Twenty years of Open Educational Resources: Building robust networks for innovation

Tenth graders at MC2 STEM High School fit together their capstone project, which combines art and engineering. (Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages)

This year marks a milestone for Open Educational Resources (OER)—20 years of investment and commitment to an idea that grew into a field. In this time, open education has evolved from a handful of projects supported by the Hewlett Foundation to an ecosystem reflecting the collective contributions and efforts of governments, NGOs, and educators across the globe. It has shifted from an early focus on freely available, high-quality learning materials that can be downloaded, edited, and shared, to now focusing on how those resources can better serve all students through effective educational practices. 

Innovating technology for classrooms

2001 was long before iPhones, Facebook, or Slack, and foundation staff were curious about how to harness the potential of emerging technology for education. It made intuitive sense as a goal, but the question was how to get started. We spent a year researching the sector to understand the landscape and honed in on improving the quality of online educational content. What we found were just a few available online instructional materials that were weakly designed and did not add technological or pedagogical value. 

The result was a new grantmaking priority: Using Information Technology to Increase Access to High-Quality Educational Content. It aimed to use information technology to help equalize the distribution of high-quality knowledge and educational opportunities. Designed as an international effort, the vision was inspired by Nobel economist Amartya Sen whose work in economics and social justice focused on “positive freedoms” to expand people’s opportunities through the removal of “unfreedoms”: poverty, limited economic opportunity, inadequate education, and access to knowledge. 

Reaching this goal required building on existing networks and communities that prioritized equity in education. It was at a 2002 Hewlett-sponsored UNESCO meeting that the term Open Educational Resources (OER) was coined by a small breakout group of educational leaders, predominantly from the Global South, who clearly articulated a thirst for no-cost, high-quality educational materials, and the need to ensure OER became part of a bi-directional global exchange. 

Creating distribution networks

OER was also inspired by the then boom in open source software with its attributes of high quality, no vendor lock-in, simple licensing structures, and norms for sharing. At that time, the possibilities for online learning, AI, and machine learning were at the earliest stage and there was little high-quality content or research to understand its use, and how to increase its effectiveness through redesign. Since OER encouraged localization of content by educators, we knew this was an area to be studied. The Internet afforded a platform for equitable distribution of knowledge at a scale then untested. 

The conditions and thus the possibilities were ripe for innovation. In the early 2000’s, we were learning alongside grantees like MIT OpenCourseWare, UNESCO, Creative Commons, Open University UK, Rice University’s OpenStax, and the Commonwealth of Learning. We tapped their expertise, networks, and on-the-ground communities, and we explored OER as a core strategic element. Where gaps existed, we helped launch OER Commons and the NROC Project to support the curation and creation of resources, and partnerships with organizations like Open Education Global and OER Africa to facilitate capacity building for OER in regions around the world. We sought to engage a wide community from governments, university presidents and faculty, and grassroots organizers to distribute leadership. These relationships were built one by one, year by year. After nearly a decade, a robust infrastructure began to emerge.

Lessons from two decades of learning

Now, 20 years later, the open education ecosystem has expanded beyond what we could have imagined. At a global scale, the adoption of the UNESCO OER Recommendation requires national governments to support OER and report on their efforts. More locally in the U.S. and Canadian contexts, an evaluation by EdBridge Partners, identified 60+ K-12 and postsecondary open education networks. We see engagement at multiple levels of educational systems, including communities of practice among faculty, librarians, and institutions (e.g., Open Education Network, SPARC, and the HBCU Affordable Learning Solutions Community) and among state leaders (e.g., National Consortium of Open Educational Resources and the #GoOpen Network). Explore the interactive map of the Open Education networks below and a database of the organizations

Open Education Ecosystem – Institutional and Organizational Membership Map

The map displays a subset of open education networks characterized as “Influencer” networks in the formative evaluation conducted by edBridge Partners in 2020-2021. These networks have a primary focus on open education and meet the definition of a network based on their common substructure, functions, and characteristics. The map is based on publicly available data about institutional and organizational members, not individual members, and displays the links between and among these networks. The map represents membership data as of April, 2021.

Please note that this Membership Map represents institutional and organizational membership only, and does not depict the full membership of consortial network members, such as NCOER and DOERS3, or networks with individuals as members, such as Creative Commons.

OER has taken root and evolved into the more expansive field of open education, which includes resources, practices, policies, and research, with the goal of making learning more effective and more equitable. Openly licensed materials, in and of themselves, do not produce systemic improvements in education; it matters how they are used by educators and students. OER will increase agency and creativity when educators and students participate as co-creators and stewards of learning. 

Yet, we have a ways to go to realize the original vision of transforming educational systems. Access and affordability of instructional materials matter, but replicating the status quo in an open format in the first iteration of the field has created a missed opportunity to connect more deeply with learners. We, as a field, need to commit to equity holistically.

For one, OER can and should more intentionally reflect and affirm the experiences and identities of students, particularly students who have been marginalized in our communities. Because by their very nature they are more flexible and customizable, OER create greater potential for more personalized, responsive learning. This goes beyond materials too. We need to prepare educators to support students’ development and exploration of their cultures and identities to encourage open practices like giving students voice in shaping lessons, and facilitating different learning pathways, so that every student develops the critical skills, mindsets, and agency that they need to succeed. We’re encouraged to see programs like UnboundEd and Open for Anti-Racism that support educators in developing engaging and affirming teaching practices with OER.

A commitment to equity must extend beyond classrooms and requires partnerships with school and system leaders. Equity with OER will not be sustained when it is an add-on or standalone initiative—it needs to be explicitly connected with institutions’ mission and vision for equity and student success, and resourced accordingly. Educators will need support from their institutions in creating opportunities to develop coherent, transparent, and culturally sustaining instruction and assessment practices, and in recognizing their labor as creators, curators, and facilitators of deeper learning.

We also must continue to broaden and diversify who is included in the work of open education. This requires exploring alternative viewpoints, ways of creating and sharing knowledge, as well as actively drawing in new voices from practitioners and researchers across the globe. Policy levers like the UNESCO OER Recommendation provide a starting point, and so do communities of scholars like the Global OER Graduate Network.

With so much engagement around the world, we’re excited about how far the field of open education has come, and how we can collectively realize a vision of more equitable teaching and learning in the next decade.

Read more about our work in open education

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