Reflections on the ‘Opening up Education’ Panel discussions at the 10th EdReNE seminar

By Cristóbal Cobo Romaní on Flickr, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

By Cristóbal Cobo Romaní on Flickr, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Earlier this November I had the opportunity to attend the 10th EdReNe conference in Brussels organised by the European Schoolnet EUN. Among the main themes discussed at the conference was the recently launched European Commission’s ‘Opening Up Education‘ (OUE) initiative.

The highlight of the first day of the conference was, for me, the Panel discussion of OUE lead by representatives of the Irish, Danish, Portuguese, Swiss and Dutch ministries of education. The Panel discussion was preceded by the ‘Opening up Education’ presentation delivered by Ricardo Ferreira, representating the European Commission – DG Education and Culture. This presentation started with a series of challenges faced by the educational sector, such as increasing demands for higher education, digital skills deficits in adults, changes in the supply of education and rising costs of education. The emergence of MooCs in the educational landscape, as well as the opportunities opened by the ‘digital revolution’ drove the development of three areas of action (open learning environments, open educational resources (OER), and connectivity and innovation), in the new Erasmus+ and Horizon2020 programmes.

To me, both the problems and the opportunities identified by the Commission seemed spot on and responsive to the emerging developments on the educational scene (take controversial MooCs as an example). However, the Panel discussion which followed this presentation, surfaced concerns, skepticism and reservations towards whether open education, and most specifically OER can (successfully) drive change in education. For example, in order for OER to overcome some of the existent issues in the classroom, such as distracted or distracted students, it will need to be very well done, which could prove challenging and costly both in terms of development, maintenance and updating.

One of the challenges mentioned during the presentation was the relatively low uptake of OER by educators. It was acknowledged that a high number of high quality OER repositories already exist providing access to teaching and learning materials. However, except the front runners, ‘normal’ teachers tend to prefer the old fashioned textbook. This is mainly because it is difficult and time consuming to browse through repositories to find a particular resource that teachers need, in the language they need and connected to their national curriculum. Not to mention that ‘normal’ teachers will probably not know where to start searching. To address this challenge, the Commission has decided to support those initiatives that promise to contribute to enhancing visibility, findability and discoverability of resources.

In addition, the Commission will invest in a single gateway of OERs produced in Europe (not worldwide!) federating existing platforms with advanced browsing and search features to help users find the appropriate content. This gateway, Open Education Europa, aims to help learners discover high quality resources from European institutions. Some might argue it is naïve of the Commission to think that this new portal will reach significant popularity, when there are already high quality solutions from other corners of the world.  Why drive European learners towards a walled garden of resources? Why not discourage duplication of work globally? Others might wonder, considering the overwhelming percentage of English language OER developed in Europe, who will continue to develop these resources once the UK will leave the EU? :p The strategic political motivations of this choice (releasing a European platform) are beyond the scope of this post.

Financial concerns were expressed by various stakeholders: what happens after funding ends, how should OER repositories cover costs for updating resources and maintaining the platform? Since the EC has now introduced a new clause demanding that all publicly funded content should be freely available, how about sustainability for businesses and the compatibility of business models of publishers with this new clause? Along with new opportunities come new challenges: publishers that receive EU money to create high quality teaching materials will need to find alternatives ways to run their business while still offering all materials produced for free. On the other hand, OER supporters might wonder, in order to encourage reuse of content should the Commission go a step further and impose freedom of reuse resources among their new clauses? These are only a few of the issues that fueled the discussions during the Brussels meeting.

Overall, the divergent views that arose during the Panel discussions suggest to me that the Opening up Education initiative, following a rather technology push approach, raises several challenging pedagogical and financial concerns. During the discussions, higher education, K-12 and lifelong learning arguments and discourses mixed together, making it even more difficult to draw simple conclusions. I would like to remark though that the Panel present at the meeting  included only representatives of Western economies and therefore did not reflect the educational and social challenges faced by the rest of Europe.

The minutes along with all the slides delivered during the presentation are available here. The 2014 EdReNe seminar will be hosted by Agro-Know.

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