Widening Access to Educational Resources
Rohini Lakshane (email@example.com) is a freelance technology journalist and Wikimedian based in Mumbai.
Imagine a student learning a science experiment at school and supplementing her knowledge by watching a programme on the subject aired on Doordarshan many years ago. Or learning a difficult concept in geometry by using interactive software free of cost. Or a teacher adapting a useful lesson from a curriculum taught in a different language elsewhere in the country. All this and more is now possible, after the National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER), a free online repository of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) courseware, was launched in August 2013, by the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The launch of the portal, which houses open-licensed school textbooks and other educational content developed and published by the government-funded NCERT, comes as a big breakthrough for the movement for free and open knowledge in the country; knowledge that can be accessed, applied, and shared freely.
What Does the Open License Mean?
All the NCERT course books for students from class 1 to 12 for all subjects have been available for free downloading, though under copyright restrictions, for many years. However, copyright meant that students, self learners, or teachers could not legally modify, reuse, or redistribute the books without written permission from the NCERT. About 30 textbooks of class 9 and 10 put together are now accessible on the NROER under a Creative Commons-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License (CC-BY-SA).
The Creative Commons license is a legal tool which enables copyright owners to manage their rights over their works. The CC-BY-SA license enables the creators of educational content to reuse, modify, build upon, or redistribute with attribution the vast collection of text files, audio files, videos, images, interactive applications and documents uploaded to the NROER. In case the content is tweaked, the same license will apply to the new work, setting up endless possibilities for NCERT courses to be modified and re-modified till they become an inextricable part of the expansive digital commons. The content could be used in classroom presentations, blogs, or books, be harvested for use on other open education resource (OER) projects such as WikiEducator and repositories such as Whikipedia or its sister projects. Licensing knowledge resources is a way of bringing knowledge to those who find accessing it either difficult or impossible.
Those who wish to collaboratively create new courses, start their own courses, or donate the open educational resources they create can upload them to the repository. Those who remix or adapt the NCERT content can give back to the community by posting the new work on the NROER.
Students and self learners can now freely access the courseware, including some finely scripted and directed audio and video programmes and appealing interactive content, which would aid their learning. Some of the videos are distance learning programmes created by the NCERT and previously aired on Doordarshan.
Initially, the CC-BY-SA-NC ‒a license with a clause to disallow commercial use of the content‒ was going to be appended to the NROER. This would have ruled out the use of the content, in say, a paid app, a paid online tutorial or a paid course. After much lobbying by the Wikimedia Chapter (India), a non-profit organisation that promotes Wikimedia projects, and other proponents of open knowledge, the CC-BY-SA license was adopted instead. The move was in keeping with the 2012 Paris Open Educational Resources (OER) Declaration of the UNESCO, which recommends that governments freely license educational resources developed with public funds “to maximise the impact of the investment”. As the NCERT is an autonomous government body, much of the lobbying was driven by the belief that knowledge, research and information funded with public money should be freely accessible to the public.
The Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education built the NROER website over a period of six months on the open source Gnowsys-Studio kernel. Simply put, the website is powered by a customised semantic network. All the content has been broken down into small web pages. The user interface allows the content to be searched, edited, rated, modified, described and commented on. The website has the potential to build a community around the content and to rope in more people to contribute to it.
The Road Ahead
The portal needs to iron out a few creases to fully achieve its purpose of enabling access to education for all. Open access to knowledge and information is linked to the use of open source software, the implementation of open standards and the licensing of open content. Usually the content on open education portals such as the NROER and Institute of Distance and Open Learning (IDOL), University of Mumbai is present in proprietary file formats (for example, docx). To ensure flexibility across platforms, it is crucial that all content is posted using open standards.
Only 30 out of the 334 NCERT textbooks have been uploaded to the NROER, since work on the website started six months ago. The rest are expected to be uploaded over the next four and half years along with graphs, maps, photos, graphics, diagrams and audio-visual material.
As of now, the textbooks are available in Hindi, English, and Urdu. Hopefully over time . textbooks and course materials in different regional languages would be uploaded. The NROER website should display a consent form for contributors so that they do not unknowingly upload copyrighted content. Also, they would be made aware that they are licensing away the content they put up. Overall, the user interface needs some improvement for better usability.
Numerous universities and institutions in India are working towards the creation and diffusion of open education resources ‒from crafting and digitising content to building quality assurance frameworks. The NROER is the first open educational resources portal to be launched by the government under the CC-BY-SA license. The rest are under either the CC-BY-SA-NC license (Project Oscar, National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning) or copyright (eGyankosh, IDOL). The NROER may set the ball rolling for other entities in India to throw open their repositories of precious knowledge and impart momentum to the country’s open knowledge movement.