Potentials of Unencumbered OER on Lifelong Learning: A Critical Review
Basic and elementary education is recognized as a fundamental right. However numerous citizens of the 21st century are still devoid of access to educational opportunities. Open and distance learning (ODL) through Open Educational Resources (OER) and technological advancements have played a significant role in the trend towards opening education to more learners and liberating them from the limitations of time and place. Being accessible to people of all ages and social and economic strata, at all places, methods, and ideas, it has become an integral asset to the wider effort to democratize education. Basic foundations of OER are its ability to promote personal agency, self-determination, and self-regulated lifelong learning (at every stage of life) and life-wide learning (across all life activities) (Blessinger & Bliss, 2016). The idea behind OER was to prepare an educational resource that is non-prejudiced, non-restricted, unfettered and provides access to educational opportunities at all levels. However, issues of access, openness, and free use are complex and contested. The development of OER takes place in contexts where educational and other resources are distributed unevenly, both in the developed world and especially in the case of developing nations (Cannell, Macintyre & Hewitt, 2015). OER are considered to be high on the agenda of social and inclusion policies that want to leverage education and lifelong learning for the knowledge economy and society. Although supported by many stakeholders in the educational sphere, their use in higher education and adult education has not yet reached a critical threshold. This is posing an obstacle to the seamless provision of high-quality learning resources and practices for citizens’ lifelong learning (Ehlers & Conole, 2010). This is explained by the fact that the current focus in OER is mainly on building more access to digital content and delivering of OER to the still-dominant model of teacher-centered knowledge transfer, reflecting limited effect on equipping students and especially the adult learners and learners with lower levels of educational attainment or with no/less access to formal education, the competencies, knowledge and skills to participate successfully in the knowledge economy and society.
This paper argues that access, curation, and contextualization as per needs and abilities are crucial for OER to be effective for lifelong learners, especially those who continue studying and updating at later stages of life.
Research on OER and its widening access to lifelong learning suggests that so far OERs are having limited impact on educational inequality. According to Ehlers (2011), there are five main barriers related to using of OER: lack of institutional support; lack of technological tools for sharing and adapting resources; lack of user skills and time; lack of quality or fitness of the resources; and personal issues such as lack of trust and time. Four of these five issues related to lack of supporting components (i.e., organizational support, lack of a sharing culture within organizations, lack of skills, quality, trust or time, and skills for adaption). Only one element relates to the availability of technical tools for sharing and adapting resources. None of the barriers relates to accessibility and availability. The main issue with the use of OER is because the past (and largely also current) focus in OER is on building more access to digital content. There is too little consideration of whether access alone will support educational practices and promote quality and innovation in teaching and learning. OER needs to move from the first phase, in which the emphasis was on opening up access and availability, to a second phase in which the focus will be on improving learning quality through innovative Open Educational Practices (OEP). The need for OEP is articulated by the Cape Town Open Education Declaration (2007), which stresses that developing the potential of open education requires practices that enable educators to share approaches and ideas and promote development in pedagogy. The declaration marks a move towards a focus on OEP. OEP focuses on learning by constructing knowledge assets, sharing them with others, and receiving feedback and reviews. It follows the notion of improving quality through external validation because sharing resources is in the foreground and is about changing the traditional educational paradigm to a paradigm in which knowledge is co-created and facilitated through mutual interaction and reflection. This new phase of OEP is about using OER to improve learning experiences and innovative educational scenarios. These comprise a combination of open resources use and open learning architectures that could transform learning into ‘21st-century learning environments’, in which learners are provided with opportunities to shape their learning pathways in an autonomous and self-regulated way.