Can open educational resources continue during the global slump?

OpenLearn’s external funding has all but dried up, but the Open University sees enough value in the initiative to keep it going. With funding from the Hewlett Foundation the initiative was able to convert 5,400 hours of current course materials and a lot more archived course content into open educational resources, available freely to anyone with an internet connection who wants them. There are many other such initiatives funded by Hewlett, Mellon and other charitable foundations. What I want to know is: have we reached the tipping point for the OER movement yet? How many of the OER initiatives will fall by the wayside when the funding dries up? Are they a luxury we can’t afford in universities where budgets are currently being squeezed?

Stephen Downes looked at some models for sustainability and I thought it would be worth revisiting his models to see if they were still viable.

Many US institutions rely heavily for their funding from endowments, and Downes proposes that an endowment model might provide a mechanism for the ongoing funding of OER projects. However with interest rates at unprecedented low levels and an uncertain outlook for other investments in the current global economic climate the endowment fund would have to be immense to create an adequate income stream.

This downturn in the World economy may also negatively affect the viability of a donations model where a non-profit foundation requests and receives funds to maintain the OER initiative. Wikipedia is funded on this basis however it is able to run its operations with minimal staffing and relies on many thousands of volunteers to create and maintain a website which, though hugely comprehensive, is far less complex than the range of materials considered to be OERs.

A membership model is also proposed, where a consortium of institutions funds the OER initiative, hopefully leading to sharing of costs. There are successful examples of such groupings such as MERLOT, where member organisations contribute to the costs of maintaining and developing a repository of OERs. One of the major benefits of OERs is the branding and reputational potential for the institution which may be lost if efforts are subsumed into a wider membership organisation. On the other hand participation in organisations such as the Open Courseware Consortium is arguably a useful way for the visibility of individual university iniatives to be increased. Overall though, significant funding from each institution will still be required to increase and maintain the OERs.

In the conversion model consumers of free content are converted to paying customers. Many social software sites utilise this model so that the majority of users can use the system at no cost but those organisations and individuals who find the service vital to their business or lives are prepared to pay for additional services such as support or advanced features. Flickr is one example and Twitter is another site investigating commercialisation possibilities. Building commercial services around OERs to generate income may indeed be one of the only ways for institutions to justify the continuation of OER initiatives.

The contributor-pay model requires producers or commissioners of content to pay for the cost of making it freely available. Downes mentions the Wellcome Trust, which spends £400m producing nearly 3,500 papers each year, requires research funded by them to be made available freely and is prepared to pay considerable amounts of money to ensure that this happens. Meanwhile the Spanish Government is investigating a similar policy of open access to the results of all research funded with public monies and it’s likely that public bodies will follow suit around the World. This model may be appropriate for publications which require no maintenance however OERs can’t remain static and it’s unlikely that funding OER projects in this way will be sustainable.

A sponsorship model where sponsoring institutions raise their profile through logos or advertising does have potential, though intrusive advertisements are likely to be resented by users of OERs. To maximise the usefulness of OERs they will need to be able to be remixed by educators elsewhere who may of course use the opportunity to remove commercial advertising. Advertising and sponsorship is simply not going to provide the levels of income required.

The institutional model is the dominant current model for sustainability and includes all the major initiatives such as OCW, OpenLearn and Connexions. Here an institution assumes responsibility for the ongoing maintenance of the OERs after initial funding from an outside body is reduced or ceases. This will require considerable ongoing funding and can only be justified if there is an acceptance that the costs are outweighed by the benefits. If OER development practices are viewed as a additional responsibility for faculty they are unlikely to be sustainable. They may therefore have to become an integral part of teaching responsibilities and the educational mission of institutions with their production recognised in promotion and tenure processes. See Stacey and Smith and Casserley.

Also listed is a governmental model where governments provide funding for OER developments. In the UK, JISC is about to fund a programme for the creation of OERs. However such initiatives are often designed to fund the development of the resources with less thought given to their sustainability; governments are less likely to commit resource to the ongoing maintenance and development of repositories of OERs. Maybe the Worldwide recession may provide the impetus for this with funding for the development of teaching materials being withdrawn from individual institutions and pooled for the centralised or collaborative development of OERs, maximising the government’s return on investment (though also of course making the materials freely available to competing nations).

Finally, Downes mentions partnerships and exchanges where institutions exchange their expertise in OER production and the OERs themselves. This is a pooling of resources in a similar way to the governmental model but arranged by the institutions themselves rather than being imposed from on high. It has the potential to increase the range and quality of OERs but still requires substantial ongoing financial commitment from the institutions themselves – currently in short supply.

In reality none of these nine funding models will be sufficient to maintain the majority of the current OER initiatives which are based in a single institution. Where organisations wish to maintain the momentum of their OER programmes they may need to draw on a range of external and internal funding sources and to weave the production and maintenance of OERs into their institutional fabric so that they’re not seen as an additional burden. At the OU procedures and systems are being put in place for formal course materials and OERs to be created simultaneously so that there is minimal additional overhead for the production of the open materials.

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