Giving knowledge for free

Open educational resources are expanding on the Internet, with many courses and materials now available free of charge. But can knowledge really be given away for free? A closer look shows several challenges.
“Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.” So remarked Cisco’s chief, John Chambers, in an article in The New York Times in 1999. But even the boss of a company that produces technology for the Internet might not have guessed just how large e-education would become.
The Internet has always been about reach and access to information, and nowadays formal education is harnessing the web to provide coursework and bring in more students. In fact, more and more institutions and individuals are sharing digital learning resources over the Internet openly and without charge. Called open ducational resources (OER), anyone with Internet access can download teaching materials from many universities around the world.
Could OER be a new form of global commons that will change how education is delivered? A new report, Giving Knowledge for Free, from the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), suggests this is a strong possibility, and sees several implications.

Giving Knowledge for Free** defines open educational resources as “digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and re-use for teaching, learning and research”. Learning content is put online with meta tagging for online searchability, whether full courseware or shorter, broken down chunks of courses known as learning objects. This content may involve websites, text files, images, sound or videos in digital format. Some are issued only for use in a specific course, and others are open for adaptation and reuse in other courses.

The benefits of OER are several. For a start, they can expand access to learning for everyone, not least for nontraditional groups of students–older people for instance, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds–and thus widen participation in higher education. They can be an efficient way of promoting lifelong learning, bridging the divides between non-formal, informal and formal learning. And they can be an asset for expanding education in developing countries too. In short, they offer a radically new approach to the sharing of knowledge, at a time when effective use of knowledge is accepted as the key to economic success, for both individuals, firms and whole countries.

OER is expanding fast. Our research shows over 3,000 open courseware systems are now available from over 300 universities worldwide. Leading universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have placed their teaching materials on-line, with as yet no charge for accessing them (see A consortium of top Japanese universities has followed suit. In repositories such as MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching), Connexions and OpenLearn, there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of content representing thousands of learning hours, which are all freely available. They offer the chance to exploit new broadband capabilities, improved technologies for creating and distributing content, and greater interactivity.

OER affects the way courses are taught and assessed. Teachers, students and others can compare curricula. OER is likely to accelerate changes in the traditional relationship between teaching and learning, for instance, with the teachers’ role shifting away from setting reading lists for the class towards offering guidance on OER and helping students navigate and select reading from online courseware.

Technology makes it possible to multiply and distribute content at seemingly little or no cost. Having tapped much of the early “free” supply of material, OER is now running up against rules and charges emanating from traditional intellectual property rights. But many legal restrictions on the reuse of copyright material that were in many cases drawn up for a print publishing world seem illadapted to the needs of OER. They may appear to protect publishers and authors in particular countries, but can stifle progress, as well as frustrate research in today’s e-educational environment. What can be done?

One approach that academics around the world have started to adopt is a generic licence that gives broad copyright permission in advance. Probably the best known of these is the Creative Commons licence, by which authors, scientists, artists and educators can issue supple copyright terms to their work, as to reuse, citation, commercial use and so on (see The rights are easy to understand and as well as increasing visibility and usage of work, are believed to have led to higher sales of printed journals and books in some cases. In other words, far from killing the goose, innovative licensing can be the harbinger of new business models for authors, disseminators and educators. Little wonder some 100 million such licences have been issued in less than five years.

OER offers exciting prospects. But the movement has three important challenges for the future. First, there is the issue of quality control–who will ensure that the material is relevant and accurate? A second issue concerns intellectual property rights: can current laws keep up with the growth of OER? And third, can these innovations underpinning open education resources be developed without support from charitable foundations or the public purse?

Based on these challenges, we highlight four action points:

1. University managers need to ponder whether they can afford to do nothing. Higher education institutions should develop an information technology strategy to cover the opportunities and risks posed by the emergence of OER.

2. Countries should identify how OER can be used to bolster lifelong learning, since clearly it can make an important contribution to a diversified supply of learning resources, and thus individualisation of the educational process.

3. The existing copyright regimes should be reviewed to allow greater sharing of knowledge while addressing issues of production cost, authorship and so on. This means at least a neutral policy that strikes a balance between commercial or financial interests with those of OER. Wherever possible, reasonable open standards should be preferred and open source software licensing employed.

4. Technical issues must be overcome, and the aim should be for compatibility, with some harmonisation of technical standards between different users and countries.

There is little doubt that open education resources hold potential. Its sustained growth will require strong and innovative government policies which CERI’s work into digital learning resources will support.

*Jan Hylén was an analyst at the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, and is now at Metamatrix, a Stockholm consultancy. Tom Schuller is head of CERI.

**The authors would like to acknowledge the Hewlett Foundation, which helped fund the study. The Hewlett Foundation has been a major supporter of OER internationally. In the spirit of the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie’s support for public libraries in the 19th century, the foundation sees its ambition as one of helping narrow the so-called “digital divide” between rich and poor countries.


OECD (2007), Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, freely downloadable at the CERI website,
Friedman, Thomas L. (1999), “Foreign Affairs; Next, It’s E-ducation”, New York Times, 17 November.
©OECD Observer No. 263, October 2007

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