OER in the Developing World – the Gap Between the Cup and the Lip

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Image source: https://flic.kr/p/4eorj6

Those of you who are familiar with my work would know that I have been struggling to sell the concept of OER convincingly in the developing world, especially in the K-12 sector. Some of you may be puzzled by this as OER are a relatively easy sell in the developed world where textbooks are a costly reality of education for learners and parents. Further, the global north has gotten accustomed to taking their infrastructure, access to technology and large bandwidth for granted when it comes to delivering content online. Now let’s try to apply the same model to the global south.

Many a time when I have tried to convince government officials or heads of institutions, in developing countries, on the benefits of adopting OER, I’m confronted with one major question

How can OER reduce the cost of textbooks for our students?

Initially, my face used to light up when asked this question as it setup my entire sales pitch for a home run. With a certain degree of naivete I used to give a three-point response:

  • You will save money on the royalties paid to publishers;
  • Learners will be able to download high-quality material from around the world for free; and
  • Teachers can add more interactivity to the teaching and learning experience through multimedia.

After delivering my three-point pitch and feeling very satisfied with the job I have done, I sit back in anticipation of a convinced nod followed by a handshake kicking off an OER mainstreaming project. However, it took me a couple of “I’m not so sure” looks and “let me elaborate”s to realize that there is a bigger underlying problem which my three-point pitch didn’t address:

  • Most of our textbooks are heavily subsidized by the government. So, we own the copyright and pay no royalties. Further, the learners get the books for almost free if not entirely free;
  • There are a few major activities which contribute to the cost of a textbook including printing, warehousing and distribution. How can OER help to reduce these costs?

A bit taken aback at this point, I start providing details of how learners will be able to download high-quality material from around the world for free solving the issues of printing, warehousing and distribution. To strengthen my argument further, I show real-world examples of multimedia and videos being used in classrooms through tablet computers and mobile devices. At this point, still far from being convinced, the responses I have gotten from these countries have made me rethink my approach to OER and whether it is the solution to all things lacking in education:

  • Many of our students still walk long distances to school. Some of them miss school because they don’t have footwear to last the journey. Some classes don’t have enough desks and chairs let alone computers and mobile devices.
  • Electricity is intermittent in my country. Children need a printed book so that they can study using a lamp if there is no electricity.
  • Internet and mobile bandwidth are still concepts gaining traction in cities. The penetration is marginal if non-existent in the rural areas.

So realistically, how can OER reduce the cost of textbooks for our students?

I have been trying to figure out a solution for this issue the past three years. I still don’t have a tried and tested model or a convincing answer which will help in the mainstreaming of OER in these developing nations. However, I believe that the solution is multifaceted and involves governments, institutions, teachers, parents, learners and civil society organizations working together towards a better future for the peoples.

If you have already figured this out, I’d be excited to learn how you did it!

All views expressed in this post are my own and claim no affiliation to any institution, organization or individual.  

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