A Basic Guide for OER/Making the Case for Open Educational Resources

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Making the Case for Open Educational Resources


The concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) was originally coined during a UNESCO Forum on Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries held in 2002. During a follow-up, online discussion, also hosted by UNESCO, the initial concept was further developed as follows:

Open Educational Resources are defined as technology-enabled, open provision of educational resources for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes. They are typically made freely available over the Web or the Internet. Their principle use is by teachers and educational institutions to support course development, but they can also be used directly by students. Open Educational Resources include learning objects such as lecture material, references and readings, simulations, experiments and demonstrations, as well as syllabuses, curricula, and teachers’ guides.(Wiley 2006)

Since that time, the term has gained significant currency around the world and become the subject of heightened interest in policy-making and institutional circles, as many people and institutions explore the concept and its potential to contribute to improved delivery of higher education around the world. This section of the Guide examines the concept of OER in more detail, offering a simple, clear definition, and explaining the economic and educational potential behind that definition and the origin of OER in longstanding educational and technological developments globally. It then uses this platform to provide an overview of key issues that educational planners and decision-makers need to take into account in order to harness OER effectively, including issues of policy, curriculum and materials development, quality, and sustainability. This section of the Guide is accompanied by a series of appendices that provide further details such as introducing examples of OER practices around the world and exploring legal and licensing considerations for OER.

Defining the concept

At its core, OER denotes a very simple concept, the nature of which is first legal, but then largely economic: it describes educational resources that are openly available for use by educators and students, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or licence fees. A broad spectrum of frameworks is emerging to govern how OERs are licensed for use; some licences allow only copying while others make provision for users to adapt the resources that they use. The best known of these are the Creative Commons licences. They provide legal mechanisms to ensure that authors of work can retain acknowledgement for their work while allowing it to be shared, can seek to restrict commercial activity if they so wish, and can aim to prevent people from adapting work if appropriate (although this may be difficult to enforce in legal terms at the margins). A more detailed discussion of licensing options is presented in Appendix One.

Two dimensions of OER: The pedagogical and the digital

As the concept of OER has been discussed and explored in a growing number of educational debates, discussions, and conferences, there have been two key dimensions highlighted in papers on the topic. These are summarized in a Wikipedia article on OER, as follows:

The OER movement originated from developments in open and distance learning (ODL) and in the wider context of a culture of open knowledge, open source, free sharing and peer collaboration, which emerged in the late 20th century.

These two dimensions – the educational and the digital – are critical to understanding the real educational potential of OER, so are worth exploring briefly. As its origins are older, this is best begun by exploring briefly the history of the concept of ODL, or distance education.

OER, distance education and resource-based learning

The growth of ‘distance education’ methods of delivery was a key feature of education in the 20th century, for reasons that are outlined in more detail in Appendix Two. Initially, these methods were developed as distinctly different from face-to-face education, with the unfortunate consequence that they were regarded as inferior to face-to-face educational methods. Distance education came to be seen as provision for those people denied access to face-to-face education (either because they cannot afford the latter or because circumstances demand that they study on a part-time basis). The growth of new communications technologies, however, has begun to make the notion of ‘distance’ difficult to interpret, while opening a great number of educationally and financially viable means of providing education. Simultaneously, awareness is growing that elements of distance education have almost always existed in ‘face-to-face’ programmes, while educators involved in distance education are increasingly recognizing the importance of different types of face-to-face education as structured elements of their programmes. This renders rigid distinctions between the two forms of delivery meaningless.

To deal with the growing combination of distance and face-to-face educational methods in many programmes, the notion of a continuum of educational provision has emerged in some circles. This continuum has, as one of its imaginary poles, provision only at a distance, while at the other end of the continuum falls provision that is solely face-to-face. The reality is that all educational provision exists somewhere on this continuum but cannot be placed strictly at either pole. Re-conceptualizing methods of educational provision as existing somewhere on this imaginary continuum has the result that certain methods of provision are no longer chosen to the exclusion of others, depending on whether they are ‘distance’ or ‘face-to-face’ educational opportunities. Rather, educational providers, when constructing educational courses, are able to choose, from a wide variety, those methods that are most appropriate for the context in which they will be providing learning opportunities.

Another major advantage of this ‘blurring’ is that ‘distance educators’ and ‘face¬to-face educators’ can turn from meaningless debates about the relative virtues of particular methods of educational provision, to consideration of the nature of learning and the educational value of a course’s structure and content. Educators often find it necessary to equate particular methods of education with good quality education, in an effort to market the programmes they are offering and give them added status over programmes using different methods of provision. The notion of this continuum is free of such premature and unnecessary judgements about quality.

It needs to be made clear that no method of educational provision is intrinsically better than another; rather, the appropriateness of a particular method or combination of methods selected is determined entirely by the context in which they are to be used and the educational needs they are intended to fulfil. This conceptual shift is vital in changing the structure of the higher educational system. In particular, it will allow for greater flexibility and open up possibilities of collaboration, which are vital to an improvement in educational quality and in the cost-effectiveness of educational provision.

A shift to resource-based learning

A logical consequence of the collapse of simplistic distinctions between contact and distance education, together with the increasingly exciting variety of media available and decline in production and reception costs of these media, has been the emergence of resource-based learning. The concept is not new; it is based on the principle that educators should select, from the full range of educational provision, those resources and methods most appropriate to the context in which they are providing education. This principle is, however, augmented by the understanding that managing the process of learning by using a ‘talking lecturer’ to transmit content is in many cases neither educationally nor financially effective. This is especially important in contexts in which quality solutions to educational problems are required on a massive scale.

In essence, the notion of resource-based learning means that a significant but varying proportion of communication between students and educators is not face to face, but takes place through the use of different media as necessary. In fact, a recent study undertaken as part of the South African Survey of Student Engagement (Strydom & Mentz 2010) reveals that students involved in traditional contact-based study spend on average only 16 hours a week, or 40% of their time, on scheduled campus-based activities, including face-to-face contact based on varied student support activities like tutorials, peer group discussion and practical work.

The introduction of resource-based learning emerged strongly in the second half of the 20th century as more ‘contact’ institutions (particularly universities and colleges) became ‘dual-mode’ institutions, offering both distance and face-to-face educational programmes. While there are many motives for this shift, contact institutions have most often been making this move both to cope with increasing pressure on places and to find more cost-effective ways of providing education in a context of dwindling funds. As the distinctions between the two ‘modes’ of education has continued to collapse, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify which programmes are being offered in which mode, particularly as resources developed for ‘distance education’ programmes are now being used in many ‘contact’ programmes. The emergence of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), which allows for much easier and cheaper production and dissemination of knowledge through various media, has made this even more complex to define.

The possibilities of resource-based learning

Some years ago, in a report written for the South African Institute for Distance Education (Saide), renowned South African educationist and educational theorist Wally Morrow described a fundamental problem in higher education as follows:

The traditional culture of Higher Education is based on a picture of teaching and an idea of Higher Education institutions which, in combination with each other, constitute a (perhaps the) major barrier to the accessibility and availability of Higher Education. (Saide 1996: 97)

He went on to suggest that the principal recommendation that can contribute to the dismantling of this barrier is to think of teaching in terms of resource-based learning. In the report to which Morrow contributed, Saide argued that the term ‘resource¬based learning’ emerges as a logical consequence of the collapse of distinctions between contact and distance education, together with the increasingly exciting variety of media available and decline in production and reception costs of these media. In essence, it means that a significant but varying proportion of communication between students and educators is not face to face, but takes place through the use of different media as necessary. Importantly, the expensive face-to-face contact that does take place need not involve simple transmission of knowledge from educator to student; instead it involves various other strategies for supporting students, for example, tutorials, peer group discussion or practical work. In this respect, therefore, resource-based learning draws significantly from the lessons learned in international distance education provision throughout the 20th century. Critically, resource-based learning is not a synonym for distance education. Rather, it provides a basis for transforming the culture of teaching across all education systems to enable those systems to offer better quality education to significantly larger numbers of students in a context of dwindling funds.

Thus, to summarize:

  • Distance education describes a set of teaching and learning strategies (or educational methods) that can be used to overcome spatial and temporal separation between educators and students. These strategies or methods can be integrated into any educational programme and potentially used in combination with other teaching and learning strategies in the provision of education (including with strategies that demand that students and educators be together at the same time and/or place). More information on components of well-functioning distance education systems is provided in Appendix Two.
  • Resource-based learning involves communication of curriculum between students and educators through use of resources (instructionally designed and otherwise) that harness different media as necessary. Resource-based learning strategies too can be integrated into any educational programme, using any mix of contact and distance education strategies. Resource-based learning need not imply any temporal and/or spatial separation between educators and students, although many resource-based learning strategies can be used to overcome such separation.

Efforts to integrate use of instructionally designed resources into courses and programmes have been influenced by various motives. It is worth noting that these objectives have often incorporated efforts to overcome temporal and spatial separation, but not always. When they have incorporated this aim, the result has generally been an integration of distance education and resource-based learning strategies. The key motives/objectives, might usefully be described as follows:

  1. Breaking down the traditional notion that a talking teacher is the most effective strategy for communicating curriculum. While this motive has not been exclusive to distance education programmes, it has been most systematically applied in such programmes. Nevertheless, many face¬to-face courses and programmes at all levels of education incorporate use of instructionally designed resources, as educators have learned the limitations of lecture-based strategies for communicating information to students. It is important to stress that this motive does not imply any intrinsic improvements in quality of learning experience. The extent to which shifting communication of curriculum to instructionally designed resources leads to improvement in the quality of education is entirely dependent on the quality of the resources developed. Experience has demonstrated that, while spending more money on educational resource development does not necessarily lead to improvements in quality, under-investment in design of such resources is very likely to diminish the quality of the final resource. Many educational programmes operate under severe financial constraints, and are not able to make investments of sufficient scale in the resources that they develop. Thus, while the motive may be to use resources to communicate curriculum more effectively, investments made in designing those resources often do not allow for achievement of the intended goal.
  2. Directing a significantly larger proportion of total expenditure to the design and development of high quality resources, as a strategy for building and assuring the quality of educational provision. This motive is linked to the previous one, but contains notable differences. Importantly, many people motivated by the desire to use resources to communicate curriculum are not similarly motivated by a desire to shift patterns of expenditure in this way (or are unable to do so because institutional financial policies make it impossible). This can lead to the problems outlined above, where communication of curriculum via resources rather than a talking teacher does not lead to improvements in the quality of pedagogy. There is, however, another tension that this motive creates when people do seek to shift patterns of expenditure in this way. This can occur when additional money is actually invested in design of resources, but this investment is then still spread over very small student numbers. The consequence of this can be to drive up significantly the per-student cost of the educational experience, leading to unsustainable educational practices. This practice is prevalent in many traditionally contact educational institutions. Its impact on public education may be profoundly unsettling in the long term, as it is proliferating unsustainable educational programmes.
  3. Implementing strategies to shift the role of the educator.4 This motive has been important in many educational programmes, where educators have sought to maximize the educational impact of contact time with students. As this time is generally the most significant component of variable educational costs, many educators have sought to use it to stimulate engagement and interaction rather than simply talking to mostly passive students. Again, though, this shift is not a feature of all education. Many educators continue to use contact time to perform very traditional functions, leaving no space for meaningful engagement between educators and students. As importantly, many educators do not embed the logic of engagement into resources themselves, often simply creating resource-based versions of traditional lectures. This trend is also pervasive in resources being shared under open licences, where many courses simply involve electronic mark-up of lecture notes into formats that can be shared online.
  4. Investigating the potential that the integration of new educational technologies into teaching and learning environments has for supporting, improving or enhancing those environments. Given the explosive growth in the use of ICT in education around the world, it is important to add this motive to the list of motives for engaging in resource-based learning. This leads then onto the second dimension of OER, which has been driven by the rapid digitization of content made possible by ICT.

The past 20 years have seen rapid development in ICT, and an accompanying explosion of ICT-related activity in education, as educational institutions and national systems grapple with the challenge of how best to deploy the potential of ICT to the benefit of students, educators and countries. A wide range of digital applications exist that can be used to create and distribute educational materials. (Details are provided in Appendices Three and Four.)



4This changing role can be summarized as follows:

  • Educators will become facilitators and managers of learning in situations where they are no longer the source of all knowledge.
  • Educators will plan, negotiate for, and manage the integration of learning in formal institutions, in the workplace, and in communities.
  • Many educators may spend a considerable proportion of their workloads contributing to the preparation of courseware.
  • Many educators will interact with students at a distance through any one, or any combinations, of a variety of media (of which real-time face-to-face interaction is only one of many possibilities).
  • Educators time spent in preparation, management and logistics will vary greatly between the following modes of communication:
  • Interaction with students;
  • Presentation of one-way television broadcast;
  • Video conference that hooks up a number of remote sites;
  • Online facilitation;
  • Written response to a student’s assignment; and
  • Face-to-face facilitation.
  • It will be essential that educators design and administer record-keeping systems (online or offline) that keep track of students’ progress through their individual learning pathways – pathways that reflect individual variations in learning content, learning sequence, learning strategies, the learning resources, media and technologies chosen to support them, and the pace of learning.
  • Increasing proportions of educators’work will involve them as members of teams to which they will contribute only some of the required expertise, and of which they will not necessarily be the leaders, managers or coordinators.

The digital dimension

The long-term impact of ICT on education is still largely a matter of conjecture (often driven by ideological determinism or commercial marketing), and will only really start to become fully clear over the next 15 to 20 years. Nevertheless, certain trends in ICT use that are relevant to education have emerged that have a bearing on discussions about OER:

  1. ICT use is expanding the range of options available to educational planners in terms of the teaching and learning strategies they choose to use, providing an often bewildering array of choices in terms of systems design options, teaching and learning combinations, and strategies for administering and managing education.
  2. ICT use is allowing for exponential increases in the transfer of data through increasingly globalized communication systems, and connecting growing numbers of people through those networks.
  3. ICT networks have significantly expanded the potential for organizations to expand their sphere of operations and influence beyond their traditional geographical boundaries.
  4. ICT use is reducing barriers to entry of potential competitors to educational institutions, by reducing the importance of geographical distance as a barrier, by reducing the overhead and logistical requirements of running educational programmes and research agencies, and by expanding cheap access to information resources.
  5. There has been an explosion in collective sharing and generation of knowledge as a consequence of growing numbers of connected people, and the proliferation of so-called Web 2.0 technologies.5 Consequently, collective intelligence and mass amateurization are pushing the boundaries of scholarship, while dynamic knowledge creation and social computing tools and processes are becoming more widespread and accepted.
  6. Digitization of information in all media has introduced significant challenges regarding how to deal with issues of intellectual property and copyright. Copyright regimes, and their associated business models, that worked effectively prior to the development of ICT are increasingly under threat, and in some cases rapidly becoming redundant.
  7. Systemically, ICT use is tending to accentuate social disparities between rich and poor.



5 Wikipedia notes that ‘Web 2.0…refers to a supposed second generation of Internet-based services – such as social networking sites, wikis, communication tools, and folksonomies – that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users… In the opening talk of the first Web 2.0 conference, Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle summarized key principles they believed characterized Web 2.0 applications:

  • The Web as a platform
  • Data as the driving force
  • Network effects created by an architecture of participation
  • Innovation in assembly of systems and sites composed by pulling together features from distributed, independent developers (a kind of “open source” development)
  • Lightweight business models enabled by content and service syndication
  • The end of the software adoption cycle (“the perpetual beta”)
  • Software above the level of a single device, leveraging the power of The Long Tail.’

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_2. (Accessed 18 November 2006).


Increasingly, investment in ICT is being seen by educational planners as a necessary part of establishing competitive advantage, because it is attractive to students (particularly in those parts of the world where young people have increasingly ubiquitous access to ICT) and because it is deemed essential by governments, parents, employers and other key funders of education. Despite this, it is becoming clear that there is no direct correlation between increased spending on ICT and improved performance of educational systems. Benefit and impact, to the extent that they can be reliably measured at all, are more a function of how ICT is deployed than what technologies are used. Hopefully, as this knowledge becomes more widespread, it will help educational systems around the world – whatever their current resourcing constraints – to harness ICT over the coming years to improve educational delivery and reduce its cost, rather than creating additional expenses, exacerbating operational complexities and generating new problems.

As part of the development of ICT, e-learning continues to grow in importance worldwide. Indeed, some educational planners see it as one of the few relatively unrestricted avenues for innovation in teaching and learning. The European eLearning Action Plan defines e-learning as follows:

The use of new multimedia technologies and the Internet to improve the quality of learning by facilitating access to resources and services as well as remote exchange and collaboration. (Commission of the European Communities 2001)

There has been a growing tendency to use ‘distance education’ and ‘e-learning’ interchangeably. However, the use of distance education and e-learning as interchangeable or composite phrases introduces a confusing conflation of the terms, which has sometimes led to poor quality strategic planning. It is true that introduction of ICT introduces a new range of educational strategies, but it remains a relatively simple matter to establish whether specific uses of ICT incorporate temporal and/or spatial separation. Thus, for example, students working independently through a CD-ROM or online course materials are clearly engaged in a distance education practice, while use of satellite-conferencing, although it allows a degree of spatial separation, has more in common with face-to-face education because it requires students to be in a specific place at a specific time. Many people harnessing ICT seem to think they are harnessing the benefits of good quality distance education, when often they are simply finding technological alternatives for replicating traditional, face-to-face educational models.

The only complexity within this is that ICT has created one specific new form of contact, which is not easily classified as either face-to-face or distance. Online communication allows students and academics to remain separated by space and time (although some forms of communication assume people congregating at a common time), but to sustain an ongoing dialogue. Online asynchronous discussion forums, for example, reflect an instance where the spatial separation between educator and students is removed by the ‘virtual’ space of the Internet, but where there remains temporal separation. As a discussion forum allows sustained, ongoing communication between academics and students, it is clearly a form of contact, not a form of independent study. Thus, there may be cause to introduce a new descriptor for educational methods of direct educator–student contact that are not face-to-face, but are mediated through new communication technologies.

While the pedagogical potential of OER is deeply tied to the concept of resource-based learning and its origins in well-designed distance education course materials, it would simply not have been conceivable before the ICT explosion. This is because the network of connected digital devices that is the Internet has made it possible to share information globally on a scale and at speeds that were largely unimaginable before the 1990s. The ease with which digital content can be created, shared online and copied by others, however, also introduced problems regarding copyright and intellectual property protection – problems that have affected, and continue to transform, most industries based on protection of intellectual capital as an economic model, including education and educational publishing. Simultaneously, however, the knowledge economy saw the rise of alternative models of licensing, most well known in the software industry.

The emergence of open source

As a Wikipedia article on the topic notes,

The concept of open source and free sharing of technological information existed long before computers. For example, cooking recipes have been shared since the beginning of human culture. Open source can pertain to businesses and to computers, software and technology.6

However, the term ‘Open Source’ really came to prominence with the world of software development (where it was launched in 1983 as the Free Software Movement), coming to describe computer software for which, as a JISC7 Briefing Paper notes:

  • The source code is available to the end-user;
  • The source code can be modified by the end-user;
  • There are no restrictions on redistribution or use;
  • The licensing conditions are intended to facilitate continued reuse and wide availability of the software, in both commercial and non-commercial contexts.8

The JISC Briefing Paper notes that:

In every other respect there is no difference between this and conventionally- licensed software. The key differentiator is the licence. The term ‘open source’ is reserved for licences which are certified by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to meet the criteria of the Open Source Definition (OSD). (JISC, n.d.)

Open source on the Internet began when the Internet was just a message board, and progressed to more advanced presentation and sharing forms like a website. There are now many websites, organizations and businesses that promote open source sharing of everything from computer code to the mechanics of improving a product, technique or medical advancement. Being organized effectively as a consumers’ cooperative, the idea of open source is to eliminate the access costs to the consumer and the creator by reducing the restrictions of copyright. It is intended that this will lead to creation of additional works, which build upon previous works and lead to greater social benefit. Additionally some proponents argue that open source also relieves society of the administration and enforcement costs of copyright. Organizations such as Creative Commons have websites where individuals can file for alternative ‘licences’, or levels of restriction, for their work (see Appendix One). These self-made protections free the general society of the costs of policing copyright infringement. Thus, on several fronts, there is an efficiency argument to be made on behalf of Open Sourced goods.9

These ideas have subsequently found their way into many spaces. From a higher educational perspective, they emerged, for example, in the concept of ‘open access’. As Wikipedia notes, while the term ‘open access’ is applied to many concepts, it usually means the following:

  • Open access (publishing), access to material (mainly scholarly publications) via the Internet in such a way that the material is free for all to read, and to use (or reuse) to various extents.
  • Open access journal, journals that give open access to all or a sizable part of their articles.10

The relevant Wikipedia article notes that active debate over the economics and reliability of various ways of providing Open Access publishing of scholarly journals continues among researchers, academics, librarians, university administrators, funding agencies, government officials, commercial publishers and academic/professional society publishers. Notwithstanding this, an empirical study published in 2010 showed that, of the total output of peer-reviewed articles, roughly 20% could be found as Openly Accessible.11 It is worth noting also that, increasingly, the performance of senior academics is based not only on their research outputs but also, and more importantly, on their citations. It seems logical therefore, from both a social and a personal perspective, to open access to research outputs as widely as possible.

In parallel, a notion emerged of ‘Open Source’ learning materials, facilitated by growing exploration by educators and educational content developers of the possibilities of developing digital materials that could be designed to allow easy reuse in a wide range of teaching and learning situations. Thus, the notion of OER has ‘Open Source’ parallels in several areas: OER and Open Source Software have many aspects in common, a connection first established in 1998 by David Wiley, who introduced the concept of open content by analogy with Open Source.12 As already noted, the term OER itself was first adopted in 2002 at a UNESCO forum on Open Courseware (OCW), university educational materials that are shared freely in an open virtual learning environment.



6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source.

7 Historically, JISC stood for Joint Information Software Committee (a UK-based initiative).

8 List taken from www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/briefingpapers/2006/pub_ossbp.aspx.

9 This section is adapted from the Wikipedia article on open source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Open_source, as accessed on 18 January 2011. This text of this article is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike Licence.

10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access.

11 This section is adapted from the Wikipedia article on Open Access Publishing: http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Open_access_%28publishing%29, as accessed on 18 January 2011. This text of this article is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike Licence. The empirical study reference is provided as: www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal. pone.0011273.

12 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources.


OER: An economic value proposition with potential for educational transformation

Bringing these two dimensions – the pedagogical and the digital – together, the concept of OER has emerged as having powerful transformative potential. Pedagogically, the concept is underpinned by the notion of using resources as an integral method of communication of curriculum in educational courses. However, it is the ease with which digitized content can be shared via the Internet that has the potential to unleash the full power of resource-based learning without bankrupting educational systems. Importantly, as with ‘Open Source’, the key differentiator between an OER and any other educational resource is its licence. Thus, an OER is simply an educational resource that incorporates a licence that facilitates reuse – and potentially adaptation – without first requesting permission from the copyright holder.

Importantly, OER is not synonymous with online learning or e-learning. Indeed, particularly in developing country contexts, it might be anticipated that many educational resources produced –while shareable in a digital format (both online and via offline formats such as CD-ROM) – would be printable. Thus, a very high percentage of resources of relevance to education might be shared digitally as Rich Text Format (RTF) or similar files (for purposes of adaptation) and packaged as Portable Document Format (PDF) files (for purposes of printing).

While the concept of OER is denotatively a legal one, its implications are first and foremost economic. Open licensing frameworks pose two primary economic propositions: • Primary economic proposition #1: Educational institutions and educators will need to create different services (given the rapidly transforming market for traditional educational content). • Primary economic proposition #2: Abandon a free-market approach to education in favour of collaborating to build and share knowledge.

Primary economic proposition # 1

As Appendix Five of this Guide illustrates, a wave of open sharing of content is building online with astonishing speed. In this context, the key question for educators and educational decision-makers is really: ‘how do we ride it rather than being drowned by it?’

There is a direct comparison to be made between what is happening in the music, film and newspaper industries – among others – and the future of content in education. For example, file-sharing software applications, such as BitTorrent clients, have led to an explosion in the free transfer of music and video files, creating an apparent crisis of business models in the music and film industries. Similarly, running a search on the right Torrent websites will generate, in a few seconds, an extensive list of key medical textbooks freely (if illegally) available for download, together with passwords to access password-restricted journals. This does not mean, though, that the market for educational content and publications will disappear altogether; but it will be comprehensively transformed and different services will need to be created within those transformed markets. The niches for sale of generic educational content will likely become more specialized, while much previously saleable content will lose its economic value.

By way of example, the University of Michigan’s on-campus bookshop closed in June 2009 because it could no longer generate sufficient sales. Likewise an article from Tim Barton of Oxford University Press, published in 2009 in the Chronicle of Higher Education,13 relates an example of students from Columbia University who cited a book published in 1900 rather than the many up-to-date books on the reading list, primarily because its full text was online. Of this, he opined, ‘if it’s not online, it’s invisible’. Bandwidth constraints may make this kind of downloading difficult for some students today (although the costs already make sense if one compares price of bandwidth with the price of some of the more expensive textbooks required in higher educational studies), but the trend towards cheaper bandwidth is clear and will be used by students to access materials, whether this is legal or not.

There has been a proliferation of facilities, content and services available online. This is clearly evident by the examples illustrated in Appendix Five. Organized according to categories such as Open Courseware (OCW) OER repositories, University OCW initiatives, content creation Initiatives, subject specific OCW and OCW search facilities, these OER sources provide a useful starting point with regard to the extent of content publicly available. Appendix Five is drawn from an online catalogue maintained by OER Africa, and accessible at:


Thus, educators who ask, ‘why should I share my educational content?’, should be aware that the real question is, ‘how can I stay in control of the process of my educational content being shared?’ And, the more useful the content is to students, the more likely it is to be shared, with or without the author’s permission. Those academics and publishers who seek to fight against this trend have been likened to the Spanish army fighting the Apaches or the music industry fighting music pirates (as described in a book titled The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organization) – the harder one tries to destroy the leaders of these decentralized movements, the more one ends up strengthening them (Brafman & Beckstrom 2007).

Consequently, on the teaching and learning side, educational institutions that succeed economically are likely to do so predominantly by understanding that their real potential educational value lies in their ability to provide effective support to students (whether that be in practical sessions, tutorials, individual counselling sessions, or online) and in their ability to provide intelligent assessment and critical feedback to students on their performance (ultimately leading to some form of accreditation). The market has not shifted fully yet, but it will. The efforts of universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Open University, UK, to release their content as OER reflects an understanding of this shift, as well as an effort to lead it and benefit from the publicity that such leadership generates. In such an environment, it is foreseeable that reputation will grow by making content available as a way of publicizing competence in providing support, assessment, and accreditation. Increasingly, people who seek to ring-fence, protect and hide their educational content and research will most likely place limits on their academic careers. They will also increasingly be excluded from opportunities to improve their teaching practice and domain-specific knowledge by sharing and collaborating with growing networks of academics around the world.

A new initiative called the Open Education Resource (OER) for assessment and credit for students (Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, Athabasca University 2011) aims to take the next logical step, given the proliferation of free tuition courses using OER. The aim of the project is to create ‘flexible pathways for learners using open learning materials hosted on the Internet to earn credible credentials from accredited higher education institutions’ (TEKRI 2011: 1). In terms of the initiative’s envisaged model of an ‘open university’ created by innovative partnerships among like-minded higher education institutions, the aim is to offer ‘robust and credible solutions for providing assessment and credentialisation services’ (TEKRI 2011:2) so that students may ‘readily have their learning assessed and subsequently receive appropriate academic recognition for their efforts’ (TEKRI 2011:1).



13 Barton T, Saving texts from oblivion: Oxford U. Press on the Google book settlement. Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed January 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/Saving-Texts-From¬ Oblivion-/46966

Primary economic proposition # 2

The second economic proposition posed by OER is a riskier challenge – to abandon the pervasive economic logic that education should be treated as a business, governed by the same rules and incentives as the commercial and retail sector. The notion of education as a free market has had many negative consequences. For the past few decades, educators and educational institutions have been rewarded for competing with one another and withholding their intellectual property from others. Considered critically, this seems clearly antithetical to the notions of building and sharing knowledge, notions that are central, at least in principle, to the core function of educational institutions (at least, public ones). Over the past few decades, education has increasingly come to be understood as a business and a cost centre, the objective of which is to drive costs down – whether it be the cost of running universities and schools or the price of producing graduates.

Although the concept of OER itself will do nothing to change these realities, it offers an opportunity to reconsider the economic value proposition of education. It provides a reason to change institutional and national policies and budgetary frameworks so that they reward collaboration and open sharing of knowledge, rather than either penalizing it (by removing possible streams of income when knowledge is shared openly) or ignoring it (as so many universities do by rewarding research publication over other pursuits such as time spent in designing educational programmes, participating in collaborative materials development processes, and making produced materials freely available for others to use). This suggests a need to place strong emphasis on institutional policy engagement, because, until rewards systems are restructured, there is little prospect for persuading people to change their behaviour.

No matter what technologies or methodologies may be used, the simple reality is that good education cannot be created or sustained without spending properly on it. Investment in education can only ever be meaningfully justified in terms of the long-term social and economic benefits that it will bring societies, not in terms of how those investments will help to enrol more students at progressively declining unit costs.

Of course, if OER is understood as just another mechanism to cut costs, this time by providing free content, its potential to contribute to improving education will be lost and it will be consigned to the long list of faddish jargon and buzzwords that have plagued higher education for so many years. If such a path were to be pursued, OER might well flood educational systems with cheaply available content – some good, some relevant, but much not – without doing anything to developing institutional capacity to deliver cost-effective, high quality educational programmes and courses.

Harnessed strategically, however, the concept of OER has tremendous potential to contribute to improving the quality and effectiveness of education. This potential revolves around three linked possibilities:

  • Increased availability of high quality, relevant, need-targeted learning materials can contribute to more productive students and educators. Because OER removes restrictions around copying resources, it holds potential for reducing the cost of accessing educational materials. In many systems, royalty payments for textbooks and other educational materials constitute a significant proportion of the overall cost, while processes of procuring permission to use copyrighted material can also be very time-consuming and expensive (although some commentators have tended to overestimate the extent to which content is a cost driver in education by assuming that free content is almost synonymous with free education).
  • The principle of allowing adaptation of materials provides one mechanism among many for constructing roles for students as active participants in educational processes who learn best by doing and creating, not by passively reading and absorbing. Content licences that encourage activity and creation by students through reuse and adaptation of that content can make a significant contribution to creating more effective learning environments.
  • OER has the potential to build capacity by providing institutions and educators with access, at low or no cost, to the means of production with regard to high quality materials. This includes building institutions’ and educators’ competence in producing educational materials and completing the necessary instructional design to integrate such materials into high quality programmes of learning. Many educational systems are foundering because their employees have become so overwhelmed by administrative tasks that they have lost the time and space to exercise this critical creative capacity, and it will take time and investment to rebuild it. The concept of OER has potential to facilitate this if the process of developing educational materials is seen as being just as important as – and maybe more important than – the final product.

Problematically, though, many people in the ‘OER movement’ seem to assume that simply making content freely available for use and adaptation will improve educational delivery. This simplistic position ignores the obvious reality that content is only one piece of the educational puzzle, and that effective use of educational content demands, among other requirements, good educators to facilitate the process. Importantly, OER provides an opportunity to engage educational institutions and educators in structured processes that build capacity to design and deliver high quality higher educational programmes and courses without increasing cost. Without this growing institutional and human capacity, OER will not be able to fulfil its transformative potential.

Thus, the challenge is to persuade people that making openness work productively requires financial investment, time and energy, but that these are justified by the wealth of positive outcomes that openness can generate. This is because deliberate openness acknowledges the following:

  • Investment in designing effective educational environments is critically important to good education.
  • A key to productive systems is to build on common intellectual capital, rather than duplicating similar efforts.
  • All things being equal, collaboration will improve quality.
  • As education is a contextualized practice, it is important to make it easy to adapt materials imported from different settings where this is required, and this should be encouraged rather than restricted.

It is unclear which direction educational systems will take. Will OER be co-opted as another in a long line of ultimately failed cost-cutting exercises? Or will it be harnessed as part of a strategy to invest more wisely and effectively in education, in the belief that producing intellectual leadership through free and open development and sharing of common intellectual capital is a worthwhile and socially essential activity for a healthy society?

With this in mind, the remainder of this section of the Guide focuses on presenting a set of practical guidelines for educational planners and decision-makers on how to create environments that embrace the economic and educational possibilities of OER to create better quality teaching and learning environments.

The implications for educational planners and decision-makers

The key issues of relevance when considering the potential applications of OER can be summarized as follows:

  1. Educational systems and organizations that are serious about teaching and learning will need to ensure that spending on personnel and other related expenses reflects a sustained institutional or systemic effort to invest in creating more effective teaching and learning environments for their students. This will entail investment in developing and improving curricula, ongoing programme and course design, planning of contact sessions with students, development and procurement of quality teaching and learning materials, design of effective assessment activities and so on. Many educational systems and institutions do not yet make such investments in a planned and deliberate way, but it is an essential part of their core function.
  2. As educational systems and institutions make strategic decisions to increase their levels of investment in design and development of better educational programmes, the most cost-effective way to do this is to embrace open licensing environments (for the reasons already mapped out, in the earlier sections of this Guide). Thus, commitment to OER implies increased investment in teaching and learning, but promises to increase the efficiency and productivity of those investments by harnessing new ways of developing better programmes, courses and materials.
  3. To be effective and sustainable, such strategic decisions will most likely need to be accompanied by review of institutional policies. Most importantly, institutions will need to review their policies pertaining to intellectual property (by ensuring that they support open licensing models) and staff remuneration and incentives (by ensuring that time spent on course design and development and other related activities is appropriately rewarded through salary increases and promotions, as part of broader policies covering staff remuneration and incentives).

To facilitate this, supportive policy environments – whether at a national or institutional level – are fundamental to any sustainable effort to harness the potential of OER.

Creating the conditions for success: The need for policy change

In developing curricula and learning resources, educators have always engaged with what is already available – often prescribing existing textbooks and creating reading lists of published articles for example. Even in distance education institutions with a long history of materials development, it is arguably a rare and strange occurrence to develop completely new materials with no reference to what already exists. The increasing availability of OER widens the scope of what is available, but, perhaps more importantly, opens greater possibility for adapting existing resources for a better fit with local contextual and cultural needs without the requirement to spend time in lengthy copyright negotiation processes or, failing that, to duplicate development of the same core content. This is usually most effectively and efficiently managed if educators work within a team in which disciplinary expertise is combined with expertise in content sourcing, learning design, resource development, materials licensing, and so on. If the new/ revised learning resources that emanate from such a process are then shared back with the wider higher education community as OER, the possibility exists for further engagement and refinement in the form of constructive feedback. The end result should be better curricula and better materials developed more quickly and renewed more often.

It should be clear that employment contracts with the various contributors to the development of new or revised learning resources – from whole programmes down to individual learning objects – should expressly acknowledge the right for the individual contribution to be recognized but also the intention for the final product to be made available under an open licence. Given the marketing potential of learning resources released under the institution’s imprint, a policy commitment to clear criteria and robust processes for quality assurance would seem of particular importance.

It is important to stress the hierarchy implied here. Engagement with OER originates from the need to address curriculum needs within the institution; the development and sharing of new OER is a product of meeting that need and not an end in itself.

Within this context, the following issues justify consideration by educational institutions: 1. To what extent do current policies motivate educators to invest at least a portion of their time in ongoing curriculum design, creation of effective teaching and learning environments within courses and programmes, and development of high quality teaching and learning materials?

Some institutions already have policies that encourage such investments, either through inclusion of these elements in job descriptions, inclusion of these activities in rewards, incentives, and promotions policies, and/or appointment of people and units dedicated to these tasks.

While different institutions may wish to incentivize these activities in different ways, according to their specific mission and vision, all would benefit from ensuring that their policies provide structural support to investment of time by educators in these activities, as part of a planned process to improve quality of teaching and learning. A policy recognition of and support for the development of curriculum and learning resources in multi-skilled teams should obviate the overload of educational staff whose primary function would be the identification and quality assurance of existing OER, and where necessary development of new content.

A policy commitment to the use, adaptation, and creation of appropriate OER, in support of ongoing curriculum and materials review cycles, would help to ensure that teaching and learning is seen as a continuing process of renewal.

2. Does the institution have a defined IPR and copyright policy in place?

A good starting point for consideration of OER is to have clear policies in place regarding intellectual property rights (IPR) and copyright. A clear policy would for example, plainly lay out the respective rights of the institution and its employees and sub-contractors, as well as students (who might become involved in the process directly or indirectly through use of some of their assignment materials as examples) regarding intellectual capital.

3. Do institutional policies and practices reward creation of materials more highly than adaptation of existing materials? How much is collaboration valued?

Whilst there is no universal way of dealing with these issues, the reality is that incentives structures often reward individual, rather than collaborative, activity and encourage production of ‘new’ materials. While there are sometimes good reasons for a faculty member to develop materials from scratch, such processes may often duplicate ongoing work taking place in global knowledge networks that are engaged in facilitating increasingly creative forms of collaboration and sharing of information. The history of development of materials for distance education purposes illustrates clearly that, all other things being equal, collaboration by teams of people producing materials tends to produce higher quality results than individuals working in isolation.

Consequently, it is opportune for educational institutions to think strategically about the extent to which their policies, practices, and institutional cultures reward individual endeavour over collaboration and create inefficiencies by prizing, in principle, creation of ‘new’ materials over adaptation and use of existing materials and content. As the amount of content freely accessible online proliferates, such approaches to procuring materials increasingly seem unnecessarily wasteful. Thus, there may be merit in ensuring that incentives structures and quality assurance processes make provision for judicious selection and use of existing content (particularly that which is openly licensed and hence free to procure), as well as development of new content.

4. What is an appropriate starting point for initiating a sharing culture and encouraging movement towards OER publishing?

Historically, educational institutions and educators have often been actively encouraged to protect their intellectual capital closely. Thus, sharing teaching practices, approaches, and materials will not necessarily be a common practice. Consequently, inviting colleagues to share materials with each other may be met with resistance and scepticism. Recognizing that this is an historical legacy of how education has tended to function, it is important to find ways to shift this culture, and to encourage ways of sharing materials that are not threatening to educators. One way that some institutions have begun this has been to encourage educators to share their lecture notes and/or slide shows used in particular courses online. In this way, they do not feel pressurized to develop full scale programmes – or the equivalent of a text book. Rather, they are sharing notes they create for their students, in a way that first benefits their current students – as they can access to the materials digitally – and then benefits colleagues in their own, and other institutions, as their notes may be used and adapted for other purposes. Lowering the expectation of what constitutes an OER – and not expecting the equivalent of textbooks to be available immediately – may be an important step towards shifting the culture of sharing in education.

Similarly, institutions may require that all formal assessments for courses are published as OER. This would mean that a repository of tests, problems sets, assignments, essay questions, and examinations would be available under open licenses. Like lecture notes, assessments are something that educators have to create as part of their job functions. There is little additional work required to publish these under open licence. However the contribution to the institution, as well as to the educational community, could be significant. Release of this would also force educators to invest in ongoing re-design of assessment strategies, thus keeping assessment practices current and helping to reduce plagiarism (because the temptation of teaching staff to re-use old assessment activities would be reduced given that they would be openly accessible).

5. Do staff members understand copyright issues and the different ways in which they can harness openly licensed resources?

By virtue of their core functions, educational institutions are positioned to be at the forefront of knowledge societies. In many institutions, though, educators have limited knowledge of or exposure to issues around copyright and the proliferation of online content, much of which is openly licensed. These issues are growing in importance, as they are central to the rapid growth and development of new, increasingly global knowledge networks, driven by the growing functionality and reach of the Internet.

These emerging knowledge networks – effectively niche groups of specialized areas of interest sharing and developing knowledge across national boundaries – are complex and diverse, but have become an essential feature of the knowledge economy and of many academic endeavours. This means that educators increasingly need to understand the complex issues surrounding these knowledge networks and how they may be changing the ways in which content is both created and shared. Accordingly, it is becoming increasingly important for institutions to ensure that they invest in awareness-raising exercises to bring these issues to the attention of their staff and to explore how the institution and the educators can benefit from them.

6. Are there compelling reasons to retain all-rights reserved copyright over curricula and teaching and learning materials?

Assuming that institutions have copyright policies that vest the copyright of such materials in the institution, their next consideration may be whether they derive better value from retaining all-rights reserved copyright or from releasing some of the rights. While a small percentage of teaching and learning materials can – and will continue to – generate revenue through direct sales, the reality has always been that the percentage of teaching and learning materials that have commercial re-sale value is minimal; it is also declining further as more and more educational material is made freely accessible on the Internet.

It is becoming increasingly evident that, on the teaching and learning side, educational institutions that succeed are likely to do so predominantly by understanding that their real potential educational value lies not in content itself (which is increasingly available in large volumes online), but in their ability to guide students effectively through educational resources via well¬designed teaching and learning pathways, offer effective support to students (whether that be in practical sessions, tutorials, individual counselling sessions, or online), and provide intelligent assessment and critical feedback to students on their performance (ultimately leading to some form of accreditation). Although it may seem counter-intuitive, therefore, as business models are changed by the presence of ICT, the more other institutions make use of their materials, the more this will serve to build institutional reputation and thereby attract new students.

In this changing environment, there is a strong case to be made for considering the marketing value and added exposure that can be derived from making this intellectual capital easily accessible under open licences, rather than seeking to retain all-rights reserved copyright. However, as there will be instances in which institutions and academics will need to protect all-rights reserved copyright, it remains important to create provisions in copyright policies to assert full rights over specific materials where this is considered commercially or strategically important. Having noted this, it is worth adding that a policy which requires staff to justify the assertion of all-rights reserved copyright can help to eliminate the corrupt practice of teaching staff selling their own teaching and learning materials to their students as a separate commercial activity.


OER encapsulates a potential vision for educational systems globally wherein individual educators, and then increasingly entire departments and institutions, come together in common online spaces (which, like the most successful Internet phenomena, are not ‘owned’ by any one institutional or corporate interest) to start sharing the materials they have produced, in an effort ultimately to ensure that all the material which students need to complete their studies successfully can be accessed – legally – without any costs of licensing. There are vast quantities of such material already available across the world, from which no-one is generating any meaningful commercial return – and many more being produced every week. These represent a common intellectual capital that should be unlocked to drive and support education rather than being kept locked away.

The potential of OER includes bringing transparency to educational processes, facilitating collaborations between educators and students at different institutions, and establishing a new economic model for procuring and publishing learning materials. Ultimately, a key to its success will be to demonstrate that, in the medium to long term, OER will help over-stretched educators to manage their work more effectively, rather than adding new work requirements to their job description. However, successful OER initiatives will be those that can work immediately and add educational value within the existing ICT infrastructure constraints of any participating institutions (including those from the developing world). Proving the potential of a concept that will only have an impact when these infrastructural constraints are removed is of little value to higher educational institutions in the short to medium term.

Thus, the value of OER projects and initiatives should be measured, in practical terms, against the extent to which they advance core educational objectives; and the principles of operation that govern OER communities should be driven by this imperative. Education is a social investment, and should be protected as such if it is truly to fulfil its potential in creating a more equal world. This makes it critical to find practical ways to build business models that will ensure the success of the online educational commons. Critically, we would do well to accept that – until this new model is established – it is likely that we will need to retain open minds and a spirit of compromise in engaging the interests of different parties seeking to open access to educational content.

At its most effective, creating and sharing OER is essentially about working together towards a common cause, whether this be within a single faculty or across a global network. Sharing materials that others can adapt and use recognizes the value inherent in team work and the improvements in thinking that will emerge from such collaboration. Doing this openly, using the already proven innovations of the Internet to facilitate sharing of content, presents a practical way to use cooperation to find simple solutions to pressing problems we face in education. If educators start doing this in large numbers, the values of the systems for which they work will catch up, as all systems ultimately are simply a codification of how people have agreed to work and interact with one another. Consequently, rewards and incentives will shift to reflect appreciation for sharing and communal building at the expense of individualism and unhealthy competition. Conversely, if we wait for systemic policies to change before we start collaborating, then we have only ourselves to blame if the system’s values are never shifted.

As with all such communal processes, the initial results will be messy – and there will be many problems to solve, such as how to create appropriate curriculum frameworks for storing content, and mechanisms to help with assessing quality. But online communities have demonstrated the now indisputable power and value of lots of people working collaboratively towards a common cause. And doing this in education has the potential to re-focus educational systems, restoring the core values of building and sharing knowledge that underpin good education, and systematically encouraging us to work with and learn from one another.


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