First look at the new OER Strategy for Germany – Is it really a policy?

On 29 July 2022 the Federal Ministry for Education and Research in Germany released the long-awaited national strategy for OER (Open Educational Resources). As someone who has been involved in both international and national discussions in this area, I was intrigued to see what previous work this strategy appears to link to, what it foresees as a vision, what links it makes between OER and their contribution to solving educational challenges and, finally, how robust and comprehensive the strategy seems at first glance.

To do this, I will base this short review on three publications which I know best, as I was involved in their creation. These are the OECD publication from 2015 whose title proclaims OER to be a catalyst for educational innovation, the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education publication reviewing the German OER landscape from 2017 and the UNESCO Guidelines on the Development of OER Policies from 2019.

Firstly, it is pleasing to see OER being positioned in the strategy as an inspiration and as an enabler for change, as this argument was a key argument of the OECD report (OECD 2015 p.11). The German strategy states:

“Besides forming knowledge, experimentation and development form a crucial basis for the ability to innovate, but also for understanding.  Education must more strongly include experimentation and development as learning activities of both learners and teachers. Therefore, to support a cultural change for more innovation in formal education, additional opportunities are needed. Experimentation, failure as a productive learning process, and the promotion of innovative thinking and corresponding attitudes (open mindset) should therefore be made possible with OER contributing to additional spaces for action and experimentation.” (BMBF 2022 p.14; author’s translation)

The German strategy also makes a clear link to digital education and the fact that, if these spaces for action and experimentation are used well, digital education can improve the permeability and inclusiveness of our education systems (p.2). Therefore, we can see that the strategy is linked to two major challenges for education – considering societal developments such as changes in the world of world with more frequent changes in career trajectories and the need to frequently up- and side-skill). This is good news, as the OECD report argued: “OER can only reach their potential in the mainstream if they are clearly framed within the policy challenges for today’s education systems. An appropriate policy framework starts out from key educational challenges and uses OER to help solve them.” (OECD 2015 p.128)

Furthermore, the OECD report argued that policy should at least focus on the four areas. It is worth quoting these in full – and it is noticeable that each of them is included in the strategy:  

  • “Help establish repositories for OER and support the provision of open licence materials. This ensures that OER are available and discoverable as new ‘tools’ to support improvements in teaching and learning.
  • Help establish communities of practices within the teaching body to encourage production and use of OER and support the establishment of new teaching practices. This ensures that the available OER are being used and helps teachers and instructors to adapt to their new role in the learning situation.
  • Change the framework conditions of formal educational settings by modifying rules, promoting new tools and reassigning the division of labour (e.g. for production and quality assurance). This ensures that the necessary adaptations to the activity system are made in order to fully benefit from the new opportunities and challenges presented by OER.” (OECD 2015, p.130-131)

The OECD report sketched out some of the policy options around these four areas of action. However, it did not go the next step to develop a policy framework itself. This was done in the UNESCO Guidelines from 2019. This report started out from the premise that it is possible to sketch a framework of key elements, which can be adapted to the specific use-case. It follows, for instance, the definition of a good strategy from Richard Rumelt:

 “A good strategy has an essential logical structure that I can a kernel. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action” (Rumelt 2011, p.7)

The German strategy does have these elements, although they are perhaps not as clearly structured as the seven phases in the UNESCO Guidelines. Indeed, here the strategy appears not to have the ambition to be so specific. It defines and describes fields of action, starting out from the diagnosis of why each is important and defining specific areas where funding will be made available for new projects and initiatives. This is typical for political strategies, as the actors defining the problem often don’t have the (full) mandate for implementing the solution (UNESCO 2019 p.37).

The strategy talks of the need to combine bottom-up and top-down elements, as was already seen in the previous OER funding programme analysed and interpreted in the UNESCO 2017 report. This combination will lead to a clear anchoring of OER in the German educational landscape (BMBF 2022 p.7). But does it include the levers included in the UNESCO Guidelines to achieve this? The UNESCO Guidelines distinguish between three levers for each building block of a strategic masterplan for implementation:

  • Lever 1: “What is going to be enforced in this building block (e.g., through a legal regulation)? This is a top-down question that aims to ensure certain activities or behaviours really happen – for instance, that initial teacher training includes a course on using OER.” (UNESCO 2019, p.81)
  • Lever 2: “What is going to be enabled in this building block (e.g., through improving the infrastructure or offering new support structures)? This is a top-down question because it will require central investment – for instance, providing better ICT infrastructures in schools. But it is also a bottom-up question because it doesn’t enforce an activity but aims for the right framework conditions to allow it to happen – for instance, providing additional continuing education courses on the use of OER that are accessible to anyone who is interested.” (ibid)
  • Lever 3: “What is going to be encouraged in this building block (e.g., through rewarding certain actions or making them more visible)? This is a bottom-up question because it starts from the assumption that teachers and learners would like to use and create OER but need more encouragement. It is particularly about spreading the base of users beyond the first innovators.” (ibid)

Certainly, there is a focus in the German strategy on “encouraging” and, through a system-perspective, on “enabling”, but “enforcing” is not a lever foreseen, at least in this phase.

The UNESCO Guidelines states that every strategy should be ambitious and dynamic – learning along the way how to improve impact of implementation. For this reason, I welcome the focus on research in the German strategy, so that the further evolution of this OER strategy can be data- and insight-driven. In a further iteration I would also expect to see high-level key indicators, such as those proposed in the Guidelines. This will also provide an opportunity for learning and for establishing how much progress is being made. This was not included in the last OER funding programme in Germany (UNESCO 2017) and we criticised this lack at the time.

In sum then: this is a great development for OER in Germany and I am very excited to see it. But I also agree with many of the first commentators of the German strategy: there remains a lot of work to be done. Lets work on this collaboratively.

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