Open educational resources are claiming a place in schools in a diverse array of countries.
South Africa’s Education Department is printing math and science textbooks produced from such resources for use in grades 10 through 12. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Education has developed a platform called Wikiwijs for employing open resources. Vietnamese educators are translating such resources and creating their own to build a repository available for their country’s students.
“It’s interesting to watch this whole field of open education resources grow from embryonic to industry-challenging,” said Lisa Petrides, the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, a nonprofit research organization in Half Moon Bay, Calif., that created the OER Commons, a repository of open education resources.
“In one sense, the field has gotten more competitive, but it’s also more exciting,” she said.
The Siyavula project, started with aid from the Durbanville, South Africa-based Shuttleworth Foundation, which supports open education efforts in that country, aims to build open curriculum for every grade in every subject in South African primary and secondary schools.
Since 2007, Siyavula has compiled the contributions of hundreds of subject experts around the world to create open education textbooks for all grades. This year, the South African Department of Basic Education will be printing the Siyavula-created open textbooks in math and science for all 10th to 12th graders in the country.
The printed books look and feel the same as publisher-built textbooks, said Mark Horner, the manager of the Siyavula project, so it should be a smooth transition for South African teachers. There will also be online versions of the textbooks, with embedded links and videos, for teachers and students who have access to the Internet, he said.
“Many teachers don’t know how to start integrating technology into the classroom,” said Mr. Horner, “so this should give them some ideas.”
In fact, the real power of open education resources comes not from the fact that they are free, he said, but from the ability to customize the resources.
“The real benefit is that educators can customize materials for the classroom, and we can then build a mega-repository of educational materials for all learning styles that educators can draw on in an instant,” Mr. Horner said.
All the textbooks made from the volunteers coordinated by Siyavula will always remain free, he said, and they can be accessed through the Houston-based open education repository Connexions.
In 2008, the Dutch minister of education, Ronald Plasterk, announced a nationwide project that would create an open, Internet-based platform for teachers at all levels of education—from primary school to university—to be able to share, develop, and remix open education resources. The platform name, Wikiwijs, means “wikiwise” in English.
The platform was launched in 2009 with resources in math and languages at the primary, secondary, and community college levels and has since expanded to include all other subjects and levels of education.
Jan-Bart de Vreede, the senior product manager for Wikiwijs, said it has had an impact on the way teachers use curriculum in their classrooms.
“Teachers feel more empowered and become the ‘owner’ of their lessons again,” said Mr. de Vreede. “Rather than follow the book every week, it becomes much easier to take detours or create a completely different course altogether.”
Wikiwijs also allows teachers to find materials to differentiate instruction for students, he said.
However, challenges go hand in hand with using open education resources, said Mr. de Vreede. For instance, quality control can be an issue.
“We try to get large education institutions to ‘recommend’ materials so that teachers have more indications of the kind of content they are dealing with,” Mr. de Vreede said. And making sure that the resources are tagged correctly so that they can be found easily is another challenge, he pointed out.
Lastly, using open education resources takes more time and effort than using prepackaged materials, he said.
“Using OER does not save time at first because the alternative is a closed book or digital course, which requires almost no work from the teacher to find, but requires money,” he said.
Implementing a project like this in the Netherlands has been successful so far, but developing countries may run into other difficulties, such as a lack of technological infrastructure, said Mr. de Vreede.
Anna Batchelder is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Bon Education, an educational technology professional-development and consulting company based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Her company trains Middle Eastern teachers in how to access and use open education resources, thus opening the door to materials they otherwise could not afford, she said.
“OERs are bringing the international education community together,” Ms. Batchelder said. “For example, a math teacher in Dubai can now easily see how teachers in other countries teach fractions, and vice versa.”
In addition, many of the OER repositories, such as Curriki, an online community that focuses on materials for K-12, and Peer 2 Peer University, or P2PU, which provides open-course materials for higher education, offer platforms for teachers to discuss, debate, and collaborate, she said.
For example, Ms. Batchelder co-facilitated a course through P2PU about using Web 2.0 and social-media tools to promote learning, a class that attracted educators from Abu Dhabi, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and the United States.
“It was wonderful to see the rich discussions that unfolded on P2PU and Skype as a result of bringing together people with such distinct pedagogical backgrounds,” she said.
But Ms. Batchelder echoed the concerns about open education resources outlined by Mr. de Vreede. Quality control and tagging the resources can be difficult, she said. Beyond that challenge, the vast majority of open education resources are only available in English, she noted.
“We need to start encouraging teachers that speak other languages to share their lessons, or translations of lessons, as well,” she said.
Many OER projects, such as Connexions, which is an OER repository created by Rice University, and the Khan Academy—a repository of thousands of educational videos on math, science, history, and other subjects created by the hedge fund manager-turned-educator Sal Khan—are actively seeking to translate materials into other languages.
Translating resources is one of the main undertakings of the Vietnam Open Educational Resource project, or VOER, which aims to build a repository of educational resources to be used by the whole country. Minh Do, the program director for VOER, which is led by the Vietnam Foundation, based in Hanoi, said that project’s focus right now is on higher education.
Through the project, faculty members publish their courses online through the platform. Students taking the courses then update the open courseware and materials, based on their notes and experiences in the classroom.
“Developing countries like Vietnam will get benefits from [the open education movement] as high-quality and up-to-date materials from well-known universities and research institutions in the developed countries are free to use,” Mr. Do said.
“VOER is very easy to use and very convenient. Everyone can use it, as there is almost no high-tech requirement” besides basic computer skills, he said.
U.S. Interest Rising
VOER is a sister repository to the Houston-based Connexions, said Richard G. Baraniuk, the founder and director of Connexions and a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University.
Founded in 1999, Connexions hosts almost 20,000 resources used by about 2 million users each month.
One of the most powerful aspects of the repository, said Mr. Baraniuk, is not necessarily the outreach of the project, but the types of contributions it receives.
“I’m interested in the ability for diverse contributions from people around the world and all walks of life to contribute material and have them get used in all kinds of educational contexts,” he said. “It adds a real diversity and extra dimension to the resources.”
And although many open education resources are available to students and teachers in the United States, teaching from open education resources is not the norm, said Karen Fasimpaur, the president of K12 Handhelds Inc., a Portal, Ariz.-based education technology company, and an advocate for open education resources.
“OER definitely started in higher education, but the last two years, especially, it has started getting a lot more interest in K-12,” she said. “Probably the biggest driver of that is the economic situation. Also, there’s more of a critical mass of high-quality content now, and that makes a big difference.”
Teachers are also becoming more familiar with incorporating digital resources into the classroom, said Ms. Fasimpaur.
Part of the reason open education resources may be integrated more quickly in countries outside the United States is the way that education systems are governed, Ms. Fasimpaur said.
“The biggest difference is [in other countries] there’s a ministry of education that makes a decision, and if there’s any sort of review process, it’s done at a national level, whereas in the U.S. it’s not only at the state level, but in many cases, it’s really building by building,” she said.
Many other countries have also embraced mobile technologies at a faster pace than the United States, said Ms. Fasimpaur, which could help lead to quicker adoption of open resources.
Kim Jones, the executive director of the Cupertino, Calif.-based Curriki, agreed that open education resources in U.S. K-12 education have grown in the past several years. Like other experts, she agreed that the challenge now is not getting educators to contribute resources, but weeding through the vast amount of information to find the high-quality resources that teachers want and need.
“We’re trying to build collections and align the collections to standards and really curate the content,” Ms. Jones said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2012 edition of Education Week as Linking Open Content