Is ‘service’ the new secret of OER sustainability?

Reading Time: 11 min read

2017 is being celebrated as the Year of Open. Fifteen years ago the term Open Educational Resources (OER) was coined, and the Budapest Open Access Initiative was launched. Five years later, the Cape Town Open Education Declaration came out. And in 2012, the first World OER Congress resulted in the OER Paris Declaration.

The year 2017 is likely to prove another significant year in the history of open education: the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is engaged in several regional consultations on OER, which will feed into the 2nd World OER Congress to be held in Slovenia from 18 to 20 September 2017. But, it is important to remind ourselves that open education neither started in the year 2002 nor is it the same as making OER available to all. Open education is beyond OER and Open Access. It is a philosophy and a practice to make education accessible to the underprivileged and the unreached. A true open education system provides open entry (without rigidities of eligibility, and number of positons), flexible learning places (learning from anywhere), flexible learning time (no need for synchronous availability with the teacher in a classroom to learn), and most importantly provision of freedom to choose courses and design a personalised curriculum. Hardly any education system can claim to be open, if we consider all these conditions. Therefore openness is a continuum from completely closed institutions/provisions to less closed institutions/provisions. In the current understanding of open, we add a new dimension of openness – the legal way to adopting/adapting the outputs (teaching, learning and research materials) of an educational system without seeking permission of the copyright holder, thereby creating an ecosystem of sharing knowledge.

Today, the major challenge faced by governments in the developing world is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030 (SDG4). In order to achieve this goal or reach the expected targets, we need to think out of the box and take the right decisions: to provide equity; improve quality learning outcomes; empower youth with relevant skills for gainful employment; and increase access to educational opportunities at all levels by creating an environment for lifelong learning.

This can only be done through active collaboration. Governments, civil society, private agencies and philanthropic institutions need to come together to fund appropriate policy implementation to make visible change on the ground. It is time to increase education budgets to help achieve SDG4, an important goal that underpins the success of all of the other 16 SDGs. A major cost associated with education at all levels is textbooks. Many governments are subsidising textbook production and distributing them free to learners. However, in some countries, access to textbooks is very poor. Even in developed countries, students are unable to buy textbooks due to their prohibitive costs.

Lack of access to textbooks is a double-edged problem: lack of quality textbooks affects student learning and low education budgets do not permit governments to subsidise textbooks for all learners. According to the Global Monitoring Report policy brief; Cameroon had only one reading textbook for 12 students and only one mathematics textbook for 14 students in grade two in 2012. However, there is a solution to this problem. Using open textbooks would substantially help in the provision of textbooks for every student. With an open license, open textbooks permit reuse, revision, remix and redistribution without permission of the copyright holder. In an ideal world, most learning materials can be developed once, and since they would have an open license, anyone could adapt or translate them for their own context. It must be noted that education is all about context, and the development of any universal resource is utopian, although OER can make the process efficient and cost-effective.

So far government and philanthropic funding have been major sources of support for OER. While government support for OER and open textbooks is a must, there are many business models of OER distribution that are currently available. The availability of credible business models for OER is important, as publishers are mostly concerned about the declining market of textbooks. The emergence of open business models helps private publishers to understand the changing scenario of the digital world and innovate to remain relevant. The advent of big technology companies like Microsoft (OpenEd) and Amazon (Inspire) in the field of OER is also making this space interesting. Some of the more interesting business models for OERinclude:

Consortia model: In the network model, member institutions benefit from each other’s contributions and create courses and textbooks that can be easily adapted. Two successful examples of the consortia model are OERu and Open Textbook Network. Knowledge Unlatched is another initiative that is a consortium of libraries working to get books released as open through contributions of the member libraries. COL’s Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC) is also a collaborative platform where small states of the Commonwealth join together to develop content and share for the benefit of all partners.

Service model: In this model, the textbooks are freely distributed with an open license, but the publishers offer additional services at a cost, on a subscription basis. This is primarily offered for assessment tests, workbooks and learning analytics. Some examples of such provisions are Lumen and Cengage. While Lumen’s courses are available to all, Cengage’s content is yet to be seen in the open! OpenStax uses a supplementary service model by which certain services are provided through third parties to institutions adopting open textbooks, and OpenStax generates some revenue from the partnership. Top Hat is another start up that has integrated OER into its interactive textbooks and business model. Currently Top Hat is using textbooks from OpenStax.

Freemium model: In this model, the digital copy is made available free to all, while a printed copy is priced and available on demand. Some examples in this category are Open Humanities Press, Bloomsbury and Open Book Publishers.

With the growth of learning analytics, the future of OER is based on creating a model that provides personalised services to learners. As such the content would be freely available, but the services around the content, such as tutoring, assessment and certification are priced to generate revenue and sustain OER development and distribution. Nevertheless, OER will always be significant for teachers as it allows them to design their own classroom resources without seeking permissions or paying royalties. Students can also incur significant savings due to the availability of OER, while also improving learning outcomes.

Photo: “IMG_8950.jpg” by oerafrica via Flickr.

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