Sep 24, 2007

OpenED: Giving Knowledge for Free

Open Educational Resources, past & future (1/3)
Three interesting papers about open educational resources are discussed this week in the course "Introduction to Open Education", given by David Wiley. These papers, although partly overlapping, show some interesting facts about OER, motivation, production, copyright, and all other related issues, as well as some compelling ideas and arguments about the future learning landscape in which OER have to prove themselves sustainable and useful. Since my thesis focuses on this future, trying to figure out how a sustainable OER environment will look like for Delft University of Technology, and possibly other technical universities, especially the reports that show a glimpse on the future addressed my interests most. Both the OLCOS report as the Atkins, Brown, and Hammond report had a strong focus on the future, where the OECD report mainly introduced OER, described different OER models, showed interesting projects, and included more facts about OER-related aspects. This post will discuss a report commissioned by the OECD, named "Giving Knowledge for Free, the Emergence of Open Educational Resources".


  • Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources (OECD, 2007)
  • Open Educational Practices and Resources: OLCOS Roadmap 2012 (OLCOS, 2007)
  • A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007)
What do these overviews of the field have in common? What do they emphasize differently? What are the aims of the authors of each report? Do you see a bias toward or against any ideas, organizations, or approaches in any of the reports? Which report spoke the most clearly to you, and why do you think it did? Based on where the field is now, and these initial ideas about where it might go, what part of the open education movement is most interesting to you? Why?

OECD report OECD Report
The OECD commissioned a report on Open Educational Resources, specifically mapping the worldwide OER landscape. Through a large survey amongst universities (and OER stakeholders), several workshops, and based on extensive literature research, the author (Jan H├Żlen) and research group tried to answer the following questions:
  • How can sustainable cost/benefit models for OER initiatives be developed?
  • What are the intellectual property rights issues linked to OER initiatives?
  • What are the incentives and barriers for universities and faculty staff to deliver their materials to OER initiatives?
  • How can access and usefulness for the users of OER initiatives be improved?
The OECD report describes the context of its study, and a number of challenges that need to be addressed by educational institutions. It then intends to define open educational resources (OER), by explicating "open", "educational", and "resources". It continues with an overview of all institutions involved, and by explaining the varying setups or models adopted by institutions. Other important current issues that are discussed are the motivational factors of sharing OER, licensing OER, sustainability issues, and access and usefulness of OER. The report ends with a number of policy recommendations on different levels, ranging from international to institutional.

The context and challenges

Through globalization, also in the educational world, universities have to act both more collaboratively and are faced with more intense competition. Universities and educational institutions have been slow to adjust to the needs of lifelong learners, a group increasingly important in the knowledge economy. Technology has caused major economical and social changes, which both offer great opportunities for higher education, as well as pose numerous financial, technical, and qualitative challenges. A number of developments that can have a great impact concern the larger role of learning and games, the rapid growth of creative participation in developing digital content with web 2.0 tools that enable users to "contribute to developing, rating, collaborating and distributing Internet content and to develop and customise Internet applications. The rise of user-created content, or the so-called rise of the amateur creator, is a central pillar of the participative web and comprises various media and creative works (written, audio, visual and combined) created by Internet and technology users (including content from wireless devices such as photos)." This trend is seen by all discussed reports as one of the most important issues influencing the OER landscape.

What are OER and who produce/use them?

So what are open educational resources? The report shows that defining OER is very difficult, but adopt the most commonly used definition of “digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research”. Open educational resources are offered online on websites, mostly in English, and the OECD identified over 3000 Open Courseware sites worldwide in 2007. This is not even a complete picture, because there are numerous sites that do not offer courseware, but freely available educational resources that are not considered courseware. The focus on courseware is that the origins of this worldwide movement can be found at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), with their ground-breaking
Open Courseware (OCW) initiative in 2001. This initiative adopted quite a top-down approach of creating resources, pre-reviews all materials before publicizing it on their website. Many OCW initiatives that followed copied this approach, but some took another turn. The Connexions project for example, which even predates the MIT OCW initiative, enables users of OER to produce or improve OER through easy-to-use tools, addressing the user-generated content culture in a better way. The OECD report shows the different categories of producers of OER, making a distinction in the scale of operation and the type of provider. This last factor is the most interesting; it shows that there are several initiatives, such as MIT OCW and other OCW initiatives, follow a centralized "institution" provider model, whereas others, such as Connexions and MERLOT depend on a community of producers who collaborate "wiki-style" to create content.

The important issues for providers of OER

There are numerous reasons for institutions and individuals to use, share and create open educational resources. Because my task is to develop a plan for the OER project at my university (and possibly other technical universities), the results of the research findings interested me very much. For example, the respondents indicate that barriers for producing and using OER in their own educational setting are little support from management & no reward system, lack of time & skills, and little interest in pedagogical innovation. A lack of business model for open content, something pointed out as an important challenge in the OLCOS report, has a negative influence in the production of OER as well. An important finding is that for individuals altruistic reasons are not as important as more personal practical considerations. After a few interviews with participating teachers at my university that certainly holds true. On the other hand, (possible) financial gain is considered by respondents as the least important factor for sharing and contributing resources. More than 60% percent of the respondents found the following issues very important in the production of OER (in order of importance):
  • Be acknowledged as the creator, also when resource is changed/adapted;
  • Have a quality review of the resource;
  • Know the changes made to the resource;
  • Know how the resource is used and by whom;
  • Be rewarded personally for contributions (not financial).
The motivation for institutions to be involved in this "open" movement comes forth from both positive altruistic, financial and marketing effects, and from threats and negative effects of not being involved. The drivers for involvement are the same as mentioned in other reports, such as better access, better hardware (including cameras, mobile technologies, media equipment) and software (i.e. Web 2.0 tools) that empower users to develop and improve online content. The following table gives a nice overview of the drivers, inhibitors and motivations for developing and sharing open educational resources.




Widening participation in higher education Altruistic reasons Altruistic or community supportive reasons
Bridge the gap between non-formal, informal and formal learning Leverage on taxpayers’ money by allowing free sharing and reuse between institutions Personal non-monetary gain
Promote lifelong learning “What you give, you receive back improved” Commercial reasons

Good public relations and showcase to attract new students It is not worth the effort to keep the resource closed

Growing competition – new cost recovery models are needed

Stimulate internal improvement, innovation and reuse

Underlying drivers

Underlying inhibitors

Technical: Increased broadband availability; increased hard drive capacity and processing speed; new and improved technologies to create, distribute and share content; simpler software for creating, editing and remixing. Technical: Lack of broadband and other technical innovations
Economic: Lower costs for broadband, hardware and software; new economic models built around free content for recovering costs. Economic: Lack of resources to invest in broadband, hardware and software. Difficulties to cover costs for developing OER or sustaining an OER project in the long run.
Social: Increased use of broadband, the desire for interactivity, increased skills and willingness to share, contribute and create online communities. Social: Absence of technical skills, unwillingness to share or use resources produced by someone else.
Legal: New licensing regimes facilitating sharing of free content. Legal: Prohibition to use copyrighted materials without consent.

Copyright issues

Copyright plays a central role in sharing open content. On my university, the content management system (Blackboard:(...) is stuffed with copyrighted material. This does not create a problem, because it is a closed resource. Teachers use large amounts of copyrighted materials, which is much more difficult when you want to "open up" to the rest of the world. Fortunately, open licensing of content happens more often, and the tools to do that are becoming better usable. I am not so much interested in the clearing of copyright within open educational resources, but more so in the licensing of "new" open educational resources. Creative Commons is a license that seems very clear and useful within the OER landscape. It is the most commonly used license as well, and is being adopted by my university as well. Producers of OER can say whether they want to attributed, if content can be used commercially, if the content should be shared with the same license, and if derivatives can be made of the work. The value of these licenses, and its future impact is being questioned by many, such as Our Worship Dr. Wiley :), who argues that the Share-Alike option can create problems. He therefore drafted his own license , specifically for Open Education, to overcome these problems. It seems that it will have to compete with the Creative Commons Learn division, but we'll discuss this later.

Sustainability of OER

This is the most relevant part for me, because my thesis concerns the sustainability of the OER project at my university. Obviously, I will not focus on just economical, or just social sustainability. An ICT environment needs both financial support as social and institutional acceptance, making it a complex, intertwined issue. In designing viable alternatives for sustaining OER I will address the different aspects relating to this concept, such as costs and benefits, technical compatibility, social and institutional acceptance, and social gains. Sustainability, or the continuous ability to meet the goals set by the organization, is not purely a financial issue, but motivation, usefulness and quality of materials, and other issues are important as well.

Wiley (2006) explains that there are two important challenges concerning sustainability in an open education program. The first challenge is meeting the costs for creating and redistributing the educational resources. The second challenge is to create resources that will be used and reused, i.e. valuable resources! The creation of OER requires individuals to put time and effort in developing them, digitize material, checking for copyrights, and provide quality assurance. Costs that are made for providing bandwidth or other costs for the dissemination and sharing of resources need to be taken into the sustainability account as well. The second challenge, providing usable resources, has to do mainly with the format of materials, and consequently the ability to reuse the materials. Reusability of materials, explained in more detail later, concerns the ability to contextualize, translate, adapt, and use educational resources. This is important, because the effectiveness of education depends not so much on the information itself as on the way the information is brought to students. There is a trade-off to be made here. Although reusability is an important objective in open education programs, many resources are published in formats that do not allow easy formatting and localization. As explained by d'Oliviera , in many cases it involves much less knowledge and costs to produce materials formats less easy to adapt or localize, than in more flexible formats as XML. The reusability issue and the costs to transform materials into more flexible formats, such as costs for training, technology, and mechanisms, are part important when discussing sustainability, because they both addresses social acceptance as the economical viability. The illustration below gives a nice overview of the main sustainability challenges.

Reflecting sustainability, or the "ongoing ability to meet the goals of a project", on the above, it means the the ability to produce, share, localize, and learn from open educational resources. This does not imply that solutions are always to be sought in the financial domain. Benkler (2005) explains the peer production of Open Educational Resources as a way to achieve sustainability. Open source software may provide with technical tools without substantive investments. Wiley (2006) claims that sustainability can be reached through the reduction of friction and decentralization, capturing intrinsic motivation of individuals to contribute without financial recompensation. He literally states that decentralization means the active involvement of students. This decentralization happens through the peer production of open resources and sharing them in P2P (peer-to-peer) networks. In a blogpost, he posits it very clearly:

"It seems to me that sustainability and scalability are problematic only when people rely on others to do things for them. Scalability and sustainability happen more readily when people do things for themselves. Centralizing open educational services is less scalable/sustainable. Decentralising them is more scalable/sustainable. Wikipedia has two employees and well over a million articles in multiple languages. We need to learn this lesson if open education is really going to reach out and bless the lives of people."

Downes (2007) follows the same argument, saying that the centralized model (MIT) uses more resources, and is likely to cost more, but offers more control over quality and content. The distributed model (Connexions), which assumes co-production of resources and decentralized management, may involve numerous partnerships, and rely on volunteer contributors. These approaches are much cheaper, but there is less control over quality and content. The table below shows a number of initiatives that are involved in the production of information, but following apparently opposing models. The examples of Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Brittanica are added on purpose, to show that a distributed control and management does not necessarily means lower quality. The quality review process and maintenance, as well as the production of information resources, is opened to a much larger group of people.

Low Control & Costs High Control & Costs
Wikipedia Encyclopedia Brittanica
Connexions MIT OCW
LabSpace LearningSpace

The OECD report sums up a number of possible revenue models that can be adopted to make a program more sustainable. The revenue or funding model is an important aspect that should be addressed, but there are more. First of all, it should be clear what objectives the institution has with the OER initiative. The following factors are always seen in the context of a project's goals, since sustainability is described as the ongoing ability to meet the goals of a project.

  • Organization: The configuration or model for the project. Is the centralized MIT model preferred, the decentralized Connexions model, or something in between?
  • Non-monetary incentives: Another interesting topic regarding sustainability is finding non-monetary incentives of participants, so that they can be utilized to build communities, and to sustain activities within the environment. How can you engage volunteers in production, support, and management?
  • Resource types: The types of resources that will be offered, and the media formats in which these resources will be shared are important considerations, because there are many instances when a certain format inhibits the reuse (for example videolectures, PDF, etc.).
  • End-user reuse: What kinds of reuse will be best contribute to the project goals? How will support be offered to the end user in case of reuse of content? Will this be done centralized, or decentralized in a network of volunteers?
  • Ways to reduce costs: How can the costs of a project be reduced, while still meeting project goals?
  • Funding model: How will the project be funded, now and in the future? (funding models will be explained a little later)
What about access and usefulness?
An important challenge is the ability to find OER that are relevant and of high quality. Metadata (data that describes resources or data) addresses this problem, but it can be a laborous task to add metadata to resources. And the fact "Everything is Miscellaneous" (David Weinberger), which means that descriptions of data and resources depend on the context in which they are used, and on person (or technology) using them, adds another dimension of difficulty to the matter. Like the matter on reviewing materials (i.e. pre-publication versus post-publication), there is the matter of adding metadata before and after publicizing materials. This metadata can also be about the quality of content, and the report offers an overview of the different possibilities in managing quality.
  • Peer reviewing is one of the most used quality assurance processes in academia. MERLOT has adopted this type of quality assurance process: after publication, materials can be peer reviewed. The process of peer reviewing is expensive and time-consuming, and for the greater part the resources linked to on the MERLOT site are not reviewed.
  • MIT, and many other OCW initiatives, rather closed enterprises use internal quality checks to make sure the content put online is of a certain quality.
  • A more decentralized way of managing quality is letting quality emerge from the use of contribution by users. Users can comment or rate materials, and usage of materials can be logged and made public. This way addresses the importance of the relation between context and quality. A very interesting example can be found in the "lenses" concept of Connexions.
  • Word of mouth, or recommendation systems are another way of managing quality.
Furthermore, the report questions the usefulness of higher education that offers a specified curriculum, delivered to a large group of students, and to be completed at a predetermined pace. By describing emerging technologies affecting the OER movement, it refers to the OLCOS research, which will be discussed a bit later.

So what does this all mean?
The OECD describes a number of implications on international, national, and institutional level. On an international level, as argued by Atkins, Brown, and Hammond (2007), technological and legal interoperability should be fostered. OECD also mention a higher awareness and the development of a sound knowledge base on the production and use of OER. On a lower level, it is recommended that nations take a holistic approach to all kinds of digital learning resources and their impact on lifelong learning. The possibility for personalized learning increases with the availability of resources. Besides open learning resources, open source software and open licensing should gain considerable attention and promotion. On an institutional level, OER can have deep impact on the processes and protocols, affecting pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. As mentioned before, universities both have more opportunities for collaboration and face more international competition. New generations of students will expect certain educational practices that fit their lifestyles. Their use of technologies should be reflected in education, so a well-reasoned IT strategy that includes e-learning should be implemented in each higher education institution. The report does not describe in detail the implications for learning, which is more elaborately discussed in OLCOS (2007).

Extra resources (not linked)
  • Benkler, Y. (2005), "Common Wisdom: Peer Production of Educational Materials" @
  • Downes, S. (2007) "Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources" Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge & Learning Object, 3, 29-44

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