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Is OER really free?

The issue of freedom and its definition has been widely debated since the advent of open licences, possibly most significantly in the Free and Open Source Software environment. Open Source and Free Software definitions specify four types of freedom:

  • The freedom to run the programme, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the programme works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the programme, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3).4

Similar considerations apply when considering licences for OER. However, there is another specific dimension of OER ‘freedom’ that warrants explicit discussion, and that is the notion of cost. Many proponents of OER advocate that a key benefit of open content is that it is ‘free’ (i.e. it does not cost anything to download – leaving aside costs of bandwidth, of course – and use). This is literally true: by definition, open content can be shared with others without asking permission and without paying licence fees. However, simplistic assertions that OER is free – and by extension that use of OER will cut costs of educational delivery – mask some important cost considerations.

Educational institutions that are serious about teaching and learning will need to ensure that their spending on personnel and other related expenses reflects a sustained effort to invest in creating more effective teaching and learning environments for their students. This will require investment in, among other things, the following:

  • Developing and improving curricula.
  • Ongoing programme and course design.
  • Planning of contact sessions with students.
  • Development and procurement of quality teaching and learning materials.
  • Design of effective assessment activities.

Many educational institutions do not yet make such investments in a planned and deliberate way, but it is an essential part of their core function.

So, how does this relate to OER? As educational institutions make strategic decisions to increase their levels of investment in design and development of better educational programmes, the most cost-effective way to do this is to embrace open licensing environments and harness existing OER.

Thus, 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 more opportunities to investigate the quality of the educational experience they will receive there. As students in both developed and developing countries are relying increasingly heavily on using the Internet to research their educational options, sharing of OER may well become an increasingly important marketing tool for institutions.

Most importantly, harnessing of OER requires institutions to invest – in programme, course and materials development. Costs will include the time of people in developing curricula and materials, adapting existing OER, dealing with copyright licensing and so on. (See Appendix Nine for a full list of the skills related to OER.) Costs also include associated costs, such as ICT infrastructure (for authoring and content-sharing purposes), bandwidth, running content development workshops and meetings, and so on.

 However, these costs are a function of investing in better teaching and learning environments, not a function of investing in OER. All governments and educational institutions in all education sectors, regardless of their primary modes of delivery, need to be making these investments on an ongoing basis if they are serious about improving the quality of teaching and learning. Within the framework of investing in materials design and development, though, the most cost-effective approach is to harness OER. This is because:

  • It eliminates unnecessary duplication of effort by building on what already exists elsewhere;
  • It removes costs of copyright negotiation and clearance; and
  • Over time, it can engage open communities of practice in ongoing quality improvement and assurance.

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 4Taken from www.openclinical.org/opensource.html

Taken from A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources (OER)