UNESCO Recommendation on OER


This post is also available in Dutch.

At the end of November, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the Recommendation on OER. This was the result of more than five years of work, starting from the Paris OER Declaration of 2012, with the 2nd World Congress on OER in 2017 in Ljubljana as an intermediate stage, where an Action Plan on OER was adopted (see the blog I wrote about it at the time). At the OEGlobal Conference in Milan, Mitja Jermol (UNESCO Chair in Slovenia and closely involved in drawing up the Recommendation) gave a hint of what such a process looks like (video).

What is a UNESCO Recommendation?

On the UNESCO website you can find which instruments UNESCO distinguishes between. Although it can be found there that one instrument is not superior to another, there are essential differences between (the impact of) a Declaration and a Recommendation (emphasis added by me):

  • “Recommendations are intended to influence the development of national laws and practices.”
  • “(A declaration) set forth universal principles to which the community of States wished to attribute the greatest possible authority and to afford the broadest possible support.”

A country that has signed the OER Recommendation is also commended to report periodically on the progress it has made in implementing the Recommendation:

(The General Conference) decides that the periodicity of the reports of Member States on the measures taken by them to implement the Recommendation concerning Open Educational Resources (OER) will be every four years;

There was no such obligation in the Paris OER Declaration, which gave that instrument a somewhat more non-committal approach to compliance.

The overview of UNESCO Recommendations (updated to the previous General Conference in 2017) shows that the Recommendation on OER is the 35th since UNESCO was founded (the first is from 1956) and the 9th that deals with education (the first is from 1960). This illustrates the importance that UNESCO attaches to the large-scale adoption of OER, particularly as one of the means of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 (ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all). The Recommendation is intended for all educational sectors, not just higher education.

The text of the Recommendation currently available is a Draft version of 8 October. This text was adopted unanimously at the General Conference. The final text therefore does not deviate (to my knowledge) from this Draft and will soon be available on the UNESCO website.

What is the content of the Recommendation?

The Recommendation aims at:

  • Achieving sustained investment and educational actions by governments and other key education stakeholders, as appropriate, in the creation, curation, regular updating, ensuring inclusive and equitable access, and effective use of high quality educational and research materials and programmes of study.

  • Through the application of open licences to educational materials achieving more cost-effective creation, access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation, redistribution, curation, and quality assurance of those materials.

  • Through judicious application of OER, in combination with appropriate pedagogical methodologies, well-designed learning objects and the diversity of learning activities, a broader range of innovative pedagogical options are available to engage both instructors and learners to become more active participants in educational processes and creators of content as members of diverse and inclusive Knowledge Societies.

  • Achieving regional and global collaboration and advocacy in the creation, access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation, redistribution and evaluation of OER can enable governments and education providers to evaluate the quality of the open access content and to optimise their own investments in educational and research content creation, as well as ICT infrastructure and curation, in ways that will enable them to meet their defined national educational policy priorities more cost-effectively and sustainably.

These goals also address the question: why should efforts be made to increase the adoption of OER? How do OER contribute to the realisation of SDG 4? The added value of OER is not only making education more accessible by lowering financial thresholds and taking account of people with disabilities, but the use of OER in teaching and learning situations also leads to a richer learning environment due to the greater availability of learning materials on which a user can exercise the 5R rights. In addition, these objectives emphasise the importance of collaboration between stakeholders.

In order to achieve these goals, five action lines have been defined:

  1. Capacity building: ensuring that sufficient knowledge about and resources for the adoption of making, sharing, reuse, and dissemination of OER and the use of open licences are available.
  2. Developing supportive policy: encouraging governments, authoritative educational institutions (for example in the Netherlands VSNU, VH, SURF, and Kennisnet) and educational institutions to adopt regulatory frameworks to support open licensing of publicly funded educational and research materials, develop strategies to enable use and adaptation of OER in support of high quality, inclusive education and lifelong learning for all, supported by relevant research in the area.
  3. Effective, inclusive and equitable access to quality OER: supporting the adoption of strategies and programmes including through relevant technology solutions that ensure OER in any medium are shared in open formats and standards to maximize equitable access, co-creation, curation, and searchability, including for those from vulnerable groups and persons with disabilities
  4. Nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER: supporting and encouraging the creation of sustainability models for OER at national, regional and institutional levels, and the planning and pilot testing of new sustainable forms of education and learning.
  5. Fostering and facilitating international cooperation: supporting international cooperation between stakeholders to minimize unnecessary duplication in OER development investments and to develop a global pool of culturally diverse, locally relevant, gender-sensitive, accessible, educational materials in multiple languages and formats.

The Recommendation also contains statements on the monitoring of activities undertaken by governments to implement the action lines: measuring the effectiveness and efficiency of OER policy, collecting and disseminating good practices, innovations, and research reports on the application of OER and their consequences, and developing strategies for monitoring the effectiveness of OER in education and the long-term financial efficiency of OER. As already mentioned, governments are required to report periodically on the results of these monitoring activities.

What does this mean for education in the Netherlands?

At first sight, the Recommendation seems to lead mainly to activities for the government. However, I think that this document should also (and perhaps especially) be fleshed out from the bottom up. Stakeholders such as VSNU, VH, SURF, and Kennisnet, as well as individual educational institutions in all educational sectors, could consider:

  • Develop a vision of the adoption of OER in their context. This vision should make statements not only about open sharing of learning resources, but also about their reuse. Such a vision cannot be considered in isolation from a broader vision on education, so the role OER can play in the educational context also becomes clear.
  • Translating the vision into a policy on the adoption of OER. A study (publication and report (in Dutch)) that Ben Janssen and I carried out in the higher education sector revealed that there are a number of issues that need to be addressed: increasing awareness among instructors, ensuring that there is sufficient time available, safe room for experimentation, sufficient knowledge about OER, and support (in the areas of copyright, educational technology, and ICT).
  • Encourage collaboration with other institutions. That does not necessarily have to be done internationally (as described in the last action line). Not only can collaboration ultimately lead to more efficient processes for creating and reusing OER, but by working together with several institutions it becomes a means of learning about each others educational practices, which can be at least as valuable.
  • Encourage initiatives that are already being undertaken from the bottom up, for example by providing time and support. This can be done in parallel with the more policy-oriented activities mentioned above.
  • Facilitate research into how OER initiatives can ultimately be made sustainable (i.e. independent of initial project subsidies) within an institution.

Availability of learning materials, both open and closed, is less of an issue in the Dutch context than, for example, in large parts of the Global South. However, there seems to be less attention for adapting these learning materials for people with disabilities. For example, a random search in the Wikiwijs database reveals that most of the materials I find there do not offer facilities to support visually impaired people. Adoption of OER by instructors will, however, be encouraged when the role OER can play in realising their vision of education is clear. The “what’s in it for me” question will then be addressed. The aforementioned research by Ben Janssen and myself suggested that that question should be clear for instructors for successful adoption of OER.

Many tools (toolkits, step-by-step plans) are already available to support these activities. At the national level, SURF has developed tools that can be used, and Kennisnet is working on something similar. UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning recently published a report Guidelines on the Development of Open Educational Resources Policies that contains concrete tools for formulating policy on OER (see an earlier blog post). Internationally, a coalition has been formed in which, for example, Creative Commons and the Open Education Global participate. This coalition aims to provide artifacts and services to support parties in implementing the Recommendation.

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