A key concern for educators and senior managers of educational institutions about the concept of OER relates to the ‘giving away’ of their intellectual property, with potential loss of commercial gain that might come from it. This is often combined with a related anxiety that others will take unfair advantage of their intellectual property, benefitting by selling it, plagiarizing it (i.e. passing it off as their own work), or otherwise exploiting it. These concerns are completely understandable.
In some instances, of course, when educators raise this concern, it actually masks a different anxiety – namely, that sharing their educational materials will open their work to scrutiny by their peers (and that their peers may consider their work to be of poor quality). Whether or not the concern is justified, it is important to determine what is truly driving the concerns of educators. When the concern is the loss of commercial opportunity, this requires a particular response (e.g., engaging with the incentives for sharing). But when this is masking a concern about peer and student scrutiny, this needs to be dealt with differently (and will usually involve some policy or management drive to help overcome resistance to change).
As more institutions around the world are, at different levels, requiring their educators to share more materials under open licences, experiences clearly demonstrate that this opening of intellectual property to peer scrutiny is having the effect of improving quality of teaching and learning materials. This happens both because educators tend to invest time in improving their materials before sharing them openly and because the feedback they receive from peer and student scrutiny helps them to make further improvements.
While a small percentage of teaching and learning materials can – and will continue to – generate revenue through direct sales, the reality has always been that the percentage of teaching and learning materials that have commercial re-sale value is minimal; it is also declining further as more and more educational material is made freely accessible on the Internet. Much of the content that was previously saleable will lose its economic value while the niches for sale of generic educational content will likely become more specialized.
However, if a resource truly has potential to be exploited for commercial gain through sale of the resource, then it should be possible – and encouraged – for an educator (or an institution) to retain all-rights reserved copyright over that resource. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and copyright policies for education need to be flexible enough to allow the educator and/or institution to retain all-rights reserved copyright for resources that have this potential commercial value.
It is becoming increasingly evident that, on the teaching and learning side, educational institutions that succeed are likely to do so predominantly by understanding that their real potential educational value lies not in content itself (which is increasingly available in large volumes online), but in their ability to guide students effectively through educational resources via well-designed teaching and learning pathways, offer effective support to students (whether that be in practical sessions, tutorials, individual counselling sessions, or online), and provide intelligent assessment and critical feedback to students on their performance (ultimately leading to some form of accreditation). Although it may seem counter-intuitive, as business models are changed by the presence of ICT, the more other institutions make use of their materials, the more this will serve to build institutional reputation and thereby attract new students.
Given this, it is important for copyright holders of educational materials to consider carefully what commercial benefits they might find in sharing their materials openly. Of course, the primary benefits of harnessing OER should be educational (refer to the ‘How can educational institutions benefit by harnessing OER?’ question), but the issue of sharing content openly may also be considered a strategy to protect oneself commercially.
The following benefits can accrue from sharing content under an open licence:
Sharing of materials provides institutions opportunities to market their services. Educational institutions that succeed economically in an environment where content has been digitized and is increasingly easy to access online are likely to do so because they understand that their real potential educational value lies not in content itself, but in offering related services valued by their students. These might include: guiding students effectively through educational resources (via well-designed teaching and learning pathways); offering effective student support (such as practical sessions, tutorials, individual counselling sessions or online); and providing intelligent assessment and critical feedback to students on their performance (ultimately leading to some form of accredited credential). Within this environment, the more other institutions make use of their materials, the more this will serve to market the originating institution’s services and thereby attract new students.
For individual educators, proper commercial incentives for sharing content openly are most likely to flow when institutions have policies to reward such activity properly. Up to now, many institutional and national policies and budgetary frameworks have tended, at worst, to penalize collaboration and open sharing of knowledge (by removing possible streams of income when knowledge is shared openly) or, at best, to ignore it (as so many universities do by rewarding research publication over other pursuits). Thus, for most educators, the incentives lie in changing the institutional and national policies and budgetary frameworks so that they reward collaboration and open sharing of knowledge.
Even if institutional and national policies and budgetary frameworks do not reward collaboration and open sharing of knowledge, there are still incentives for educators to share their resources openly. Open licences maximize the likelihood of content-sharing taking place in a transparent way that protects the moral rights of content authors. Furthermore, people who seek to ring-fence, protect, and hide their educational content and research will likely place limits on their educational careers. They will also increasingly be excluded from opportunities to improve their teaching practice and domain-specific knowledge by sharing and collaborating with growing networks of educators around the world. Those who share materials openly already have significant opportunities to build their individual reputations through these online vehicles (although, of course, the extent to which they manage this will remain dependent on the quality of what they are sharing).
Intellectual property, giving away, Intellectual Property Rights, IPR, Copyright, policies, open license, content sharing
Butcher, N. (2015). A basic guide to open educational resources (OER). Commonwealth of Learning, Vancouver and UNESCO. Retrieved from http://oasis.col.org/handle/11599/36