The Evolving Economics of Educational Materials and Open Educational Resources: Toward Closer Alignment with the Core Values of Education

Last year Bob Reiser invited me to contribute a chapter to the fourth edition of Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology, to be published by Pearson. I agreed on the conditions that I would retain copyright in the chapter and that it would appear in the book under a Creative Commons license. Pearson agreed. Now that the book is appearing in print, I’m publishing the full-text chapter here so that there will be an easier-to-access open access version of the chapter available online. If you’re interested, the full citation is:

Wiley, D. (2017). The Evolving Economics of Educational Materials and Open Educational Resources: Toward Closer Alignment with the Core Values of Education. In R. A. Reiser & J. V. Dempsey (Eds.), Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (4th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Education.

Summary of Key Principles

  1. Education is sharing. Ideas, knowledge, skills, and attitudes are public goods. This means they are nonrivalrous and nonexcludable, and therefore easy to share.
  1. Expressions of ideas, knowledge, skills, and attitudes captured in physical artifacts like books are private goods, meaning they are both rivalrous and excludable, making them difficult to share.
  1. When concrete expressions of ideas, knowledge, skills, and attitudes are converted from a physical into a digital format, this changes them from private goods back to being public goods, once again making them easier to share.
  1. Copyright law places artificial limits on our ability to use technology to share educational materials. This changes these public goods into club goods, once again making them difficult to share.
  1. Educational materials published under an open license are called open educational resources (OER). When digital educational materials become OER, they are converted back into public goods. Over 1 billion openly licensed materials are published online.
  1. Open educational resources are far better aligned with the core values of education than materials published under an all rights reserved traditional copyright. This closer alignment creates opportunities for less expensive, more flexible, more effective education.
  1. Because of their close alignment with the core values of education, adopting OER in place of traditionally copyrighted educational resources provides unique opportunities and benefits to faculty and students. Instructional designers, faculty, and other educators and administrators should develop a basic understanding of OER.

Education is Sharing

This chapter tells the story of the negative impact of copyright on education and the emergence of open educational resources as a response. Work in the field of open educational resources is grounded in a specific understanding of the nature of education; specifically, the notion that education is sharing. It behooves us therefore, at the outset, to be specific about what it means to share, and how it is that education is an instance of sharing.

Sharing, as it is generally understood, involves a willing offer and a willing acceptance. For example, when one child offers some M&Ms to another child, and that child happily accepts the offer, we would label this as an instance of sharing. As a counterexample, when one child offers some M&Ms to another child, and that child declines them, we would not say that sharing has occurred. Likewise, when a well-meaning parent forces one child to divide their M&Ms with another child against her will, we would again not say that sharing has occurred. This framework of a willing offer and a willing acceptance is the core of the commonsense meaning of sharing.

When I say that education is sharing, this is what I mean – that education involves offers willingly made and willingly accepted. When one person willingly offers to share their knowledge, expertise, skills, and passion with another, and that person willingly accepts the offer, we will rightly call this education. Notice that this sharing can flow from a traditional “teacher” to a traditional “student” as well as from a “student” to a “teacher.” We tend to think of education as a setting in which teachers do all the sharing, but a talented teacher is always encouraging students to share with the teacher and with other students – questions, concerns, insights, etc. Homework, exams, and other assignments are nothing more than a formalized way of encouraging students to share the current state of their understanding with teachers.

Students tend to pay particular honor and tribute to those educators who offered to share something of themselves – time, concern, and care beyond the requirements of the job description. Educators fondly remember those special students who offered to share something of themselves – effort, dedication, and commitment beyond what was required by the syllabus.

Truly, education is sharing.

Education as sharing takes a family of shapes and forms when we interact face to face. In this chapter I want to focus particularly on the shapes and forms taken when the offerer and accepter are separated in time. This desire to share with others who are not immediately present leads to the creation of educational materials – textbooks, videos, podcasts, games, simulations, and other media in which instructional designers, faculty, and others attempt to reach out across the void to share what they know, think, and feel with others.

For centuries this desire to share with others across time manifested itself primarily in writing – on stone, wood, leather, pottery, papyrus, and parchment. A revolution was set off when Gutenberg combined metallic movable type, oil-based inks, and the screw press historically used to make olive oil and wine, into a practical package capable of mass-producing copies of the written word. While Gutenberg’s books were orders of magnitude more affordable than the handmade codices that preceded them, they were still relatively difficult to share.

As anyone who has tried to check out a popular book at the library knows, sharing books with others can be a frustrating experience. This is because books are what economists refer to as private goods, meaning they have two specific characteristics: they are rivalrous and excludable. Rivalrous means that one person’s use of a book prevents simultaneous use of the book by others. Other examples of rivalrous goods include my car, my socks, and my chewing gum. If you are driving my car, wearing my socks, or chewing my gum, I cannot be. Excludable means it is possible to prevent people who haven’t purchased the book from being able to enjoy the benefits of owning a copy. Examples of excludable goods also include my car, my socks, and my chewing gum. If I don’t want you to drive, wear, or chew my things I only need to keep them locked up.

Contrast the private goods nature of books with the public goods nature of the ideas, stories, and concepts expressed within a book. My knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem and its uses does not prevent you from simultaneously knowing these same things (i.e., knowledge of the theorem is nonrivalrous). Likewise, it is not practically possible for me to prevent you from learning about the Pythagorean Theorem (i.e., knowledge of the theorem is nonexcludable). In a letter written to Isaac McPhereson in 1813, Thomas Jefferson explained:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

The nonrivalrous, nonexcludable nature of ideas is an absolutely key, foundational concept that typically goes completely unexamined and unappreciated in courses on instructional design, learning science, and epistemology, yet the entire enterprise of education is possible only because it is true. Ideas are public goods. To clarify this point, imagine for a moment a world in which ideas are rivalrous. To teach you everything I know about task analysis, I would have to forget everything I know about task analysis. To teach would be immediately to forget, like handing a baton of knowledge off to the next runner in a relay race, immediately depriving the original knower of what she had known. In this world, Friere’s (1970) description of banking education would be quite literal – teachers would not only make deposits of knowledge into students’ heads, they would have to literally withdraw it from their own in order to do so.

The knowledge, skills, and attitudes that instructional designers, faculty, and others work to help students develop are public goods. In some circumstances people wish to share these ideas with people from whom they are separated by time. Since Gutenberg, this desire to share has often led people to express their ideas in books. However – and this point is critical – something crucial changes about ideas when this means of expression is employed. The pure, nonrivalrous, and nonexcludable idea is captured in a physical, rivalrous, excludable book.

Networked Digital Technologies, Sharing, and Education

The internet has been hailed as revolutionary by many people and for many reasons. For those interested in education, perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the internet is its impact on our capacity to share. As indicated in Table 1, while expressing knowledge via a physical means, such as via printed books, captures a public good inside a private good, the internet, which is a digital means of expression, offers a significantly different alternative. When ideas are expressed in digital form and those expressions are made available over the network, the expressions continue to be public goods, at least from a practical perspective (legal issues will be discussed later). While only one person can read a printed copy of the New York Times, and it is easy to prevent you from getting a copy of the newspaper if you won’t pay, a million people can all read simultaneously.

Table 1. A Naïve Classification of Knowledge and Expressions of Knowledge

Nature of Expression Example Type of Good
“Pure” ideas Knowledge of details of yesterday’s weather Public Goods


Physical expressions of ideas Details of yesterday’s weather described in a traditional newspaper Private Goods
Digital expressions of ideas Details of yesterday’s weather described online Public Goods


The impact of the public good-preserving nature of the internet on our capacity to share (and therefore educate) cannot be overstated. Before the internet, if we wished to provide 100 students with a syllabus that they could read and review at a later time, we were required to print 100 copies of the syllabus. After the internet, we need only place a single copy of the syllabus online and all students can access that one copy simultaneously. Rather than sending students to the media center where they have to wait their turn to check out a VHS cassette or DVD, we can simply post a video to YouTube. Rather than purchase dozens of copies of Pride and Prejudice for literature class, we can simply point students to the copy on Project Gutenberg.

This dramatic increase in our technical capacity to share has led to a dramatic increase in people’s willingness to share. It can be difficult to want to share private goods like a cherished book, a french fry, or a favorite CD. This is because when you take home my book or my CD, or eat my french fry, I can no longer enjoy them. However, it is much easier to share a public good. You don’t hesitate to invite your friends to watch that hysterical YouTube video you just saw, because their viewing the video does not interfere with or prevent you from doing so at the same time.

The move from physical copies of educational materials (private goods) to digital copies of educational materials (public goods) makes possible a revolution in the reach and impact of education. However, making it possible doesn’t make it legal.

The Impact of Copyright Law

While the creation of the internet continues to vastly improve our technical capability to share, and therefore educate, there are factors beyond technical capabilities that must be considered. Long before the internet was a gleam in an engineer’s eye, governments began granting copyrights to authors of creative works. Copyright is a government-enforced monopoly that reserves the exclusive permission to engage in certain activities to the copyright holder, prohibiting the public from engaging in these activities without first securing the permission of the rights holder. Core amongst these regulated activities are the making of copies and the distributing of copies. Note that these regulated activities are also exactly those activities that are most effortlessly facilitated by the internet.

Historically, copyright law has followed nature in recognizing an important difference between ideas (which are public goods) and the expression of ideas (which have historically been private goods). Ideas themselves are not eligible for copyright protection, while expressions of ideas are eligible for copyright protection. Early in the history of the United States, people who were interested in protecting and exercising their copyrights were required to apply for copyright protection. This was a sensible approach, as the average person had no intent to commercialize the overwhelming majority of the potentially copyrightable things s/he created each day. This requirement to register approach recognized that commerce was the exception, not the rule, of life– commerce was a small subset of life and society.

More recently, however, as a result of agreements such as the Berne Convention and the later Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), the full force of copyright protection is granted automatically from the moment a creative work is expressed in any medium, whether or not the creator of that work wants copyright protection. This is the case whether the means of expression is physical or digital. If your country became either a signatory to Berne or party to TRIPS, something odd has happened. The blurry picture of your carpet accidentally taken by your four year old now enjoys copyright protection equal to that enjoyed by Star Wars: The Force Awakens or the latest Beyoncé album. In the eyes of the law, commerce is now the assumed default in all aspects of life and society – commerce is the rule and sharing is the exception.

The everyday realities of life are at odds with the law’s view of commerce as the default. Whether you consider people sharing billions of popular memes and photos on platforms like Facebook or Tumblr, or teachers swapping syllabi and lesson plans with each other, all of these materials are automatically and fully copyrighted by their creators and sharing them is illegal without a license granting you permission to share. As Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig has written, modern copyright law has made criminals of us all (Lessig, 2008).

“Fair use” is an exemption written directly into copyright law that allows a copyrighted work to be used without the rights holder’s permission under certain circumstances. However, fair use and similar copyright exceptions theoretically provide the means for educators to make use of copyrighted materials without a copyright holder’s permission in a very poorly defined set of circumstances. However, large corporations who profit from selling access to copyrighted materials work actively to undermine the public’s practical ability to make fair uses. Copyright protections are now bolstered by legislation like the United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits educators and others from circumventing copyright protection technology to engage in lawful uses of copyrighted material. Even when a teacher can legitimately claim that the way she wants to use a copyrighted work in her classroom is a fair use, the DMCA criminalizes the act of working around digital rights management in order to make a fair use.

While the internet is constantly making it easier for us to share with each other, copyright and related laws make it increasingly difficult, and generally illegal, for us to do so. While digital resources would otherwise be public goods that can be freely shared and used by all, the copyright restrictions automatically forced on all digital resources make them artificially excludable. In this state, they are neither public goods nor private goods, but what economists call “club goods.” Club goods are resources that are nonrivalrous but excludable, like cable or satellite TV. My watching a cable television show on my television doesn’t prevent you from watching the same show on your television (nonrivalrous), but the cable or satellite operator makes it impossible for either of us to do so unless we have paid to do so (excludable). In other words, you can only access club goods if you’ve paid to be part of the club.

A Return to Sharing: Open Educational Resources

Because digital resources are inherently public goods and consequently easy to share, they present incredible opportunities for education. There is clear and obvious alignment between the nature of education, which is sharing, and the nature of digital resources, which are nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. Only when digital resources are saddled with copyright restrictions do they lose their alignment with the educational enterprise. The fact that publishers and others go out of their way, spending millions of dollars and significant research and development effort, to break this alignment by making digital resources artificially excludable is exasperating. The unfettered sharing enabled by digital resources presents humanity’s best hope for achieving education for all, yet all major education companies work proactively to undermine this capability.

A growing proportion of educators – and society more broadly – is rejecting what they feel to be the overreach of commercial concerns into their classrooms and lives. In response to this overreach, they are creating and promoting alternatives that enable broad and easy sharing within the framework of existing copyright law. The best known of these initiatives is Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that creates and provides free, pre-written copyright licenses that creators can use to grant to the public broad permissions to use their works in a wide range of ways. According to a report written with support of major search engines like Google, Creative Commons estimates that the number of CC-licensed works available online is over 1 billion (Creative Commons, 2015).

When educational materials are licensed using an open copyright license like the Creative Commons licenses, they are called “open educational resources” or OER. OER, then, are educational resources whose copyright licenses provide the public with free, irrevocable, and perpetual legal permission to engage in what Wiley (2015) calls the 5R activities:

  1. Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of materials (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage your own copy)
  2. Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend or post a copy on the internet)

The application of an open license to a digital educational resource eliminates the artificial excludability created by copyright, and returns digital educational resources to their original state as public goods.

Table 2. A More Nuanced Classification of Knowledge and Expressions of Knowledge

Nature of Expression Example Type of Good
“Pure” ideas Knowledge of details of yesterday’s weather Public Goods


Physical expressions of ideas Details of yesterday’s weather described in a traditional newspaper Private Goods
Digital expressions of ideas (traditionally copyrighted) Details of yesterday’s weather described online on CNN Club Goods
Digital expressions of ideas (openly licensed) Details of yesterday’s weather described online on Wikipedia Public Goods

“Retain” is the fundamental permission of the 5Rs because it enables all the others. For example, if I can’t download my own copy of a resource, I can’t make changes to it. The importance of Retain becomes particularly clear in the context of the emergence of services like Spotify and Netflix at home, and library subscriptions to e-book collections, databases, and journals on campus. Each of these services rents temporary access to books, articles, songs, movies, and other materials without providing users with the possibility of buying a personal copy that they can truly own and control.

Educators, instructional designers, learners, and others must be careful not to confuse freely available resources and OER. Essentially all resources on the internet are freely available – articles at the BBC, New York Times, and National Geographic can all be accessed and read for free online. OER, by contrast, are resources that can be accessed for free and provide educators, instructional designers, learners, and others with the 5R permissions to download a copy, make modifications and improvements, and share those copies freely with others.

Alignment of Educational Resources with the Core Values of Education

Education and traditional copyright are fundamentally at odds with one another. While education is sharing, the purpose of copyright has traditionally been to make sharing illegal unless permissions are secured from a rights holder. The process of securing copyright permissions is an incredibly expensive and time-consuming undertaking. This situation presents a daunting challenge for educators and instructional designers who would like to design instruction that makes use of copyrighted material. If faculty abdicate the design and creation of the educational materials used in their courses to publishers, publishers will use copyright to make those materials artificially excludable, and therefore scarce and expensive, for students.

The process of securing permissions is frequently – and increasingly – impossible. An orphan work is a copyrighted work whose copyright holder cannot be identified or contacted. For example, a photograph that does not indicate its photographer is an orphan work. If the rights holder for a work cannot be contacted, there is no way to acquire the explicit permissions necessary to share a creative work with others.

Thus, traditionally copyrighted educational materials are poorly aligned with education’s core values. While education is sharing, copyright serves to complicate sharing and make it expensive. Education is already sufficiently complex without the added complications of artificial constraints placed on sharing by copyright law. Until recently, there was no widely available alternative to simply accepting and working within the constraints of this complication.

By contrast, open educational resources explicitly permit sharing, as explained by the 5R framework. With open educational resources, there is no need to spend time or other resources securing permissions because each OER is published in a manner that provides everyone – including faculty, instructional designers, and students – with free, perpetual, and irrevocable permission to adapt and share. Consequently, open educational resources are closely aligned with education’s core values and make the process of sharing as inexpensive and easy as possible.

While educators have long relied on copyright exemptions like fair use to occasionally sidestep the complexities and cost of rights clearance, fair use and related arguments made in educational settings typically require the copyrighted work to be used in a very limited context – within a classroom or behind password protection. The necessity of making educational fair uses essentially in secret completely precludes the possibility of open collaboration by faculty or students across the internet. While it is sometimes appropriate to make fair use of copyrighted works without permissions, these uses must always occur in isolation, with every faculty member or student recreating the wheel in their own local context. Traditional copyright fights against the nature of the internet in this context in that it precludes the emergence of the network effects that are the hallmark of many innovations. In other contexts the network effect is described as the “standing on the shoulders of giants” effect, in which people are able to build on the best work done by others before them. OER permit this shoulder standing, while fair uses prohibit you from knowing whether anyone else is standing nearby.

Practical Impacts on Faculty and Students

When faculty choose to adopt OER in place of commercial educational resources, they recognize two major benefits related to the closer alignment of OER with the core values of education. First, OER adoption provides faculty with opportunities to re-professionalize, engaging in skilled activities many faculty have abandoned. Second, OER provide hitherto unknown pedagogical freedom for faculty.

Little by little, and without knowing it, faculty have slowly ceded control over the design and content of their educational materials to publishers. From this perspective, the publishing industry can be seen as responsible for the large-scale de-skilling of faculty by providing them with “easy outs” from engaging in these activities. This works well out particularly well for publishers over the long term, because an entire generation of faculty without these critical skills becomes wholly dependent on instructional materials created, reviewed, selected, and assembled by publishers.

Adopting OER is a completely different experience. Selecting OER does not need to be a professional and intellectual dead end for faculty. Every word, every image, every example, every definition, and every other aspect of OER is open to localization, adaptation, remixing, and improvement by faculty. Faculty might choose to ignore others’ compilations of OER and build their own collection of individual OER from the ground up. On the other end of the spectrum, if a faculty member wants to simply adopt someone else’s collection of OER and use it just like they used their previous commercial textbook, they have that option, too. OER provide faculty with a much greater opportunity to engage in evaluation, selection, curation, improvement, and ownership of the core tools of their trade.

Second, adopting OER instead of traditional textbooks significantly expands the academic freedom of faculty members in terms of pedagogy. There are a wide range of activities and assignments that can be made in the context of OER that simply cannot be made when a traditional textbook has been selected. For example, faculty can assign students to find OER that speak more directly and clearly to them about a course topic than current material, with the promise that the best finds will be incorporated into the official course materials. Students can write their own material, or shoot their own videos, or record their own interviews, etc. , with a similar guarantee. Immediately these activities change from being disposable assignments which students invest little time in and immediately throw away on after grading (like response essays), and are transformed into activities with real value that will be used and valued by their peers, winning students both personal satisfaction and a small amount of fame. Adopting OER instead of commercial materials allows faculty to invite students to become co-producers of knowledge rather than passive recipients. The permission to make that invitation simply does not exist when faculty adopt traditional textbooks.

Students are also impacted by faculty decisions to adopt OER. When every single student in a course has full, no-cost access to all the materials they are assigned to read, watch, and practice with, there is a noticeable impact on student success. The Review Project (Hilton, 2015), an ongoing, online literature review of the impacts of OER adoption, states:

In terms of student and teacher perspective of OER, there were 2,747 students and 847 faculty members whose perceptions were surveyed across the eight studies pertaining to perceptions of OER. In no instance did a majority of students or teachers report that the OER were of inferior quality. Across multiple studies in various settings, students consistently reported that they faced financial difficulties and that OER provided a financial benefit to them. A general finding seems to be that roughly half of teachers and students find OER to be comparable to traditional resources, a sizeable minority believe they are superior, and a smaller minority find them inferior.

In total, 7,779 students have utilized OER materials across the ten studies that attempted to measure results pertaining to student efficacy. While causality was not claimed by any researcher, the use of OER was sometimes correlated with higher test scores, lower failure, or withdrawal rates. None of the nine studies that measured efficacy had results in which students who utilized OER performed worse than their peers who used traditional textbooks.

Even if the use of OER materials do not significantly increase student learning outcomes, this is a very important finding. Given that (1) students and teachers generally find OER to be as good or better than traditional textbooks, and (2) students do not perform worse when utilizing OER, then (3) students, parents and taxpayers stand to save literally billions of dollars without any negative impact on learning through the adoption of OER.

Colleges and universities are relying more and more heavily on OER as evidenced by initiatives like Virginia’s Zx23, in which 23 Virginia colleges have committed to replace commercial textbooks with OER in all the courses necessary to complete at least one degree program on their campus (Sebastian, 2015). As OER are adopted more widely it will be critically important for instructional designers, instructional technologists, educational researchers, and others to understand what they are, where they come from, and why they matter.

Discussion Questions

  1. The relationship between supply and demand is foundational to classical economics. Traditionally publishers have used copyright to make digital educational resources artificially excludable, and consequently artificially scarce, in order to maintain high prices for their products. What happens to the economics of educational publishing in a world where the supply of OER is infinite (because they are public goods)? What is the role of instructional designers in this future? What happens to the economics of education more broadly in a world where the supply of educational resources is infinite?
  1. Given the existence of a large body of freely available OER that research indicates are at least equal in effectiveness to traditional educational resources, does requiring students to purchase a $150 or $250 textbook for a course raise important ethical or moral issues? If so, what is the relationship between faculty’s academic freedom to select any course materials they desire and these ethical or moral considerations? Should institutions have policies regarding these issues in the future? If so, what would an appropriate policy look like?
  1. The restrictions placed on the behavior of faculty and instructional designers are as ubiquitous as the influence of gravity in our daily lives. Our intuitions about what is possible and what should not even be considered in our design practice are shaped by what we know about “how the world works” with regard to copyright. When you strip away the constraints of copyright, as open educational resources do, what new kinds of educational practice, instructional design, and assessment strategies, and pedagogies become possible? How can we encourage people to escape the historical constraints of copyright to think more expansively in a world of OER?


Creative Commons (2015). The State of the Commons. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Hilton, J. (2015). The Review Project. Retrieved from

Jefferson, T. (1813). Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson. Retrieved from

Lessig, L. (2008). Remix. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Sebastian, R. (2015). Zx23 Project. Retrieved from

Wiley, D. (2015). Defining the Open in Open Content. Retrieved from

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