Introducing the OER university: 5 Questions with Wayne Mackintosh |

Introducing the OER university: 5 Questions with Wayne Mackintosh

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I first learned of the idea of OERu from a webinar coordinated by Steve Hargadon at's lecture series. With the growing options for free education (, University of the People, etc.) there seem to be many players joining in to lower the cost and increase the availability of opportunities for education and learning, but there is still a gaping hole where accreditation and assessment and quality assurance of learning and learning materials should be (which perhaps should be weighted much higher in these digital times).  

I reached out to Wayne Mackintosh, a founder of WikiEducator and champion of the OERu to answer a few questions about what it all means, what it might become and how he plans to get there. 

1. First off it'd be great to introduce yourself to the audience.  What is your background and what experiences in higher education have you had that led you to this project? 

I'm an educator. I started my working career in the accounting profession, but decided that teaching was my vocation and I moved into education. I have spent the majority of my career working in open distance learning in the university sector and online learning. I also had the privilege of working at the Commonwealth of Learning focusing on the use of technology for development across Commonwealth member states. I am a committed advocate and user of free software for education and founder of WikiEducator–a global community of educators from the formal education sector collaborating at the heart of the education endeavour--that is, to share knowledge freely. I have a keen interest in strategy innovation and a passion for making educational futures happen. The foundations underpinning our work in the OER space are educational–we believe that the world's knowledge is a public good. The history and experience of the free and open source software movement provides huge potential and insights into making education more accessible, more affordable, and more efficient. We are combining this experience with our knowledge of distance education, online learning and the free culture to widen access to educational provision in a more sustainable way.

2. Many people understand open source, and even open educational resources, but when it comes to an OER university, many might be lost as to how it might substantiate itself in the higher ed market. Could you layout your vision of how OERu might function and what role it might take in 5, 10, or 15 years?

The vision of the OER university (OERu) concept is to provide free learning for all students worldwide. This is fundamentally doable with free content licensing, free software and the open web. Individuals are free to learn from OER hosted on the open web. The problem is that learners who access digital OERs on the web and acquire knowledge and skills either formally or informally, cannot readily have their learning assessed and subsequently receive credible credentials in recognition for their efforts.

The OERu collaboration will offer courses and programmes based entirely on OER and open textbooks. Through the community service mission of participating institutions, the OERu network will open pathways for OER learners to earn formal academic credit and pay reduced fees for assessment and credit services.

Aligned with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals for universal education, sustainability, and global partnerships for development, we aim to provide free access to learning for the full spectrum of university degrees and post-secondary credentials in the long term. This should not require more than a donation of 1% of existing courses from participating institutions worldwide. The OER university is designed primarily to provide affordable access to post-secondary education for the estimated 100 million learners in the world who are qualified for a seat in tertiary education today, but who, due to funding issues or lack of tertiary education provisions, will not be able to gain credible qualifications.

The OERu university concept is an innovation partnership of like-minded institutions committed to the core values of education by creating pathways for OER learners to gain academic credit through the existing formal education system. In this regard, the OER university is not working in competition with the formal sector, but rather, it is working in partnership with post-secondary institutions to achieve their objectives through the selected implementation of open education approaches. Therefore, the OERu is not trying to “substantiate itself” in the higher education market per se, we are already part of this market by virtue of participating anchor partners in the formal sector who already award credible credentials. Our founding anchor partners including Athabasca University in Canada, Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, and University of Southern Queensland in Australia see significant opportunities to improve the sustainability of educational provisions as a social good. We are building a parallel learning universe to augment and add value to existing delivery models now possible with the implementation of open source software philosophies and open approaches to teaching and learning.

3. OERu isn't necessarily a new idea, but your approach has been to build a consortium of partners first before starting to build the framework for courses (this is also a very important aspect of successful open source projects).  What challenges have you faced in building your consortium?  What organizations would you like to have at the table that have not yet been willing to join?

Our aim is to ensure that OER learners can achieve credible credentials. Participation and engagement from recognized post-secondary institutions with accreditation authority in their local jurisdictions are prerequisite for success of the OERu collaboration. Quality assurance and institutional accreditation is the foundation stone on which the OERu is based. The OERu concept must ensure equivalence and parity of esteem for qualifications gained through the OER university network.

You're right; the notion of technology-mediated learning, where institutions provide learning at distance is not a new phenomenon. The OERu is refining the international experience derived from single-mode distance teaching universities around the world who operate at scale and teach entirely at a distance without any requirements for learners to come to campus in ways that are more appropriate for the digital age. Also, the notion of acquiring formal academic credit through alternate pathways is not new either. The University of London, for example, proctored its first international examinations at a distance in 1865 under their external international programme. The University of London model was based on the idea that learners could acquire knowledge through a variety of means outside traditional teaching. However, if the student could pass the exams, the University of London would confer a degree. That programme has produced five Nobel Laureates. Today, the open web combined with free content licensing and social media provides unprecedented opportunities to improve pedagogy associated with the traditional delivery model in widening access to high quality learning on a global scale.

The biggest challenge in recruiting participating organizations is the misplaced perception among educational leadership that institutions will loose market advantage if they share education materials under open content licenses. There is no research evidence to justify this assertion, and the fact is that students do not base their decisions to enrol at any university based on the prescribed texts used by the professor. Speaking candidly, if tertiary education institutions are focusing their competitive advantage in the higher education market in the digital age based on their course materials, they need to rethink their business models because projects like the OERu will erode their market base. The OERu network will provide credible credentials at reduced fees. Our point of difference is that we will leverage cost-advantages in the development and maintenance of high quality learning materials through mass collaboration across multiple institutions. The international reach of the OER Foundation's work as a trusted and credible institution will provide the basis for scaling the model.

The OER Foundation subscribes to the principles of open philanthropy and we extend an open invitation to all post-secondary institutions who care about the values of education to join the OERu in building sustainable education futures. The point is, we have the critical mass of institutions to award credit for OER learning. Any number greater than two participating institutions means we are more effective than doing this alone. The more institutions who join, the more efficient the model becomes. It's a win-win strategy for all involved.

4. You've laid out the logic model of how OERu would essentially work (a parallel learning universe). It seems to cut OERu out of any funding model however.  So how would OERu be sustainable?

This is where my past life in the accounting profession combined with experience of the free software model has been invaluable in planning sustainable business models for the OERu concept. First, I should highlight that the provision of post-secondary education is not a perfect market in the traditional economic sense. In most parts of the world, tertiary education is largely funded though government interventions as an investment for the future of their respective economies. Had education been a perfect market, given magnitude of unsatisfied demand on a global scale we would have witnessed many new providers entering the market and through competition observed a significant reduction in the price of tertiary education. However, over the last decade, in most industrialized countries of the world, the cost and price of education has been increasing in excess of the inflation index. Clearly such systems are not sustainable in the long term.

The OERu is not a formal teaching institution and does not confer degrees or qualifications--but is a collaboration convened by an educational charity that works in partnership with accredited educational institutions to provide credit for OER learning on the pathway to awarding credible credentials.

The activities of the OERu are coordinated by the OER Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides leadership, international networking and support for educators and educational institutions to achieve their objectives through open education.

The OER Foundation is a registered educational charity and we rely on the goodwill of individuals and institutions to support our work in providing free learning for all students. If organizations use our services without giving back, we understand that they have good reasons why they are unable to support us financially through donations or membership contributions. The operational costs of running the OER Foundation are surprisingly low for an institution with our comparative international reach. We will generate the necessary funds to support our core operations from membership organizations who can afford to contribute.

On the cost side of the equation there are two significant drivers which underpin the economics and sustainability of the OERu model. First, the cost of replicating digital knowledge is near zero. With free content licensing we remove restrictive copyright barriers, which regulate access to knowledge and effectively regulate the price of closed materials in an open market. Second, the cost of developing high quality OERs when shared, for instance, among ten institutions is significantly cheaper than doing this alone.

The OERu business model is founded on the notion of aggregating those activities where it is more cost-effective to collaborate, for example, open course development or shared support infrastructure. The collaborative services of the OERu are administered by the OER Foundation.

The OER Foundation derives funding from institutional membership contributions participating in the OERu initiative, general public donations, government contracts, and contributions from international agencies to fund the collaboration infrastructure. We also derive funding from international donor agencies to address strategic gaps in the implementation of the model. As a non-profit entity, all surplus funds are reinvested back into supporting the OERu.

The OERu model is similar to many business models associated with free and open source software, but refined for the delivery of post-secondary education. All institutions will be free to use, adapt, and modify OER produced by the OERu and they will be able to incorporate these OER materials into their own credit-bearing courses without being contributing partners to the OERu. (Not unlike the freedom to download a variety of GNU/Linux operating systems for free.) That's healthy, and we hope that institutions who improve OER materials they derive from the OERu will donate these back to the wider OER community. If they don't, that's fine, but in a transparent and open world, prospective students will see which institutions take without giving back and brand trust is a significant factor in the education world.

The OER Foundation provides key services, which are hard to scale within individual organizations. For example, contributing institutions will gain international listings on the OERu portal administered by the OER Foundation so learners around the world will see which institutions can provide assessment or credential services from our open curriculum. The OER Foundation will facilitate mechanisms for course articulation and credit transfer among OERu partners. This will be predicated by an agreed open curriculum by participating organizations. Also, mass-collaboration is required for the sustainable functioning of “Academic Volunteers International.” These are services that require collaboration. 

From the perspective of contributing institutions, the cost of membership of the OER Foundation is significantly less than the marketing department would need to spend to get comparative levels of exposure in the international OER space. To put this in perspective, if OERu membership contributions to the OER Foundation were the only source of revenue for the organiztion, the break-even point is 40 contributing institutions for a membership fee which is considerably lower than the tuition fees of one student at most institutions. However, this is not the reason why education institutions are joining the OERu. Organizations are joining the OERu because of their educational values and commitment to their community service missions. OERu partners will provide assessment and credential services on a cost-recovery basis and these services may be funded by government grants in their respective countries. This is a classic non-zero-sum sustainability model we have witnessed in the open source software arena.

5. OER on the web is proliferating, and there are new startups every day that are coming online to help curate, rate, organize, filter, and create OER. What's the difference between OERu and the other platforms/business models being built on OER?

That's a good question. Our point of difference is that we are a collaboration of formal education institutions who are serious about providing OER learners with pathways to achieve credible qualifications. The majority of startups helping to curate, rate, and organize OER are not in the business of providing credible credentials. These startups focus on important nodes of the evolving network and provide valuable services in building a sustainable OER ecosystem. The OERu is a contribution from the formal education sector to this burgeoning open ecosystem.

The proliferation of OER on the web is welcome, and the OERu will integrate, adapt, and modify existing OER on the web into the OERu curriculum. The OERu will will also contribute new OER we generate back into the system.

OER wants to be free. OER is digital data and doesn't care which pipes are used to transport the data or which repositories host free learning resources. A distinctive difference of the OER Foundation, when compared to many mainstream OER projects is our commitment to free cultural works' approved licensing, which also includes a commitment to open and editable file formats–not unlike the essential freedoms underpinning the open source software definition. The OER Foundation does not want any learner or educator in the world to sacrifice their freedoms, irrespective of their software choices.

Some OER projects argue that they subscribe to the principles of modern democracy and freedom of speech subject to the condition that you can't make money from OER by adding the non-commercial restriction on their educational materials. However, many of these institutions appear to have no issues with their academics earning royalties from the textbooks they prescribe to their learners. The OER Foundation does not support the inclusion of the non-commercial restriction, as we believe this is an infringement of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights which recognizes the right to earn a living. Like the open source software movement, we are not opposed to individuals or organizations earning a living from OER, and we believe that this is an effective mechanism for local entrepreneurs in the developing world to repackage and distribute knowledge to learners who may not have access to the Internet. This also an effective mechanism to encourage local income generation as opposed to a monopoly of knowledge distribution by the industrialized countries of the world.

The OERu is building a sustainable OER ecosystem. We aim to cross the chasm from “sharing to learn” to “learning to share”.

About the author

Joseph Thibault - Joseph is a husband, start-up junkie/entrepreneur, open source software user, blogger and online course manager/developer for His goal is to advance open source software, open educational resources, educational opportunities and to make education more efficient. He writes about Moodle (at and a host of other interests wherever he can get