Openness as economic strategy

To borrow from Douglas Adams, this is the fourth in my trilogy of OER related posts

In the last one, I stated some of the issues for OER (as I'd been forced to address them for a debate). Patrick McAndrew gave a good rebuttal to most of these in his post, which I'd pretty much agree with. His response to my first point about sustainability was the strongest I think, where he argues:

"pricing OER as if it was a completely separate activity makes no more sense than if we started to cost giving a lecture as if that was all a “lecturer” did. Rather working with OER has an impact across many aspects of work, if you stop counting it as a *separate* activity and see being open alongside other things you do the extra cost becomes more reasonable"

What Patrick touches upon is that the best argument for (or defense of) OERs is a strategic, economic one. We can all agree to the altruistic, common good, ones but there are many things it would be good, or nice, for society to practice, that doesn't mean they will. So, openness and OERs need to move away from 'social good' as their main argument (which is not to say it isn't important, and for instance, when making appeals to public money is a very strong card to play). Rather like moves to make people more green and energy efficient, the general benefits are only one strategy – it is when this is combined with individual benefit that we see large uptake (the 'if you can't be green, be mean' line of argument, because energy efficiency is cost effective).

What then are the economic benefits of a general policy of openness in education?

  • Publishing costs – this report, partly by JISC, indicates that an open access policy, where the research funders pay for publication and the material is then available to all, would save UK universities €480 annually, by not paying publishers to have access to their material.
  • Courses – the degree of economic benefit in using OERs will vary depending on the extent of online material, what the teaching load is, etc. But this blog post breaks down some costs, and for example, at Harvard, 'Instruction' counts for 28% of expenditure (is this teaching?). In Washington they have 25% allocated to this, which comes out at $824M per year. So, if a 10% saving could be made by the use of OER, that's $82M a year. In the UK the spend is apparently £4.7 billion on teaching. Now you don't have to do OER to use OER, but it is probably the most effective way to get your faculty to engage with it. As with open access publishing, you do it, and you benefit by it.
  • Recruitment – this is a large expenditure also. I couldn't find any recent figures, but in 1995 UK Universities were spending £14M on advertising, while this article says US colleges spent $2,000 per student to recruit in 2007. An open approach to content creation does a lot of this advertising and recruitment for you. And if it's a by-product of your teaching and research, then it's (almost) free.
  • Impact and engagement – in case you hadn't heard, impact is where it's at now. The REF is big on impact (although small on actually counting anything new towards impact). As with recruitment, impact can cost a lot – employing media specialists to plant stories, spending time doing the keynote circuit, creating professional promotional material, etc. A lot of impact can be the result of good scholarly work – Einstein's papers didn't need a PR agent after all, but there is also a game to be played around impact which is partly controlled by the broadcast agenda. As we've seen in many other spheres, the internet bypasses much of this control structure. If I say to you 'Michael Wesch' then you may well think 'Kansas State University'. This university wasn't high on my recognition list previously, but the profile of Wesch has put it there, and at comparatively low cost.
  • Protection – one of the arguments against openness I often hear is that of 'what if someone pinches my stuff'. I think the opposite can be true – openness is its own security. If someone pinches your stuff then if it has been out in the open, someone else is likely to spot this and alert you or the relevant body. The recent 'climategate' affair would, I think' have been avoided by a more open approach to research, and you have to think how much has now been spent in trying to tidy up after it. As a colleague of mine often says 'sunlight is the best disinfectant'.
  • User testing – a project I was involved in once went for a hush-hush approach to development for commercial reasons. In the end I think it ended up costing money, because specific user testers had to be recruited. If you have an open approach then not only can you get people to try stuff out as you go along, but you can also develop incrementally. 
  • Research – as with teaching and publishing, an open approach to research, particularly the sharing of data can reduce much of the duplication in efforts, without the need for time-consuming memorandums of understanding. There will be research that is commercially sensitive, but probably not as much as many researchers have tended to believe over the years. According to the REF, in England £1.5Bn of research funding was allocated in 2009. While any savings would have to be balanced against profits from commercial exploitation arising from that research, even a 1% saving arising from an open policy would give £15M annually in England alone (as well as all the other benefits).

Any figures above are subject to argument, but I think we could begin to make a very solid case for the economic benefits to any institution of an open approach (we'd need to define what we meant by that of course). In fact, I'd say it looks like a pretty good research project.

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