September 2007

"We do not yet know the full potential of OCW (OpenCourseWare) and its ultimate impact on global education. But it is clear to us that by thinking of knowledge as a public good for the benefit of all, and acting on this philosophy through OpenCourseWare, we can make a difference."

Susan Hockfield, President of MIT

This article first introduces open content and open educational resources (OER), then compares OER and open source software (OSS), and finally discusses issues of OER project sustainability.

Open Content

Open content is an asset with a structure that is different from that of open source software and open source hardware.

Open content refers to any kind of creative work, such as articles, pictures, audio, and video, or engineering work such as designs, published in a format that is royalty free, share alike and may or may not allow commercial redistribution. Open content explicitly allows the copying and the modifying of the information by anyone. Content can be either in the public domain or under an open license like one of the Creative Commons licenses. The largest open content project is Wikipedia. The phrase open content was coined to be similar to open source.

Open Educational Resources

Open educational resources (OER) are educational materials and resources that the general public can freely use, distribute and modify without the traditional restrictions imposed by copyright. OER include:

  • Learning content: full courses, course materials, content modules, learning objects, collections, and journals
  • Tools: software to support the creation, delivery, use and improvement of open learning content including the searching and organization of content, content and learning management systems, content development tools, and on-line learning communities
  • Implementation resources: intellectual property licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design-principles, and localization of content

Universities produce and disseminate most OER. Approximately 300 universities maintain more than 3,000 courses online. Content created at universities and then made openly available as OER is frequently not designed or stored for easy sharing and reuse.

MIT OpenCourseWare is an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to make all of its undergraduate- and graduate-level courses online, free and openly available to anyone, anywhere. The MIT OCW initiative encouraged other academic institutions to make their course materials available as OER.

Comparing OER and OSS

OER and OSS are similar in that both rely heavily on sharing materials, publicly accessible repositories of open assets, and licenses that allow the use, modification and redistribution of assets.

OSS relies on collaborative development much more so than OER. With OSS, collaborative development makes the code progressively better. Many eyes decrease the number of bugs in software. However, few OER rely heavily on collaborative development. Two examples of OER that do rely heavily on collaborative development are Curriki and Wikieducator.

OER and OSS differ in terms of their quality assurance, business models, reuse, and skills required to make changes. OSS strives to be defect free with no errors in the code. There are well established tools and processes that help developers produce defect free software. These tools and processes can not be used to improve open content. The quality of OER is associated with accuracy of facts and the pedagogical methods it supports while the quality of OSS is associated with errors per line of code and the fit between function and customer requirements.

The ways to make money from OER production and distribution are not well understood. Large companies are not making money from OER development. We have a much better understanding on how companies and individuals make money from OSS. Large companies like IBM, SUN and HP invest in OSS projects with the expectation to make money.

File type and pedagogical structure determine the extent in which an OER can be reused, edited or extended. For example, many OER are built so the content is open; however, the file type and structure may make the reuse of the content closed. OSS that runs on one platform but not on others has a similar problem.

Users with no skills in development can make changes to the content of an OER. However, users can't make changes to the OSS unless they have the requisite development skills.

OER Project Sustainability

OER projects involve the production and sharing of OER and the use and reuse of OER by end users. The OECD defines sustainability of an OER project as the ability of the project to accomplish its goals and continue operations. Sustainability issues are not exclusive to OER. However, what is unique about OER projects is the "determination to give away the results of all these efforts, with no cost recovery mechanisms". The reports 'What makes an Open Education Program Sustainable? The case of Connexions' and 'Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources' list some of the ways used to sustain OER projects. These include:

  • Endowment: interest generated from the investment of base funding
  • Membership: organizations make a one lump sum contribution or annual contributions
  • Replacement: funding using proprietary platforms are diverted to fund OER projects
  • Foundation: governments or foundations donate money to support the OER project
  • Segmentation/conversion: the organization responsible for the OER project provides free content and charges for value added services
  • Contributor pays: contributors pay for the cost of maintaining the distribution, while the content provider makes content available for free

OER resources are free for the users but there are technical and monetary requirements that should be covered to be able to produce and share the asset. The cost to maintain OER projects can range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to several millions of dollars per year.

Infrastructure requirements are linked to OER project goals. OER projects require hardware, software, connectivity, human resources, workflow processes, technical support and license policies among other resources.

Most OER projects are either funded by non profit organizations such as the William and Flora Hewlett foundation and the Wellcome Trust or by the universities that established the projects.

Connexions, an OER initiative at Rice University, emphasizes that before considering revenue models for OER projects, the focus of the organizers should be on increasing the aggregate value of the initiative to the users. If users do not perceive value, no revenue model will work in the long term. To provide value for the user, a vibrant OER user community anchored around the OER must exist. One aspect that encourages OER communities is the accessibility to content not only for use, but for modification and distribution.

In his report 'On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education', David Wiley explains that there can be many types of interactions between the type of reuse and the publication formats of OER. These interactions will affect the adaptation of OER. The formats that are suitable for publishing might not be the best adaptable by users. Therefore, conflicting goals such as publishing OER efficiently and supporting end-user reuse of OER should find a middle position.We do not have good ways to measure the health of OER projects yet. Basic metrics such as number of unique visitors and number of downloads are used to assess the health of OER projects.


Several conclusions can be made. OER reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or redistribution by anyone. OER and OSS are making a positive contribution to education worldwide. and universities produce most OER.

While OER and OSS share similarities, they have various salient differences. Companies are not making money from OER in the same ways and extent that they make money from OSS. Finally, there are at least six ways to pay for OER projects.

Recommended Resource

FOSS Solutions for OER Summary Report

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