The OER digital divide
I’ve just returned from the really outstanding conference, Advancing the Effectiveness and Sustainability of Open Education, hosted by Utah State University’s Center for Open and Sustainable Learning (the latest naming iteration for David Wiley’s merry crew). The conference, held in conjunction with the Hewlett Foundation’s grantees meeting and a gathering of opencourseware projects, brought together a truly amazing group from all of the major open education projects, as well as quite a few smaller yet very innovative efforts. I’ve never been to a conference before where I had so many really thought-provoking side conversations, and I’m sure I’ll post a number of reactions to these in the coming weeks.
But first and foremost, I feel I need to make note of a “digital divide” I see emerging in OER projects between projects predicated on online or digital reuse and those that anticipate both online and offline reuses of resources. This was brought into focus for me by a question raised in one of the OCW sessions by an audience member who said something to the effect of (and I am paraphrasing) “what’s the point in all the other stuff–all I’m really interested in are the simulations.” I don’t think this is an invalid position to take, given the circumstances under which this particular instructor–at a relatively affluent institution with students who can be assumed to have reliable computer access–is teaching. The “other stuff” however seems to be of tremendous use to those who teach in circumstances where computers are not yet widely available, exactly because it isn’t tied to computers. And based on presentations by people working in developing regions to provide computer and online access, it looks–at least in the short term–like a significant portion of those who could benefit from OERs will be largely offline for some time to come.
This is not to say that pursuing the goal of digital reuse of educational resources ought to be ignored. There’s little doubt that the future of education lies in that direction, and that ultimately–with enough effort and careful thought–we will be moving teaching materials between digital systems seamlessly around the world. But this level of interoperability is just beginning to occur within campuses, and many of the world’s pressing problems can’t wait for the ten years it might optimistically take to get enough infrastructure and the right standards in place. But at this point, so little is know about how this materials are reused (are they adopted as-is or heavily adapted and reformatted by users), and there is still a lot of room for systems and standards to change. In the mean time, providing minimally formatted materials that can easily be downloaded and used offline can extend the reach of open educational resources, and is a rapid and cost-effective way of creating a large body of resources.