Building and supporting international Communities of Interest:Open Educational Resources/Open content

Susan D'Antoni, UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning

Open Educational Resources … why are they important?

The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, by promoting the sharing, adaptation and contextualization of content, has the potential to facilitate the expansion of the offer of higher education. OER can be of use to teachers who can adapt and use them in their courses, and to learners for independent study.

An international Community of Interest … why is it important?

Open Educational Resources, whether full course materials or course elements, constitute an important resource to higher education institutions, teaching staff and learners. However, if there is little or no awareness of their availability, they cannot be exploited.

With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning has created an international Community of Interest on OER, with the objective of increasing awareness, and supporting capacity building and informed decision making on the part of current and potential providers and users. Activities have been designed to foster an international dialogue and exchange of information, linking people who might not otherwise meet either in person or virtually to come together and participate in a debate.

Supporting such communities is directly related to UNESCO’s role in promoting international cooperation and acting as a clearinghouse.


Challenges … and new developments

Higher education institutions worldwide face significant challenges related to providing increased access, while containing or reducing costs. Meeting increasing and increasingly varied demand for quality higher education is an important consideration in the policy debate and institutional development in many countries. And it is particularly important in the case of developing countries, with demand that often greatly exceeds capacity in the existing higher education system.

New developments in higher education – from virtual universities and e-learning to open source initiatives – speak to the efforts on the part of both the traditional higher education community and new providers to address this increasing demand. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is facilitating not only open and distance learning expansion but also access to content openly available on the web.

The open source and open content movements can be seen as reflecting the philosophy of academe, which is based upon a collegial sharing of information and new discoveries through the peer-reviewed academic publication process to share knowledge. Open initiatives in higher education have crystallized around three major areas of activity: the creation of open source software and development tools, the creation and provision of open course content, and the development of standards and licensing tools. The outputs of all three may be grouped together under the term Open Educational Resources (OER). This term has been adopted by UNESCO to refer to the open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes [1].

OER … a model for sharing knowledge

Open Source and Open Content are seen as potential means to reduce the digital divide. Two comments were made to this effect at the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis.

President Mbeki of South Africa stated: “We ... believe that we should move with the necessary speed to implement the agreement to utilise various technologies and licensing models, including those developed under both proprietary schemes and open source and free modalities to expedite access to ICTs and the elimination of the digital divide by fostering collaborative development, inter-operative platforms and free and open source software.” Hans Van Ginkle, the Rector of the United Nations University, stressed the importance of creating “an information society open to all” … “It is my view that we really need to build a global community of open source developers…with the goal of empowering developing countries to become not only competent consumers of the information society but also important producers”.


UNESCO/IIEP … providing a platform for dialogue

UNESCO provides an international forum for discussion and debate on issues of concern to Member States. It has five main functions – as a laboratory of ideas, a clearinghouse, a standard setter, a capacity builder in Member States and a catalyst for international co-operation. This makes the organization an appropriate host for an international discussion of the movement to make educational content openly and freely available.

In 2002, UNESCO convened a meeting in Paris with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation on The Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries.

In the final declaration, the participants of the session expressed their

“…wish to develop together a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity, to be referred to henceforth as Open Educational Resources. Following the example of the World Heritage of Humanity, preserved by UNESCO, they hope that this open resource for the future mobilizes the whole of the worldwide community of educators [2].”

In 2003 UNESCO IIEP released a publication on The Virtual University: Models and messages/ Lessons from case studies ( ). Designed specifically for the web, this publication was then used as the basis for a series of Internet forums to promote and facilitate international discussion and debate of the important policy and planning issues raised by the authors of the cases. Three topics have been addressed: Policy issues in 2004, Free and Open Source Software for e-learning in 2004, and Open Educational Resources/Open Content in 2005.

OER … raising awareness

Open Educational Resources, whether full course materials or course elements, constitute an important resource to higher education institutions, teaching staff and learners. However, if there is little or no awareness of availability, OER cannot be exploited, and even with awareness of availability, there are challenges and barriers to its effective use.

IIEP is implementing a strategy to increase awareness at the international level, but also to promote informed decision making on the part of current and potential users and providers of Open Educational Resources.

This initiative is being supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which provides funding to a number of large OER projects. In explaining the interest of the Foundation in promoting OER, Marshall Smith, Director of the Education Program, states:

“There is a lot of educational material available on the web, but it is rarely organized in a way that can actually help increase the quality of instruction. Open courseware projects allow a professor anywhere in the world to see exactly how his or her colleagues present a specific body of knowledge to students. This growing set of resources has the potential to increase the quality of teaching worldwide.”

The Foundation describes its programme as having the goal to equalize access to knowledge. Its “change strategy” is based upon removing barriers to access to high quality open content, and understanding and stimulating use. And the work of IIEP is aimed at removing the barrier constituted by lack of information about the OER movement and available resources.

Building the community … a three-stage action

The initiative has been designed in three stages and with three specific aims:

  • to foster an international dialogue and exchange of information;
  • to link people who might not otherwise meet, either in person or virtually, particularly those who constitute the main constituency of UNESCO – developing countries – to come together and participate in a debate, and
  • to create an international Community of Practice on OER.

… a first forum

The first stage was designed to raise awareness and facilitate discussion through a tightly structured Internet forum during a six-week period in late 2005. The main objectives of the forum were to share information about some of the institutions currently providing and using OER, and to raise and reflect upon some of the main issues. Almost 500 persons participated, representing 90 countries, of which 60 were developing countries.

The forum was organized in four sessions. The first session, moderated by Sally Johnstone, Executive Director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, was an initial general reflection, during which participants were introduced to the concepts OER and open content.

Session Two addressed the perspectives of the providers and issues related to provision. During the first week, participants were introduced to four institutional initiatives, in each case by the project directors:

  • Anne Margulies, Executive Director, OpenCourseWare, Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
  • Richard Baraniuk, Director, Connexions, Rice University;
  • Candace Thille, Project Director, Open Learning Initiative, Carnegie Mellon University;
  • David Wiley, Director, Open Sustainable Learning Opportunity Research Group, Utah State University.

The cases were introduced in a background note and introductory message, with the participants then having the chance to interact with each of the “experts”. In the second week participants explored two key issues associated with provision of OER in an institutional setting:

  • the experience of faculty members, with Steve Lerman, Chair, MIT OCW Faculty Advisory Committee;
  • Intellectual Property Rights, with Lawrence Lessig, Stanford University Law School, and Founder and Chairperson, Creative Commons.

Session Three, on perspectives of the users and issues related to use, followed a similar pattern. In the first week, representatives from four organizations adapting and using OER in new contexts presented their cases:

  • Mohamed-Nabil Sabry, Director, University Centre for Research, Development and International Cooperation, Université Française d’Egypte;
  • Peter Bateman, Manager of Instructional Technology and Design, African Virtual University;
  • Pedro Aranzadi, Director of Projects, Universia;
  • Derrick Tate, Assistant to Chairman, China Open Resources for Education (CORE).

Specific concerns related to using existing OER were considered in the second week, particularly:

  • Learning Object Repositories and other tools for finding and retrieving OER, with Gerry Hanley, Executive Director, MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching);
  • cultural and language concerns, with Mamadou Ndoye, Executive Secretary, Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA).

During the final session, participants were invited to reflect upon the discussion of the previous weeks and to identify and rank the three most important issues to address in order to enable and promote the OER movement.

… an ongoing discussion

During 2006, the group has continued as a Community of Interest numbering 550 from 94 countries (as of June 2006). The first discussion was aimed at determining the priorities for a research agenda for OER. The group generated 110 questions, which they categorised and then refined to 25 priority research questions.

During the discussion, several important ideas bubbled up. First, the idea of creating a “Do-It-Yourself/Do-It-Together” portal was raised. Second, the group thought it would be interesting to know what lessons the FOSS movement would have for the OER movement.

The discussion of the “Do-It-Yourself/Do-It-Together” portal was structured around four basic questions – who the portal should be for, what it should have in it, how the information should be organized and, finally, what technological infrastructure would be best. The discussion resulted in an initial elaboration of what the Community feels is wanted and needed in a resource to become providers or users of OER.

In September the FOSS Community will be invited to identify FOSS for OER and to reflect upon the lessons that could be shared with the relatively new OER Community.

… a second forum

A second forum will be held in late 2006, and will focus on the main findings of the study of OER in tertiary education that is being undertaken by the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI). The purpose of this study is to map the scale and scope of current OER initiatives, and address four important questions concerning the development of OER initiatives, the development of sustainable cost/benefit models, intellectual property rights and, finally, improving access to and the usefulness of OER.

Interacting …debate and deliberations

From the many messages and exchanges during the first forum and the subsequent discussions a number of general issues have emerged. Firstly, the important role that faculty must play and the need for incentives for content creation and sharing – especially in developing countries. Intellectual Property Rights are a major concern to academics, who fear that material will be used without proper credit or permission. Creative Commons licenses have done a great deal to simplify and facilitate IP decisions, but copyright and intellectual property are nevertheless one of the most potentially confusing issues for any institution or individual deciding to make content openly and freely available. OER development costs were another important issue for content creators. At present most large-scale OER initiatives have benefited from substantial donor support – most especially from the Hewlett Foundation. The challenge is to identify sustainability economic models.

Language and cultural concerns were probably the most important issues from the user perspective, most especially for users in developing countries. Most OER initiatives originated in developed countries – particularly the USA – so as well as practical linguistic and cultural questions relating to the adaptation of materials, OER use also raises more fundamental questions. For example, is this something that institutions in developing countries will adapt and use? And will externally created resources really act as a catalyst for intellectual and academic development, as the developed country creators hope?

Participants identified the need for research to better understand the development and use of OER. Areas requiring research and documentation include best practices, gaps in knowledge, and a methodology for introducing OER into institutions. Finally, participants recognised the need for quality assurance mechanisms. This is an issue that can only grow in importance as the OER movement becomes more established, and as the volume of content and number and range of users increases.

The group made it clear that there are barriers to OER development and use. These included a general lack of information on, and understanding of, OER. At the moment, individual and institutional capacity for the development and use of OER is, in most places, limited. And institutional and faculty reticence to openness further limits the desire for and capacity to change. OER, as a means of making knowledge openly and freely available, challenges the current financial model of the university, and runs counter to the increasingly commercial and financially competitive environment of higher education today.

However, in spite of the barriers noted, there was no dispute among the participants about the importance of OER in global education.

Not just interacting … resources and outputs

Taken together, the three stages of the IIEP initiative are generating a number of resources. By the end of the second forum, these will include background documents and reports from both forums, OER research questions, an outline of a Do It Yourself/Do It Together portal, lessons learned from the FOSS movement and suggestions of suitable FOSS for OER and, finally, an analysis of the main issues for the OER movement and “way forward” document.

The community … an important role

The international Community of Interest on OER that has been formed brings together people who know a good deal about Open Educational Resources and those who would like to know about them. It facilitates sharing of information without the boundaries of time or geography. It links people who might otherwise never have an opportunity to share their common interests, experiences and concerns.

The resources generated for and by members of the Community are available to others, and constitute a record of the reflections and deliberations.

An eventual Community of Practice will allow those of the group who want to engage actively in the development or use of OER to continue to remain in contact and to advance this important movement to expand access to educational resources worldwide.

Creating and supporting such communities fits well the functions of UNESCO as a laboratory of ideas and a clearinghouse, a capacity builder and catalyst for cooperation among its Member States.


  1. UNESCO. 2002. Forum on the impact of Open Courseware for higher education in developing countries. Final report. Paris: UNESCO.
  2. UNESCO. 2002. Forum on the impact of Open Courseware for higher education in developing countries. Final report. Paris: UNESCO.

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