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Over the past year, news about Artificial Intelligence (AI) has abounded. Information about breakthroughs and new applications have become commonplace, and we have been thrust into a world where AI-enabled technologies are starting to change how we work and live. For better or for worse, we have ushered in the era of AI.

Many are asking what the implications of this might be for the education sector. Will it affect teaching and learning positively or negatively? How can AI-enabled technologies personalize education – and will this be educationally beneficial? What organizations are already working on AI in education and how, if at all, is this work regulated? An air of uncertainty pervades the sector in terms of the benefits and risks of harnessing AI in education.

At OER Africa, we have written extensively on how Open Educational Resources (OER) might improve aspects of education, including access, relevance, and quality. Likewise, the intersection of OER and AI necessitates greater exploration, particularly given the opportunities that it offers to scale access to high quality education.

In this article, we consider three ways that AI might change how we use OER.

How AI could change our engagement with OER

1. OER Content Development

AI tools can be used to develop new OER using natural language processing and machine learning capabilities. They might be able to help educators create interactive learning materials, assessments, and learning simulations, expanding the range of available OER and enabling novel teaching practices.

One of the most popular platforms that demonstrates such capabilities is ChatGPT (or Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer), an AI chatbot developed by OpenAI. Since its release in November 2022, is has amassed over 100 million users.

There is no doubt that generative tools like ChatGPT hold great potential to save time and effort for OER creators. With a few well-crafted prompts, ChatGPT can: generate thousands of words on a subject; create dozens of sample questions that could be included in an open textbook for learners to be able to self-evaluate their own learning; create lesson plans and assignments; and develop question prompts that can be used as asynchronous discussion prompts in discussion forums.[1]  However, it is crucial that OER creators use their own expertise to check that what is generated by ChatGPT is indeed correct.

For educators working with OER, copyright ownership of AI-generated works is important to determine as, by definition, OER are materials unencumbered by legal restrictions that may prevent the reuse, sharing, redistribution, and adaptation of copyrightable works. While some are using the rise of generative AI to question the validity of copyright itself, the question of who owns the copyright when a work is created by AI is a very murky area, both legally and ethically.[2,3]  When we asked ChatGPT whether the content it produces is openly licensed, it had the following to say:

As of my last update in September 2021, the content generated by ChatGPT and similar AI language models is not openly licensed. AI language models, including ChatGPT based on the GPT-3.5 architecture, are proprietary technologies developed by organizations like OpenAI.

…Therefore, when using content generated by ChatGPT or any other AI language model, it is essential to review the terms of service, usage policies, and any specific guidelines provided by the organization that owns the AI model to ensure compliance with their requirements.

It's worth noting that the field of AI and its legal and ethical implications are continually evolving, and there might be changes or developments in the licensing and usage of AI-generated content beyond my last update. I recommend checking with the organization that provides the AI service for the most current and accurate information regarding the licensing and usage of their AI-generated content.[4]

We recommend that users of these technologies stay abreast of these kinds of debates, read terms of service of the organizations that create these technologies, pay close attention to licensing conditions, and state clearly when they have used AI tools to generate intellectual property.

2. Personalized Learning

Some AI algorithms can develop tailored recommendations for OER based on a learner's performance, learning preferences, and development areas. This implies that learners can use OER that meet their requirements, making the learning pathway more engaging and effective.

For example, Siyavula is a South African organization that provides personalized and adaptive learning platforms. Siyavula has produced book titles from Grades 4-12. These are high quality OER that are aligned with the South African curriculum for mathematics, physics and chemistry. Learners can now also access Siyavula’s adaptive learning software, which adjusts the difficulty levels of exercises through machine learning to cater to each learner’s individual needs.[5]

3. Translation and Localization

AI can enable translation and localization of openly licensed content. Software with machine translation capabilities, such as Google Translate, can translate OER into different languages, facilitating knowledge sharing. It is always recommended that users state when they have used these kinds of tools for translation purposes.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has been exploring the use of AI for the translation and localization of educational content. It has collaborated with partners to develop machine translation systems and tools that bridge language gaps in accessing OER. For example, the Global Digital Library (GDL) collects existing high-quality openly licensed reading resources and makes them available on the web, mobile and for print. The platform also supports translation and localization of GDL-resources to more than 300 languages. UNESCO partnered with the GDL team under the auspices of the Norwegian Programme for Capacity Development in Higher Education and Research for Development (known as NORAD) and the Global Book Alliance to launch the GDL in Asia. Reading materials in 41 Asian languages, including seven Nepali languages were launched.[6]

Despite the benefits of integrating AI into OER, there are several potential challenges and concerns. For example, the issue of data privacy has received a lot of attention recently, as the use of AI algorithms often entails the collection and analysis of user data. Ensuring that such data is stored securely and used responsibly is critical to maintaining the trust and privacy of both learners and educators.[7]

A second challenge is the potential for AI to exacerbate existing inequalities in education. As AI-powered OER become more widespread, there is a risk that those who cannot access such resources or platforms may be left behind due to unstable internet connections for example. There may also be inherent biases in the data that is used to train AI models, such as a lack of data from Sub-Saharan African countries. Thus, introducing measures to ensure that AI-driven educational tools are accessible to learners regardless of their geography or socioeconomic contexts is key to promoting educational equity.[8]


Regardless of one’s outlook on the impact that AI could have on society over time, its integration into most spheres of our lives in some shape or form is progressing fast. With regard to OER, AI offers exciting opportunities to augment the production, dissemination, and access to quality educational resources. However, rolling out such capabilities means that we need to consider potential shortfalls, including that we might inadvertently inhibit access to such platforms for those who face educational barriers.

Some further reading on this topic:

Related articles in OER Africa’s archive

[1] Lalonde, C. (2023). ChatGPT and Open Education. BC Campus. Retrieved from: https://bccampus.ca/2023/03/06/chatgpt-and-open-education/

[2] Lalonde, C. (2023). ChatGPT and Open Education. BC Campus. Retrieved from: https://bccampus.ca/2023/03/06/chatgpt-and-open-education/

[3] See article here

[4] Conversation with ChatGPT on 24 July, 2023. OpenAI's ChatGPT, based on the GPT-3.5 architecture.

[5] See article here

[6] See article here

[7] Frackiewicz, M. (2023). AI in Robotic Open Educational Resources. Retrieved from https://ts2.space/en/ai-in-robotic-open-educational-resources/#:~:text=AI%2Dpowered%20chatbots%2C%20for%20instance,thinking%20and%20problem%2Dsolving%20skills.

[8] Frackiewicz, M. (2023). AI in Robotic Open Educational Resources. Retrieved from https://ts2.space/en/ai-in-robotic-open-educational-resources/#:~:text=AI%2Dpowered%20chatbots%2C%20for%20instance,thinking%20and%20problem%2Dsolving%20skills

What's New

Following the adoption of the OER Recommendation in 2019, UNESCO initiated a programme to support governments and educational institutions in implementing it.

One aspect of this programme was the development of a series of five guidelines to inform implementation of each Action Area in the Recommendation.

Image courtesy of Ismail Salad Osman Hajji dirir, Unsplash

As the digital age continues to reshape the global educational landscape in fundamental ways, the need for governments and educational institutions to champion Open Educational Resources (OER) has never been more relevant. Freely accessible, openly licensed educational content can help tackle some of the most pressing needs in education systems, including equity, access, and quality.

Following the adoption of the UNESCO Recommendation on OER at the 40th UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 25th November 2019, UNESCO initiated a programme to support governments and educational institutions in implementing the Recommendation.

One such action was the development of a series of five guidelines for governments. These guidelines were developed through a comprehensive consultative process and in cooperation with OER experts worldwide. They draw heavily on in-depth background papers prepared by OER experts from around the world in each of the five Action Areas of the OER Recommendation: Prof. Melinda dP. Bandalaria (building the capacity of stakeholders to create, access, re-use, adapt and redistribute OER); Dr Javiera Atenas (developing supportive policy); Dr Ahmed Tlili (encouraging inclusive and equitable quality OER); Dr Tel Amiel (nurturing the creation of sustainability models for OER), and Ms Lisbeth Levey (facilitating international cooperation).

OER Africa has provided logistical and editorial assistance to UNESCO on this work as part of a formal cooperation agreement with UNESCO to provide support in implementation of the OER Recommendation.

Aimed at governments and educational institutions, each set of guidelines has the following structure:

  • An overview of recommendations in the Action Area;
  • An introduction to the main issues surrounding the Action Area;
  • A matrix of possible actions recommended for governments and institutions to implement each point in the Action Area;
  • An in-depth discussion of the key issues surrounding the Action Area; and
  • Examples of good practice.

By actively supporting and implementing the OER Recommendation, governments and educational institutions can not only make high quality education more accessible but can also promote transformation in their education systems. This commitment to OER is essential for building resilient, adaptable education systems that can meet the demands of a rapidly changing world.

Access the guidelines here

Related articles

With the ever-increasing costs of textbooks, how can university students get access to the resources they need to study? This article examines the benefits of using open textbooks in the Global South.

Image: CC0 (Public domain)

With the ever-increasing costs of textbooks, how can university students get access to the resources they need to study?

Worldwide, university students find it difficult to purchase textbooks for their courses as they are too expensive. Already in 2014 in South Africa[1], and in 2011 in the United States[2], there were reports that students didn’t buy textbooks due to expense. The situation has not improved in recent years; for example, in a study of nearly fifty thousand respondents in South African universities, nearly two thirds indicated that they spent between R500 and R2500 on textbooks, and while 87% of students’ first semester modules had prescribed textbooks, 27% of students did not buy any prescribed books in the first semester of 2020. Students were opting not to purchase textbooks either because of a lack of affordability, because they did not find them contextually relevant, or because a course would only use a small portion of the textbook. [3]

Open textbooks can be regarded as a subset of Open Educational Resources (OER). They are digital textbooks published under an open licence, which means that they are freely downloadable and adaptable to suit a range of contexts (as long as the licence permits adaptation). The right to adapt is particularly important for educators who may want to tailor the textbook to their specific curriculum. An open textbook can be published with different Creative Commons licences,[4] depending on how open or restrictive the author wishes the licence to be. The principal advantages of an open textbook are its accessibility and affordability to the students, as long as they have a digital device, or have access to print at low or no cost. However, open textbooks have other advantages as well. These include:[5]

  • Local Contexts: Open textbooks can be regularly updated, and tailored to suit the local context, providing cultural relevance and addressing specific needs of students.
  • Partial Use: In some courses, only a portion of the overall textbook content is relevant. Students may hesitate to purchase an expensive textbook when they will only use a few chapters. In contrast, open textbooks allow educators to select and integrate specific sections, reducing unnecessary costs.
  • Collective Authorship: Open textbooks encourage collaborative authorship strategies. Locally produced open textbooks can involve input from multiple experts, resulting in richer and more contextually relevant content with diverse perspectives.
  • Flexibility: Open textbooks can be accessed in different formats and stored digitally, so that they are easy to share and adapt.

Of course, open textbooks also have some disadvantages, namely:

  • Availability: We provide examples of open textbook repositories below, but educators may find that there is limited selection for certain subjects or specialised topics. 
  • Quality: There may be inconsistencies in writing style, accuracy, and depth of content but these can be easily mitigated by evaluating the textbooks prior to use, as should be done for all resources to be used, including commercial textbooks.
  • Author incentives: Authors of traditional textbooks normally receive royalties from publishers as their books are sold. The open licence by which open textbooks are released means that other forms of incentive may be needed, for example in the form of grants, that may not be sufficiently enticing for many potential authors.

Research on open textbooks

Most research has been carried out in the Global North. For example, a meta-analysis of 22 studies of 100,012 students found that there were no differences between open and commercial textbooks for learning performance.[6] A research study Adoption and impact of OER in the Global South[7] had similar findings, with open textbooks being more effective that traditional ones in several instances. However, the studies reported that careful pedagogical scaffolding, including a mix of OER, produced the most effective learning. Within Africa, research findings from the Digital Open Textbooks for Development (DOT4D) Project[8] found that open textbooks addressed economic, cultural, and political injustices faced by their students, issues not considered by traditional textbooks. Summarising the research overall, we can say that open textbooks have several advantages over traditional ones, as listed above, and in terms of learning, they are equivalent. 

Examples of African institutions who have benefited from using open textbooks

Probably the best example of collaborative development of open textbooks is the University of Cape Town’s DOT4D Project. If you want to learn about the experiences of their staff and students, read UCT Open Textbook Journeyswhich documents the stories of 11 academics at the University who embarked on open textbook development initiatives to provide their students more accessible and locally relevant learning materials.

Other African universities’ libraries list sites where open textbooks and other OER are available, usually from outside the continent. Finding open textbooks for your own institution is not always easy. Here we list three sites where you can search for open textbooks. Bear in mind that, if you choose an American or European textbook, you may need to spend time adapting it for your own context. 

University of Cape Town Catalogue

26 textbook titles ranging from medical texts, through sustainable development to marketing, but also many other titles on OpenUCT.

Open Textbook Library

Based at the University of Minnesota in the United States, this repository has 1,403 titles. The view shown here groups the titles by subject.

University of Stellenbosch 

This LibGuide lists 17 platforms where you can search for open access textbooks and other free books.

Resources on developing and using open textbooks

Below is a list of resources to help you explore this growing field. The first three assist you to develop an open textbook, while the last two guide you to adopt or modify an existing open textbook.

Finally, although they are not designed for higher education, the open textbooks developed by Siyavula for high school mathematics, technology, and sciences may be useful for colleges and access courses in universities.

In summary, there are considerable benefits to using open textbooks, but with a few exceptions, African institutions have not yet taken on the challenge of producing open textbooks themselves. Clearly, funding is required for the development of open textbooks, and institutions might consider making funding applications to create (or adapt) these highly useful open education resources for the benefit of more African students.

Related resources:

 Access the OER Africa communications archive here

[1] Nkosi, B. (2014). Students hurt by pricey textbooks. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved from https://mg.co.za/article/2014-10-03-students-hurt-by-pricey-textbooks/

[2] Redden, M. (2011). 7 in 10 Students Have Skipped Buying a Textbook Because of Its Cost, Survey Finds. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/7-in-10-students-have-skipped-buying-a-textbook-because-of-its-cost-survey-finds/

[3] Department of Higher Education. (2020). Students’ Access to and use of Learning Materials—Survey Report 2020. Retrieved from https://www.usaf.ac.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/DHET_SAULM-Report-2020.pdf

[5] Digital Open Textbooks for Development. (2021). ‘Open Textbooks in South African Higher Education’ Roundtable Report. University of Cape Town. Retrieved from https://open.uct.ac.za/server/api/core/bitstreams/3a7e1a09-0617-4ba4-b6dd-4572bd870d60/content

[7] Hodgkinson-Williams, C. & Arinto, P. B. (2017). ‘Adoption and impact of OER in the Global South’. Cape Town & Ottawa: African Minds, International Development Research Centre & Research on Open Educational Resources. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1005330 


OER Africa is honoured to have contributed two chapters to the recently published book ‘Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory’. Edited by Dr Folake Ruth Aluko and Prof. Daniella Coetzee, the book explores the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice in distance education.

Research can have a transformative impact on any field, and distance education is no exception. It can, for example,  contribute to more effective use of new educational strategies, provide insights into technological advancements, and contribute to our understanding of the key successes and challenges in distance education delivery.

While the concept of distance education dates back more than a century, research in this area is relatively nascent when compared to the development of educational research in general.[1] The body of literature on the practice, influence, and impact of distance education is therefore limited, and even more so when considering developing world contexts. This, combined with the fact that distance education is experiencing significant shifts in terms of new demands and evolving technologies that provide new potential and pitfalls alike, mean that the recently published book Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory is a critical addition to the distance education research literature.

The book explores the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice in distance education, and OER Africa is honoured to have contributed two chapters to it. Edited by Dr Folake Ruth Aluko and Prof. Daniella Coetzee, the book is divided into two volumes which explore various themes:

Volume 1 focusses on the history, approaches and paradigms in distance education; building frameworks in distance education research; and praxis in this area.

Volume 2 moves on to address regional trends and gaps in distance education research; scholarship in this area; and quality assurance.

The two chapters that we contributed focus on the intersection of distance education and catalysing open education praxis, with each chapter approaching this intersection from a different angle. Each is outlined below.

Chapter 12 - Approaches To Continuing Professional Development For Open Education Practices In Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the importance of professional development on effective teaching and learning for university academics into sharp relief. Universities found themselves having to close their campuses and were unable to teach their students face-to-face. Universities in Africa resorted to various strategies to reach students, ranging from no teaching taking place, through emergency remote teaching (ERT) with some form of online teaching, to fully implemented e-learning. Whatever form the teaching has taken, academics have found that traditional lecturing has not been effective when implementing ERT or online teaching. Those who are experienced in adult pedagogies have been expressing the inadequacies of the lecture mode for many years, and the realities of the new forms of teaching required have brought such shortcomings to the fore. Several recent opinion pieces have expressed the need for continuing professional development (CPD) of academic staff, especially with respect to their teaching competence, arguing that it needs to be a central strategy within higher educational institutions (HEIs) around the world, supporting academics with digital teaching and communities of practice.

This chapter opens with a review of successful and innovative CPD models and approaches used in HEIs around the world. It examines recent CPD activities created by OER Africa and describes their development, piloting, and deployment, together with the implications the pilot findings have for ODL institutions and research in the field. 

Chapter 13 - Measuring implementation of UNESCO’s OER Recommendation: A possible framework

Drawing on a comprehensive literature review of best practice in OER measurement, as well as experience of working with UNESCO to support implementation of the Recommendation, this chapter presents an initial framework for the measurement of the effectiveness of the OER Recommendation and proposes indicators that regions, countries, and/or institutions could adopt or adapt to rigorously measure both how OER is used and its effectiveness for improving learning. Putting in place shared understandings of what counts as effectiveness for OER is critical to inform ongoing developments and improvements in the field. Such measures can also provide an evidence base that can be used for advocacy work around the importance of OER for quality open and distance learning.

Access both volumes below:

Volume 1

Volume 2

Related articles

[1] Zawacki-Richter and Naidu (2016) quoted in Aluko, F.R. and Coetzee, D. (2023). Chapter 1: Setting the scene – Why research distance education? In Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory. ESI Press: