The ROI on open education


Increasingly in education one is asked to justify the time and resource allocated to projects. I’m not adverse to this, no matter what political belief you subscribe to, everything comes down to allocation of resources in the end, and so considering the best allocation for your intended aim is useful. But this type of justification is often rather crude and determined by simple return on investment. This is easier to do for some aspects of education than others, and I want to make a case for open education.

You can view open education (in whatever form, MOOCs, OERs, podcasts, open access publishing) as a straightforward marketing and recruitment tool. There are established metrics then for determining whether it is effective in that role, compared with other forms, such as radio advertising, say. But unlike advertising, open education plays a wider role in the learning ecosystem (I know using ecosystem is a bit of a cliche now, but let’s roll with it).

Our research from the OER Research Hub, for example, illustrates that a good proportion of informal learners would consider moving into formal education. But not necessarily with the institution who providing the content they used. We also found that a lot of formal learners used OERs to supplement their study or to trial it before signing up. So students at one university may be using content from another to help them in their studies. And informal learners were likely to study with open content again, and recommend it.

What this does is create a society of learners, people who are more actively engaged in learning, both formally and informally. And that will benefit all learning providers (compared with a society of passive TV watchers for example). But the direct, traceable benefit from open education is probably quite small, and specific. For example financial benefits to students with open textbooks is a specific argument you can make for OER, but it is only one type of open education, and the benefits are more pronounced in North America than Europe.

This creates a game theory situation – it might be better for some institutions not to spend on open education themselves, but to benefit from it from others. And when budgets are tight it becomes increasingly difficult to justify expenditure on something that has indirect benefit. And this can lead to the tragedy of the commons, when selfish behaviour dominates to the detriment of all. One way of ameliorating this is to have central policy that mandates for open behaviour, as we have seen with open access publishing. So, for example a national agency may have responsibility for providing infrastructure and ensuring contributions from others. In the UK this has been JISC, but the closure of JORUM may indicate that this role is not seen as significant. The OU also plays a similar role with regards to being an open education champion. Governments might also mandate that a percentage of state supported fees are used to release open content. This becomes more problematic when it is student fees that solely fund higher ed, but a mandate is still possible.

The point is that we often make the case for open education about the benefits to society in general, but there are also very real, actual benefits for HE institutions. It requires a model that allows these to persist however, for them to continue to be felt by everyone.


  1. ROI is an important consideration since businesses and institutions want to be able to keep their doors open so that they can educate more students. No institution is a charity. They are businesses and it is important to spend the human resources on the right things. On the corporate side of education there is a similar concern regarding spending toward “thought leadership”. Businesses in the education sector tend to appreciate the value of open educational activities when the coffers are full and not see the value when trying to pinch pennies.

    I tend to dedicate my spare time to creating open educational experiences to share with others. I enjoy open collaborative spaces where researchers, educators and lifelong learners can share ideas of what is working, not working, and emergent.

    Disclaimer: I personally enjoy learning in the open. I have worked on the corporate side of education for the last 10 years supporting educational institutions who are making the move to online or blended learning.

    1. admin says:

      Hi Whitney, thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree, ROI is important and we shouldn’t pretend that unis can ignore it. But I think some ROI is more apparent than others, so we have to learn how to make the case for open ed, and also strategies to avoid the case you rightly point out, ie when money is scarce its value is questioned.

  2. I totally agree Martin. There is a very real ROI for the author and the institution but it’s frustrating trying to get the message across to many senior managers and some staff who remain unrealistically protective of their content. I also wonder whether it may be possible to in some way make the creation of OERs a contributing factor to promotion and tenure track.

    I also think that, as with open research, if a publicly funded organisation produces learning materials then they should be available as OERs.

    1. admin says:

      That’s a very good point Mark about promotion. That is always the way to signify that something is of value to the institution.
      The publicly funded teaching should be available as OER line is Wayne Mackintosh’s take on it too. It becomes more problematic when, as in the UK, student fees pay for education, but they are still being subsidised by the state to an extent, so you could make an argument for a percentage of openly released material to be mandated I think.

  3. I think the UK is lucky to have JISC and more broadly things like the OU and the BBC. Entities with these types of mission don’t exist everywhere and are probably less likely to be founded now in the UK.

    To go on a slight tangent – the media storm around the recent OECD report on ICT in schools is interesting. My local secondary school in Dublin has jumped on the bandwagon of replacing physical books with expensive ebooks which come on even more expensive ipads. Which leads to an interesting point for me about OER. Clayton Christensen, in his inimitable fashion, prognosticates that when it comes to the budgetary crunch politicians will choose to close down universities and schools before hospitals. But I see parents who would cancel their health insurance to save for the fees for a private school for their kids. People want to pay for education because after all price must be a function of value…

    1. admin says:

      Hi Eamon (good to see you at ALT BTW), you’re right about JISC, its value is often underestimated in the UK, but I hear a similar thing from many people in other countries where such a body doesn’t exist. Bonus points for ‘prognosticates’ by the way…

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