The Open Learning Exchange (OLE), a network of grassroots organizations committed to providing Quality Universal Basic Education (QUBE) worldwide by 2015, held its first global assembly in Kathmandu in November 2009.

According to OLE, QUBE means being able to:

  • Read local newspapers, magazines and books,
  • Complete job applications,
  • Write letters 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 and culture
  • Promote cooperation and manage conflict effectively, and
  • Contribute meaningfully to one’s family, community and nation.

I’ll return to this definition of Quality Basic Education later. The first question to answer is, what’s special about OLE? There is no question that universal basic education is absolutely necessary to make the world a better place, but there is plenty of organizations already working to achieve that goal. Personally speaking, what convinced me to learn more about OLE is their pragmatism, 360 degree approach, openness and flexibility.

OLE loves computers, but doesn’t think that education is just a matter of getting enough students as close as possible to enough computers, or to the Internet. OLE, instead, defines four essential components that must all be developed and work together in order to achieve QUBE. All those component were extensively covered during the assembly.

1: Courseware

OLE supports creation of effective courseware for basic educational curricula, available with an open license for free and useable in all conceivable situations. All content will be in formats readable on any electronic device from mobile phones (think Wannigame in Senegal) to supercomputers, online or offline. Above all, it will also be directly printable on plain paper, for schools and students without electricity.

As a real world example, OLE Nepal presented at the assembly their collection of educational material, tightly integrated with Nepal’s national curriculum, called E-Paath. All E-Paath content is built to be attractive and simple to use, in order to improve education quality, reduce disparity among students and enable self learning and self evalation. The same goals, plus the wish to enhance student reading skills, are behind another OLE Nepal project, the online electronic library E-Pustakalaya. OLE Nepal also works to bring the XO Laptop to Nepal.

2: Teachers

The second OLE objective is teacher development. Self-learning or distance learning are all well and good (I teach online myself!) and the only practicable solution in many cases, but a competent, motivated teacher in the same room is way more effective, no question about it. Consequently, according to local Director Massiel Cohen, OLE will work in the Dominican Republic to “re-establish pride among teachers about their profession and make them fully aware of their responsibility with quality”. For the same reason, said OLE coordinator Robyn Gordon, OLE could help Haiti to “create an education system, helping the Universities that form future teachers, but at the same time finding ways to reach existing teachers and serve them”.

3: Educate with (or without) any available hardware

OLE will build a catalogue of appropriate hardware, technologies and networking alternatives to assist students and teachers. The part I love most here is “appropriate”, which for OLE means two things: first, whatever works is good. Second, with the right courseware and attitude, Quality Education is obtainable even when no hardware is available.

As examples of the first case, the schedule included presentations of the TeacherMate and of E-Learning for Kids (EFK). After the assembly, OLE and EFK also signed an agreement to work together in the future. Padmanabha and Rama Rao, co-founders of the Rishi Valley Institute for Educational Research (RIVER) and winners of the India Social Entrepreneurs 2009 Award presented the opposite scenario: a village education program based on a very simple and unexpensive kit of graded cards called “school in a box”.

4: Work within existing infrastructures, in and outside governments

OLE isn’t some romantic crusade. They intend to work side by side with local governments (as OLE Nepal is already doing) and all other NGOs and (international) institutions interested in universal basic education. On November 5th, Richard F. Raglan, Nepal representative of the World Food Program, explained just how such partnerships may happen. Since WFP, he said, moves food, “we have to have a big infrastructure anyway, which we already use as entry point for development projects like the school meals programmes, that attracts (and helps keep) children in schools… the opportunity for sinergies with OLE-like groups are very evident.”

Everybody needs QUBE

What I just wrote is the reason why I’m happy I was invited to the OLE Assembly. Now, please read again the QUBE definition in the second paragraph and ask yourself (even if, or especially, if you live in some “first world country”): “how many children and adults do I know who are still unable to do all those things?” OLE may not only bring quality education to poor children; it may also help the rest of us to seriously rethink what quality education should really look like.