Brave New (Open) World: The Sustainability of an Oper Educational Resources Ecosystem

This is the second post on a series about Open Educational Resources. On the first post the focus was on contextualizing the OER trend on the larger “openness” movement that has been characterizing the digital ager, and in this one I’ll consider how can such projects thrive if they are based on free resources, how are they sustainable and what do we mean by that.


Every enduring human activity needs some degree of sustainability be it a biological demand, a socio-economical arrangement or other. Indeed, the development and complexification of humankind (as well as other organisms and systems) is based in their sustainability. Sustainability is, after all, the capacity to endure (Cobb & Rowe, 1995).

After contextualizing the Open Educational Resources in terms of their conceptual definition (which, as we noted, is far from being unanimously agreed upon), we intend now to discuss its sustainability. There little discussion whether OER are useful or benefitial to the spreading of knowledge based on the principle that knowledge is a common heritage of humankind and should be available to everyone at close to no cost, but we can’t be naïve and assume there are none simply because we don’t see them, or pretend not to. This particular field is, moreover, extremely permeable to other forces that come into play, such as politics, economics and finance, and all those have varied degrees of influence in the how, why and to whom the knowledge is shared.

We are going to focus here on what Martin Weller (200), citing Hoyle (2009) classifies as “big OERs”, large-scale OER projects whose quality is generally excellent, since they are backed by institutions able to control their development and quality standards, as opposed to the “small OERs”, individually resources produced at small costs and whose quality is usually assessed by informal peer-review or though use. Examples of the former concept would be MIT’s OpenCourseware, UKOU OpenLearn or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and of the previous would be every individual resource we find in repositories such as OER Commons.

Downes (2007) elucidates us by providing examples of costs of OER such as OpenLearn and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: ~$190.000 USD per year for the later and $3 Million USD per course on the later, a whooping $600 Million USD per year, 40% of the the UK Open University’s yearly budget. This figures are, obviously, from before 2007, and we’d expect them today to be, if anything, higher.  And where do those costs arise? Again, on the later case “the bulk of the costs are in staffing ($154,300 USD) with contract programming; travel and expenses; computer services and overhead taking up the rest”(Downes, 2007) and on the later the development and maintenance costs are included in that $3 Million USD per course mentioned earlier.

“It becomes clear that by ‘sustainable’ we cannot mean ‘cpst-free’, and indeed, we may be forced to agree with Walker (2005) that the production of OERs may entail a large scale investment. Rather, with Walker, we note that by ‘sustainable’ we must mean “…’has long-term viability for all concerned’ – meet provider objectives for scale, quality, production costs, margin and return on investment”. This is significant: for after all the consumer of resources obtains the resource for free, then the provision of the resource must be sustainable (whatever that means) from the provider perspective, no matter what the benefits to the consumer.”(Downes, 2007)

Even though OER and adoption is increasing, the decision to move forward cannot be based solely on the measuring of a priori perception of OER costs. Free or cheap as they may be, there are others associated that mustn’t be overlooked at, such as implementation, training of staff, hardware, support and others. We can establish a parallel with the open source software world, and that’s why it is necessary to consider a “total cost of ownership” for the OER adoption. The good news is: look at the implementation of Linux in the enterprise server world.

The benefits of OER do not measure at the same level for every single institution, be it a producer, a consumer of both. Its sustainability must also be understood as attaining the strategic objectives of each particular institution, which will necessarily be different from the others. “Thus ‘sustainable’ in this instance may mean not merely financially cheaper, but capable of promoting wider objectives” (Downes, 2007). On this same topic, David Wiley (2006) states:

“open educational resources projects must find two unique types sustainability. First they must find a way to sustain the production and sharing of open educational resources. Second, and of equal importance, they must find a way to sustain the use and reuse of their open educational resources by end users (whether teachers or learners)”.

Another approach to sustainability that shouldn’t be ignored is the non-economic dimension of it. We cannot measure the sustainability of OER just in terms of net gain or loss, but have to consider its social and philosophical implications. Institutions may be driven not by profit but instead by their social responsibilities and missions (and many are), and for those the sole purpose of contributing for the development of humankind by sharing knowledge may be their measure for sustainability.

Every OER project, whatever its size, objectives and sponsors, is naturally unique, thus the different dimensions of its reality, the models adopted for its running and completion are equally unique and particular to them. Models of funding, technical approaches, content and staffing are diverse, depending on the varied types of funders (governments, NGOs, pan-governmental programs, etc), technical requirements, content to be produced or shared, organizational aspects, etc.


Cobb, C., Halstead, T., & Rowe, J. (1995). The genuine progress indicator. San Francisco, CA: Redefining Progress. Retrieved from

Downes, S. (2007). Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects3, 29-44. Retrieved from

Hoyle, M (2009). OER And A Pedagogy Of Abundance

Yuan, Li; Macneill, Sheila; & Kraan, Wilbert (2008). Open Educational Resources – Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education.

Walker, E. (2005). A reality check for open education. Utah: Open Education Conference. [slides] and

Weller, Martin (2010). Big and Little OER. In Open Ed 2010 Proceedings. Barcelona: UOC, OU, BYU. []

Wiley, D. (2006) On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education,


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