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Is the OER movement flawed? Join the debate!

Open Educational Resources (OER) are a very popular issue at eLearning Africa. However, do they really play such a positive role in higher education and at other educational institutions across Africa? The eLearning Africa 2011 Debate, traditionally a very lively, parliamentary-style discussion, will address the following motion: “This house believes that the OER movement is fundamentally flawed because it is based on the false assumption that educational institutions are willing to share resources freely and openly.”

This week, we continue our online debate with a contribution by Philipp Schmidt, Executive Director and Co-founder Peer 2 Peer University, South Africa. Join in and share your very personal opinion with us!

The argument that the Open Educational Movement is flawed because of its reliance on the goodwill of educational institutions to share their resources openly is, we believe, itself a flawed argument, because it misinterprets the basis and foundation of the Open Educational Movement. Success, in terms of open education, is not based on an institution’s interest in sharing its resources. Rather, it is based on the growing belief among funders, governments and institutions that any content created using taxpayers’ money has to be openly licensed as a matter of course. This is already the case in parts of the USA, as well as in the UK, where funders like the Welcome Trust, the largest non-governmental source of funding for biomedical research, now require researchers to openly licence their work as a condition of funding.

Philipp Schmidt

Private institutions, while trying to compete with their peers, will struggle to justify not making their course materials openly available – as so many of the leading institutions have done before them: Yale, MIT and Notre Dame universities have all already chosen an open courseware model, not because they have to, but because the sharing of knowledge is recognised as being for the greater good.

The benefits of openly sharing knowledge in the higher education, research and even schools sectors, has been recognised as a way of actively promoting innovation, developing educational capacity and speeding up the processes by which researchers and academics review and build on each other’s work. It is also a cost-effective way of delivering quality educational content to learners who would not otherwise have had access to this material, and ensures that these learners are in turn able to share their work with other people. This is critical to helping open up research carried out in the developing world, which is often ignored elsewhere.

Finally, institutions are increasingly realising that content is not the same as education – and that students come to study not because it gives them access to content, but to learn with each other and, by interacting with lecturers, obtain certification and credentials. They can also spend time with their peers, who often end up becoming life-long friends. Through innovative and experimental portals and platforms, it is possible to deliver both the material and the experience of education, flexibly, and at a fraction of the cost.

This is a contribution by Neil Butcher, OER Africa strategist, arguing against the motion. Join in and share your very personal opinion with us!

By Neil Butcher

I have spent much of the last few years engaging with universities and educators about the concept of Open Educational Resources. Understandably, one of the first concerns that educators and senior managers of educational institutions raise when they are introduced to the concept of OER relates to ‘giving away’ their intellectual property, with potential loss of commercial gain that might come from it. This is often combined with a related anxiety that others will take unfair advantage of their intellectual property, benefitting by selling it, plagiarizing it (i.e. passing it off as their own work), or otherwise exploiting it.

Neil Butcher

These concerns are completely understandable. As I have heard them voiced so often – and sometimes with a surprising degree of passion – this might lead one to conclude that the concept of OER is indeed fundamentally flawed. And, as we know, many education systems are highly resistant to change, even when a majority of individuals within the system agree that certain changes are needed. I think an ingrained resistance to sharing resources is a major challenge to widening the sharing of educational resources. But I don’t think this means that the concept is fundamentally flawed, nor do I believe that this resistance to sharing will stop OER in its tracks.

On the contrary, developments in the last year – increasing numbers of government commitments around the world to sharing public investments under open licences, growing numbers of institutional OER repositories online, and a flood of openly accessible educational content online – suggest that the momentum towards sharing is overcoming this resistance.

However, another important rationale for institutions to embrace OER is emerging, albeit more slowly than the desire to share. Commitment to OER implies increased investment in teaching and learning, but promises to increase the efficiency and productivity of those investments by providing new ways of developing better programmes, courses and materials. Importantly, this implies a demand-driven approach to OER, where the initial rationale for embracing open licensing environments is not to release an institution’s own intellectual capital, but rather to draw in the growing wealth of openly available OER to improve the quality of the institution’s own teaching and learning.

Taking a demand-driven approach can be justified in terms of the improvements in quality that can flow from it. In addition, though, this approach to materials development is cost-effective. A further advantage is that, as an obvious by-product, it will typically lead to institutions starting to share a growing percentage of their own educational materials online, released under an open licence. Most institutions and educators are instinctively nervous about this, but evidence is now starting to emerge that institutions that share their materials online are attracting increased interest from students in enrolling in their programmes.

This in turn brings potential commercial benefits, because the sharing of materials online raises an institution’s ‘visibility’ on the Internet, while also providing students with more opportunities to investigate the quality of the educational experience they will receive there. As students in both developed and developing countries are relying more and more heavily on the Internet to research their educational options, sharing of OER may well become an increasingly important marketing tool for institutions.

Based on my own experiences and the evidence I see from education systems around the world, these changes are gathering momentum and slowly overcoming resistance to sharing. For me, therefore, the much more important question to consider is: As these trends develop, will the spread of openly licensed materials be harnessed by educational institutions as a catalyst to improve the quality of teaching and learning or will it predominantly magnify the effect of bad teaching practices? I have seen evidence of both happening, but one thing is certain: simply using OER or sharing content openly provides no guarantees of improved quality.

Here, we opened the debate with a statement by Sir John Daniel, President and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning. 

By Sir John Daniel

“The possibilities of opening up universities on new dimensions became clear a decade ago when the Internet burst into the public consciousness in the frenzy at the turn of the millennium. The good news was that the frenzy alerted universities to new opportunities – the bad was that some got carried away with ill-fated ventures. Universities such as Columbia, Chicago, the London School of Economics, Oxford, Yale and Stanford thought they could make serious money by offering non-credit courses online. In the event they lost serious money!

Sir John Daniel

“Other universities learned the lesson and in the next wave of eExperimentation, led by MIT, universities put materials associated with their credit courses on the web for free. MIT, for example, lets people look at some of the materials used in their courses, and millions do, but they explicitly do not offer interaction with MIT faculty, still less the possibility of obtaining an MIT credential. But that was the prehistory of the OER movement.

“Unquestionably, OERs are now being used. Literally millions of students and informal learners are using the Open Educational Resources put out by MIT, the UK Open University and others to find better and clearer teaching than they are getting in the universities where they are registered. The 32 small states of the Commonwealth are working together within a network called the Virtual University for Small States of the Commonwealth to develop Open Educational Resources that they can all adapt and use.

“To give examples: the UKOU’s OpenLearn site has 11 million users and hundreds of courses can be downloaded as interactive eBooks. Furthermore, with 300,000 downloads per week the UKOU alone accounts for 10% of all downloads from iTunesU. And we must not forget the worldwide viewing audience of millions for OU/BBC TV programs. These are all Open Educational Resources.

“Martin Bean, the Australian-American who moved from Microsoft HQ to become Vice-Chancellor of the UK Open University last year, argues that the task of universities today is to provide paths or steps from this informal cloud of OER learning towards formal study for those who wish to take them. Good paths will provide continuity of technology because many millions of people around the world first encounter the Open University through iTunes, its TV broadcasts or the resources on its OpenLearn website. The thousands who then elect to enrol as students will find themselves studying in similar digital environments.”


Sir John Daniel is President & Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth of Learning, Vancouver, Canada.

The eLearning Africa 2011 Debate will take place on Friday, May 27, from 17:45 – 19:15.


  1. Pingback: Michel Bauwens: A peer-to-peer economy | The People Behind the Paper.lis

  2. It certainly will be a very lively one!

  3. Although the term Open Educational Resources (OER) was created at a UNESCO Forum in 2002, the concept of sharing knowledge is eternal and true, free, open sharing has directly contributed to the best achievements of human-kind. UNESCO is very strongly committed to working with many partners to provide Governments, institutions, and individuals with the comprehensive policy guidelines, application, best practices, and capacity-building to help them achieve their educational and development goals.

  4. OERs provide a sustainable option for Higher Education functionaries on the continent of Africa. They allow for the creation of local content without reinventing the wheel. They can stimulate the culture of collaboration and sharing for the emergence of national and continental best practices. The challenge for us all is increased enlightenment about OERs, what they are and the opportunities they present. Global on-line workshops complemented with local face to face activities for less ICT savvy communities can go a long way to address this challenge.

  5. I am very interested in how authors of OER (OERcisians) can make money while still producing free resources. I believe Neil gave a good model with how OER can help institutions “OER may well become an increasingly important marketing tool for institutions.” I wrote an article about OERcisians looking for concerts here

  6. Charles A. Hill

    Far from being flawed, I believe the OER movement represents an unparalleled opportunity for faculty at small colleges and universities in Africa and other underdeveloped locations around the world to build world class courses for their students. MIT foresaw this opportunity and has provided for such use. Technology savvy faculty assisted by graduate TA’s can evolve their own courses (created based on the needs of their local students) from very good to world class. I advocate more emphasis on this judicious use of resources now available. It is a wonderful opportunity for young, tenure seeking faculty to build compelling course work at a fraction of the costs traditionally required.

  7. We are optimistic that Mozilla Badges will become the new international educational currency/credentials and that traditional education institutions will recognize, accept, and award these badges. College Open Textbooks will proudly join P2PU in the Mozilla Badge pilots this year and the roll-out in 2012.

    We are linking to the high-quality OER Africa resources from the College Open Textbooks website and we will post the upcoming debate at

    Jacky Hood, Coordinator, Open Doors Group
    Director, College Open Textbooks

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