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Open course content: a model for sharing

Higher education institutions worldwide face significant challenges related to providing increased access, while containing or reducing costs. Meeting increasing and increasingly varied demand for quality higher education is an important consideration in the policy debate and institutional development in many countries. And it is particularly important in the case of developing countries, for whom demand often greatly exceeds capacity in the existing higher education system.

New developments in higher education – from virtual universities and e-learning to open source initiatives – speak to the efforts on the part of the traditional higher education community, as well as new providers, to address this increasing demand. The open source movement can be seen as reflecting the philosophy of academe, which is based upon a collegial sharing of information and new discoveries through the peer-reviewed academic publication process to share knowledge.

... Perhaps the cultural disposition for open review and exchange among peers might support the current open-source courseware and knowledgeware movement in higher education and might encourage a greater volume of work in an open-source environment...

Open initiatives in higher education have crystallized around three major areas of activity:

  • the creation of open source software and development tools,
  • the creation and provision of open course content, and
  • the development of standards and licensing tools.

The outputs of all three may be grouped together under the term Open Educational Resources (OER). This term has been adopted by UNESCO to refer to the open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes.

UNESCO: a platform for dialogue

UNESCO provides an international forum for discussion and debate on issues of concern to Member States. It has five main functions – as a laboratory of ideas, a clearinghouse, a standard setter, a capacity builder in Member States and a catalyst for international cooperation. This makes the organization an appropriate host for an international discussion of open course content.

The forum: exploring the issues

Open course content, whether full course materials or course elements, constitutes an important resource to higher education institutions, teaching staff and learners. However, if there is little or no awareness of availability, open course content cannot be exploited, and even with awareness of availability, there are challenges and barriers to its effective use. With support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the UNESCO IIEP initiative aims to increase awareness, and support capacity building and informed decision making on the part of current and potential users and providers of openly available course content. There will be two international discussion forums – one in 2005 and one in 2006 – with ongoing interaction during the period between the two forums in a Community of Interest.