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Why do OER Matter?

‘Contributing open educational resources may make significant content available online for students, academics and life-long learners on a global level. Shared ideas, experience and knowledge may help inspire new research and further learning. Consider the teaching, learning and research resources regularly accessed online, and the increasing number which are provided as open education resources. It has been suggested that uploading open education resources to the Internet facilitates a synergy of intellectual exchange, participation in global collaboration and contribution to an international educational commonwealth. Posting academic content online ought not to devalue its authorship, but rather promote the dissemination of knowledge and the recognition of its originators.

Open education resources in the form of course content could become institutional recruiting tools, allowing prospective students the opportunity to examine classes offered and teaching modalities, and make informed choices about their academic path. Students presently enrolled at the institution may access important content and resources to enhance breadth and depth of learning. Former students may use open resources to review foundational concepts and ideas from classes they have successfully completed.’ (CAETL, 2011).

Reasons and motivations for introducing OER vary widely, depending on the local context. OER Africa provides a range of reasons for the African content, including:

  • ‘African higher education institutions are seriously structurally under-funded for the core function they are expected to discharge.
  • This has led to corresponding paucity of institutional and individual capacity to teach in many domains of higher education. Academics are overtaxed in time and ability to teach, reducing time available for ongoing program and materials development.
  • Because academics are over-extended, they may be reluctant to alter the current passive teaching and learning paradigm to one that is more active on the part of the student, as this generally increases the teaching burden.
  • In many higher education programs on the continent, the amount of money available to run those programs is inadequate to meet the educational needs of enrolled students, as well as to cover the costs of faculty time required both to design and run quality learning experiences.
  • There are too few learning resources for learners and lecturers in African universities, and many of those available are too expensive to be purchased by universities or students.
  • Much existing content available to and within African universities is based on weak and largely outmoded educational design principles. Although a high priority, updating such content is very difficult to do in contexts where faculty members are already overtaxed and often need extensive support and capacity development to be able to design effective educational materials.
  • Although improvements will occur over time, there is limited ICT infrastructure to gain access to up-to-date information available on the Internet and to participate in inter-institutional, geographically dispersed collaborative activities.’
  • (OER Africa, 2011).

Other institutions in different contexts have varying reasons for releasing learning resources free-of-charge for anyone to use. Professor Charles Vest, President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spoke of how faculty from MIT would take their teaching resources with them to other institutions, adapting these materials to new environments. He realized that a more formal process, that still made use of the Internet’s freedom to transfer materials, could help to benefit education at ‘Internet time’ (Vest, 2006).

The African situation outlined by OER Africa is unlikely to be unique if one considers the need for and commitment to Education For All (EFA). The focus on EFA is now resulting in a ‘bubble’ of learners reaching secondary school, who need to be accommodated in tens of thousands of schools that do not exist. Governments and development agencies will be unable to build sufficient schools to accommodate the existing numbers of out-of-school youth who needs to find a place in secondary school. Institutions of Higher Education also, are under tremendous pressure to take greater numbers of learners and are at risk of simply restricting successful entrants to the ‘cream-of-the-crop’ or those with very high school marks and the highest chance of success. Needed are creative new ways for millions of learners of all ages to enter secondary and higher education and be able to enjoy enough support to have a reasonable chance of success, if they put in the effort.

The cost of developing high quality learning materials is one of three factors in Sir John Daniel’s ‘Iron Triangle’ (Daniel, Kanwar, and Uvalić-Trumbić, 2009). If institutions can reduce the cost of developing learning materials while improving quality by introducing the best available materials from other institutions around the world, proportionally more resources may be invested in learner support and ensuring the success of learners.
The WikiEducator 3 community focuses specifically on the creation, customization and sharing of OER and explains their reasons as follows: ‘The aim of OER is to improve access to learning opportunities by sharing knowledge and learning resources. By joining this international community of educators you can save time, cut costs and contribute to improving the quality of learning in your own classroom and around the world. The OER movement seeks to stimulate, facilitate and catalyze growth of the pool of learning resources on the Internet which circumvent barriers to access and lift restrictions on usage, thus improving education as a social good. With OER you are free to use, adapt, mix and share the resources, and become part of this growing community.’ (WikiEducator, 2011).

OERCommons4 explains it this way: ‘OER is a relatively new movement in education; educators and learners as well as learning institutions are driving its development. OER provides an alternative to the rising costs of education. For example, in some countries like South Africa, some educators and learners are tapping into OER as the only source for textbooks. OER provides an opportunity to try new ways of teaching and learning, many of which are more collaborative and participatory. (OERCommons, 2011)

Some educators are using OER as a way to get students more involved, using the OER process as a way to collaborate with them on content creation. This process brings students into a larger context of learning and sharing knowledge beyond the four walls of their classroom.

Flexibility is a key concept in OER — materials can be adapted for your specific needs. Because these materials can be searched by a wide variety of criteria, you can quickly find what you specifically need.’ (OERCommons, 2011).
The overall reason for OER needs to be connected with the Millennium Development Goal 2: ‘Achieve Universal Primary Education’ and the need to extend this to new goals such as Enable all learners who wish to achieve Secondary and Higher Education to be able to do so’. The OER movement is not restricted to a goal of 2015, it needs to maintain a longer-term vision such as 2025 and 2040, where any lifelong learner can enter or re-enter education at any age and have a reasonable chance of success. This success should not be frustrated by the high cost of education or education models that some consider to be firmly based in the 1400s (Kamenetz, 2010).

Cost Savings

Similar course materials are needed in countries around the world. One hears anecdotes of ‘how different can an introduction to Accounting be in two countries?’, yet every institution appears to believe that it is about to create the best learning materials for a particular course. Significant savings could be gained through the sharing of good base learning materials for each of the most popular subjects taught around the world. Costs of creating materials vary greatly, depending on the complexity, technologies and techniques used and it may therefore be difficult to guess the cost of developing a course. That said, OER offer ministries of education and institutions a path to consider sharing materials as a viable cost-saving or quality improvement option.

Continuous Improvement

When content is published online and others have an opportunity to engage with it, it is likely that someone will find a way to improve the material. This principle has been demonstrated by Wikipedia, where subsequent edits continually improve the accuracy and quality of articles. In the case of course materials that are published on platforms where it may be edited by anyone, there is a good possibility that another person may find a way to improve them. Should the original author want to maintain his or her own version of the content, a duplicate can be created for anyone to add to, while maintaining a personal version which can be shared but not edited. This way, one version is made available for anyone to remix and use, while the personal one is for more restricted use and sharing as-is.

Learning Efficiencies and Effectiveness

As described above, the efficiency of course materials (reduction in costs) may be improved through the use of OER, while the effectiveness may be improved by borrowing from some of the best available minds in the subject area in the form of source materials and improvements to materials. Institutions have little to lose by receiving materials from other institutions if they are appropriate in content, and can reduce the institutional work-load of developing and updating course materials. Where institutions still ‘feel proprietary’ about their content, they may be justified in undertaking a costing of the potential savings of receiving and using learning materials from other institutions before they begin to release materials. This may help to show the ‘free trading’ principle of OER.


Accessibility refers to (1) access to OER that may be used, (2) having the software and skills to be able to customize the OER and (3) having the technology to be able to access digitized OER that are online. These issues are addressed elsewhere in this report.

Changing teaching and learning practices

The barriers to using OER range widely from institutional policies to the perceived need for personal or institutional gain through the selling of learning content. Where educators are able to reduce costs through the use of OER, this needs to be taken into account and not used against educator who want to use OER. The potential exists for an institution to consider an educator to not be doing his or her job by using OER; this is a particularly worrying point if one considers the arguments of institutional effectiveness and cost savings in a time of rising costs of education.

Greater understanding of OER, its cost savings, potential improvements in the quality of materials and the legal implications of the different Creative Commons license options need to be understood.