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OER Africa was very pleased to note that UNESCO OER Recommendation (40 C/32) was adopted at the 40th UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 25th November 2019. The formal Recommendation is yet to be posted online by UNESCO but the text can be found here. Approval of the Recommendation represents a significant recognition of the concept of open educational resources (OER) and its potential in education by governments around the world. While 34 Recommendations have been adopted since UNESCO’s inception in 1945, only seven of these pertain to education, so this represents a rare achievement for the OER movement.

OER Africa is proud to have been actively engaged in development of the OER Recommendation. Although the origins of the process may be said to date back to when the term was first coined was first coined in 2002 at UNESCO's Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries, the first meaningful effort to achieve consensus over global positions on OER took place at the first World OER Congress in Paris in 2012, which led to adoption at the Congress of the Paris OER Declaration 2012. OER Africa participated actively in the work leading up to this Declaration, conducting research on the status of government OER policies, participating in regional workshops leading up to the Congress, and helping with drafting of the Declaration. As the UNESCO website notes, ‘the Declaration marks a historic moment in the growing movement for Open Educational Resources and calls on governments worldwide to openly license publicly funded educational materials for public use’. However, as a Congress Declaration, it has no official status as a UNESCO document.
 
Following from this, a Second World OER Congress was organized in Llubljana, Slovenia in 2017, an event in which OER Africa was again actively involved (conducting further research on the status of OER globally, participating in regional consultation workshops, and playing an active role in the Congress programme and drafting of the Second World OER Congress Ljubljana OER Action Plan 2017
 
This Congress initiated development of a first draft of the UNESCO OER Recommendation for public consultation, with OER Africa having participated in the drafting of this document at a special meeting of experts that took place alongside the UNESCO Mobile Learning Week in 2018. Following receipt of public comments, a second expert meeting took place alongside Mobile Learning Week in 2019, in which OER Africa again participated actively, which culminated in publication of the first official draft of the UNESCO OER Recommendation in April, 2019. As UNESCO Recommendations are ultimately inter-governmental agreements, this version was circulated to governments for their comments and discussed at an Intergovernmental Meeting for the Draft Recommendation in Paris in May 2019, to which all member states of UNESCO were invited and 150 delegates from 100 countries participated. OER Africa was able to attend and contribute to the meeting as an invited expert observer, though UNESCO procedures require that changes to a draft Recommendation can only be made with agreement by all member state representatives.
 
At the May 2019 meeting, the final text of the OER Recommendation was approved by consensus by all Member States and thereafter prepared for formal submission to the 4th UNESCO General Conference in November, 2019, where it was adopted. As the UNESCO website notes, 
'Recommendations are instruments in which ‘the General Conference formulates principles and norms for the international regulation of any particular question and invites Member States to take whatever legislative or other steps may be required in conformity with the constitutional practice of each State and the nature of the question under consideration to apply the principles and norms aforesaid within their respective territories’ (Article 1 (b)). These are therefore norms which are not subject to ratification but which Member States are invited to apply. Emanating from the Organization's supreme governing body and hence possessing great authority, recommendations are intended to influence the development of national laws and practices.'
 
Thus, while not legally binding, Recommendations are important documents within UNESCO and member states are obliged to report to the General Conference on their progress in implementing them. Given this, adoption of the OER Recommendation is a major achievement and one which OER Africa is proud to have contributed.
 
Since the Recommendation was approved, there have inevitably been some criticisms of the final text that was adopted (see, for example, critiques by David Wiley and Stephen Downes). These critiques tend to focus on compromises that were made during the drafting process of the Recommendation that may have the consequence of allowing some ‘closed’ practices to creep into implementation of the Recommendation by governments. While there is technical validity to these critiques, our view at OER Africa is that the OER Recommendation is important for the spirit of what it encourages governments to do, rather than in its specific technical details. As Recommendations are not legally binding on states, those governments that wish to undermine that spirit are more likely to do so by ignoring the OER Recommendation than by seeking to subvert its intent. And the compromises made were an essential part of the process of securing the necessary consensus to adoption of the final OER Recommendation (as we saw clearly during the Intergovernmental Meeting in May, 2019 where the final text was agreed). Consequently, as OER Africa, we believe that these technical limitations are relatively minor in the overall movement towards openness that adoption of the UNESCO OER Recommendation represents. Thus, we are excited to continue our work, and to continue supporting UNESCO and its government in implementing their work, in our joint efforts to harness open licensing to improve access to high quality education for all Africans.

What's New

How can we be sure that OERs – open education resources – are of high quality? Many educators are concerned when it comes to open content as there appears to be no quality control. It also seems counter-intuitive that resources that are free can also be good.

Photo courtesy of Agence Olloweb, Unsplash

How can we be sure that open education resources (OERs) are of high quality? Many educators are concerned when it comes to open content as there appears to be no quality control. It also seems counter-intuitive that resources that are free can also be good. Many educators prefer the ‘safety net’ that commercially published textbooks offer, even though there is obviously no guarantee that, just because a book costs money, it will definitely be good. The logic is that textbooks have been through a rigorous review process. So why bother with OERs?

Of course, there is no international ‘review board’ vetting everything that is released with a Creative Commons licence (but nor is there any such mechanism for all-rights-reserved copyrighted materials). Regardless of licensing conditions, the onus is always ultimately on the planning to use the resource  to assess its value; of course, experience helps to determine what that value might be. However, even for those relatively new to the process, quality assuring an OER is not difficult if guided by a suitable set of criteria.

OER Africa has recently released a learning pathway, or online tutorial, that includes a section on evaluating OER. You can access all of OER Africa’s learning pathways here. Our favourite set of OER quality criteria (see below) was created by British Columbia OER Librarians. The list has been released with an open (CC BY) licence and the six criteria are easy to apply. When you have sourced an OER and are wondering if it is good quality, use the checklist below to do a quick review.

Other resources about developing and using OER are available here, while you can find resources focusing on OER research in Africa here.

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For more articles in this series, click on the links below.

What exactly can you do with OER? In what ways are they different from other resources? The beauty of OER is that most of them can be adapted to better suit your teaching and learning environment. They can be revised. It is also possible to ‘stitch’ multiple OER into a new resource, like a patchwork quilt. We call this ‘remixing’ resources.

What exactly can you do with OER? In what ways are they different from other resources? The beauty of OER is that most of them can be adapted to better suit your teaching and learning environment. They can be revised: you can re-work the language to make them more accessible to students; cut out and replace images with your own; translate into different languages; and add additional content, questions and exercises.

It is also possible to ‘stitch’ multiple OER into a new resource, like a patchwork quilt. We call this ‘remixing’ resources.

However, there is some skill and know-how required to revise and re-mix well. OER Africa has prepared a concise learning pathway (LP) to help you acquire these practical skills quickly.

The Adapt Open Content learning pathway covers the following themes:

Access the learning pathway on the OER Africa website here.

This LP on Adapting Open Content follows a previous LP that focused on Finding Open Content so if you are not clear how to find a good open resource, make sure you look at that LP too. All the LPs can be accessed here.

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For more articles in this series, click on the links below.

This post is the third in a series on sharing African research outputs, using open licensing. This post concentrates on open data. Open data means that users can make free use of research data without requesting written permission and without copyright or patent violations.

 

Photo courtesy of Lukas Blazek, Unsplash

This post is the third in a series on sharing African research outputs, using open licensing. This post concentrates on open data.

Open data means that users can make free use of research data without requesting written permission and without copyright or patent violations. The data are typically stored in a non-proprietary format, which allows editing and analysis. Open data are usually given an ‘Attribution and Share-Alike for Data/Databases’ licence. Just as Creative Commons provides licences for educational and research resources, the Open Data Commons provides a set of legal tools for researchers to use when they make their data open to the public.

OER Africa’s open knowledge primer provides background on basic concepts and their pertinence to African researchers. OER Africa has also created a Learning Pathway – an online tutorial – on publishing using open access. Both resources describe the role of open data.

Why is open data assuming such significance today? Quick release of current and verifiable information on COVID-19 is one reason, of course. More generally, many open access journals, research organizations, and donors now require authors to make their data publicly available, usually by depositing them in an appropriate and approved data repository. The journal, Nature, maintains a list of data repositories that it has evaluated and approved.

The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) Open Data Guidelines also lists reputable repositories.  The Open Knowledge Foundation gives three reasons why open government data is important: it promotes transparency; it can help create innovative business and services that deliver social and commercial value; and it can lead to participation and engagement on the part of the business sector and civil society.

The Open Data for Africa Portal was developed by the African Development Bank (AfDB) in response to the increasing demand for statistical data and indicators relating to Africa. The Portal provides multiple customized tools to gather indicators, analyze them, and export them into multiple formats. Users can search by region or country and by topic. There is also a COVID-19 Situation Room, with data collected by the World Health Organization.

The Open Data for Africa Portal relies on official statistics from governments and international agencies. Open Africa, on the other hand, is driven by volunteers and aims to be the largest independent repository of open data on the African continent. Although a civil society initiative, some government agencies contribute data, such as the South African National Department of Health. Data are available in PDF, CSV, and XLSX. Note that the dataset in the figure below was updated after its release.

 

Figure 1: South African health care system’s readiness for COVID-19

Open data does not mean sharing confidential information without protecting privacy. Some data qualify for release without any alterations; others must be altered to protect privacy before release. Still other data should not be released at all. The African Academy of Sciences, for example, gives detailed data guidelines for authors to follow, including a section on instances for which data deposit is not required.

 

Figure 2: When data deposit is not required for AAS Open Research

Making research and related data openly and widely accessible is an essential component of the Open Science movement, the benefits of which are becoming increasingly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic. Open science can also promote scientific collaboration between individuals and research centres.

Africa is becoming an integral part of Open Science.  Following a three-year landscape study carried out by the South African Academy of Sciences and the Association of African Universities, the South African Research Foundation has been selected to host the African Open Science Platform (AOSP). The AOSP Strategic Plan delineates the challenges facing African science as research and communications methods worldwide undergo transformation.  AOSP believes that the Platform can meet these challenges:

'The Platform’s mission is to put African scientists at the cutting edge of contemporary, data-intensive science as a fundamental resource for a modern society.'

 

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For more articles in this series, click on the links below.