Technological advances have an ever increasing impact on every aspect of the education system, from the provisioning of education to working conditions and administrative governance. Unfortunately, technology is too often dumped onto education institutions leaving behind a big ecological footprint but no educational improvement. However, there are also many examples where technology can contribute in a positive way.
One example is the development of technological infrastructure that can facilitate increasing access to and work with open educational resources (OER). OER are free and openly licensed educational materials. Online platforms and the use of algorithms to collect and analyse user data are the technological infrastructure that can enable teachers and students to access as well as collaboratively create and share digital OER more efficiently. But don’t be fooled – not everything that is labelled as an OER service is aligned with OER values such as equity, openness and education as a public good!
OER are widely recognised as playing an important role in facilitating increased access to materials for teaching and learning. They increase the choice of materials available to teachers—an important aspect of academic freedom and professional autonomy—as well facilitate more collaborative and interactive ways of working with educational resources. As technology can facilitate the spread and use of open educational resources, the OER movement also has an interest in practical and technological progress and has been developing their own platforms and technological ideas (e.g. Open Stax). At the same time, commercially driven actors have not been standing still and are developing OER solutions that often contradict OER values while profiting from these openly available materials. These commercial actors are serious competition, particularly, where OER communities do not have the technological expertise or financial means to design platforms or effectively distribute OER. I was interested in bringing technological enthusiasm and the interests of OER advocates together. Finding out what the current challenges are and what suggestions OER advocates might have to ensure that OER platforms reinforce rather revert the benefits of OER.
Why is it important to critically engage with platforms even if they OER platforms?
The use of open educational resource platforms is, in many parts of the world, still in an initial phase. Publishers, for instance, have slowly come to realise that their traditional publishing market is eroding in the digital era and search for new business models linked to open educational resources (e.g. student diagnostics, data analytics). For instance, to make money with free content. Open Educational Resources are an example of such content.
We always need to remember that technological infrastructure – including OER platforms – is not value neutral. Online platforms are often presented, as Neil Selwyn (2015) puts it, as “empty spaces for others to interact on” when they are actually political and increasingly “gain control and governance over the rules of the game” (p. 47). For the education sector Sewlyn, for instance, pointed out how the collection of digital data through online education platforms “raise[s] concerns over power, control and performativity […] reinforcing and intensifying the culture of managerialism within education” (p. 72). A lot of educational technological infrastructure risks reducing teachers, students and their interactions to measurable data sets that increasingly shape educational processes (e.g. standardisation, competition). They prepare the grounds for data-monetisation business models in education. Such developments are exactly what Srnicek and Williams warns us about in their book Platform Capitalism. New technologies must empower citizens rather than forcing them to adhere to the rules of a platform they, effectively, cannot control. Different scholars have pointed to “potential issues, particularly with respect to data collection, student privacy and, in fact, the depersonalisation and deprofessionalisation of education” driven by commercial and capitalist rather than educational interests.
I do believe that we should not sit still and observe how these commercially inspired OER solutions are being sold to education institutions. We are just at the beginning. Now is the time to contribute to a critical dialogue about the risks of giving too much power to private providers in designing and governing educational IT infrastructure for OER. One option often discussed by OER stakeholders is to develop a set of standards for the development of technological infrastructure for Open Educational Resources. These could, for instance, be organized around usability (e.g., access, use, open licenses), alignment with OER values (e.g. public quality education, transparency, open source), respect for the professional autonomy and academic freedom of teachers, public oversight and regulation as well as data protection and privacy, among others. This set of criteria would go far beyond the conventional OER discussions on copyright (i.e. open licenses) and educational content. It would place OER in a broader context of the newly created chances (e.g. increased access, collaboration) and dangers (e.g. privacy, data abuse) linked to new technological developments.
Work collectively on setting criteria for the development of OER technology
It will be important to bring these more siloed discussions about what we want for OER technology together and share the demands with decision makers at national and international level.
One opportunity, might be the discussions around UNESCO’s draft Recommendation on Open Educational Resources. The Recommendation is in its final stages and once adopted will advise governments on the implementation of OER policies including on the development of technical infrastructure (e.g., open licensed tools, platforms and standards).
We need to start working with governments, education unions and the OER community on developing criteria that need to be met. Criteria that will contribute to the development of platforms that are technologically sound, guided by educational rather than economic interests and aligned with the values of education stakeholders and the OER movement. In short, technology that is liberating in educational terms rather than restrained by capitalist log.
Nikola Wachter is a research officer at Education International (EI), where she coordinates research on inclusive education as well as political economy issues including education privatisation and its impact on education systems. She is a certified teacher and union activist concerned about strengthening equitable access to quality public (education) systems and promoting the democratisation of knowledge within and beyond education. As an open education advocate, Nikola coordinates EI’s work on copyright and Open Educational Resources.