Some Thoughts on the UNESCO OER Recommendation

There’s great news out of the recent UNESCO meeting in Paris, where member states unanimously adopted the draft Recommendation on Open Educational Resources (OER). I want to highlight some of the parts of the Recommendation that caught my eye, reading both from a personal perspective as well as my Lumen perspective.

First, and it will surprise no one that this is the first item on my list, is the definition. Regardless of what other individuals, institutions, or organizations may think or say, UNESCO is the creator of the term “open educational resources” and, as its creator, UNESCO’s definition of OER is the canonical definition. In the Recommendation which has now been unanimously adopted by UNESCO member states around the world, OER continue to be defined solely in terms of copyright status:

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions. (emphasis added)

UNESCO’s canonical definition of OER does not require “free public access” to a resource for that resource to be an OER, as some have tried to argue it should. This dramatically simplifies understanding what is and isn’t OER. Resources in the public domain or released under an open license are OER. Traditionally Copyrighted Materials (TCM) (and materials released under a license that does not qualify as an open license) are not OER. The opposite of OER is TCM.

This is wonderful news in light of recent attempts to stuff a free public access requirement into OER definitions. (I myself spent some time advocating this view before I read closer and realized I was running afoul of UNESCO’s canonical definition.) But as I have explained before, making free public access part of the definition of OER would have lead to quantum-like phenomena where an educational resource simultaneously qualifies as an open educational resource and fails to qualify as an educational resource. UNESCO’s canonical definition continues to make clear that free “access, use, adaptation, and redistribution” must be permitted by a resource’s copyright license for that resource to qualify as an open educational resource, and nothing more.

Second, I was glad to see the 5Rs included as the framework for understanding what makes a copyright license an “open license” (even if the Recommendation fails to provide the necessary attribution). For member states who work within the framework of the unanimously adopted OER Recommendation, materials released under a Creative Commons license that includes the NoDerivatives condition (the CC BY-ND and CC BY-NC-ND licenses) are definitively not OER, since those licenses fail to provide two of the five permissions (Revise or Remix). The ND licenses fail to qualify as open licenses as per the Recommendation.

Third, the Recommendation comments positively on the ability of information and communications technologies (ICT) to “open possibilities for OER… to enable personalized learning.” As I’ve written before, the integration of OER into these environments is an absolutely necessity for faculty in many disciplines to even consider adopting OER, so it’s great to see this called out explicitly.

Fourth, the Recommendation explicitly acknowledges the private sector as a key stakeholder and includes language about the positive potential role of Public Private Partnerships. I believe these partnerships will be increasingly important as OER tries to cross the chasm from being an interesting experiment by early adopters (the 6-ish% adoption we see today in the courses where adoptable OER exist) to something used campus-wide and integrated deeply into the fabric of institutions.

Fifth, in multiple places the Recommendation uses the language of “effective educational resources” that will “improve learner outcomes.” The vague and ambiguous language of “quality” isn’t avoided altogether, but it’s terrific to see the crisper, clearer language of effectiveness throughout the document.

Sixth, the Recommendation talks about “sustained investment by governments and other key education stakeholders in the creation, regular updating, and effective educational use of high quality teaching and learning materials.” This is 100% correct in my view. Rather than imagining OER to be an Ostrom-style commons (which it is not), the description of this sustainability model sounds more like one in which OER is imagined as key infrastructure – like roads – which governments make sustained, ongoing investments  to create and maintain.

Seventh, the Recommendation calls for member states to “develop the capacity of all key education stakeholders to create, use and share OER, and to use and apply open licenses correctly.” When you recall that those in the private sector are explicitly listed as stakeholders, this sounds a lot like my call earlier this week for us to expand our advocacy around OER to include commercial publishers. Just like everyone else, they need to develop the capacity to create, use, and share OER, and to use and apply open licenses correctly.

When the discussion of sustained government investment in OER is combined with the idea of developing the capacity of participants in the private sector, it makes even more sense to think about OER as infrastructure. For example, the government makes sustained investment in creating and maintaining roads, but it doesn’t do this work itself. It contracts with private sector companies to do this work, guaranteeing that this publicly funded infrastructure is freely and openly available for use by the public who funded it (including those in the private sector).

Eighth, the Recommendation describes “catalyzing sustainability models through revenues” that include “traditional” revenue generating services as well as “non-traditional” ones. The discussion of “promoting other value added models using OER” was also interesting. Even though it focuses exclusively on the non-traditional models, it’s great to see the notion of value added services show up in the Recommendation.

Finally, the Recommendation refers to the way OER enables pedagogies that are “novel” and “innovative” when used together with ICT and other open educational practices. This point is frequently missed when people are introduced to the broad and varied field of open education with the question “did you know there are free textbooks?!?” Of all the capacity building that needs doing, I believe the capacity to effectively use OER by means of OER-enabled pedagogies is likely the most important because it matters far less which materials students are using than what students are doing with them.