, (late 1960sto early 70s), it came to be accorded greatly reduced priority in the mid 1980s by leadingdonor countries, international agencies, and some African governments. Notwithstandingan increase in donor funding to some universities and growing income through student feesin recent years, there remains a relative under-investment in Africa’s higher educationinstitutions. The last two decades have seen a rapid rise in student enrolments at mostinstitutions, but a corresponding reduction, in real terms, in the public financial resourcesallocated to higher education institutions. Where increases in funding have taken place,they have generally not been sufficient to combat the combined effects of inflation andgrowing student enrolments. This has impacted on issues of quality as resources failed tomatch the rate of increase in enrolment and African universities have been called upon todo more with less in terms of infrastructure, teaching and research facilities, and staff.Within this context, our ‘Theory of Change’ for OER begins by identifying a clear set ofspecific problems, as follows:1. African higher education institutions are seriously structurally under-funded for the core function they are expected to discharge.2. This has led to corresponding paucity of institutional and individual capacity to teach in many domains of higher education. Academics are overtaxed in time and ability to teach, reducing time available for ongoing programme and materials development. 1
  • 2. 3. Because academics are over-extended, they may be reluctant to alter the current passive teaching and learning paradigm to one that is more active on the part of the student, as this generally increases the teaching burden.4. In many higher education programmes on the continent, the amount of money available to run those programmes is inadequate to meet the educational needs of enrolled students, as well as to cover the costs of faculty time required both to design and run quality learning experiences.5. There are too few learning resources for learners and lecturers in African universities, and many of those available are too expensive to be purchased by universities or students.6. Much existing content available to and within African universities is based on weak and largely outmoded educational design principles. Although a high priority, updating such content is very difficult to do in contexts where faculty members are already overtaxed and often need extensive support and capacity development to be able to design effective educational materials.7. Although improvements will occur over time, there is limited ICT infrastructure to gain access to up-to-date information available on the Internet and to participate in inter- institutional, geographically dispersed collaborative activities.Given the above context, the following key assumptions become essential to consider whenharnessing the potential of OER in African higher education:1. Increased availability of high quality, relevant, need-targeted learning materials can contribute to more productive learners and faculty members. This is particularly important in African higher education contexts, as structural under-investment in curriculum/materials design and ongoing professional development have left a significant legacy of either outdated or inadequate curricula and teaching materials.2. Because OER removes restrictions around copying existing resources, it holds potential for reducing the cost of accessing educational materials in environments where students often cannot afford to buy textbooks and libraries are insufficiently resourced to supply ongoing demand for high quality educational materials.3. The principle of allowing adaptation of materials can contribute to enabling learners to be active participants in educational processes, whereby they learn by doing and creating, not just by passively reading and absorbing. By making this widely understood, OER can play a significant supporting role in improving the quality of pedagogy in African higher education institutions. However, it is essential to remember that – at its core – OER is a concept focused on changing licensing frameworks for educational resources, not a strategy for transforming educational practice. While it can support the latter, such transformation depends on a grounded understanding of the requirements to design effective education and strong institutional commitment to supporting efforts to support design and implementation of high quality educational programmes.4. The potential of OER is best achieved through a collaborative partnership of people working in communities of practice, preferably across institutions (although sometimes also within them). Collaborative OER processes built on networks of peer faculty members can lead to increased availability of relevant, need-targeted learning materials, achieving a better understanding of learners’ needs and motivating meaningful contributions from participating institutions. Where such partnerships do currently exist in African higher education, they are predominantly with developed country institutions, 2
  • 3. most – but not all – of which tend to be structured as contributions by the Northern institutions either in kind or in resources to the Southern institutions, rather than true relationships between equals. Very few spaces exist to stimulate partnerships across African countries, although this is potentially a very powerful way of leveraging the limited capacity that exists within the continent’s higher education systems.5. OER has the potential to build capacity in African higher education institutions by providing educators with access, at reduced cost, to the tools and content required to produce high quality educational materials and complete the necessary instructional design to integrate such materials into high quality programmes of learning. While OER themselves attract no licensing fees, it is important to note that it is nevertheless critical to spend money on designing new materials or adapting existing materials to fit a specific educational context, as well as on ensuring that channels of access (Internet access, distribution of printed materials, and so on) are sufficiently robust to ensure that OER are accessible to those who need them. Above all, given the context mapped out above, it is essential to ensure that all efforts to harness OER to support African higher education serve – above all else – to systematically build institutional capacity to enable African universities to deliver quality higher education programmes to their growing student populations.6. To be successful and sustainable, development of OER cannot be a sideline activity within a university. It must be integrated into institutional processes in order to both leverage its potential and provide for its sustainability. Likewise, institutional policies, particularly around intellectual property rights, remuneration, and promotion, need to be adapted to support and sustain development and use of OER, systematically and consistently improve and update curricula and teaching materials, reduce operating costs, develop institutional capacity, and manage growing student cohorts more effectively.7. The potential of OER includes can help to facilitate collaborations between faculty members and students at different institutions, and establish a new economic model for procuring and publishing learning materials. Ultimately, a key to its success will be to demonstrate that, in the medium- to long-term OER processes will help over-stretched faculty members to manage their work more effectively, rather than adding new work requirements to their job description.8. OER Africa seeks to facilitate the design of OER that can work immediately and add educational value within the current ICT infrastructure constraints of any participating institutions. This is particularly important given that these infrastructure constraints are typically more severe in Africa than in other parts of the world, and the need to have an impact immediately is very strong. Conversely, proving the potential of a concept that will only have an impact when these infrastructural constraints are removed is of little value to African higher education institutions in the short to medium term. From this perspective, it becomes essential to keep proposed interventions simple and focused, rather than over-burdening them with developmental agendas that our disproportionately large and complex for the scale of intervention designed.This is in keeping with OER Africa’s vision of vibrant, sustainable African higher educationinstitutions that play a critical role in building and sustaining African societies andeconomies, by producing the continent’s future intellectual leaders through free and open 3
  • 4. development and sharing of common intellectual capital. We extend on open invitation toanyone interested in working with us to achieve this vision.For more information, see www.oerafrica.org. 4

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