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.