Open Educational Practices in Service of the Sustainable Development Goals

On October 23, 2018 I had the privilege of speaking at the United Nations Headquarters at OpenCon UN. My presentation focused on how open educational practices can support progress towards the sustainable development goals. I am sharing a video recording of my presentation, my slides, and the full text of my talk here (it begins around 15:30):

Good morning.

It is a privilege to be here with you. Territorial acknowledgements are customary where I come from in Canada and an important element of truth and reconciliation, so I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we are in Manhattan which is the traditional territory of the Lenape.

I come to you from Vancouver, Canada, which is located on the traditional, unceded territory of the Coast Salish Peoples. My university, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, is a public post-secondary institution and proud to takes its name from the Kwantlen First Nation.

Open education is a philosophy about the way people should produce, share, and build on knowledge. Proponents of open education believe everyone in the world should have access to high-quality educational experiences and resources, and we work to eliminate barriers to this goal, whether these are high monetary costs, outdated or obsolete materials, or legal mechanisms that prevent or inhibit collaboration among scholars and educators.

Open education can sometimes seem like a radical idea but it shouldn’t, especially as we approach the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many of you will recall these words from Article 26:

“Everyone has the right to education.”

And yet, over 265 million children are currently out of school.

“Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.”

And yet, 57 million out-of-school children are of primary school age.

“Technical and professional education shall be made generally available”

And yet 617 million youth worldwide lack basic mathematics and literacy skills.

“higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

And yet, by 2025 tertiary education worldwide will need to find a way to provide 100 million additional seats.

The truth is that the only reason open education still sounds radical is because of how far reality is from this goal. What is really radical is our tolerance for failure in delivering on a universal right to education.

This is why it is so important that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) explicitly include a focus on Quality Education. Having specific targets for 2030 helps, as does recognizing the central role that education plays in making progress towards all of the other SDGs—the breaking of the cycle of poverty, progress towards gender equality, responsible consumption & production, and reduced inequalities. But on that note, it is especially important to recognize, as SDG4 does, that an education that is not inclusive, an education that is not equitable only serves to reinforce and replicate existing power hierarchies.

One incredibly powerful tool that is being effectively deployed across our world right now in service of SDG4 is Open Educational Resources or OER. OER are teaching and learning resources that are published with an open license. These can include textbooks, instructional videos, interactive simulations, lesson plans, and much, much more. Publication with an open license means that the copyright holders are choosing to permit others to freely reuse their work for any purpose, to retain their work forever, and even to redistribute their work to others. They are also choosing to permit others to build on their work, to adapt it for their local context, for example by translating works into a regional language.

For example, in Senegal, which has one of the fastest growing markets for self-paced online education, the project SeeSD is translating and adapting STEM OER to fit local needs.

Open licensing often also permits others to earn a livelihood based on their work, by building and selling services around the resources, in the process spurring economic growth.

This is what education is about at its core: empowerment through sharing.

So when the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands chose to place high-resolution images of their masterworks in the public domain, they made the study of Art History more accessible to millions more than could have ever afforded visits to the museum, buy prints of these works, or even buy textbooks with small photographs.

When the University of Colorado at Boulder here in the US chose to openly license interactive simulations for a variety of STEM disciplines, they made concepts in Physics, Math, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy, and Earth Science more accessible, more comprehensible to millions of students around the world.

When BCcampus in Canada creates, adapts, and shares the more than 250 open textbooks in their repository, they make it possible for students for whom the cost of commercial textbooks is prohibitive to succeed, to not have their learning or academic potential constrained by their economic reality.

As an educator and an author of open textbooks, I have been thrilled to witness the impact of the adoption of OER across the globe.

In South Africa, 10 million Siyavula open textbooks were printed and distributed to government schools between 2012 and 2014. OER have been integrated into the teacher education program at the Open University of Sri Lanka and projects launched to support OER creation and use by teachers have been launched in India, Afghanistan, Colombia, Mauritius, Tanzania, and Uganda. A majority of instructors surveyed from 29 institutions in Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Kenya, Indonesia, and Malaysia reported having used OER. [See ROER4D; Hodgkinson-Williams, 2017]

But as has been rightly pointed out, when it comes to the SDGs, we are all developing countries.

So I am equally delighted to see that the Norwegian Digital Learning Arena that now houses more than 100,000 OER averages 60,000 daily user sessions, that the 29 open textbooks published by OpenStax, based at Rice University, have been adopted by 48% of all U.S. post-secondary institutions. And I am especially proud to work at a university that leads Canada in the creation, adaptation, and adoption of open textbooks.

But more than widening access to education, OER is reducing systemic inequities within education. The burgeoning research literature on the impact of the adoption of OER on student success metrics is unequivocal in its conclusion. No matter the type of institution, the discipline, the mode of delivery of education, or the country, students assigned OER such as open textbooks perform the same as or better than those assigned expensive commercial resources. What is more, those gains are typically seen among students who are first in their family to pursue education, those who are economically precarious, and those who are marginalized in various ways.

I am grateful to Heather and Jean-Claude for highlighting progress in Open Access Scholarship and in Open Science. Because of course for advanced students open access articles and open data also double as open educational resources. The open access, open education, and open science movements have been running alongside one another and are driven by the same ideals. They each aim to design equitable foundations for open knowledge.

But looking more purposefully at OER in relation to the SDGs, we see the Open Education Consortium—the largest global open education membership organization—proposing to support the SDGs in partnership with other organizations, including by organizing a simultaneous SDG campaign for 17 days, in 2020, 2025, and 2030 during which they will highlight OER associated with each of the SDGs.

We see the Commonwealth of Learning leveraging OER and information and communication technologies to launch low-tech massive open online courses, learning design workshops for teacher educators, and open schooling for across the Global South which, at last count, more than 47,000 women and girls have benefited from.

We see the OER universitas—an international network of like-minded universities from five continents—building open online courses entirely constructed with OER and making them available to anyone, anywhere. These courses give students the option to earn actual academic credit and credentials such as the Certificate of Higher Education in Business from the University of the Highlands and Islands. Among the courses that the OERu offers are four micro-courses on Creating Sustainable Futures. These micro-courses are available to anyone, now, and are explicitly in service of SDG 4.7, which aims to ensure that by 2030 all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development.

This work, these initiatives are noble. They merit attention and praise. But they also merit your support. One of the simplest forms this support can take is policy, for example, requiring that resources that are developed with the support of public funding ought to be freely accessible to the public, ought to be openly licensed. That is why one of the Ten Directions to Move Forward identified at the Cape Town Open Education Declaration’s 10th anniversary involves Opening Up Publicly Funded Resources.

This is what happened when the U.S. Department of Labor established an open licensing policy for a $2 billion grant program to improve workforce training programs at community colleges, ensuring that the resulting resources could be repurposed. The same thing occurred in Poland, when the government’s E-podreczniki.pl program created a full set of open, digital textbooks for primary and lower secondary education. And recently in Brazil, where the Programa Nacional do Livro Didático—with its budget of $1.3 billion Real—will next year incorporate an open licensing requirement for digital supplemental resources.

But we can do much, much more, and the potential of Open Education to support progress towards the SDGs is not limited to the tremendous, exponential impact of open educational resources.

Open Pedagogy is access-oriented commitment to learner-driven education. It is also the process of designing architectures and using tools for learning that enable students to shape the public knowledge commons of which they are a part. Open Pedagogy exemplifies the approach to teaching and learning that is described in UNESCO’s publication Education for Sustainable Development Goals (or ESD):

“ESD does not only integrate contents such as climate change, poverty and sustainable consumption into the curriculum… It asks for an action-oriented, transformative pedagogy, which supports self-directed learning, participation and collaboration, problem-orientation, inter- and transdisciplinarity and the linking of formal and informal learning. Only such pedagogical approaches make possible the development of the key competencies needed for promoting sustainable development.”

What does this look like in practice? Well, instead of merely using OER, students can create OER, developing critical literacies while serving specific SDGs. Consider medical students at the University of California who are writing, editing, and improving articles in Wikipedia on a variety of medical topics, serving good health & well-being and quality education. Consider undergraduate students at the Ohio State University who are writing chapters of an open textbook on Environmental Science, a volume that is edited and overseen by the faculty in that program, serving Climate Action and quality education. And consider students at Montgomery College who work under the guidance of driven and brilliant faculty to pick specific SDGs such as Reducing Inequality or Gender Equality that empower them to become agents of change in their communities and the wider world.

Post-secondary institutions would do well to follow the lead of Montgomery College by establishing SDG Open Pedagogy Fellowships for faculty. And educators can draw inspiration from their peers who openly share their innovative practices in the Open Pedagogy Notebook.

Open Education in the context of Education for Sustainable Development is Open Pedagogy. It begins with equitable access but it goes much further by working to democratize both knowledge and knowledge creation.

This kind of critical pedagogy, as Henry Giroux writes, “takes seriously the educational imperative to encourage students to act on the knowledge, values, and social relations they acquire by being responsive to the deepest and most important problems of our times.”

The deepest and most important problems of our times, through an inclusive education for all that serves all.

Thank you for your attention.

Two men sitting at a table. The man on the right is speaking.
Photo credit:
Dag Hammarskjöld Library

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