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.