Team Open

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Abel Caine

How UNESCO is working to make free education the rule, not the exception.

Abel Caine is dedicated to the development and use of Open Educational Resources (OERs) across all 193 member nations of UNESCO. He also spearheaded UNESCO’s policy requiring Creative Commons licensing on all UNESCO publications.

Through CC licensing, UNESCO grants permission in advance to anyone who wishes to translate its resources, removing burdensome manual processes. “We’re hoping for a Wikipedia-like effect, as there will be a community of translators who will be allowed to work on the document together.”

In the parable of the tortoise and the hare, Abel Caine is the tortoise. Since 2009, Caine has been a Program Specialist on Open Educational Resources at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. While UNESCO has been interested in open education since 2002 (and coined the phrase “open educational resources”), Caine’s been a key driver behind UNESCO’s re-emergence as a key strategic proponent for the development and use of OERs across UNESCO member nations (all 193 of them). He’s worked tirelessly to promote information sharing and OER-friendly policy adoption around the world.

The 2012 World Open Educational Resources Congress was a turning point for UNESCO. “It was way overdue,” says Caine. “We took the momentum from the previous years of grassroots organizing and focused on getting political ratification for open educational resources.” The resulting Paris OER Declaration laid out a common set of principles and offered recommendations for member states to adopt and support open education initiatives and policies.

UNESCO itself began to think more about how it could support openness. It adopted an Open Access Policy in April 2013, which requires that UNESCO publications be licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 IGO license. The Attribution ShareAlike (BY-SA) license means that users who make adaptations of content released under it must share their resulting creations under the same license. In addition to the policy, UNESCO launched an Open Access Repository in December 2013. There are now over 450 openly licensed publications available in the repository.

For UNESCO, the translation of resources and educational materials is an incredibly important issue. The adoption of Creative Commons licenses has made this process easier and more streamlined. “In the past,” says Caine, “every request we received for translation had to be manually processed by someone.” Now that it’s openly licensed and in the open access repository, anybody can now follow the simple instructions provided by the license and begin the unofficial translation, as the permission is granted in advance. “Don’t call us,” quips Caine.

The cultural change is not insignificant. After 60 years of bureaucracy and vetting processes that ensured high quality publications, it’ll take some time for UNESCO to convince the skeptics that open licensing is the way to go. “Institutions automatically think, ‘Oh, that’s great stuff because it came from UNESCO’”, says Caine. “They know a lot of careful work has gone into creating these publications, so that’s why they don’t believe that you can just take it, adapt it, and translate it.” Abel explained that they have to convince the users of their works that the quality remains, but the publishing and distribution methods have changed. “We need to get them comfortable with the idea that there’s nothing to sign. Run with it!” Caine hopes that the unofficial translations will actually become better translations than if he were to hire expensive translators at UNESCO. “We’re hoping for a Wikipedia-like effect, as there will be a community of translators who will be allowed to work on the document together.”

Abel said that there was overwhelming support from UNESCO member states to officially adopt open licensing. At the same time, he knows it will take some time for UNESCO staff and researchers to get used to the open access policy and open licensing. It’s just not ingrained in the publishing process — yet. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort and resources to create a publication,” says Caine. Historically, the priorities skew in the direction of publishing for publishing’s sake, no matter whether the materials are being read or used. “The conventional wisdom is that researchers write the report, print 200 copies, and distribute 150 of those copies to the UNESCO offices around the world, and keep the rest for the library. Done.”

But times are changing, and UNESCO is looking to measure the impact of its publications. It’s doing this in a variety of ways — from ensuring that the publications be made available as XML and other formats such as EPUB so they can be read on mobile devices — to attaching metadata so that they can determine whether a publication has been read — to querying authors about how they expect their publications to be adapted and re-used. All of these things are being done in support of the overarching goal to make educational resources truly globally accessible and usable. And with a strong set of principles and motivated advocates coming out of the 2012 OER Congress, hopefully the practice and policy of open educational resources will continue to grow around the world.

Read more Team Open stories:
Government and policy

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Creative Commons License

Abel Caine (Team Open) was written by Timothy Vollmer for Creative Commons. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The illustration of Abel Caine was created by Luke Surl. To the extent possible under the law, Luke Surl has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights under the CC0 Public Domain Declaration.