Thoughts from the Hewlett Open Ed Grantees Meeting

So I’m sitting here in the annual Hewlett Foundation Open Education Grantees meeting thinking… what is the future of open education? Where is it going? I think there is only one answer: localization.

If there isn’t an individual somewhere using the content or tools we’re producing in order to improve their life somehow, all the work that has gone on in the open education realm is wasted. So how to we make open educational resources (OERs) useful to real people, one individual at a time?

It occurs to me, as I’ve said before, that as a field we don’t have expertise in the localization process. And by localization, I mean not only translation, but also things like replacing inappropriate media (e.g., pictures of little anglo kids getting of a school bus on a snowy day when you’re using content in Africa) and aligning examples, metaphors, and other socioculturally-loaded bits with the local context.

MIT has a program where they send students to China and Africa to teach people how to use MIT OCW materials. I wonder… do the MIT students write up there experiences? Are they being thoughtful about differential use made by locals? Where is that experience and learning being written up and shared? We’re beginning a pilot now to partner with people in Tonga to localize math OERs for use in high schools there. I hope to see the COSL become a center of expertise in the parts of the localization process that generalize across localization projects.

I think there’s a huge opportunity for capacity building work in two areas. First, there’s interesting collaborative work to be done in localizing OERs and spreading expertise about this process. Second, there is a great need to develop capacity for the “from scratch” production of OERs in the developing world. This is a scaffolded approach – learning to solve partially worked problems first and then moving on to unsupported problem solving.

There is a huge opportunity for partnerships to carry out this capacity building work for localizing and effectively re-utilizing resources. If this were setup as a volunteer student program, students will line up and fight tooth and nail for the opportunities to travel to developing areas and help in these ways. We have thousands of OERs available now. In the room where I am now there are reps from UNESCO, OECD, the World Bank, China Open Resources for Education, the African Virtual University, and more. I think we’re a few conversations and an airline partnership away from doing something absolutely amazing. We’re pursuing this in the COSL as well in collaboration with some of the usual suspects. Please shoot me an email if any of this sounds interesting.

The other thing everyone is talking about is sustainability. How do we keep funding activities whose main purpose is to be free of charge once foundation funding goes away? It seems like we may be approaching the problem backwards somewhat. I think everyone is looking for huge funding to support huge projects. It seems to me that sustainability and scalability are problematic only when people rely on others to do things for them (e.g., when a site gets slashdotted). Scalability and sustainabiltiy happen more readily when people do things for themselves (e.g., the same content distributed by bittorrent). Centralizing open educational services is less scalable / sustainable. Decentralizing them is more scalable / sustainable. Wikipedia has two employees and well over a million articles in multiple languages. We need to learn this lesson if open education is really going to reach out and bless the lives of people.

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  • Teemu September 27, 2005, 2:53 pm

    Good points. I also think that in the end of your post you already implicitly say that the answer is *not* “localization”, but empowering people to take part in the discourse. The answer is to give people opportunity to present their OER’s for themselves and others. And you are right: this is both scalable and sustainable.

    By giving more people a voice also we – in the world of thousands of OERs – may get more interested in the strangers interpretations of the world. I really hope that students will have a change to see both films: Shichinin no samurai and the Magnificent Seven.

    If we then spend more time with the strangers’ OERs there is a greater possibility that we will start to understand and respect each other a little more than we do today. I have a dream :-)