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At OER Africa we were encouraged to see that the UNESCO Recommendation on OER aims to facilitate international cooperation to 'develop a global pool of culturally diverse, locally relevant, gender-sensitive, accessible, educational materials in multiple languages and formats'. This is a powerful ideal, and OER Africa has been grappling with the complexities surrounding diversity promotion. We have written this article in the hope that it contributes to an ongoing conversation – within our initiative and beyond – on diversity in the OER space.

Cultural diversity refers to the practice of including people from varied socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, as well as people of different genders and sexual orientations. This article will focus predominantly on inclusion of people from Africa and the global South.

On 21 May, we celebrated World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development. Despite this, African resources, as well as its people and its languages are underrepresented in global digital knowledge networks. To take one example: Wikipedia has more articles about Paris than it does about the whole of Africa.[1] In addition to a lack of African content, African narratives are often written by people outside Africa, enforcing biases in the content with which Africans engage and in how Africa is represented.

Without knowledge and narratives created by people from Africa, Africans are, from a very young age, prevented from experiencing an accurate representation of their world, in their languages, and from being able to contribute to developing such a representation. This is exacerbated by education systems that are not yet systematically (or systemically) developing the skills young Africans need to contribute to global knowledge networks. These skills include creativity and critical thinking, which could be taught effectively when covering Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS), unfortunately an area under-researched and under-taught in African contexts. Creativity and critical thinking allow society a broader perspective, encourage innovative solutions to solving problems and unlock the skill to generate new and useful ideas. Creativity and critical thinking are essential for building self-awareness and agency and unlocking our collaborative futures.

Open licensing offers great promise in this regard, as historically, knowledge production and cultural narratives have been controlled by a minority. More than improving access to knowledge, open licensing can shift the power dynamic and allow more diverse people to be the creators and consumers of knowledge. By improving the diversity of the knowledge that is created, we make it more representative and therefore more accurate. As Clement notes,

When we implement OER, we must continuously ask ourselves ’whose knowledge is being foregrounded and whose view of reality is being entrenched‘ in these materials (Adam et al. 2019)? If decolonization is not foundational to OER implementation, the OER initiative betrays its own philosophy.[2]

As COVID-19 has highlighted, compounding the issues mentioned above is the digital divide, which is widening as many communities do not have access to the Internet or cannot access vital information in their own languages, thereby being excluded from global knowledge networks or participating in them only as passive consumers. However, the influx of mobile phones for access to the Internet has enabled the proliferation of OER access in Africa and beyond. Czerniewicz, Willmers, and Hodgkinson-Williams (2020) explain that, in addition to addressing the cost and lack of access to education materials,

The democratised authorship approach entailed in many forms of OER production is conducive to collaboration and peer-to-peer knowledge production. In this sense, OER can provide a mechanism through which to challenge the Western-oriented worldviews enshrined in traditional textbooks and other teaching materials, and can be used as a tool for addressing transformation in the classroom.[3]

Similarly, Adam, Bali, Hodgkinson-Williams, and Morgan make the point that it is important to critically examine ‘in whose eyes open education is deemed ”valuable”; whose knowledge is being foregrounded and whose view of reality is being entrenched?’[4] It is only through this lens that we can interrogate OERs that may be grounded in coloniality, and move towards an empowering discourse of acceptance and representation. Initiatives to decolonize curricula such as de Beer (2019) [5] provide numerous ideas for making curricula and classrooms less colonial. Examples include: incorporating indigenous knowledge into the teaching of DNA, ethnobotanical knowledge and the making of soaps in science classrooms or laboratories; featuring contextualized practices in health and and agriculture; providing project-and problem-based learning environments for students; using puppets to provide different viewpoints in school classrooms; and using indigenous technologies to solve problems.

Internationally, ‘Achieving the Dream’, which promotes student success in community colleges in the US, shows in Using Open Educational Resources how important OER are.  It suggests that, by using OER, culturally responsive educators can adapt and localize content to suit learners’ needs, translate into other languages, incorporate learner content, and ensure that it does not contain bias or stereotypes. Culturally responsive teaching comprises eight competencies, as illustrated in Figure 1. These competencies are relevant for all teaching situations. They include building on students’ prior knowledge and cultural background, accepting that there are multiple ‘ways of knowing’ beyond Western scientific knowledge, and promoting student success rather than competition and ranking.

Figure 1: Competencies for Culturally Responsive Teaching

Source: Culturally Responsive Teaching CC BY

Cultural diversity in OER can be promoted through: the exploration of innovative ways of bringing together people from culturally diverse backgrounds and different parts of the world into decision-making processes regarding OER strategy and advocacy efforts; sourcing funding for people in the global South to create and share OER; and tracking progress for any initiative, or community actions towards achieving tangible cultural diversity outcomes espoused in the OER.

Below are some key resources, websites, and portals that promote cultural diversity especially African culture and Africa-created resources.

  • WikiAfrica Education engages young Africans through local cultural organizations to create and translate content about and for Africa on Wikipedia. The goal is to get people engaged and inspired to create content for and about Africa in African languages to ensure better representation of African languages online.
  • For teacher education, the OER Africa website Teacher Education Network suggests possible resources and ways in which institutions have used OER with their students.
  • The Health Informatics Building Blocks (HIBBs) Program was designed to build workforce capacity in resource constrained environments to plan, develop, manage, and use health information and communications technology applications, with the goal of improving the delivery of health care.
  • The OER Africa Agshare collaboration programme created openly shareable different types of OER that strengthened agriculture faculties and curricula and created downstream uses of the OER for other stakeholders.
  • The African Storybook OER website and its associated apps enable writers from across the continent to develop their own storybooks and immediately publish them on the website.  It also enables translation of any of the approved existing storybooks into home languages. Already over 200 languages of Africa are represented on the website. African Storybook is then a repository of openly licensed storybooks for teachers, librarians and parents to access for young children to practise their reading. The storybooks can be read online, downloaded and printed or read offline via the African Storybook Reader App. Most of the storybooks have been developed by African authors, and they are available in multiple languages to encourage the use of home language reading.
  • Digital Open Textbooks for Development (DOT4D) is an initiative at the University of Cape Town with a social justice imperative. One of the initiative’s objectives is to ‘Support open textbook publishing activity at UCT that prioritises strategies for integrating student perspective, curriculum transformation, and sustainability.’
  • World Digital Library makes primary materials accessible. These include manuscripts, maps, photos, recordings, films, and more from countries and cultures around the world, made available online free of charge.
  • The International Library of African Music (ILAM) was established in 1954 by Hugh Tracey, at Rhodes University in South Africa. The library is one of the world’s great repositories of African music. ILAM is devoted to researching the study of music and oral arts in Africa, it preserves thousands of digitized and open accessible historical recordings collections dating as far back as 1929.
  • African Online Digital Library  (AODL) is an open access digital library of African cultural heritage materials created by Michigan State University in collaboration with museums, archives, scholars, and communities around the world.

Recent developments in the OER space, together with a disproportionate focus on knowledge production from the global North, highlight an urgent need to promote the cultural diversity agenda in a meaningful way that encourages equity and welcomes voices from Africa and other regions in the global South.

[2] Clement, K. (2020). Interrogating and Supplementing OER Through a Decolonized Lens. OER and beyond. https://ijoerandbeyond.org/interrogating-and-supplementing-oer-through-a-decolonized-lens/

[3] Czerniewicz, L., Willmers, M. and Hodgkinson-Williams, C. (2020). Pivoting to open education resources. University World News. Retrieved from https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=2020042910373650

[4] Adam, T., Bali, M., Hodgkinson-Williams, C. and Morgan, T. (2019). Guest Blog: Can we decolonize OER/Open? #DecolonizeOpen. OER19. Retrieved from https://oer19.oerconf.org/news/blog-can-we-decolonize-oer-open-decolonizeopen/#gref

[5] The decolonisation of the curriculum project. Retrieved from  https://doi.org/10.4102/aosis.2019.BK133


Access the OER Africa communications archive

What's New

Following the adoption of the OER Recommendation in 2019, UNESCO initiated a programme to support governments and educational institutions in implementing it.

One aspect of this programme was the development of a series of five guidelines to inform implementation of each Action Area in the Recommendation.

Image courtesy of Ismail Salad Osman Hajji dirir, Unsplash

As the digital age continues to reshape the global educational landscape in fundamental ways, the need for governments and educational institutions to champion Open Educational Resources (OER) has never been more relevant. Freely accessible, openly licensed educational content can help tackle some of the most pressing needs in education systems, including equity, access, and quality.

Following the adoption of the UNESCO Recommendation on OER at the 40th UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 25th November 2019, UNESCO initiated a programme to support governments and educational institutions in implementing the Recommendation.

One such action was the development of a series of five guidelines for governments. These guidelines were developed through a comprehensive consultative process and in cooperation with OER experts worldwide. They draw heavily on in-depth background papers prepared by OER experts from around the world in each of the five Action Areas of the OER Recommendation: Prof. Melinda dP. Bandalaria (building the capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER); Dr Javiera Atenas (developing supportive policy); Dr Ahmed Tlili (encouraging inclusive and equitable quality OER); Dr Tel Amiel (nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER), and Ms Lisbeth Levey (facilitating international cooperation).

OER Africa has provided logistical and editorial assistance to UNESCO on this work as part of a formal cooperation agreement with UNESCO to provide support in implementation of the OER Recommendation.

Aimed at governments and educational institutions, each set of guidelines has the following structure:

  • An overview of recommendations in the Action Area;
  • An introduction to the main issues surrounding the Action Area;
  • A matrix of possible actions recommended for governments and institutions to implement each point in the Action Area;
  • An in-depth discussion of the key issues surrounding the Action Area; and
  • Examples of good practice.

By actively supporting and implementing the OER Recommendation, governments and educational institutions can not only make high quality education more accessible but can also promote transformation in their education systems. This commitment to OER is essential for building resilient, adaptable education systems that can meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.

Access the guidelines here

Related articles

With the ever-increasing costs of textbooks, how can university students get access to the resources they need to study? This article examines the benefits of using open textbooks in the Global South.

Image: CC0 (Public domain)

With the ever-increasing costs of textbooks, how can university students get access to the resources they need to study?

Worldwide, university students find it difficult to purchase textbooks for their courses as they are too expensive. Already in 2014 in South Africa[1], and in 2011 in the United States[2], there were reports that students didn’t buy textbooks due to expense. The situation has not improved in recent years; for example, in a study of nearly fifty thousand respondents in South African universities, nearly two thirds indicated that they spent between R500 and R2500 on textbooks, and while 87% of students’ first semester modules had prescribed textbooks, 27% of students did not buy any prescribed books in the first semester of 2020. Students were opting not to purchase textbooks either because of a lack of affordability, because they did not find them contextually relevant, or because a course would only use a small portion of the textbook. [3]

Open textbooks can be regarded as a subset of Open Educational Resources (OER). They are digital textbooks published under an open licence, which means that they are freely downloadable and adaptable to suit a range of contexts (as long as the licence permits adaptation). The right to adapt is particularly important for educators who may want to tailor the textbook to their specific curriculum. An open textbook can be published with different Creative Commons licences,[4] depending on how open or restrictive the author wishes the licence to be. The principal advantages of an open textbook are its accessibility and affordability to the students, as long as they have a digital device, or have access to print at low or no cost. However, open textbooks have other advantages as well. These include:[5]

  • Local Contexts: Open textbooks can be regularly updated, and tailored to suit the local context, providing cultural relevance and addressing specific needs of students.
  • Partial Use: In some courses, only a portion of the overall textbook content is relevant. Students may hesitate to purchase an expensive textbook when they will only use a few chapters. In contrast, open textbooks allow educators to select and integrate specific sections, reducing unnecessary costs.
  • Collective Authorship: Open textbooks encourage collaborative authorship strategies. Locally produced open textbooks can involve input from multiple experts, resulting in richer and more contextually relevant content with diverse perspectives.
  • Flexibility: Open textbooks can be accessed in different formats and stored digitally, so that they are easy to share and adapt.

Of course, open textbooks also have some disadvantages, namely:

  • Availability: We provide examples of open textbook repositories below, but educators may find that there is limited selection for certain subjects or specialised topics. 
  • Quality: There may be inconsistencies in writing style, accuracy, and depth of content but these can be easily mitigated by evaluating the textbooks prior to use, as should be done for all resources to be used, including commercial textbooks.
  • Author incentives: Authors of traditional textbooks normally receive royalties from publishers as their books are sold. The open licence by which open textbooks are released means that other forms of incentive may be needed, for example in the form of grants, that may not be sufficiently enticing for many potential authors.

Research on open textbooks

Most research has been carried out in the Global North. For example, a meta-analysis of 22 studies of 100,012 students found that there were no differences between open and commercial textbooks for learning performance.[6] A research study Adoption and impact of OER in the Global South[7] had similar findings, with open textbooks being more effective that traditional ones in several instances. However, the studies reported that careful pedagogical scaffolding, including a mix of OER, produced the most effective learning. Within Africa, research findings from the Digital Open Textbooks for Development (DOT4D) Project[8] found that open textbooks addressed economic, cultural, and political injustices faced by their students, issues not considered by traditional textbooks. Summarising the research overall, we can say that open textbooks have several advantages over traditional ones, as listed above, and in terms of learning, they are equivalent. 

Examples of African institutions who have benefited from using open textbooks

Probably the best example of collaborative development of open textbooks is the University of Cape Town’s DOT4D Project. If you want to learn about the experiences of their staff and students, read UCT Open Textbook Journeyswhich documents the stories of 11 academics at the University who embarked on open textbook development initiatives to provide their students more accessible and locally relevant learning materials.

Other African universities’ libraries list sites where open textbooks and other OER are available, usually from outside the continent. Finding open textbooks for your own institution is not always easy. Here we list three sites where you can search for open textbooks. Bear in mind that, if you choose an American or European textbook, you may need to spend time adapting it for your own context. 

University of Cape Town Catalogue

26 textbook titles ranging from medical texts, through sustainable development to marketing, but also many other titles on OpenUCT.

Open Textbook Library

Based at the University of Minnesota in the United States, this repository has 1,403 titles. The view shown here groups the titles by subject.

University of Stellenbosch 

This LibGuide lists 17 platforms where you can search for open access textbooks and other free books.

Resources on developing and using open textbooks

Below is a list of resources to help you explore this growing field. The first three assist you to develop an open textbook, while the last two guide you to adopt or modify an existing open textbook.

Finally, although they are not designed for higher education, the open textbooks developed by Siyavula for high school mathematics, technology, and sciences may be useful for colleges and access courses in universities.

In summary, there are considerable benefits to using open textbooks, but with a few exceptions, African institutions have not yet taken on the challenge of producing open textbooks themselves. Clearly, funding is required for the development of open textbooks, and institutions might consider making funding applications to create (or adapt) these highly useful open education resources for the benefit of more African students.

Related resources:

 Access the OER Africa communications archive here

[1] Nkosi, B. (2014). Students hurt by pricey textbooks. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved from https://mg.co.za/article/2014-10-03-students-hurt-by-pricey-textbooks/

[2] Redden, M. (2011). 7 in 10 Students Have Skipped Buying a Textbook Because of Its Cost, Survey Finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/7-in-10-students-have-skipped-buying-a-textbook-because-of-its-cost-survey-finds/

[3] Department of Higher Education. (2020). Students’ Access to and use of Learning Materials—Survey Report 2020. Retrieved from https://www.usaf.ac.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/DHET_SAULM-Report-2020.pdf

[5] Digital Open Textbooks for Development. (2021). ‘Open Textbooks in South African Higher Education’ Roundtable Report. University of Cape Town. Retrieved from https://open.uct.ac.za/server/api/core/bitstreams/3a7e1a09-0617-4ba4-b6dd-4572bd870d60/content

[7] Hodgkinson-Williams, C. & Arinto, P. B. (2017). ‘Adoption and impact of OER in the Global South’. Cape Town & Ottawa: African Minds, International Development Research Centre & Research on Open Educational Resources. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1005330 


OER Africa is honoured to have contributed two chapters to the recently published book ‘Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory’. Edited by Dr Folake Ruth Aluko and Prof. Daniella Coetzee, the book explores the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice in distance education.

Research can have a transformative impact on any field, and distance education is no exception. It can, for example,  contribute to more effective use of new educational strategies, provide insights into technological advancements, and contribute to our understanding of the key successes and challenges in distance education delivery.

While the concept of distance education dates back more than a century, research in this area is relatively nascent when compared to the development of educational research in general.[1] The body of literature on the practice, influence, and impact of distance education is therefore limited, and even more so when considering developing world contexts. This, combined with the fact that distance education is experiencing significant shifts in terms of new demands and evolving technologies that provide new potential and pitfalls alike, mean that the recently published book Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory is a critical addition to the distance education research literature.

The book explores the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice in distance education, and OER Africa is honoured to have contributed two chapters to it. Edited by Dr Folake Ruth Aluko and Prof. Daniella Coetzee, the book is divided into two volumes which explore various themes:

Volume 1 focusses on the history, approaches and paradigms in distance education; building frameworks in distance education research; and praxis in this area.

Volume 2 moves on to address regional trends and gaps in distance education research; scholarship in this area; and quality assurance.

The two chapters that we contributed focus on the intersection of distance education and catalysing open education praxis, with each chapter approaching this intersection from a different angle. Each is outlined below.

Chapter 12 - Approaches To Continuing Professional Development For Open Education Practices In Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the importance of professional development on effective teaching and learning for university academics into sharp relief. Universities found themselves having to close their campuses and were unable to teach their students face-to-face. Universities in Africa resorted to various strategies to reach students, ranging from no teaching taking place, through emergency remote teaching (ERT) with some form of online teaching, to fully implemented e-learning. Whatever form the teaching has taken, academics have found that traditional lecturing has not been effective when implementing ERT or online teaching. Those who are experienced in adult pedagogies have been expressing the inadequacies of the lecture mode for many years, and the realities of the new forms of teaching required have brought such shortcomings to the fore. Several recent opinion pieces have expressed the need for continuing professional development (CPD) of academic staff, especially with respect to their teaching competence, arguing that it needs to be a central strategy within higher educational institutions (HEIs) around the world, supporting academics with digital teaching and communities of practice.

This chapter opens with a review of successful and innovative CPD models and approaches used in HEIs around the world. It examines recent CPD activities created by OER Africa and describes their development, piloting, and deployment, together with the implications the pilot findings have for ODL institutions and research in the field. 

Chapter 13 - Measuring implementation of UNESCO’s OER Recommendation: A possible framework

Drawing on a comprehensive literature review of best practice in OER measurement, as well as experience of working with UNESCO to support implementation of the Recommendation, this chapter presents an initial framework for the measurement of the effectiveness of the OER Recommendation and proposes indicators that regions, countries, and/or institutions could adopt or adapt to rigorously measure both how OER is used and its effectiveness for improving learning. Putting in place shared understandings of what counts as effectiveness for OER is critical to inform ongoing developments and improvements in the field. Such measures can also provide an evidence base that can be used for advocacy work around the importance of OER for quality open and distance learning.

Access both volumes below:

Volume 1

Volume 2

Related articles

[1] Zawacki-Richter and Naidu (2016) quoted in Aluko, F.R. and Coetzee, D. (2023). Chapter 1: Setting the scene – Why research distance education? In Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory. ESI Press: