Open education – free to learn

Janine Erasmus

The Cape Town Open Education Declaration, launched on 22 January 2008, is an initiative aiming to transform education and make learning material more accessible by posting it online, for free. It is part of a growing worldwide trend in open education: there are already more than 100 000 of such sites available on the internet.

These include the Learning Activity Management System (Lams), a tool for designing, managing and delivering online collaborative learning activities. Then there’s the Centre for Open Sustainable Learning; Moodle, a free open-source software package designed to help educators create effective online learning communities; and Curriki, which aims to make curriculums and learning resources available to everyone.

Driven by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth’s Shuttleworth Foundation and the Open Society Institute (OSI), the Cape Town Open Education Declaration forms part of a determined effort by teachers, students, web gurus and foundations to make learning and teaching materials available to all, regardless of income or geographic location.

The term “open education” in this context can take several meanings. It is related to the Montessori method of education, which places emphasis on self-directed activity on the part of the child. It also refers to freely accessible learning and teaching aids through media such as the internet, as well as openness and flexibility of education, which in turn calls for more adaptable teaching tools.

Open education is particularly significant in terms of the educational capacity of developing economies, as it suggests the potential for affordable textbooks and learning materials.

International call for open education

The declaration falls in line with a growing international movement encouraging teachers and students around the world to use the internet to share, adapt and translate classroom materials.

In September 2007 the OSI and the Shuttleworth Foundation called leading campaigners for open education both in South Africa and internationally to a meeting. These included Grace Baguma of Uganda’s Department of Education, Delia Browne from the Ministerial Council on Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs in Australia, and David Wiley from the Utah State University’s Centre for Open and Sustainable Learning, as well as representatives from the Centre for Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Meeting delegates identified and discussed key strategies for developing open education. Out of this arose the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, which outlines the principles and strategies laid down atthe meeting and concludes by encouraging all stakeholders to join and sign.

Strategies to help spread open education

Three strategies have been emphasised to encourage the spread of open educational resources:

  • Educators and learners are encouraged to get involved in the open education movement, so that resources may be created, adapted and improved.
  • Educators, authors and institutions are encouraged to make their resources openly available, in formats that facilitate both use and editing.
  • Governments and educational institutions are urged to give top priority to education.

Already translated into over a dozen languages, the declaration has been signed by hundreds of people from all walks of life. These include learners, educators, trainers, authors, publishers, educational institutions, unions, professional societies, policymakers, and foundations.

The growing list of signatories includes Mark Shuttleworth, musician Peter Gabriel, Sir John Daniel, president of Commonwealth of Learning, Andrey Kortunov, president of the New Eurasia Foundation (a Russian-European-American initiative to support the development of civil society in Russia), and Yehuda Elkana, rector of the Central European University, an international postgraduate institution in the field of humanities and social sciences, based in Budapest.

Driven by entrepreneur Shuttleworth

“Open sourcing education doesn’t just make learning more accessible, it makes it more collaborative, flexible and locally relevant,” Mark Shuttleworth said at the launch of the declaration. “Linux is succeeding exactly because of this sort of adaptability. The same kind of success is possible for open education.”

Shuttleworth helped develop Debian, a member of the Linux family – open-source software. In 2004 he funded the development of Ubuntu, a Linux variant based on Debian, through his company Canonical Ltd. Both Debian and Ubuntu are available for free, with the code open to anyone who would like to modify it.

“I am particularly pleased that this launch is taking place in Africa, because Africa represents both the greatest opportunity for transformation if we get this right and perhaps the greatest risk if we fail, to really open the doors of knowledge and learning to all in the world today,” added Shuttleworth.

Eve Gray of the Centre for Educational Technology at UCT commented, “Countries like South Africa need to start producing and sharing educational materials built on their own diverse cultural heritage. Open education promises to make this kind of diverse publishing possible.”

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