Open Education Resources Get International Backing With UNESCO Vote

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The international organization UNESCO has approved a measure to encourage the growth and development of open educational resources —  the free, sharable materials that have won a following in many school systems in the United States.

The recommendation was adopted this week by UNESCO, which promotes collaboration on education, science and cultural issues and has 193 member countries.

The organization’s members are convinced that open resources “contribute to the building of open and inclusive knowledge societies, and the achievement of the UN sustainable development goals,” said Moez Chakchouk, UNESCO’s assistant director for communication and information, in a statement. UNESCO, created in 1945, is affiliated with the United Nations.

UNESCO’s action takes open educational resources and “essentially says, ‘Yes, this is important,'” said Cable Green, the interim CEO of Creative Commons, an organization that issues open licenses. “It’s a set of recommendations for what nations around the world can do to support open education in their countries. It’s like a menu they can follow.”

Green, who was on a committee that drafted the document, said much of the power of UNESCO’s action comes in that it will be conveyed to “every ministry of education and every department of education around the word.”

“It raises the level of awareness in a significant way about open education,” he added.

Open educational resources are generally defined as materials that either exist in the public domain, or have been released under a license that allows teachers and other users to access them for free, and revise and redistribute them as they see fit.

In the United States, some school districts have turned to open materials as an alternative to commercially produced resources, which are typically much more restrictive in terms of allowing for alteration, copying and redistribution. Some commercial publishers have treated OER as a threat, others have sought to blend them into their product offerings to districts.

Some school systems have encouraged their teachers to assemble lessons and curricula based on different open resources. Some districts say that process makes educators more engaged in their instructional materials. Others, including commercial publishers, have said that work is too labor-intensive and that schools count on companies to do that curriculum-construction for them.

The UNESCO document recommends that member states urge their governments to support OER and bring the UNESCO document to the attention of ministries of education and other entities responsible for learning.

Cost Saving, Innovation in Mind

UNESCO’s recommendation argues that the use of open materials has great potential to reduce the costs of buying or creating educational materials across nations, and is likely to spark innovations in curriculum and instruction.

The UNESCO document specifically recommends five specific objectives, or actions, that member countries should take with OER:

  • Support cooperation across countries to minimize unnecessary duplication in the development of open resources;
  • Back the creation of sustainable models for OER at the national, state, or regional level, work that could involve pilot-testing new approaches developing open educational resources;
  • Encourage equitable access to OER and the use of technology that allows the seamless sharing of materials by creators and distributors of that work;
  • Press governments and education agencies to adopt policies to support the open licensing of publicly funded education and research materials; and
  • Build the capacity of different education communities to create, repurpose, modify, and distribute OER and use open licenses.

The policy approved by UNESCO is not a mandate that member countries must follow, a spokesman for the organization told EdWeek Market Brief in an e-mailInstead, the policy encourages member nations to take the actions recommended, and report back on their progress.

One country that will not be directly touched by the UNESCO recommendation: the United States. The Trump administration withdrew from UNESCO two years ago  over objections to what the U.S. claimed was anti-Israel bias. (It’s not the first time the U.S. has turned away from UNESCO: the Reagan administration also quit the organization in the 1980s. The U.S. later rejoined under the George W. Bush administration.)

Independent of UNESCO’s action, local, state, and federal policymakers in the U.S. have continued to back the use of open educational resources. The U.S. Department of Education, for instance, oversees the #GoOpen initiative, an effort to encourage the growth of OER among states and school districts, and the sharing of best practices among them.

The UNESCO resolution also encourages governments, in instances where public money is used to create educational materials, to make those resources “openly licensed or dedicated to the public domain.”

The language essentially says, “Hey, taxpayers, you paid taxes to get this stuff created,” Green said. “You own it.”

The U.S. Department of Education in 2017 approved issued a similar policy. It mandates that recipients of competitive grants from agency, with some exceptions, create products that are openly licensed.

UPDATE: I’ve updated this post to clarify that UNESCO officially calls its policy a recommendation, not recommendations, plural.

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