Friday, March 29, 2013

Models of Sustainability for OER

All OER have a life cycle: creation, publishing, repeated revision and reuse, senescence, death. Much effort and many resources have been expended on the creation and publishing of OER. The actual value of such resources, however, depends largely on the extent to which repeated revision and reuse can be sustained before the inevitable onset of senescence and death. The issue of sustainability is largely one of resources, and is a topic of considerable interest in the field of open education.

Wiley (2007) defined sustainability as "an open educational resource project’s ongoing ability to meet its goals." In considering the issue of how sustainability may be achieved, Wiley identified three models that he characterized as follows:
  1. The MIT model: "highly centralised and tightly coordinated in terms of organisation and the provision of services, relying almost exclusively on paid employees"
  2. The USU model: "hybrid of centralisation and decentralisation of both organisation and services, and work is distributed across some employed staff and a number of volunteers"
  3. The Rice model: "almost fully decentralised and volunteers provide almost all services"

Wiley's three models indicate a promising direction for consideration of how the sustainability of OER may be achieved, but in the mind of this reader this approach is over-simplified and preliminary. It seems evident that more factors then the ones Wiley identified - centralisation, coordination and funding - are involved.

Expanding upon Wiley's work, it may be possible to identify a longer list of more potentially quantifiable variables involved in the sustainability equation:
  • Institutional blessing
  • Institutional financial support
  • 3rd Party commercial drivers
  • Contributions by intra-university scholars
  • Contributions by scholars at other universities
  • Contributions by independent educators
  • Foundation support (either initial or ongoing)
  • Government support (either initial or ongoing)

Using these eight variables in a qualitative, rank-scaled sense (i.e., judging importance on a scale of 1 to 10) allows one to visualize a sustainability profile for various OER projects with the following general appearance. (Fig. 1)


Using the same variables it is possible to propose visualizing Wiley's (2007) three models in more detail. (Fig. 2)

These same eight variables can be tentatively scored for four OER projects (ChangeMOOC, Coursera, Jorum and OpenLearn), and compared visually with the Wiley models.  (Fig. 3)

A quick review of the online presence of these four projects, of course, is unlikely to provide sufficient information for an analysis in which one could have a great deal of confidence. The significant underlying drivers of OER project sustainability are seldom exposed to public view.

Nevertheless, the multivariate approach offers at least the possibility of a more balanced view than Wiley's models alone. Introducing eight variables into the situation, however, makes it more difficult to compare different sustainability profiles by simple inspection. Fortunately, statistics provides a number of multivariate clustering methods (see the Wikipedia entry) that can assist in this process. The results of one such analysis (blatantly ignoring non-normality of the data) produces the following result. (Fig. 4)

Here we see that including Wiley's three models together with the other four OER projects suggests the existence of three distinct similarity groupings. In Group 1, the USU model and OpenLearn are closest together, and they appear quite similar to the MIT model. Visual inspection suggests that the distinguishing features of this group are probably the high levels of institutional support and a strong dependence on intra-university contributors.  The Rice model is in a distinctly different grouping, showing closest resemblance to Change MOOC and Jorum. This group is probably defined largely by lower levels of institutional support and a much higher openness to contributors from other universities. Coursera, probably because of its commercial model, appears strongly dissimilar to all the others.

Wiley, D. (2007) On the Sustainability of Open Educational Resource Initiatives in Higher Education, Paris, OECD. Online at  (Accessed 26-March-2013).

[This posting is for Activity 10 of the OpenU course on Open Education H817open. All text and graphics are released under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]


  1. I struggle to find the time to get the reading and writing done. It's a really good help to read your posts first. They give a good preunderstanding, that makes the articles easier to read. Thanks Dave

  2. Thanks, Gitte and Deborah. I do try to read the material carefully, but have to admit that I often take off on my own tangent when writing my reflections :)