Is OER really free?


The question 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).

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 to use’ (i.e. it does not cost anything to download and use, leaving aside costs of bandwidth). This is 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 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 requires investment in, among other things:

  • 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.

Despite that these are essential parts of their core function, many educational institutions do not yet make such investments in a planned and deliberate way.

How does this relate to OER, you might ask? 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.

A commitment to OER thus enables institutions to increase the efficiency and productivity of their investments in teaching and learning 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 along with its cost effectiveness. A further advantage of this approach is that it typically leads to institutions sharing a growing percentage of their own educational materials online under an open licence. Whereas most institutions and educators are instinctively nervous about this, evidence is now starting to emerge that institutions that share their materials online attract increased interest from students in enrolling in their programmes (along with improved persistence, performance, and completion rates; see the INTRO model). 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.

Harnessing the benefits OER requires institutions to invest – in programme, course and materials development. Costs include the time of personnel in developing curricula and materials, adapting existing OER, and dealing with copyright licensing. Costs also include associated costs, such as ICT infrastructure (for authoring and content-sharing purposes), bandwidth, and running content development workshops and meetings.

However, these costs are a function of investing in better teaching and learning environments, not specifically a function of investing in OER. Governments and educational institutions in all 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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Butcher, N. (2015). A basic guide to open educational resources (OER). Commonwealth of Learning, Vancouver and UNESCO. Retrieved from