Decolonising Open Educational Resources (OER): Why the focus on ‘open’ and ‘access’ is not enough for the EdTech revolution

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At EdTech Hub, we’ve been reflecting on how coloniality is embedded in the work we do: from the colonial roots of the international development sector to colonial practices embedded in research methods, to “core-to-periphery” design and deployment of EdTech interventions. We’ve just begun this journey, but in trying to embody one of our EdTech Hub values of ‘fearless and humble learning,’ we wanted to think out loud with you. This is the second in long-form series exploring what it means to strive toward ‘Decolonising EdTech’. Thanks to Taskeen Adam and Moizza Binat Sarwar for their support and insights.


As a community organiser, I started a grassroots learning neighbourhood initiative for self-directed, agile learning among families, children, and youth in Egypt where I am from. We initially used Open Educational Resources for input and content to questions asked and raised by children according to their interests and curiosities. After months of using such resources, I found the children coming and asking me: “Are there no Arabs who ever contributed to inventions around the world?” Knowing the rich history of the Arab civilization, and its extended Islamic heritage that laid the foundations, during the middle centuries, for modern sciences today, I felt ashamed as an educator of the hidden message I unintentionally to my students”

A critical look at Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources have offered a number of promises and opportunities, primarily in terms of customising learning to students’ needs, pace, and interests. Additionally, it has provided teachers with a wide range of customisation and collaboration options. On the flip side, there is a difference between thinking about new developments in an operational sense and in a social sense. Thinking of developments in education in a technological dimension relates to their operational sense and stops there. However, such developments acquire social and cultural meanings beyond mere function. We understand the latter by looking at what happens in practice as people, communities, cultures, and systems interact with and react to these developments. In effect, there are inherent assumptions within OER that several scholars have taken  a critical look at:

  • Education science is universal (it is not!) (King, 1999)
  • Learning outcomes are the benchmark (they are not!) (Fasheh, 1990)
  • ‘Open’ is neutral and apolitical – and so is education data (they are not!)  (Watters, 2014) 
  • ‘Open’ removes systemic barriers to access (not necessarily!) (Bali et al., 2018)
  • ‘Open’ is inherently good or just (not necessarily!)  (Watters, 2014) 

A term like Education Science suggests that there is one science to education, one way in which education performs best. We never say Euro-American Education Science. Hence, the Euro-American lens is made invisible, becoming the norm; the standard against which everything else is measured. What is non-Euro-American is deemed local and/or with a context-specific meaning that is not valid everywhere. Rarely do development practitioners and education scholars question why ONE type of education science is considered to be universally valid. And is it really ‘universal’ or ‘global’ or is it, in fact, Euro-American?

(Steger, 2018)

In practice, several scholars have pointed out the socio-cultural, political, and economic implications, beyond the functional technicality of Open Educational Resources. Some of the points raised in the literature focus on looking at OER from a power analysis lens. This power analysis lens looks at:

  • access: in its applications, those who have access to OER are economic and social classes with an existing wealth of knowledge and power.  
  • equity: of knowledge production whereby most OER do not offer an opportunity to value different systems of knowledge equally.
  • language: OER applies a universal education science that aims to produce a workforce to contribute to a global workplace. The latter necessitates the use of one universal language at the expense of diverse languages and their associated wisdom and ways of reasoning.
  • skills: for lack of skills and institutional support, students and teachers mostly use OER verbatim (copy content) rather than modify, adapt, or contribute to them.
  • global imbalances resulting from geopolitical dynamics: OER production is concentrated in Western countries, uses the English language, and reproduces both social and natural science from a Euro-American worldview. Hence, ascertaining an epistemic superiority to the Western worldview, which enables OER to become a new tool for neo-colonialism, reproducing global power imbalances.

The above summary of writings taking a critical look at OER begs questions like whose knowledge gets to be centred in OER? Whose knowledge is deemed viable and whose isn’t? Who gets access to this knowledge? Who gets access to the tools of knowledge production? Who is the constant producer / contributor / shaper and who is the constant consumer? The invitation is to consider whose voices are missing and how can OER potentially give prominence to the perspectives of those who have been historically suppressed and sidelined (formerly colonised)?

Why decolonize OER?

As a researcher, I sat interviewing the person tasked by the Ministry of Education with developing the new History curriculum for Grades 4–12 in what I will call here the hypothetical country ‘Gondor’! He will not only develop the full new curriculum, but it will also be digital, interactive, fun, aligned with the national learning outcomes, and open source for every ‘Gondorian’ child, teacher, and parent. How fabulous! I sat across from the developer: a white American Male, representing a famous American education technology company. As the conversation went on, my interlocutor made simple mistakes about what I know is wrong historic information pertaining to ‘Gondor’. His vision for ‘Gondor’s’ history curriculum included lots of information historically propagated by colonial forces in the 20th century to economically exploit ‘Gondor’. He continued by sharing how he tailors / contextualises the content materials of the education company he represents for ‘Gondorian’ children. His contextualization strategy included checking in with his Gondorian friends to make sure that the pictures look like people on the streets of ‘Gondor’. I kept wondering why the ‘Gondor’ Ministry of Education and its donors ignored ‘Gondorian’ historians who I know of, who are living and producing knowledge on local and global levels, who seek sources that are diverse and critical, that are representative of the rich diversity of ways of being and knowing in ‘Gondor’, in favour of a global American company that has a readymade plug and play (with some contextualization) open-source digital curricula.

“There will be no global social justice without global cognitive justice”

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

The social scientist, De Sousa Santos, points out the need for a real plurality of the knowledge systems from which we draw to build our education systems. The latter includes the philosophy and purpose of an education system and its epistemological stances. This refers to people’s knowledge, ways of being and knowing, what they deem essential to know and what they think a good life is translated to policies, strategies, pedagogies, and content.  

In today’s world, the dilemma presents itself in the current state of affairs: that to be educated means to be universal. This is embodied in the application of Open Education Resources. The receiver is expected to associate good things with ‘open’ and ‘universal’. Rarely do we imagine exclusions, loss of language, devaluation of knowledge systems, destruction of environmental resources, etc. The words ‘open’ and ‘universal’ become associated with each other and with more access and better education for ‘all’ without looking at the cost. In being positioned this way, OER becomes immune to refusal. They are normalised and universalized. Hence, they become beyond question. 

The questioning of OER often touches upon details of methods and techniques, rather than the bigger ‘why’, which renders OER self-validating. How can one ask for anything not open? The word ‘open’ closes the space for action and imagination when in the brink of open is the loss of the specific and the place-based. The latter is the basis for justice and liberation. A decolonial lens invites an analysis and a revisiting of ‘the why?’, ‘the who benefits?’, and ‘who loses?’ of OER. The cost does not come primarily from the mere value / function of ‘open’ or from its free access, but from the hegemonic worldview it usually propagates, that of a neo-liberal, technocratic world order, stemming from a Euro-American education value system, rather than one that allows for a re-imagination of a just world order. 

While OER can contribute to enhanced learning outcomes, do we also ask:

  • If it contributes to better justice indices?
  • Does OER implementation bring about a flourishing of local knowledge systems?
  • Self-affirmation and expression of identities?
  • Higher knowledge production within historically underrepresented populations?
  • Fairer flow (or reverse flow) of resources from more affluent to more in-need, formerly colonised, geographies?
  • Reparations for extraction and exploitation historically and in contemporary days?
  • Restoration of ecological systems?
  • More balanced global world order?

Are these questions part of the conversation? They are hard questions but we need to ask them. Otherwise, ‘open’  becomes another cliché that precludes the development of meaning. All the previous questions are the reason why a decolonial lens into OER is needed.

Pathways for OER from a decolonial perspective

As an international education consultant, I meet day-in and day-out with government representatives asking for national EdTech strategies. “We want digital devices in the classroom and Open Education Resources (OER) that can reach every child and leapfrog learning outcomes”, they say. I ask OER for what end or purpose? How much were these learning outcomes shaped by the different ways of being and knowing this land versus a motivation to excel in global standardised tests that benchmark countries’ education performances according to universal, mostly Euro-American centred criteria? The questions are most of the time surprising. I witness digitally enabled education projects using OER go through months / sometimes years in planning, only to be crushed at the rock of first implementation within an indigenous or a tribal community. Because yes, the community feels threatened and needs to culturally resist what is seen, rightfully many times, as an attempt to further marginalise and erase their ways of being and knowing.

(Steger, 2019)

So, I am asked, “You mean, by implementing digital devices and OER, education problems won’t be magically solved?” We get stuck! I look at the budgets of projects and trace where the money is going. The latter is usually a guaranteed way to see how much an intervention / project is transforming, reforming, or cementing a system in place. I see money unequally flowing between large, multinational OER companies and foreign consultants from affluent, formerly colonial, presently neo-liberal countries. I see very small margins kept for local writers, providers or developers. I ponder how are local communities going to ever own the game to produce their own knowledge on this global OER stage?  

“If those of us who work within “open” efforts cannot always agree on what that adjective means, how do we expect others to? Should we expect others to?”

Aundrey Watters

Watters invites us to move from ‘Open’ to ‘Justice’.

There are several initiatives around the globe working to re-imagine OER, some of these include:

  • OER conference: This has been happening since 2017 and is leading a global conversation on decolonizing OER, with lots of shareable materials like Towards Openness and different Twitter hashtags like #BreakOpen and #critoep
  • OER in other languages: Surfacing OER created in other languages. An attempt at linguistic diversity and social justice.
  • Research on OER for Development (ROER4D):  A project set out to ascertain the extent of the adoption and impact of OER in low- and middle-income countries. ROER4D comprised 103 research team members from 19 countries across South America, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. A meta-synthesis of the findings yielded many insights which highlight the variable creation, use and/or adaptation of OER.
  • Arvind Gupta Toys: A website and a social initiative that uses the slogan ‘a million books for a billion people’. The initiative offers books, movies, free and open curricula, and educational resources that are developed based on several Indian epistemologies and in several diverse Indian languages besides English.
  • Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF): A foundation committed to the digital expression of Arab youth using digital skills, projects and expressions to connect young people while focusing on social justice values. The organisation is based in Egypt, caters to the Arab-speaking world, and offers its curricula, pedagogies, and projects produced by its young people as open access and free online.
  • Ecoversities Alliance: A global alliance of 500+ higher education institutions rethinking higher education, reclaiming diverse knowledge epistemologies and ecologies. The Alliance’s activities, pedagogies and curricula of its diverse members are open source, as are the Alliance’s publications (written and visual) on its members’ works and toolkits/catalogues for decolonial pedagogies.

From Universal / Uni-dimensional to Pluriversal / Multi-dimensional:

There is a real danger in using words that are void of meaning in the world of OER, even further, words for which the social and cultural meaning in effect is the opposite of what they indicate. For example: using openness to effectively further exclusion (through using one central, universal system of knowledge – including language – that marginalises all others); using inclusion to effectively further control (through data mining and collection using open data systems); using empowering to in effect overpower (through continuing to engage populations in low- and middle-income countries as consumers in a game that was not designed for them in the first place, expanding markets for neo-liberal, formerly colonial powers or techno-capitalists); using 3-D/4-D  Augmented Realities to in effect create an epistemically one-dimensional world. 

Some of these dangers lie in closing the space for imagination and communication of what ‘open’ could mean and look like socially and culturally, from a space of justice, beyond promoting a one-dimensional behaviour centred upon functionality, technology, and a pretence of neutrality. This is an invitation to go beyond imitation and assertion to discoveries and demonstrations that possibly lie around as a missed opportunity in the field of ‘open’.  

Critical educator Herbert Marcuse warned us of this very act in his article One Dimensional Man where he says in the year 1991: “The power over man which this society has acquired is daily absolved by its efficacy and productiveness. If it assimilates everything it touches, if it absorbs the opposition, if it plays with the contradiction, it demonstrates its cultural superiority.”

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If you know of any initiatives working to break through or introduce innovations to OER, particularly from a decolonial perspective, please let us know. Tweet to #DecolOER and @GlobalEdTechHub. 

If you wish to share more resources on the topic of decolonising OER, you can go to https://www.zotero.org/groups/4578719/decolonising_edtech  and click ‘Join’. Note that you will need to create a Zotero account if you don’t have one already. 

Bibliography

The following references can be found in the Decolonising EdTech Zotero community library:

Ahmed, S. (2017). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 54(4), 467–469. https://doi.org/10.1080/19496591.2017.1358630 

Bali, M., Cronin, C., Czerniewicz, L., DeRosa, R., Jhangiani, R. S., Adam, T., Allen, N., Amiel, T., Asino, T. I., Atenas, J., Bali, M., Barnes, N., Bourg, C., Bouterse, S., Caines, A., Campbell, L. M., Cangialosi, K., Collier, A. M., Cronin, C., … Watters, A. (2020). Open at the Margins. Rebus Community. https://press.rebus.community/openatthemargins/

Watters, A. (2014, November 16). From “Open” to Justice #OpenCon2014. Hack Education. http://hackeducation.com/2014/11/16/from-open-to-justice

Bali, M., Adam, T., Cronin, C., Friedrich, C., Walji, S., & Hendricks, C. (2018, February 1). #BreakOpen Breaking Open: Ethics, epistemology, equity, and power – Guest Post. #OER18. https://oer18.oerconf.org/news/breakopen-breaking-open-ethics-epistemology-equity-and-power-guest-post/ 

Fasheh, M. (2010). Community Education: To Reclaim and Transform What Has Been Made Invisible. Harvard Educational Review, 60(1), 19–36. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.60.1.1x8w11r570515154

Garlitz, D. (2017). Marcuse and Critical Education. In M. A. Peters (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory (pp. 1344–1349). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_231

Hira, S. (2017). Decolonizing Knowledge Production. In M. A. Peters (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory (pp. 375–382). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_508

King, L. (1999). Learning, knowledge, and cultural context (1st ed. 1999.). Springer : Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Marcuse, H. (2013). One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203995211

Santos, B.D.S. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice against Epistemicide (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315634876 

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