Matthew Smith and IDRC: Think Globally, Act Globally

The team recently attended the Open Education Conference 2011 in Park City, Utah. Though we already consider ourselves pretty well-versed in the world of Open Ed, we were pleasantly surprised to learn about many new exciting initiatives in the field. We spoke with Matthew Smith of the International Development Research Centre in Canada to learn about how the IDRC and its partner organizations and using open education resources to make a difference around the world.

edited by Stacy Redd

IDRC What is the IDRC doing?

Matthew Smith: The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is a Canadian Crown Corporation that is part of the Canadian International Development Aid envelope. So, like USAID in the United States, in Canada we have the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and we are the International Development Research Center, which is a sort of sister organization to CIDA. We are supported by parliamentary funding to fund research for development projects in a series of different areas.

By research for development, we mean that the projects that we fund have a couple of different components. First is that the research has to feed into some sort of practice or policy changes; these are the outcomes that we are looking for. The research has to be practical. So, instead of research on development for example, that might be very academically and theoretically minded, we do research for development. This is not to say that there is not necessarily a field-building component to it. You would like the research to contribute to building a theory and empirical base of any particular discipline that you are working on. However, our main driver is trying to bring about social change through supporting these research projects.

There is also generally a capacity-building component to the projects we support. So we work very closely with our partners in the 'global south', in the three major regions Asia, Africa and Latin American Caribbean, to try to build a research capacity so that when we are gone they can continue to use research to solve problems that are very relevant to them without our help. What kind of problems does the IDRC help solve?

The IDRC works in several different areas. So, for example, right now agricultural and the environment, social and economic policy, that kind of stuff. I am in a team called Information and Networks within the Science and Innovation program. In the Information and Networks team, we focus on information society and openness issues.

This includes four different thematic entry points. First, we focus on open government, something that is receiving a lot of attention lately, including the opening up a public data as well as opening up government processes to be more participatory. You can also think of digital activism as part of that opening up of political processes. But then, there is also the flip side the increasing spread of information and the use of technology by governments, which is the threat of increased surveillance and threats to privacy.

Second we work in the area of open science, open access to scholarly resources, which overlaps with OER. Third is the area of learning, open learning, which includes open educational resources as the main component. The work there will be extending our earlier work on distance learning in Asia, the PAN Asia Networking Distance and Open Resource Access project (PANdora). As the name suggests, the project involved research focused on OERs, and eventually led to the formation of OER Asia, an OER community in Asia.

Finally, the fourth area is called creative industries. Think of it as projects that explore the emerging open business models that form around free content that is out there. What do you feel is the sort of the west for developed world's responsibility in helping support these projects in the global south?

MS: I am pretty happy to be working in a place like IDRC, because I rather buy into the way they work. We try to seek a balance between how much we are directive and responsive in terms of the projects we fund. This is a huge critique of international development globally, which is that you have westerners who are dictating what the projects are for countries in the south, which ultimately results in inappropriate designs and implementations of these projects.

We work really hard to be as responsive as possible within, of course, a certain sets of parameters. We do have certain predetermined thematics that we fund, as mentioned. We think open education resources, for example, are very appropriate for the different value propositions that they bring, including the possibility to advance access to and improving quality of educational experiences, in particular in resource constrained locales. However, the project development in the OER space will be driven as much as possible by southern institutions, and thought leaders, often in both south-south and north-south collaboration.

At times there are tensions that emerge in the kind of work we support. For example, if a project has a strong capacity-building focus, then you are not necessarily getting this high quality research that you might like. But these tensions are all things that we try to balance of in the projects according to the situation..

So, ultimately, I'm not sure about the 'developed world's' responsibility, but I see my responsibility as being that of working in an as open, honest and collaborative manner as possible, aligning the intentions of the IDRC and our partners to the projects that are driven by southern institutions, according to their capacities and what they perceive as critical development research needs. Could talk a little bit about what brought you here to Open Education Conference and what you hope to get out of it?

MS: I guess I would say two things. First is related to the fact that we literally just launched our new team. We were approved by a Board of Governors in June this year. We have a 5-year plan and a big part of that plan is open education resources like I said earlier. We don't know exactly what needs to be done or what people think should be done. So one of the major goals for coming here is to listen very closely in terms of what the sort of research questions people are asking. Second, is, of course, to be able to connect and meet people working in the space, in particular those who work internationally.

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