Monday, April 9, 2012

Why Open Education?

There are many reasons that educators, administrators and boards at educational institutions of all sorts, and government and other funding bodies should consider the promise of open educational resources in setting strategies for the future.  I have chosen to focus on five specific elements that support OER as a strategy that will expand the opportunities for education to more people while also controlling the cost and effort required to produce and disseminate educational materials.

One element that drives the consideration of OER is the expanded need for education.  Education is the greatest source of opportunity for men and women around the world.  The USAID Education Strategy for 2011-2015 makes the observation that
Education Strategy is premised on the development hypothesis that education is both foundational to human development and critically linked to broad­based economic growth and democratic governance. Research has demonstrated that education raises individual incomes and, in an enabling environ­ment, can contribute significantly to economic growth.
Education helps ensure that growth is broad­based and reaches the poorest. Through its impact on economic growth, education helps catalyze transitions to democracy and helps preserve robust democratic governance. Education also helps improve health outcomes. Access to education is a crucial precondition to educational impact, but what matters most thereafter is the quality of education. Because of these important links to other powerful drivers of development, educational investments should be understood as dynamic and transformational levers of change. (U.S. Agency for International Development, 2011)
While some developing countries are seeing demographic trends for citizens in the traditional higher education age group leveling off or even decreasing, this is not a trend in much of the world.  One author observed:
Half of the world’s population is under twenty years old; …over thirty million people are fully qualified to enter a university, but there is no place available. This number will grow to over 100 million during the next decade; To meet the staggering global demand for advanced education, a major university needs to be created every week; In most of the world, higher education is mired in a crisis of access, cost, and flexibility. The dominant forms of higher education in developed nations—campus based, high cost, limited use of technology—seem ill-suited to address global education needs of the billions of young people who will require it in the decades ahead. (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007)
This means that the goals of increasing opportunity for liberty, democracy, economic vitality for much of the world's population is closely linked to the ability to provide opportunities for education.  As Atkins points out, such opportunity will not be available if we seek to expand education in these areas in traditional ways.  Non-traditional teaching and learning channels will be required, as will non-traditional resources.

A second consideration then is how we might replace the building of costly traditional institutions of higher education with delivery methods and channels that are more cost-effective and offer access at minimal costs to the learners, who often have limited means.  In 2001 MIT showed one possibility when they embarked on their OpenCourseWare initiative.  They determined that they would make all of their courses available online to anyone, at anytime, and anywhere.  This meant that the lectures, syllabi, documents, and other teaching artifacts that were part of the instruction in the MIT classroom would now be available, without cost to the user, to teachers, students, and lifelong learners around the world.  This is one response to expanding access in non-traditional ways.

A third consideration is the limited expense to offer educational resources, such as entire courses, textbooks, audio, video, simulations, and other learning artifacts through the internet.  It is true that the development of many of these resources is costly in their initial development.  The production of these resources is often covered by institutional budgets where wages are paid to faculty and supporting personnel to develop the resources.  This resource development is paid with funds from governmental and other sponsoring entities, foundations and other generous philanthropists, endowment funds, and student tuition, and other sources.  Generous support from these sources covers the cost of developing the resources, and once developed, the remaining costs for their use in education are those associated with their delivery.

In traditional settings, this cost includes the maintenance of facilities, the time of instructors, tutors, and support personnel.  The costs for people, buildings, infrastructure, and student services can be prohibitive on a per student basis when these traditional structures are used to deliver courses.  Universities cover these costs as part of their traditional operations.  Expanding the opportunity to access these resources becomes a marginal cost analysis.  If there are minimal marginal costs to extending access to the educational resources then there should be minimal reason to resist extending access to these resources.  MIT has blazed the way in applying this theory to their curriculum.  Other major institutions have followed (see OCW Consortium Members to see a list of institutions offering OpenCourseWare).

One element that is critical to consider when institutional funds and faculty creativity are used to develop these resources is ownership of the artifacts and objects created.  Ownership resides with the creator according to laws in most of the countries of the world.  The fourth consideration in creating greater access to education is the need to effectively deal with ownership of these resources.  Most of these resources will be covered by copyright.  Some by patent.  Rightsholders have always had the ability to license and authorize use of their creations to others.  The processes to grant individual authorizations and to draft legal documents protecting the rightsholders and the licensees is time consuming and costly.  Addressing this licensing issue is necessary if the marginal costs of sharing developed OER is to be kept to a minimum.

The free and open movements have grown in an attempt to address this issue.  These movements have their roots in the concept of crowdsourcing software (open software projects) and in the sharing of developed learning resources (open  content and open access).  These open movements developed multiple different licenses that allowed creators of resources to share them freely, or openly with others.  These licenses, and their derivations, proliferated during the early years of the 21st century.  The Creative Commons license has become the consolidation of these licenses into a standard, readily understood and available, and legally defensible licensing methodology allowing creators to make their works available to others at little to no cost to the user (see for license information).

Projects like OpenCourseWare and other OER are developed and licensed under Creative Commons licenses.  Users can use, copy, remix, create derivatives, and if allowed, use these licensed products for commercial purposes.  All while giving the creator the ability to monitor and oversee their appropriate use.  The creator may give up some of his or her traditional benefits of ownership (royalties, exclusive license fees, etc.) that generate income, but the creator derives the benefits of increasing influence, reputation, and contributing to the expansion of learning around the world.

The fifth element that must be considered is the sustainability of the costs that are incurred as part of extending access.  MIT has experienced costs of approximately $4 million each year to maintain the availability of their OpenCourseWare.  The costs of developing the courses and the resources are absorbed by the institutional budgets as part of their normal operations.  But the costs to prepare the courses for electronic distribution, and the infrastructure to distribute the courses are the marginal costs of providing the open courses.

Much of the expense associated with the delivery of open courses and other open resources involves scrubbing the materials for copyrighted materials.  Moving away from the use of copyrighted will reduce this cost.  As the OER movement gains steam, the assembly of courses, texts, and other materials to be licensed openly will be best performed through the use of other open resources in their assembly.  If these elements of the OER are either created when the resource is assembled, or selected from openly-licensed materials already available, then the need for scrubbing and obtaining permissions is reduced or eliminated.  This approach will reduce the cost of the OER to the provider.

Reducing these costs enhances the sustainability of OER efforts.  Aligning these OER efforts with the normal instruction occurring at the institution is another important consideration for sustainability.  If the full-fare paying students are benefitting from the OER in their classroom instruction and research, then the OER becomes a part of the institutional strategies and the sustaining of the efforts becomes an institutional priority.

Sustainability is also enhanced when one considers the benefits that accrue to creators when they make the materials freely available to others (see Johansen & Wiley, 2010Hilton & Wiley, 2010, and Hilton, 2010)

In conclusion, David Wiley's research (cited by Cable Green in this video) showed that the costs to deliver a textbook as OER is well below one cent per text when it is made available on-line (using cloud storage and access estimates). These same texts can be printed on demand at costs a fraction of the cost of acquiring textbooks in the marketplace.  Using the internet to deliver OER is a miniscule marginal cost.  Using the internet makes the delivery of knowledge (a non-rivalrous resource) and objects (non-rivalrous as well, since electronic copies are always available) is a way of sharing knowledge and teaching at minimal additional cost.  It is the logical route to satisfying the huge demand for education in the developing world without facing the limitations of the costs of traditional educational opportunities.  Faculty and institutions can expand opportunity and influence around the world at minimal marginal cost.


Atkins, D. E., J. S. Brown & A. L. Hammond. A Review of the Open Educational Resources
Movement: Achievements, Challenges and New Opportunities. A Report to the Hewlett Foundation,
2007. Available online at

U.S.Agency for International Development. U.S.Agency for International Development, (2011). Education opportunity through learning: Usaid education strategy 2011­-2015. Retrieved from website:

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