Economics of learning materials

The oer-discuss list caught fire recently, on the history of reusable learning objects and open educational resources. If you’re not familiar with those concepts, look away now, this post isn’t for you!

A while back I wrote a paper with David Kernohan where we tried to give a narrative with a UK context: OER – a historical perspective . In fact I have been a bit obsessed with open content for many years but I have been silent for a while.  I’m going to jump right in here, a few themes I’ve been thinking about.

Use Value and Exchange Value

In the discussions about whether content has value, there is often a question about whether content can be bought and sold, whether it is “monetisable”. In marxist economics that is the type of value called exchange value: where a commodity can be exchanged for money. There is another type of value: use value.  That is the extent to which a commodity is useful. It is about its utility, not its cost or price (see below). I think most teaching resources can have a high use value both for primary use and secondary reuse, without that ever translating into an exchange value. They might be valuable but you can’t sell them.

Does that mean “content is free”?

I don’t think so. Teaching materials cost time and effort to produce. One of the arguments for sharing teaching materials is that of public service: we taxpayers/citizens pay the wages of teachers and academics and have some stake in their outputs being used as much as possible by others to benefit from the use value. Its the same line of argument as the “public paid, public should benefit” open access to research outputs. The cost model does not translate into a price model. The cost model is situated in a broader context of who paid for the labour of producing the content.

Enter open licensing as a different model of value

Instead of pricing teaching materials, open licensing focuses on getting a greater use out of the materials: a greater utility: a greater return on investment. Openly licensed digital content is also non-rivalrous (see pedagogy of abundance chapter by Weller ) so it doesn’t reduce its value when you copy it. Open licensing turns value on its head: the value is in use, not in exchange.

The learning object economy

This was the idea of a marketplace for reusable content. The last decade we have seen the maturing for apps markets and the ebay marketplace: enabled by micropayment models making small payments convenient for consumers and efficient for sellers. We have seen pyramid economics  meaning that enough micropayments can fund a product. The ebay for reusable learning materals never materialised, partly because this type of content doesn’t have exchange value.  In the meantime, the idea of an ebay marketplace gave birth to other models that connect consumers and sellers together. Perhaps there is a future for a freecycle for learning materials.

Collective commissioning

It is in seeing the education system as a system that we can really benefit from openly licensed teaching materials. Open textbook initiatives pay the content producers for their labour: they cover the costs of their production so that use can be free. Collectively commissioning textbooks is the purest illustration of this. Commissioning at scale. We need to look to kickstarter models of publishing, at “patron-driven acquisition” to scale up our collective commissioning. There are also models of funding the clearance of content of existing books: buying out the content in order to share it. It’s a bit like someone I know who buys a bottle of sambuca from the bar so that he can shower his pals with “free” shots 😉

What next?

If I understand the correctly, tools like mozilla’s popcorn maker  and open tapestry  allow you to remix resources without copying them. Online curation tools could be a growth area. What will they mean for creative commons licenses? There’s something going on there that I don’t understand yet. But I like the idea of not having to orphan content from its context in order to use it. I am still not convinced that many people “repurpose” content, and I don’t mind that: managing teaching materials is good and reuse of any kind is great. I have no big conclusion to this post, but hopefully it will make sense!

6 thoughts on “Economics of learning materials

  1. It does indeed make sense to me. As a practitioner I share my resources openly in various ways – through TES, slideshare, scribd, popcorn maker, and even hard copy! I apply a creative commons licence to encourage others to tweek and pass it on. The Uni of Southampton’s Humbox (and Languages box) initiatives recognised the value of sharing and remixing but the technical demands of remixing digital content such as scorm packages are complex. I guess the question is: will institutions invest in supporting systems that encourage this practice in their own communities or will we continue to share beyond our immediate context through discipline specific channels in order to get the kind of functionality and openness we expect of social tools?

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