Oct 24, 2007

OpenED week 8: Sustainability (exploration)

An interesting and familiar subject last week. Because of computer problems I have not been able to post earlier, but this enabled me to read to some of the other postings. This post will not reflect much on these posts, but elaborate in detail on sustainability, in specific in relation to the Delft OCW. Week 8 of the Intro to Open Education course was about David Wiley not being able to comment on 60 blogposts a week, next to his normal job, and about building a sustainable model around OER. In specific, David asks about how to give credentialed degrees around OER, and what is or should be the role of the government. The following readings have been provided;

Sustainability has different meanings in different settings. The term is used often to refer to the ability of ecological systems to be usefully productive. Sustainability links present with future, because choices made now should not compromise the opportunities or possible benefits in the future. (WCED 1987) The way we treat our oceans for example cannot be considered sustainable. Although profits are being made nowadays, through overfishing a large populations are driven to extinction, ruining ecosystems, but also doing a bad service for future generations.

Sustainability does not concern solely ecological and environmental systems, but relates to the continuity of economic, social, and institutional aspects of human society, as well as the non-human environment. Economical sustainability relates to the extent that end-users rely on subsidies or financial inputs, institutional sustainability merely addresses the effect changes have on the social structures and institutions, and whether these changes are sustained by them. (Ripamonti et al. 2005) Clearly, there is no or little relation with nature, ecology, or environment. Hence, the focus of sustainability of OER should be on the economical and institutional sustainability, and sustainable development. Hargrove and Smiths (2005) mention a number of relevant principles addressing sustainable development, such as dealing cautiously with risk, uncertainty and irreversibility; integration of social and economic goals in policies and activities; equal opportunity and community participation; a commitment to best practice; the principle of continuous improvement; and the need for good governance.

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 different aspects, such as costs and benefits, technical compatibility, social and institutional acceptance, and social gains, need to be addressed. Rather, the online educational resources should create better visibility, higher reputation, and an increased quality of education. The sustainability of the initiative depends on the costs of providing high-quality resources, but taken into account the positive consequences stated in the project goals. Sustainability, or the continuous ability to meet the goals set by the organization, will not be approached as a purely financial issue, but motivation, usefulness and quality of materials, and other issues are important as well.

Challenges for sustaining OER

Wiley (2006) explains that there are two important challenges concerning sustainability in an open education program (OEP).

  • 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 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 (undated), 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. Wiley (2006) and OECD (2007) describe the most important factors in an OER project regarding sustainability. These factors will be explained below, and each factor will be addressed in a separate section. These aspects 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. (OECD 2007)

  • Organization: Is the centralized MIT model preferred, the decentralized Connexions model, or something in between?
  • Non-monetary incentives: 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?
  • Funding model: How will the project be funded, now and in the future?

Delft OCW goals

The following goals have been described in the Delft OCW project proposal. Delft University of Technology wants to

  • contribute to the development of open knowledge organizations in worldwide networks;
  • show reputation to all relevant institutions, and confirm her leading position; and
  • promote the quality of modern higher education, because feedback of the academic community is possible when resources are online.

The project plan adds to this that the project shows added value for lifelong learners, the international reputation, and the attraction of researchers.


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 an earlier work, 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. (2005)

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.

Delft OCW

The first phase Delft OCW is implemented according the centralized MIT model. A number of educational resources from leading disciplines will be put on a site, after which a university-wide implementation may follow. The project proposal describes a number of issues that may become important in the future.

  • ICTs enable students to study more place and time independent in the future. Especially concerning the participation in the IDEA League (a group of cooperating European technical universities), and the cooperation between the different institutions in providing learning spaces and creating and executing of educational programs collaboratively are important aspects.
  • The report refers to the developments in the field of research, where more and more researchers post their articles on online platforms and form 'open research centers'. Besides research, the university strives for online presence of all educational content.

Although the project has adopted the MIT model initially, a centralized one-way model of producing and maintaining OER, a shift has been described towards a more open environment where individuals have more opportunities to contribute (see the figure below). Starting of as a repository of educational resources, where teachers can publish their materials, the project has to evolve in something much more interactive, where anyone can contribute and communicate about resources. These different stages of development are explained in the figure below: from repository, to depository, to communication around resources (and communities).


The first stage can be described as a repository containing educational resources and courses of teachers at the university. Users can download or view those resources online, without much possibility for interacting. The second stage involves the empowerment of users to not only use resources, but add resources as well in a depository. This stage is supplemented by a final stage, where communication around these resources is facilitated. This is referred to as a lab-environment, and the comparison is made with the LabSpace environment of the Open University UK. The formation of communities is an important element in the MERLOT and the Connexions initiatives. The figure above shows the shift in ownership from centralized respository, where teachers add their material, to a community based project where each member or participant can add and discuss resources. Adopting a more decentralized model, a project is said to be more scalable, but there is less influence in the direction and quick publishing of resources.


Motivation is crucial in sustaining a decentralized environment. Non-monetary incentives stand at the core of the social production of educational resources and will be crucial in order to create thriving communities where educational resources are reused and remixed constantly. Larsen & Vincent-Lancrin (2006) say that contributors are motivated to make OER material available because of their contributions might be adopted, modified or improved. Professors and researchers freely reveal their work to build recognition and promotion or receive tenure. (Kansa & Ashley 2005) These intrinsic motivations for sharing resources show that the sharing itself happens in a community. Fox & Manduca (2005) argue that without an existing culture there might be no motivation to share, because potential contributors do not feel 'obliged' to share, or have not experienced the value of sharing.

The design of the website and the organization behind it will influence the possibilities of recognizing and promoting these incentives greatly, and should be considered carefully. Horton (2005) states that an organization that depends on volunteers needs clear overall vision, strategy, and roles for participants. Downes (2007) makes the comparison with the way the Apache Foundation is organized. Being a 'meritocracy', it organizes its volunteer staff to serve more or less enviable roles depending on the value of their contributions. Another important issue concern open licenses. Creative Commons, a set of open licenses for cultural and informational goods, plays an important role: contributors of original resources can stay 'owner' of the resource, while freely distributing it. Open licensing through Creative Commons, which is easy to understand and use, significantly lowers the barriers for contribution. Digging a bit deeper unveils many difficult issues that are concerned with Creative Commons.

Types of resources

Koohang & Harman (2007) describe the relation between sustainability and instructional design & presentation; cost of production and maintenance; support of OERs; and OER communities of practice as a means of decentralization (and increased scalability). Wiley (2006) describes the differences between learning and teaching resources. Teaching resources are designed on the assumption of existing knowledge of the domain. Experts are better able to understand and use these resources than a person unfamiliar with the subject. Resources used for learning must be richer, go into more detail, and are more expensive to produce than resources used for teaching. The project proposal of Delft OCW states that it will not focus on learning resources, because this will be a greater barrier for getting teachers and other contributors involved. Still, high quality instructional design (inclusion of sound and appropriate learning theories into digital contents) and presentation (user interface) of OER produce learning, which in its turn contributes to the sustainability. (Koohang & Harman 2007)

Wiley (2006) explains further that a careful consideration should be made between the following two sometimes contrasting goals:

  1. Publish OER as efficiently as possible; and
  2. Support end-user reuse (and remix) of our open educational resources.

For example, it is quite easy to record a lecture on video and post it on the internet, but to reuse this type of material is almost impossible. To convert materials in highly flexible XML-documents may be very difficult, but it enhances the possibility to adapt and remix the resources. With regard to the first few pilots, the position of the TU Delft is very clear: publish OER as quick and efficient as possible. About the future, where end-users might be able to publish materials themselves, the contrast between these goals (easy publishing versus reuse) is very relevant. The reusability and adaptability of OER could contribute to shorter lifecycles of materials, and increased quality maintenance.

Another issue here concerns the way the OER environment and project relates to all different kinds of resources, whether online videos are considered educational, or websites, podcasts, weblogs, and more. Extensive research has shown that the medium of delivery (text, video, audio, etc.) does not significantly relate to the effectiveness of the resource: "Educational effectiveness is a function of the design of the materials and not the channel by which they are conveyed."

Types of end-user reuse

The meaning of end user reuse is the way how users will be reusing the educational resources. The difference between reuse and remix is mentioned on the LabSpace website:

Reuse could take the form of using some of our materials in the classroom, directing other individuals towards the freely available materials and tools, drawing on the content in your own writing, study or research. Remixing could take the form of reworking, rewriting, and translating units.

Wiley (2006) has summed up the most common ways of reuse, of which the most relevant are listed below.

  • As-Is: users do not have the rights or possibility to edit educational materials, and are able to use them without any modification or alternation. This means without special software or plugins.
  • Technical adaptation: resources are changed, but only in technical format. The content stays the same, but a website can be adapted with a certain stylesheet, for example.
  • Remixing: the most relevant type of reuse concerns the ability of a user to access the source code. Users will be able to change the content of the resource according to their own wishes. The type of resource influences this possibility, because not all file types enable the user to access the source code, which is necessary to be able to change it. Because most users will not be skilled in reusing and adapting digital resources, it is crucial to have tools that make it easy to remix and adapt educational materials. An example is a WYSIWYG editor, rather than someone editing in XML, the latter being necessary to change modules in LabSpace.

Other common reuse possibilities are translations of resources, adaptation of resources according to some cultural aspects, which includes company-cultures or cultures within academic disciplines, pedagogical adaptation to resemble better a certain pedagogical style, and annotation, which means altering mostly physical materials for better recollection or overview (using colored highlighters, notes in the margin, etc.).

Downes (2007) takes a simpler approach and describes two broad models: either resources are used and compiled 'as is', so without modification, or OERs are downloaded and adapted to the user's needs, and subsequently uploaded to the system again for potential use of other users. The latter model may require some sort of user registration. Walker (2005) further argues that sustainable implicitly means reusable, in the way that the content types are flexible enough to be adapted to local needs and conditions. This relates to the previous component, types of resources, because only a number of formats enable remixing of content.

The way support is offered to individuals that want to contribute or reuse material should be considered. The Delft OCW project proposal contains the following diagram to support users in uploading resources. As can be seen, this is a centralized approach, but with the extra comment that extensive use of student assistants is projected. It is questionable whether this approach is scalable, and whether it addresses the benefits of tapping into the many small contributions of a decentralized network (crowdsourcing). Tools should be considered to take away some of the need for support. For example, a WYSIWYG editor enables individuals without technical knowledge to edit content than a text field in XML-code.


Funding and revenue models

Most open educational resources projects start with external funding. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is one of the most important drivers behind the OER-movement, investing millions of dollars in numerous projects around the world. MIT recieved millions in funds to set up their project, and this project may become sustainable in the long run, because of the enormous funds recieved. Some experts on OER (Downes 2007, Dholakia 2006, Koohang & Harman 2007, Benkler 2005, Wiley 2006) have argued that (for other institutes) the MIT model might not be sustainable in the long run, because it needs constant funding. They describe different relevant funding models, which are summarized in OECD (2007).

  • Endowment/foundation/donation model: a project is set up and maintained through funds or large donations. This start-up capital can create sustainability in the long run, because interest rates cover the exploitation costs, but if not, the project needs to find alternative methods to create sustainability. A transfer towards a government-support model could be such an alternative that falls in the same domain.
  • Segmentation model: open educational resources are provided for free next to "value-added" services, such as Ask-an-Expert (@ MERLOT), print-on-demand (@ Utah State University), training and user support, etc.
  • Conversion model: this model represents a more widely used model of giving away something for free, and by doing that, creating a 'customer' base, who might be a potential customer for other, related services. This model is adopted by for example Linux distributors RedHat and SuSe, or the educational community software Elgg.
  • Voluntary support model: a model based on fund-raising campaigns. Companies and individuals are approached to donate, once or annually. The membership model relates to this: a group of interested parties join resources which are sufficient for the covering the operating costs of a project. Sakai, an open source collaboration and learning environment, uses this model to fund the development.
  • Contributor-Pay model: a model used for publishing articles, where the contributor pays for the costs of a direct publication within an online repository.
  • Replacement model: open content or software makes current systems or resources superfluous, which results in cost savings. A new OER-environment could, for instance, result in the replacement of Blackboard as the main learning environment.
  • Sponsorship/advertisement model: the free access to resources involves a marketing strategy. 'Free' radio and television is an example, but in several OER initiatives the commercialization is much less explicit.

Partnerships and Exchanges can play an important role in the (collaborative) funding of large OER projects as well. The goal of the OCW project is, after a successful university-wide implementation, to connect not only with the other technical universities in the Netherlands, but possibly also with others in the IDEA league. Partnerships could address redundancy in for example software or course development.


We have seen in the above that sustainability involves many aspects. A "solution" does not only depend on the goals of a project or organization, but also on the environmental factors and opportunities. Clearly a hybrid form must be sought, and each of the mentioned factors should be deliberated. In the following post, where I will reflect on others who have posted this week, I will make my personal ideas a bit more clear. This post is more on defining and exploring sustainability of OER.


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