Article from MITLinc 2007

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An Open Source Online University OSS and OER Factors in Developing Countries

Ken Udas Executive Director, Penn State World Campus & Online Programs KEU10@PSU.EDU


Although many educators will find the notion of an Open Source Online University (OSOU) inherently appealing, the effectiveness of such an institution will be based on whether it is relevant to local needs, is affordable, and whether it improves accessibility in developing countries. The paper will address these criteria in terms of open and flexible education, and selected characteristics of Open Source Software and Open Educational Resources.

1. Online Education, Open Source, and the Academy

An Open Source Online University would adopt open source software and open educational resources, while applying the principles of commons based peer production (CBPP) where possible to enhance access to education. Such a university could significantly reduce virtually all access barriers to education including learner fees. Although the focus of this paper will not allow a treatment of CBPP it is worth noting that it is an economic model developed by Yochai Benkler [1] [2] that explains the motivation of participants in open source projects and demonstrates why CBPP can emerge as a highly efficient form of organization.

An “open” university is one that reduces and eliminates access barriers to education. For example, distance education has historically been associated closely with open universities and colleges because it reduces some of the time and geographic access barriers that classroom-based education imposes on learners who are not able to attend classes in physical locations at specific times. The advent of the Internet was one of the factors that opened opportunities for Online Learning (eLearning) to supplement and replace traditional correspondence and video-based distance learning methods. Simultaneously, during the past decade, open source software (OSS) has become an important part of the technology infrastructure through which online learning has been delivered and educational resources have been developed. Furthermore, the licensing, distribution, and development methods used in OSS have been adopted by producers of educational resources (OER). Some of the highest profile OER activities include the Open Courseware (OCW) Initiative, which was pioneered by MIT’s OCW project.

The openness in OSS and OER promises to enable the free use and reuse of resources that are critical to the educational enterprise. OSS and OER could reduce the cost barriers to education in so far as they are fee free, and reduce cultural access barriers in so far as they are free for modification and reuse to meet local educational needs. Many open education providers are turning to OSS and OER to help them better meet their mission of widening access to high quality education. There is dialog about applying the general principles and economic models that underlie OSS and OER to other functions of the university such as teaching, research, and student services.

James Fay and Jane Sjogren [3] outlined a model for an “Open Source Online University” (OSOU) in their foundation paper for this panel discussion. In their paper they describe a university that operates virtually, delivering online courses and programs, with a distributed student body, faculty, and staff. They also identify the need for content, outline a process and incentive model that attracts faculty to license their syllabi using a traditional royalty-based compensation plan, then use internal and outsourced experts and learning designers to develop courses based on the syllabi and provide quality control. The design and development approach shares some significant similarities to those adopted by many traditional open and flexible learning providers that have moved into online learning. Heavy emphasis is placed on the development of quality resources, outcomes-based assessment, and transparent processes to help ensure accreditation and promote disclosure to potential learners.

There are a number of assumptions wrapped into the OSOU model that merit discussion relative to higher education in developing nations. These assumptions and the OSOU model framework serve as the foundation of this paper. The notion of an organization committed to affordable open and flexible education, developed to meet the needs of learners living in a variety of circumstances, adopting Open Source Software (OSS) and Open Educational Resources (OER), is broadly appealing. It appeals to our senses of connectedness, opportunity, commitment to public good, and innovation.

2. The Notion of an Open Source Online University in Developing Regions

The framework outlined by Fay and Sjogren promises to deliver high-quality education at low cost, which is obviously a desirable set of characteristics for developing and developed countries. It is worth taking some time and exploring which features of the framework are most conducive to meeting needs in developing regions of the world. In a recent series of postings on Terra Incognita , Penn State World Campus’ Blog, focusing on the impact of OSS and OER on education, contributors from developing countries and multicultural environments reported that the benefits of open resources include cost reduction and customization. Cost reduction was important because it decreases barriers to entry into online learning, while customization is important for localization to help ensure relevance in local contexts. In the larger context, beyond the use of OSS and OER, the OSOU might also function as an open and flexible learning provider to reduce barriers and better meet the needs of more diverse populations of learners.

3. Open and Flexible Education

Open and flexible education has been closely tied to the tradition of distance education in the United States since the late 1800s, creating flexibility in terms of place and time and openness for learners belonging to groups that had been marginalized in terms of access to higher education. Open and flexible learning has a number of dimensions that relate to different types of access. Generally speaking, the more open and flexible the provider is, the more accessible education becomes. Some of the key dimensions of open and flexible education include a) time, b) place, c) cost, d) programming, and e) admissions. Each of these dimensions also has characteristics. See Sharma [4]. For example, the time dimension can be thought of in terms of when study can take place and the duration of study. Can the learner study any time during the day, and is the course of study restricted to prescribed periods of time, such as semesters? Are there geographic constraints that restrict the learner’s mobility or dictate where the learner must be physically located? Are the costs associated with tuition or fees, textbooks, activities, and other necessary resources prohibitively high for many learners? Are the programs relevant to learners? Are they context sensitive, leading to recognized certificates, in appropriate languages, pedagogically appropriate, and current? How open is admission to programs? These are the types of questions that strike at the types of openness and flexibility that an OSOU might actually provide.

Universities and colleges will be differentially open and flexible, exhibiting openness and flexibility on some dimensions and being much less so on others. For example, the Penn State World Campus is relatively open in terms of place with very few programs having geographic constraints. For example, with just a few exceptions, World Campus students never have to leave their home to meet program commitments. One exception is the iMBA program, which requires a group internship at a company site followed by educational programming at a Penn State campus. It can be argued that the residency requirement reduces access for learners who are not able to participate in a residency experience. It is also argued that removing the residency will reduce program quality, and that the enhanced quality offsets the potential access barrier. There is a conscious tradeoff between the benefits of access and perceived program quality.

Although the World Campus learner can study virtually any time of the day because there is a commitment to asynchronous learning design, the courses run on a semester schedule, limiting when a learner can join and complete a course. This was not always the case. Many World Campus courses had their roots in traditional independent learning, which allowed for learners to enter the course at any time and complete the course within 2 years. The transition from “self-paced” to “semesterized” courses creates some access barriers for highly mobile learners and learners who serve actively in the military who have unpredictable commitments, arguably making the World Campus less open for a segment of learners. The World Campus reduced its openness in this case because it found that learner completion rates increased by over 20% when courses were semesterized. In this case, there was a conscious trade off made between access and “learner success.”

The World Campus’ fee structure is designed for a student body in a fully developed economy, placing cost limitations on many learners, and all courses are online requiring learners to have Internet access, which restricts participation, particularly for learners from economically developing countries. In addition, the programs are offered only in English and are designed principally with the needs of a North American and European audience in mind. The World Campus is typical in that it is more open and flexible for some learners than for others. That is, like other education providers, it has a well-defined target population and tries to optimize its operation to meet that population’s needs based on their characteristics and the characteristics of the service environment.

The extent to which the OSOU will meet its objectives of delivering high-quality educational services, at a very low cost in a sustained manner, in developing countries will be impacted by which open and flexible dimensions it optimizes. In many developing areas there is a lack of participation in higher education and an enormous need; access is determined by cost and availability of technology, while quality is associated with how useful and relevant the educational offering is in the local context. The ability for the OSOU to optimize these dimensions will be influenced by its use of Open Source Software, Open Educational Resources, and the organizational structure that it adopts. In the following sections I will identify qualities of OSS and OER that can help the OSOU achieve its goals and some current activities and projects that are leading the way.

4. Open Source Software

Open Source is a term coined to describe the creation and distribution of non-proprietary software. Many Open Source Software projects have been lead by volunteers who are motivated by a variety of factors including providing broader benefit to society. There are now thousands of such software projects operating in a global context with tens of thousands of volunteers. Given the central role of Open Source in the OSOU and its frequently blurred meaning, it would be helpful to briefly describe what is meant by Open Source Software. Literally, Open Source refers to the terms of distribution for software, which includes but is not limited to the openness or transparency of the source code, allowing anyone to access, evaluate, and modify and reuse the code. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) provides a widely accepted and comprehensive definition of OSS on its Web site . Although OSS might be fee free, there is nothing in the definition that mandates it. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) Web site provides descriptions of approved licenses.

One of the most frequently cited qualities of OSS is the community that supports it. The community will help ensure code quality, so even though there is no legal reason prohibiting anybody from downloading and modifying source code, that does not mean that the modifications will be included in subsequent official software releases. Different communities operate differently. Refer to Eric Kim's [5] An Introduction to Open Source Communities paper for original case studies that illustrate differences among OSS communities. In addition to code development and maintenance, the OSS community often supports open forums for the exchange of ideas, certifies commercial services providers to support the product, develops documentation, user guides, and training materials, and organizes user events. The quality of the “software” is a combination of code, the support, and user communities [6].

The nature of the code and community will be an important success factor for the OSOU as it operates in developing regions. The assumed benefits of reduced cost and localization to be derived from the use of OSS will depend on the nature of the specific software selected and how closely it comports to the OSI definition of OSS and the freedoms conferred to the user. Although much OSS is fee free, its maintenance and operations are not. The nature of the software code and the community that supports the code will influence the short- and long-term costs. For example, two of the most popular Open Source learning management systems are Moodle and Sakai. They have different architectures, programming languages, issues around scalability, and community composition. The fact that Moodle is based on a (Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP) LAMP stack and Sakai is based on Java J2EE will impact the skills needed to support these applications and contribute code to the community or customize the application. Some skills and competencies are easier to come by and less expensively acquired than others. The transparency and quality of the code and size of the community will influence how easily the software will be localized and how much localization may have already occurred. Some of these metrics have been explored by Udas and Feldstein [7] and placed in a comparative framework for application evaluation and selection.

For the purposes of the OSOU in developing countries, an OSS system that is easily deployed, supported, and modified to meet local conditions is important. We can take some direction from universities and NGOs operating in developing regions. In a recent Blog posting, Jean-Claude Dauphin [8] of UNESCO outlined the significant involvement and contributions that his division has made directly to Free and Open Source Software and to developing networks that support Open Source for education. In addition, he iterated UNESCO’s intent to explore producing a complete Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Education Solution for higher education that would integrate a stack of software tools, guidelines, and good documentation. He also outlined a rough project plan. Working with UNESCO on this type of project would help ensure that the ICT infrastructure for the OSOU would be able to address the needs of developing countries.

5. Open Educational Resources

The production methods developed in Open Source Software communities is also being applied more broadly to the creation and distribution of college and graduate school courses and course materials, also known as Open Educational Resources (OER). OER includes both the development and open distribution of teaching and learning materials used in education. Examples of OER efforts can be found at the Open Courseware Consortium , the Creative Commons OER site, and WikiEducator .

There is incredible potential for the impact of OER in developing countries, by reducing access barriers due to lack of local expertise, lack of context-relevant content, and prohibitively high cost of materials generated in developed economies and controlled through proprietary licensing and for-profit delivery channels. Once again, like OSS, OER will have to provide low cost and provide the flexibility necessary for localization of the resources to promote the OSOU goals in developing countries. The term Open Educational Resources was first adopted at UNESCO's 2002 [9] Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries , so the terminology and concept of OER has its roots in meeting the needs of developing countries. OER are educational materials and resources offered freely and openly for anyone to use and, depending on the license, they may be remixed, improved (localized), and redistributed. There are examples of large-scale translation projects such as the China Open Resource for Education (CORE) program, which works closely with the MIT Open Courseware Initiative (OCR) and other major universities with a commitment to localizing, translating, and teaching over 100 MIT OCR courses. This activity has resulted in CORE commitment to generating local OER courses for distribution and reuse.

The extent to which an OER is “free,” is in large part defined by its license. The fewer restrictions on the license, the more open the resources become. For education in developing countries, the ability to modify and redistribute is critical because it enables localization. Although this is widely accepted, there is a lot of discussion about the affect of including a non-commercial restriction (NCR) on OER licenses. Some educators and policy makers claim that the NCR renders the OER closed, negatively impacts the usability of the content, reduces the transparency open licensing systems try to achieve, and weakens the ecosystem needed to sustain an open commons-based community. Others feel that the negative impact of NCR is minimal given that it enhances participation within the education sector, because many faculty members and universities that might be comfortable with sharing content are not comfortable with it being used for commercial purposes.

Although many of the North American open courseware initiatives apply the NCR to their materials, this is less often the case among OER projects internationally. Among the more interesting efforts that the OSOU might follow is the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) supported WikiEducator project that not only supports numerous Free Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) and OER projects, but has made a commitment to developing a complete open university curriculum by 2015, using the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. Among the many important OER projects hosted on WikiEducator is the FOSS4Edu project operating in Africa and now other developing areas, a free textbooks network project, and the Commonwealth Computer Navigator's Certificate , which is supported by COL and UNESCO with voluntary contributions of universities from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, North America, and the Pacific.

In addition to licensing decisions, there are other characteristics of OER that impact its usability in developing regions. As the OSOU considers how it is going to adopt open content and distribute it for reuse, from a developing countries perspective qualities such as granularity, modularity, the use of open file formats, and packaging must be considered. These qualities impact the ease in which content is redesign and use across technology platforms.

6. Challenges, Opportunities, and Decisions

The OSOU is an idea with significant potential. Some of the obvious challenges included in the framework are achieving high quality through rigorous review and learning design, ensuring content and pedagogical relevance across cultural and social contexts, and providing accessibility through delivery modalities, while maintaining affordability for learners in developing countries. Success in developing countries will mean overcoming some basic challenges associated with affordability, technology availability, and socio-cultural adjustments to online and distributed learning. The challenges will vary based on local conditions. As the OSOU framework described by Fay and Sjogren is still a developing concept, it is ambiguous in some critical ways relative to how likely it is to achieve its goals within the operating parameters in fully developed as well as developing economies. Although there are many distance and online education providers, as well as institutions that are considered open and flexible providers, few have turned to OSS and OER as strategic and mission-central ways of achieving accessibility, affordability, and global relevance in developed and developing regions. These challenges are measured alongside of the opportunity to provide high-quality educational services in developing regions where participation is low and unevenly distributed across gender and other learner characteristics.

Given the OSOU framework and the potential for positive impact in developing regions, it is important to consider how organizational structure will impact its effectiveness. Three potential organizational models include: 1. The OSOU operating as a centralized organization based in North America that will deliver educational programs globally, including developing countries. 2. The OSOU operating on a “franchise” model that is replicated in various parts of the world and operated independently or with significant autonomy. 3. The OSOU operating as a global university with decentralized and multinational governance.

Variations on these organizational types will impact how the educational needs of developing countries will be prioritized. Currently, most universities operate under the first model; however, as Fay and Sjogren point out, we have the opportunity to rethink assumptions and design a new form of educational organization. Our overarching organizational model should not only take full advantage of the potential benefits of OSS and OER, but it ought to also enable as many benefits as possible for open and flexible education. How the OSOU framework is operationalized will liberate or stifle the potential of open and flexible education, OSS, and OER as outlined above.

7. The Opportunity

There is no question that the idea of the OSOU is timely and increasingly important for developing regions. OSS and OER are both viewed as critical parts of the “massification” of education in parts of the developing world, while open and flexible education provides us not only a set of values to achieve access but also a rich source of experience and ways of thinking about the multiple dimensions of openness and flexibility. Identifying and prioritizing the dimensions of openness and flexibility that the OSOU needs to meet its goals in developing regions will help the organization understand its commitment to OSS and OER and the characteristics they must possess to be successful. With clarity of purpose and focus on how to leverage the benefits of OSS and OER, the OSOU framework can potentially serve developing as well as developed regions.

8. Reference List

[1] Benkler, Y. (2002). Coase’s penguin, Linux and the nature of the firm. Yale Law Journal. 112 (04.3). pp 1-73. Last visited August 15, 2007.

[2] Benkler, Y. (2005). Common Wisdom: Peer Production of Educational Materials. COSL Monograph Series. Last visited July 11, 2007.

[3] Fay, J. & Sjogren J. (October, 2007, in press). The Open Source Online University. Panel conducted at The Fourth Annual Conference of Learning International Networks Consortium (LINC), Amman, Jordan.

[4] Sharma, R. C. (2005) 'Open learning in India: evolution, diversification and reaching out', Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 20:3, 227 - 241

[5] Kim, E. (2003) An Introduction to Open Source Communities. Blue Oxen Associates. URL: Last accessed: August 2, 2007.

[6] Raymond E. (1998). The Cathedral and the Bazaar. First Monday, Last visited July 11, 2007.

[7] Udas, K. & Feldstein, M. (May, 2006). Apples to Apples: Guidelines for Comparative Evaluation of Proprietary and Open Educational Technology Systems. Monthly Report of The Observatory of Borderless Higher Education, London, England.

[8] Dauphin, J. C. (2007). UNESCO’s Activities in FOSS For Education, Past, Current and Future Activities, the Impact of OSS and OER on Education, posted on Terra Incognita, Last visited August 2, 2007

[9] UNESCO (2002). Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries, Final Report, Paris.