H817open: OER sustainability


Sustainability is the ‘daddy of all the arguments‘ (Weller, 2010) around the OER movement, and Activity 10 on the H817open MOOC was to evaluate the four initiatives (Change MOOC, Coursera, Jorum and OpenLearn) to see to what extent they fit one of three models of funding OERs as outlined by Wiley (2007). (Spoiler alert, in what is a deliberate and cunning move on part of the course authors,  I don’t think they are supposed to fit neatly).

Wiley (2007) defines sustainability as ‘an open educational resource project’s ongoing ability to meet its goals’ and that sustainability has two components:

i) to sustain the production and sharing of open content

ii) to sustain the use and re-use of OERs.

Both these elements have human as well as technology and infrastructure costs.

So first, a summing up of the three models:

  • MIT model: All courses offered by MIT; paid staff, donor and institutional funding, large-scale course development and delivery, course authoring at USD10k per course.
  • USU model: Some courses offered by USU; donor and institutional funding; mix of paid staff and volunteers; course authoring USD5k per course.
  • Rice Connexions: Some courses offered by many institutions; volunteer based; use of open source software to build tools, no course authoring costs.

So how might the models apply to the following initiatives?

Change MOOC

What it is trying to do

This is a connectivist MOOC offered for free by volunteer instructors, using open-source and web 2.0 tools. The course materials and guest lectures are provided free, as (I presume) is the time of the course conveners.

Sustainability model

As a model, it would appear to be akin to the Rice Connexions model. Content appears to be made available from individuals as volunteers.  Small degree of control while the software and tools used are  open source and free to use Web 2.0 tools.

In this case the course itself as it exists is an OER because it is freely available for access and re-use, and as it is volunteer based, it would be possible to run it again on the same terms without additional investment. However, there doesn’t appear to be any overt commitment that it will be run again, so from that point of view, I am not sure that it fits into the Rice Connexions model, which is ongoing and self-sustaining.


What it’s trying to do

Coursera won Techcrunch’s ‘Start up of the year in 2012’ and is an x-MOOC (rather than a connectivist cMOOC), where it provides a platform for (elite) universities to offer free courses in a fairly traditional format. It claims to be supporting and evolving good online pedagogy. However, on its current model,  it feels the least open of any of the services evaluated in that it restricts who can share content (offer courses) and it restricts re-use of the content.

Sustainability model

Coursera has venture capital funding and centralised control over the platform and pedagogy so is akin to the MIT model in this respect. It charges licencing fees to institutions and charging employers for access to potential employees (students). Content is therefore  provided for free from institutions and instructors, although each institution might apply a different model to produce the content. Also, while Coursera is a MOOC platform provider, it is not an OER producer as its materials are not openly licenced. It is also looking at licencing content from one institution to another which would result in credit for some students from third-party institutions.

None of Wiley’s models fit Coursera. While it does allow many institutions to contribute, it differs from the the Rice Connexions model in that it charges institutions to participate and is focussing on attracting elite universities.  In experimenting with business models that charge for services to set up and run courses, credentialing and recruitment, it is evolving towards a different model of sustainability.


What it’s trying to do

Jorum is a repository to offer OER finding and hosting services. There are two categories of user; ordinary users can browse and download content, while registered users can upload and contribute content and participate in discussions.

Sustainability model

Jorum has central government funding; it is funded by JISC and appears to have paid staff.  Its sustainability model is not clear, but by offering a platform for uploading of OER, it is building capacity for production, sharing and re-use. It is similar to the MIT/USU model in that it has central (government funding) but has elements of the Rice Connexions model in hosting content from multiple institutions, but is less open as only vetted registered users can submit content.


What it’s trying to do

OpenLearn offers parts of OU courses as free online resources and offers tools for educators to re-use and upload remixed materials. Through offering parts of courses, it hopes to get fully signed up paying students who are attracted by the free taster content (Johansen & Wiley, 2010)

Sustainability model

OpenLearn looks most like the MIT model – with donor funding and institutional funding,  centralised control and mostly paid staff, while content is only from the OU. However, is it similar to the  the USU model as not all courses are available. It also operates a ‘freemium’ model where some course content is given away for free to attract future paying students.

OpenLearn’s future sustainability should now perhaps be looked in context as an evolution of the OU’s open content approaches with the announcement and planned for 2013 launch of Futurelearn, an OU owned private company which will offer a MOOC platform to signed up universities. This seems like a Coursera model, although details are still to be announced.

Further musings

It was interesting to look at these how these projects can be sustainable especially considering two are MOOCs rather than OER initiatives, which suggests that OERs might just be part of something bigger in open learning. Since the USU initiative was mothballed in 2009 due to a lack of continuing financial support from donors or the institution, it seems that it is important to go  big and evolve OERs to be part of MOOC offerings (MIT, OpenLearn, Coursera), diversify the types of options for sustainability such as having a marketing model where the OER helps sign up paying students (Johansen & Wiley, 2010), have a business-focussed model for selling support services such as Coursera, or start making OERs part of the institution’s core work. Alternatively, the Change MOOC and Rice Connexions model suggest that it is possible to go entirely the voluntary route using free everything and rely on the value participating gives to human volunteers. This allows for experimentation without too much upfront commitment.


Johansen, J., & Wiley, D. (2010)  ‘A sustainable model for OpenCourseWare development’ Educational Technology Research And Development. Available at http://hdl.lib.byu.edu/1877/2353

Weller, M. (2010) ‘Those OER issues’ The Ed Techie. 10 February [Online]. Available at:

Wiley, D. (2007) ‘On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher
Education’ Paper commissioned by the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation
(CERI) for the project on Open Educational Resources. Available at:

Image courtesy of Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


3 thoughts on “H817open: OER sustainability

  1. Thx for this Sukiana, interesting points about Future learn. You’ve also highlighted the relationship between OER and MOOCs. I wonder if these are really symbiotic entities requiring interdependent sustainability models? Nuala

    • Hi Nuala. It’s a really interesting question. What struck me when reading about the MIT and OpenLearn experience was that contrary to the initial goals of attracting educators, more students and direct learners were using the resources than the educators. So xMOOCs (not sure about cMOOCs) seem to be a response to the appetite for online learning, possibly whetted through the availability of OERs from credible organisations, but which needed a clearer learning track.

      I’m not sure about interdependency of OER/MOOC models going forward, but I think that there is genuine concern about the lowish take-up of (big) OERs, although ‘lowish’ depends on what question you are asking.

  2. Pingback: H817open: OER sustainability | Everything open | Scoop.it

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