Nearly 1.6 billion learners globally have been experiencing various forms of disruption in learning due to COVID-19. School closures, as a means to reduce the spread of the virus, set the stage for the adoption of online learning solutions.
Several governments in sub-Saharan Africa, as in other parts of the world, adopted distance learning approaches to allow education to go on during the pandemic.
Distance learning approaches use various technologies to share educational material. They include YouTube, Zoom, Google Classroom, Teams, Internet educational websites, television, radio, tablets, computers and smartphones.
Distance learning also relies a lot on open education resources. These are educational and research resources in any format in the public space that can be accessed freely. They’re made available to promote access to and use of quality educational material without geographical barriers. Users can also share such content with no restrictions.
We wanted to know more about the impact of these resources on research productivity in higher education. Our paper reviewed existing literature and found that open education resources propel research productivity in higher education institutions.
For example, these resources offered free access to a wide range of educational and research materials to students. But we also found systemic failures as a key challenge for universal adoption of open education resources, particularly in developing countries.
The main challenges are the economic, technical, legal, social, and infrastructural requirements needed to make open education resources available.
Benefits and limitations
Open education resource platforms improve access to education. They allow users to access, store, redevelop, and redistribute resources freely to wider networks for greater coverage. As a result, these resources and related platforms are globalising education on a scale never seen before.
There are many examples and we have listed some in our paper. One of them is African Virtual University. It has ten physical centres in five African countries – Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Senegal. Another is Commonwealth of Learning. This is a platform set up in tertiary institutions in Malawi, Tanzania and Nigeria.
Open resources allow academics to offer constructive criticism, add to a body of knowledge, or build on a principle or concept. Access to these resources can generate ideas, materials, and technologies with a wider user base and application.
The resources help link scholars working on similar fields or projects in different geographical spaces. They offer a platform for collaboration in research and related publications.
The productivity of an institution can be measured in terms of its research output. The number of research publications produced by academics and students determines the ability of an institution to inform and build new knowledge. Open education resources have boosted research productivity by removing cost-related barriers to doing this.
In addition to research, the resources have benefits for learning. Materials used in world class universities are now available to universities in developing countries.
Open resources have the added potential benefit of enabling people to take active roles in shaping their own learning.
Our review identified the benefits of open educational resources as:
promoting the use of novel methods of learning,
regulating educational costs,
regular refinement of quality of educational materials,
wider dissemination of good quality educational material and
creating opportunities for learning.
While open education resources have these benefits, they also have some downsides. These are diverse and vary between and within countries.
Sustainability issues: creators don’t receive payment for materials shared online, so they may have little incentive to continue with this work.
Quality concerns: users might be able to post material that hasn’t been checked for accuracy.
Missing human interaction and feedback between students and teachers.
Intellectual property and copyright concerns: all materials shared online must be checked to ensure that they don’t violate copyright laws.
There are also challenges of infrastructure, technical skills and costs. Some educators may be reluctant to share intellectual property or to use resources developed by others. Some may lack awareness of copyright issues and restrictive licences that prohibit changes to material. The fact that most resources are in English is another limitation.
Why open education resources matter
Our study showed that open education resources have had a positive impact on the demand for learning, and on knowledge and skills for jobs. These educational resources have transformed the research and learning landscape.
For optimal adoption of open education resources, there’s a need for investment in infrastructure. Easing of restrictive legal provisions would also help. Adoption will also depend on a change of attitude among stakeholders in education.
Open education resources are crucial during the COVID-19 crisis. They will also enhance the future of education beyond COVID-19 and will be central in achieving the sustainable development goal of quality education in sub-Saharan Africa.