Next week at the World Open Educational Resources (OER) Congress in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will ask the world’s governments to commit to expanding open educational resources (OER). This is a wonderful idea and demonstrates the hopes of many educators that the Information Age heralds greater access to education all over the world. But what are the political implications of this UNESCO initiative? In a climate of international strife, will UNESCO’s noble project be complicated by diplomatic tensions and sanctions against some countries? In other words, will free online education not only be financially free, but also an arena of political and intellectual freedom?
UNESCO’s Paris Declaration is the result of a collaboration with the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), “an intergovernmental organization created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.” The goal of the COL is to foster access to education among citizens of developing nations, which is in keeping with its parent organization, The Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary group of 54 former British Empire nations that work together on various projects. According to its website, The Commonwealth
- promotes partnership and co-operation among its members
- promotes understanding and tolerance among its citizens
- reduces prejudice, ignorance, disease and poverty
- promotes democracy and good governance, sustainable economic and social development, respect for human rights and the rule of law, gender equality and protection of the environment.
This is an example of idealism in action—as are most educational endeavors. The particular focus of the Paris conference, and of the Paris Declaration specifically, is the creation of opportunities for widespread accessibility to open educational resources. According to McGill University law professor Richard Gold,
“Sharing of knowledge continues to be a key factor in training the next generation of scholars, providing students with the technical skills required to actively participate in innovation within their countries and to build networks and partnerships.”
But as with most educational projects, no matter how idealistic or well-intentioned, practical realities can get in the way of success. In this case, there are some challenges that have little to do with education and everything to do with international politics. For example, many countries practice censorship that may prevent students there from having full access to course materials. In these nations, the concept of open educational resources is a challenge that places organizations like UNESCO in the difficult position of advocating activities that may not be supported by certain governments.
The People’s Republic of China is a good example of this dilemma. UNESCO’s Institute for Information Technologies in Education (IITE) recently published a new analysis of the status of OER in China, titled “Open Educational Resources in the People’s Republic of China: Achievements, Challenges and Prospects for Development.” According to the report, educators in China welcome the opportunity to expand OER within their country. But there’s a catch: In China, the control of the government is thorough, and all educational projects must be approved by the state. The report states,
“In order to assure the quality of educational websites and the quality of content provided by the websites, the Ministry of Education approved Interim Measures on Educational Website and Online Schools. The Measures define educational websites as “websites that host information repository by collecting, integrating and posting educational resources, establish online platform and searching tools for the access of such information, and are connected to the Internet through an Internet Service Provider and provide such information to its users”. The educational websites should apply to educational administrative authorities for registration and approval.”
This is the situation for the development of OER within China. For international OER access, students and educators in China will encounter even more difficulties. Notorious for its “Great Firewall,” China’s government censors websites based on their use of flagged terms. Some of the terms that the Chinese government uses to block websites include human rights, crime against humanity, genocide, dissident, civil rights movement, and democracy. These are all terms that are routinely used in many history, political science, and sociology courses. It is also not unheard of for the Chinese government to block foreign websites.
This clearly will not help UNESCO’s goals of creating worldwide accessibility for open educational resources to spread democracy. It is therefore unlikely that China will respond to the Paris Declaration in the same way that other nations do. It is even more unlikely that Chinese Internet users will ever hear about UNESCO’s Paris Declaration.
In addition to problems with censorship through website filters, some governments track the Internet use of their citizens, who can suffer government harassment and even criminal punishments for the sites and information they access. South Korea, which is categorized as a nation Under Surveillance by Reporters Without Borders, recently punished a professor for his online comments and bloggers are routinely arrested for violations of the government’s Internet policies. Therefore, even in a nation that does not block access based on website content, some viewers may unwittingly come under their government’s surveillance when they access certain educational resources.
These issues should become part of the dialogue surrounding the expansion of open educational resources around the world. The forthcoming Paris Declaration from UNESCO is the beginning of the dialogue among nations. Let’s hope that it continues and truly does facilitate greater educational access- and freedom -for all.