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Open Learning Exchange: An Open Source Bridge of the Digital Divide

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

While Open Learning Exchange (OLE) is not a higher education effort and is not specifically online education, it does provide some insights into the ways in which both of these areas can be used to bridge the higher education divide that, despite large-scale effort, is creeping into American society.

(Open Learning Exchange)

About Open Learning Exchange
Information on the OLE website explains the effort’s priorities: "It is an urgent matter for us to make sure that everyone has a basic literacy and numeracy and an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of being a human being on this Earth." – Richard Rowe, CEO of Open Learning Exchange, Inc.

Open Learning Exchange is a grassroots effort to provide one billion school-aged children – who lack access to education — basic academic skills by the year 2015. The initiative aims to help children acquire the ability to:

  • Read newspapers, magazines and books
  • Complete job applications and obtain employment
  • Write to friends and employers
  • Manipulate numbers and keep accurate financial records
  • Engage in productive work
  • Improve agricultural, nutritional, health and environmental practices
  • Participate in art, music, and culture
  • Promote cooperation and manage conflict effectively
  • Contribute meaningfully to one’s family, community, and nation
  • Understand the rights and responsibilities of every human being

(OLE Mission & Prospects)

The project operates in more than 100 OLE Centers around the world. These centers currently exist in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Haiti, Nepal, the People’s Republic of China, and Rwanda, with more proposed in 98 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. What the organization does is connect people in impoverished areas with a library of customizable content , hardware, software, fundraising tools, and a global support network to allow people at the local level to create and deliver a basic education to children who would not otherwise have access to formal learning. Most importantly, a project such as this lays the groundwork for an expanded effort, which could bring basic college education to millions around the world through online learning.

Adapting the Model to Higher Education
The first thing that OLE does well is raise money. That would be an important development for creating a similar initiative in higher education . According to the organization’s 2008 annual report, they raised $1.2 million dollars in 2008 to fund their centers. While this is not nearly enough for their basic education efforts — or a comparable higher education version  — it is a significant start and has allowed them to operate in the seven countries mentioned previously. Extrapolating to all 100+ proposed countries, they would require a budget more than 10X what they reported in 2008.  A similar budget would be necessary for a virtual, global college effort. In all likelihood, fewer people would be involved, but the personnel and technical costs would be greater.

The second important strategy that OLE employs is to use open access materials, which can be adapted to a particular audience. There is actually more open source content available for college level classes than for basic education work. Efforts such as MIT’s Open Courseware, University of the People, OpenCourseWareConsortium, Open Culture, and P2PU, as well as efforts underway in Washington State, and many others, to create an online library of basic community college course material, already provide a huge source of free content that can be adapted to a global audience.

The third piece of the puzzle for adapting this effort to higher ed is person power. The people are already available for this effort through the initiatives listed above as well as global humanitarian efforts, though they do not necessarily exist in the physical locations of the potential learners. Efforts like those mentioned above demonstrate that there is — or soon will be  — a critical mass of content and expertise to provide university-level learning to people around the world – if we can connect with them.

Making the Connection
The content and people are already in place to create an OLE for higher education. What is lacking in this effort is the financial and technical resources to connect disparate instructors to remote learners. In this case, “remote” not only refers to their status online, but also to their actual physical geography in some of the most inaccessible areas of the world.  There are efforts underway such as One Laptop Per Child, which have been moderately successful and could be expanded to provide technology for older learners. The site infoDev.org lists many initiatives and products that could address this need.

Why it is Important for Higher Ed?
If a basic education is critical for individual health, well-being, and economic advancement, then basic higher education is important for all of the above at the broader societal level. Providing children with a basic education is a noble effort and will help make considerable progress in developing countries. A comparable model for university learning would build on the basic education effort to allow further personal advancement and economic growth. Currently, many resources in developing countries are owned or managed by external entities. Providing a more broadly educated population with greater resources and ability to represent their own interests would help to alleviate some of the exploitation that currently keeps much of the developing world impoverished. If we can do this, maybe we can do something similar for those living in poverty in our own country, too.