Research on OER Sustainability and Impact

David Porter asks for research about the sustainability of open educational resources. Here is a list of our articles that appeared in peer-reviewed journals last year on the topic of sustainability of OER (with links to publicly available versions in the BYU Institutional Repository):

A Sustainable Model for OpenCourseWare Development
Johansen, Justin and Wiley, David
Keywords: OpenCourseWare; sustainability; open educational resources; development; cost
Description/Abstract: The purposes of this study were to (a) determine the cost of converting BYU Independent Study’s e-learning courses into OpenCourseWare, (b) assess the impact of opening those courses on paid enrollment in the credit-bearing versions of the courses, and (c) use these data to judge whether or not an OpenCourseWare program could be financially self-sustaining over the long-term without grant monies or other subsidies. The findings strongly suggest that the BYU Independent Study model of publishing OpenCourseWare is financially self-sustaining, allowing the institution to provide a significant public good while generating new revenue and meeting its ongoing financial obligations.

In addition to reporting original research, the literature review for this study includes the following new data on sustainability:

“The OpenLearn Initiative at Open University in the United Kingdom (OUUK) was the best comparable program to use when considering the impact opening courses could have on BYU IS. The OUUK has approximately 200,000 course enrollments and 130,000 students each year, similar in scale to BYU IS. In two years of offering course samples, 7,800 enrollments have come from people who used the “enroll now” button in the OUUK’s course samples to convert to a fully paid enrollment (A. Lane, personal communication, December 5, 2008). This means that approximately 1.95% of the OUUK’s enrollment over the past two years has come through conversions from free OCW users into paid course enrollments. Approximately 33% of those conversions were people who were new to the OUUK system, meaning that approximately 0.64% of OUUK’s entire enrollment for a given year were new users that converted to paid enrollment from a free course sample. That equates to an average of approximately 1,280 new paying students converted through course samples each year. Similarly, the Open University of the Netherlands reported that 18% of OCW users were “inspired to purchase an academic course” based on their interactions with OUNL OCW (Eshuis, 2009). The University of California-Irvine (UCI) also launched an OCW offering in November 2006 with a “click to enroll” feature. They report that their OCW site has consistently generated more site traffic and more sales leads than any other form of advertising (K. Tam, personal communication, June 4, 2009).”

A sustainable future for open textbooks? The Flat World Knowledge story
Hilton, John and Wiley, David
Keywords textbooks; open source; flat world; college
Description/Abstract: Many college students and their families are concerned about the high costs of textbooks. E–books have been proposed as one potential solution; open source textbooks have also been explored. A company called Flat World Knowledge produces and gives away open source textbooks in a way they believe to be financially sustainable. This article reports an initial study of the financial sustainability of the Flat World Knowledge open source textbook model.

Free: Why Authors are Giving Books Away on the Internet
Hilton, John and Wiley, David
Keywords: open educational resources; online technology; digital publishing
Description/Abstract: With increasing frequency, authors in academic and non-academic fields are releasing their books for free digital distribution. Anecdotal evidence suggests that exposure to both authors and books increases when books are available as free downloads, and that print sales are not negatively affected. For this study we interviewed ten authors to determine their perceptions of the effect free digital distribution has on the impact and sales of their work. In addition, we examined the sales data of two books over a two year period of time, in which one book was freely available for the second year. All of the individuals we surveyed felt free digital downloads increased the distribution and impact of their book. None of the authors felt that print sales were negatively affected. Data from our book sale comparison suggest that in the case we studied, free digital distribution did not negatively affect sales.

John Hilton’s dissertation also made strides in the area of sustainability:

“Freely Ye Have Received, Freely Give” (Matthew 10:8): How Giving Away Religious Digital Books Influences The Print Sales of Those Books
Hilton, John
Keywords: open educational resources, e-books, open access, open culture, free books, free e-books
Abstract: Lack of access prevents many from benefiting from educational resources. Digital technologies now enable educational resources, such as books, to be openly available to those with access to the Internet. This study examined the financial viability of a religious publisher’s putting free digital versions of eight of its books on the Internet. The total cost of putting these books online was $940.00. Over a 10-week period these books were downloaded 102,256 times and print sales of these books increased 26%. Comparisons with historical book sales and sales of comparable titles suggest a positive but modest connection between this increase and the online availability of the free books. This dissertation may be downloaded for free at

As for OER impact, I’ll quote a few paragraphs from a book chapter I just finished drafting.

From Sharing to Adopting

The first decade of work in open educational resources involved laying the groundwork of copyright licensing and demonstration projects. Before anything else could be done, it had to be legally possible to share teaching and learning materials, and we had to demonstrate that sharing these materials would not put universities out of business. While this infrastructure work has largely succeeded (e.g., Creative Commons licenses have been both widely adopted and upheld in court), infrastructure is typically deployed in order to be used – not just for the sake of deployment. Consequently, emphasis in the field of open educational resources is beginning to move from sharing OER to adopting OER. Like the first decade of work in OER, this first involves helping adoptions happen, and then demonstrating that they do no harm educationally.

Flat World Knowledge (FWK) was not the first organization to produce Creative Commons-licensed textbooks, but they seem to be the first to take widespread adoption of their materials seriously. As a for-profit publisher, FWK provides their complete textbooks online for free under a CC license and sells copies of their textbooks in other formats (e.g., paperback, audiobook, etc.). By employing a full-time sales team and working in harmony with the traditional university textbook adoption process, FWK has gotten their open textbooks in front of tens of thousands of students. According to a FWK press release:

This Fall [2009] semester, 38,000 college students at 350 colleges are enrolled to utilize Flat World textbooks, up from only 1,000 in Spring 2009 at 30 colleges. The increased adoption of Flat World’s free and low-cost open source textbooks follows two semesters of successful in-classroom trials. During Spring 2009 trials, Flat World textbooks were shown to reduce average textbook costs to only $18 per student per class, an 82% cost reduction compared to traditional printed textbooks averaging $100 per student per class. “We’ll save college students and their families nearly $3 million in textbook expenses this semester,” said Eric Frank, Flat World Knowledge co-founder. “We’re on track to expand to 50,000 students in Spring 2010 and 120,000 students in Fall 2010. By the conclusion of 2010, Flat World will have conservatively saved 200,000 students over $15 million.”

While statements about how many courses an OCW project shares can be impressive, statements like Frank’s that demonstrate a concrete, positive benefit on learners begin to indicate the real power of open educational resources.

Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, a collection of complete, online courses licensed as open educational resources, has gone well beyond showing that OER do no harm. In a study authored by Lovett, Meyer, and Thille (2008), OLI demonstrated that OER can be used both to decrease the amount of time necessary to learn statistics and improve student learning:

During the Fall 2005 and Spring 2006 studies, we collected empirical data about the instructional effectiveness of the OLI-Statistics course in stand-alone mode, as compared to traditional instruction. In both of these studies, in-class exam scores showed no significant difference between students in the stand-alone OLI-Statistics course and students in the traditional instructor-led course. In contrast, during the Spring 2007 study, we explored an accelerated learning hypothesis, namely, that learners using the OLI course in hybrid mode will learn the same amount of material in a significantly shorter period of time with equal learning gains, as compared to students in traditional instruction. In this study, results showed that OLI-Statistics students learned a full semester’s worth of material in half as much time and performed as well or better than students learning from traditional instruction over a full semester.

The Open High School of Utah was the first accredited school in the world to commit itself to using open educational resources exclusively across its entire curriculum. OHSU opened for 9th grade in 2009-2010 (with additional grades opening in subsequent years), and demonstrated conclusively in its first year that OER can support learning effectively in a high school context. In the three core areas measured by the state’s ninth grade Criterion Referenced Tests (i.e., English 9, Algebra I, and Earth Systems Science), the percentage of OHSU students achieving proficiency was well above state averages.

I’ll also mention our new Utah Open Textbooks project, which just launched a few weeks ago – the demonstration of impact from that project will be substantial.

Now, more work can be done, but to say that there hasn’t been any forward progress in the last year is disappointing. I think we’re making very reasonable progress, but that may just be my cheery optimism coming through. =)

3 thoughts on “Research on OER Sustainability and Impact”

  1. Thanks David.

    I’ve acknowledged FlatWorld Knowledge as a breakthrough approach in another post. Appreciate this list and your role in leading the charge.



  2. Dear Wiley
    I see your name more often lately. You have good vision.

    All my American friends think USA is the whole world.
    USA has only 300 million population.
    World 7 billion people are looking for education in every kind.
    Beauty of ONLINE is development cost is high but it appeals to 7 billion in somewhere. Therefore cost per person is nill. Then just charge few $ per course for the world. This assures sustainability.
    Same for e-books. Give something to author as well. They get only 10 % of the retail price of a hard bind books anyhow. So we should pay the author $ 5-20 per book per year. If millions read it authors will be richer than now.

    Nothing shpould be free.
    Free things are worthless things
    But prevent the high profits as well.
    Just charge people cost + 10 % profit . This formula gives
    only $ 10 or so for an ebook or even for an online course.

    We, in Turkey, spent $ 60 million for all K12 ONLINE courses in 12 years. Now 15.000.000 K12 students in Turkey enjoy it. Free. Thanks to Turk telekom. But sure Turk telekom sells more internet connections as well.
    This is vision .
    Thank a lot Wiley for your efforts for online.
    But I am against free OER material. Quality is a must. Also there should be a reputable school behind it. Plus academic value ( credit )
    My model is
    We should support that model more than anything else.
    Best regards [email protected] from Turkey

  3. To my dear OER supporters :

    7 billion people of the world are waiting for and begging for a free really free ONLINE ENGLISH FOR FOREIGNERS

    English has to be a universal language in order to have online education TO BE EFFECTIVE.

    Who can do it ? It is not ewxpensive either.
    Please respond to me [email protected] from Turkey

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