Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources

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Article: Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources (Stephen Downes, 16 pages)



Typology: Funding Models for Open Educational Resources

Stephen Downes:

"What constitutes 'sustainable' will ultimately depend on the economies and the objectives of the provider. In this section, we see the this reflected in the multitude of funding and financing models. In some cases, direct funding is provided by organizations who see OERs as constituting part of their mission, while in others the free distribution of OERs may promote or support different objectives, including commercial objectives. In some cases, the resources providers themselves believe that the OERs are important enough to fund, either directly or through fund-raising efforts, while in other cases the resource providers are able to obtain the support of third parties. In some cases, funding is applied directly to operating expenses, while in others funding offers seed capital or even a sustainable endowment. Each of these approaches reflects the interests of the funding party, the needs and the motivations of the resource producers, the nature and expense of the project, and the level of funding available.


As mentioned above, a variety of OER projects have been started in recent years. These have originated from governments, from foundations and organizations, and from groups and individuals. Each of these projects must be financially supported in some fashion, but no single model has emerged as predominate. This section reviews a variety of the models currently in use."

OER Endowment-Based Funding Model

"On this model, the project obtains base funding. A fund administrator manages this base funding and the project is sustained from interest earned on that fund. At the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example, where organizers reasoned that a subscription-based model would cost more than it would earn (because volunteers would have to be paid), funds ($US 3 to 4 million) were raised from a variety of charitable foundations, generating in interest the service's $US 190,000 operating budget." (Zalta, 2005) (

OER Membership-Based Funding Model

"On this model, a coalition of interested organizations is invited to contribute a certain sum, either as seed only or as an annual contribution or subscription; this fund generates operating revenues for the OEM service. The Sakai Educational Partners Program, for example, is a for-fee community that is open to educational. Members contribute $US 10,000 and in turn are granted a set of privileges, including early access to roadmap decisions, code releases and documentation. (Sakai, 2005) Beshears (2005) describes how this model could replace user-pay models of textbook distribution." (

OER Donations-Based Funding Model

"On this model, a project deemed worthy of support by the wider community requests, and receives, donations. Donations are in turn managed by a non-profit foundation, which may apply them to operating expenses or, if amounts are sufficient, seek to establish an endowment. Numerous open source and open content projects are funded in this manner, including Wikipedia (Foote, 2005) and the Apache Foundation. (Apache, 2005) It is worth noting that such donations are often supplemented with purchases of branded products; the Spread Firefox initiative is a good example of this. (Mozilla Foundation, 2005) Variations of this model exist. For example, contributions to the Apache project are owned by the contributor and licensed to the project. However, in another model (sometimes called the conservancy model), property is assigned to the organization, which then acts as a steward." (Everitt, 2004) (

OER Conversion-Based Funding Model

"As summarized by Sterne and Herring (2005) "In the Conversion model, you give something away for free and then convert the consumer of the freebie to a paying customer." This approach, they argue, is needed because "there is a natural limit to the amount of resources the Donation model can bring to an open source project, probably about $5 million per year." Linux distributors, such as SuSe, RedHat and Ubuntu, where the software is available for free under an open source license, have adopted this model. Subscribers receive services (such as installation and support) or advanced features. In the educational community, the conversion model has proven popular, having been adopted by Elgg and LAMS." (

OER Contributor-Pay Based Funding Model

"Adopted by the Public Library of Science, the `PLoS Open Access Model: One Time Author-Side Payments' (Doyle, 2005) consists of a mechanism whereby contributors pay for the cost of maintaining the contribution, and where the provider thereafter makes the contribution available for free. Interestingly, this is a model that has earned some support from publishers, particularly in view of foundations, such as the Wellcome Trust, that have begun to require that materials funded be freely available. Thus, in the 'open choice option' offered by publishers, "research articles and supporting documentation will be made freely available online to view immediately upon publication. The charges for this process will be met by funding bodies, such as the Wellcome Trust - who calculate it will represent approximately 1% of their annual spend." (Wellcome Trust, 2006) (

OER Sponsorship-Based Funding Model

"This model underlies a form of open access that is available in most homes: free radio and television. The sponsorship model can range from intrusive commercial messages, such as are found on commercial television networks, to more subtle `sponsorship' message, as are found in public broadcasting. In online educational initiatives, various companies have supported OER projects on a more or less explicit sponsorship basis, often in partnership with educational institutions. Examples include the MIT iCampus Outreach Initiative (Microsoft) (CORE, 2005) and the recently announced Stanford on iTunes project (Apple) (Stanford, 2005) It is worth noting that GNU EPrints adopted this model as a direct result of a move by Research Councils UK to mandate open access for all funded research. (Yeates, 2005)" (

OER Institutional-Support Based Funding Model

"A variation, perhaps, on the sponsorship model is the case in which an institution will assume the responsibility itself for an OER initiative. Probably the most well known of these is MIT's OpenCourseWare project, where funding for the project represents a part of the universities regular program, justified as constituting a part of its organizational mission. "It is an ideal that flows from the MIT Faculty's passionate belief in the MIT mission, based on the conviction that the open dissemination of knowledge and information can open new doors to the powerful benefits of education for humanity around the world." (MIT, 2005) (

OER Governmental-Support Based Funding Model

"Similar to the institutional model, the governmental model represents direct funding for OER projects by government agencies, including the United Nations. Numerous projects sustained in this manner exist, for example, Canada's SchoolNet project." (

OER Funding Models Based on Partnerships and Exchanges

"Though perhaps not thought of as a funding or financing model, partnerships and exchanges nonetheless play an important role, or potential role, in the development of OER networks. Partnerships depend not so much on exchanges of funding as on exchanges of resources, where the output of the exchange is an OER. For example, at a recent UNESCO conference an Open Source Congress was proposed, which "would be a voluntary, collaborative effort by interested higher education institutions to lend their expertise - both technical and functional - to begin the high-level design and planning for what will become the next-generation, open source, administrative systems." (UNESCO, 2002) Such partnerships are often more or less ad hoc and bilateral; examples include that between Memorial University of Newfoundland and The Federal University of Ceará UFC in Brazil (Barreira, 2002) and even the International Fellowships at the Open University. (OU, 2006) (

The effect of the choice of funding models on the technical logic of OER development

Stephen Downes:

"A consideration of the sustainability of OERs would be incomplete without at the same time considering how the development and distribution of OERs is to be accomplished. As is the case in so many initiatives, merely securing the funding for the project does not ensure sustainability; it is expected and often required that the resources thus funded will be useful, and the manner in which this is accomplished could have a significant effect on the level of funding needed and received.

In the field of OERs, financial considerations have driven technological development. The widely touted concept of the `learning object' was driven, at least in part, by the hope that sharable and reusable learning resources would reduce the cost needed to produce them. (Downes, 2001) This, in turn, imposes requirements on the nature of OER design; as Walker (2005) argues, it requires interoperability between data, software and services.

Friesen (2001) suggests therefore that learning objects must be discoverable, modular and interoperable.

What this entails has been the subject of considerable discussion (and dispute) over the intervening years.

Two broad models have emerged (UNESCO, 2002a):

- Free use, used locally- the OERs are used `as is' without modification by the educational institution; use consists (in a sense) of the `putting together' of a collection of resources, as for example, aoms are put together to form molecules, or lego blocks are put together to form toy houses. (Wiley, 2000)

- Resources are downloaded, adapted, and sent back to the system repository for vetting and potential use by others. It is noted (in UNESCO, 2002a that translation is part of adaptation, not a separate function. It is also noted that in order to effect these and other recommendations, an appropriate level of user registration may be indicated.

It should be noted that these two approaches characterize a dichotomy not only in the realm of educational resources, but also in other content types. Creative Commons, for example, when licensing multimedia resources, found it necessary to allow authors to add a `no modification' clause to the three conditions available in Creative Commons licenses (described above). Moreover, the ability to modify software for one's own use is often touted as one of the major distinctions between software that is merely `free' and software that is `open source'. (ABA, undated)

Access and usability are also important considerations. The development of an OER network will require tools for access, including browsing, search and data-mining, syndication, and even resources such as a virtual speakers bureau (Hanley, 2005) Such considerations also comprise mechanisms to assist dissemination, adaptation, evaluation, and use of open courseware materials. For example, in UNESCO discussions of OERs (UNESCO, 2002a) participants suggested the establishment of a Global Index System, the purpose of which is to help potential users to find courseware and then to make it easily accessible." (

OER Repositories

Stephen Downes:

"In the field of OERs, access is typically maintained through software systems called `repositories' (software, meanwhile, is accessed through specialized version control systems, such as CVS or Subversion). Configurations vary, but the following is typical: (UNESCO, 2002a)

- Resources should be stored in distributed databases.

- They may be downloaded from there for adaptation or use.

- There will be one centrally maintained index of resources.

- The courseware is very dynamic; the index will represent a snapshot in time and will need to be regularly updated

- The index will include a full history of the provenance and use of the resources as well as users' feedback and comments.

Numerous OER repository projects exist, including MERLOT, NSDL, CAREO, and more. Additionally, various repository software projects have been undertaken, including the Open Archives Initiative, DSpace, and eduSource. It is worth noting that resources stored in repositories, even those just listed, may not be open educational resources; some repository projects, such as Advanced Distributed Learning's CORDRA project, often include access controls and even digital rights as part of their core functionality. It can be argued that the mechanism for accessing OERs, even those that may be freely used and even modified, impacts on whether such resources may be considered to be `open'. Some repository networks, particularly those that form repository `federations', restrict access to (for example) students at member educational institutions. It is argued that such networks, while not charging directly for access, nonetheless impose access fees indirectly by requiring that users enroll in (and pay tuition for) university courses. (Downes, 2004)." (

OER Licensing Models

Stephen Downes:

"Another type of content issue concerns the license associated with the resource (a matter that has been alluded to above). It is worth noting that one of the major expenses faces in MIT's OpenCourseWare project was the clearing of licenses for all materials used, even though they did not pay royalties or use commercial content for any of it. (Downes, 2002) Numerous licensing schemes exist, including Creative Commons and the Gnu Public License.

Licensing models vary according to a variety of factors: (UNESCO, 2005a)

- Does the published material remain the property of the person who produced it?

- Can authors request material to be removed from the user site?

- Can material be updated or amended only upon author approval?

- Can content be exclusively used by non-profit educational organizations, or can for-profit institutions have access?

The question of modification and adaptation has raised considerable interest among those discussing OEMs. As Mason (1994) summarizes, "The accusation of cultural imperialism has long been levelled at attempts to export courses outside national boundaries, particularly as most of the examples involved Western institutions providing courses for Third World countries." (

OER Staffing Models

Stephen Downes:

"To a large degree, the production of OERs (and especially software) has been driven by volunteer staff. (Zalta, 2005)

This raises a set of new considerations when the sustainability of such initiatives is considered, as sustainability is now no longer merely ensured through appropriate payment. The incentives of volunteer staff are very different from those working for a paycheque.

Usually that motivation is altruistic, based on a desire that their work be used and shared. "The main motivation or incentive for people to make OER material available freely is that the material might be adopted by others and maybe even is modified and improved." (Larsen and Vincent-Lancrin, 2005) In other cases, more concrete incentives drive volunteer participation. Professors, for example, contribute their work to the public good in the hope of receiving tenure, promotions or recognition. (Kansa and Ashley, 2005) These non-financial incentives often require that the act of sharing resources take place in a community, as many of the factors that motivate sharing may only be produced within a community. Indeed, it could be argued that without an extant culture there's no motivation to share. (Fox and Manduca, 2005) A potential contributor would not feel a professional obligation to share, and perhaps more importantly, would not have personally experienced the value of sharing.

Volunteers, moreover, need organizing, and the form of organization must be such that it recognizes and promotes the volunteers' motivations for sharing. Thus, as Horton (2005) observes, a volunteer organization needs a clear overall vision, strategy, and roles for participants. For example, consider the manner in which the Apache Foundation - an explicitly self-styled "meritocracy" - organizes its volunteer staff (Apache, 2005). In addition to a lengthy list of vice presidents responsible for different products, volunteers serve roles varying from "developers' to "committers" to "users". Members who have developed significantly may become a "PMC member [which] is a developer or a committer that was elected due to merit for the evolution of the project and demonstration of commitment."

In volunteer-driven open resource communities, two major models of organization have developed: the Emergent Model and the Community Model. (Foote, 2005)

- Community Model

-- Reputation is a natural outgrowth of human interactions

-- Users are powerful, must be respected

- Emergent Model

-- Need reputation mechanisms like Ebay, Slashdot

-- Users are tiny, have no power (except in the aggregate)

These systems, thought of in combination, could be thought of as forming an Ecosystem Model (Stephenson, 2005) where "those creating, using and improving open content form an ecosystem." (