A Textbook Digital Opportunity: Berlin Commits to Open Education Resources (OER)

By David Knight |

A boring old textbook in a stuffy old classroom – it’s a concept that still holds some truth in education in Germany. But the old-fashioned textbook could be a thing of the past at least in Berlin as the city has committed to a policy of developing Open Education Resources (OER).

A study commissioned by the Technologiestiftung Berlin (TSB, the Technology Foundation Berlin) entitled Open Education in Berlin found that while the city is one of the most advanced parts of the country when it comes to OER, it is still lagging far behind places such as the US and South Korea.

To tackle that, the study – which was carried out by the Free University Berlin under Professor Leonhard Dobusch – has called for a targeted promotion of freely accessible and reusable educational materials for schools and colleges.

Such a policy has attracted support across the board, and the study was presented by the TSB’s head Nicolas Zimmer on Wednesday alongside Prof. Dubasch and Marck Rackles, state secretary for education at the Berlin Senate’s Department for Education, Youth and Science. The ultimate aim is to reach the “utopia” of global access to knowledge in education.

For the study, Prof. Dobusch and his team compared the use of OER in Germany’s 16 states and interviewed experts from schools, local government and the publishing industry. Additionally, the study distinguishes between the use of OER in a school environment and at Berlin’s universities.

Wednesday’s press conference saw plans revealed for a new platform in Berlin which would help to revolutionise the world of educational material. It could even spell the end of the textbook as it exists now, with all the necessary information online and available to whoever needs it.

And it would also provide a boost for teachers – who could in future put worksheets online and exchange ideas with each other on a far greater level than they do today.

Zimmer said: “Berlin has a pioneering role in the use of freely accessible and reusable educational materials in Germany. This fits with the political commitment to Open Data which the city has made. The study shows which measures must be taken in order for political intent to become school practice.”

The plans provide a double boost for the city’s burgeoning tech scene – not only would startups be in the perfect position to make use of the newly digitised educational resources, but in the longer term, a ready-made source of talent could be easier to come by for growing companies.

And Zimmer emphasised the “great opportunity” for Berlin’s startups if the existing established textbook publishers fail to make the most of the new order. In any case, the rate of introducing technology in schools needs to be increased – each child must have access to a tablet, the funding for which could conceivably come from the money saved on textbooks.

Prof. Dobusch outline three options for developing OER policy in Berlin at different levels of intent, from simply pushing it at a grassroots level to taking it ‘mainstream’ by for example developing curriculum-compliant OER learning materials and enabling OER to be funded under the existing decentralised learning resources budget, to making OER the overarching priority – this option includes the online platform, as well as specific financing for OER.

He said: “Digital openness is a major challenge for the future, and the use of OER is an important aspect of that. Compared with other German states, Berlin is already clearly in front. From the interviews, it is clear that there is a positive climate in the city in which the subject can develop further.”

The path towards OER won’t be easy, however, and Rackles was keen to stress that there were practical challenges which need to be overcome, such as assuring the quality of OER materials. But he was still optimistic, and pledged that the city’s authorities back the study’s findings.

He said: “The development and implementation of OER in schools is a great chance for all those involved in education. I expressly include educational publishers in that. The study offers a good basis for further discussion about possible next steps in Berlin. The stronger use of OER including license-free learning and teaching materials in schools and the establishment of the necessary framework are declared goals of educational policy in Berlin.”