Open educational resources, a challenge for the future


In a knowledge-based economy, the creation of new knowledge and its dissemination to as many people as possible play a central role. This is the objective pursued by the Open Education movement, which works to develop free educational resources. According to Unesco, these resources include “teaching, learning or research materials in the public domain or published with an intellectual property license allowing their use, adaptation and distribution free of charge”.

Usually, a teacher creating a course or a textbook sees his original work protected by copyright which defines its use and reuse. Thanks to this intellectual property protection, the educational resource is made exclusive, i.e. it is possible to prevent someone from using it, and the author has a monopoly on its exploitation right.

Its access is often de facto paid. What is more, its reproduction, modification and distribution by others is limited, unless expressly authorized with each user. Open educational resources, on the other hand, make the educational resource non-exclusive and free to access. Its dissemination is also facilitated and derivative works modifying the original course or textbook are permitted under existing free distribution licenses.

A range of conditions

Relying among others on the open universities developed some fifty years ago in Anglo-Saxon countries where there is no academic condition for admission to the education offered, the Open Education movement has seen its practices disrupted by the emergence of the Internet and information and communication technologies. These negate the costs of reproduction and distribution. Compared to a school textbook in paper format, an online textbook can be easily copied and distributed to as many people as possible in a few clicks, thus becoming a global public good.

For public authorities, such as the European Commission or international organizations such as Unesco or the OECD, open educational resources have a dual interest:

  • first, free education and accessibility provide almost universal access to a wealth of knowledge that can be beneficial to individual and global socio-economic development. A computer with an Internet connection is sufficient to access a textbook belonging to the public domain or licensed for free distribution.
  • second, the absence of constraints on modification to adapt it to the learning context allows for greater personalization of the experience which can improve its quality. We think, for example, of the translation into a language understood by the learner of a work originally written in another language.

More recently, the MOOCs (“massive open online courses”) have given a new spotlight to free educational resources, even if all of these online courses are not. Multiple platforms such as EdX , Coursera or FutureLearn offer online training without any prerequisites for the learner but with content that is less and less accessible for free.

Other platforms are more in line with a dynamic of opening up knowledge. This is for example the case of the FUN platform (France digital university) which leaves the possibility for teachers creating the courses put online on its platform to choose how they want to protect their educational content, while promoting the use of Creative Commons licenses. The main feature of these licenses is that they offer a menu of several conditions allowing the author to manage the terms of circulation of his work and to choose among seven licenses, ranging from the most restrictive to the most open in terms of reuse of content.

Public support

This freedom provides an interesting framework for analyzing the dissemination of free educational resources. In a recent scientific article , titled “Why are some massive open online courses more open than others”, we use this information along with various data from the courses posted on FUN to study the factors behind the choice of a Creative Commons license. relatively more open by some teachers.

We observe that two factors play a preponderant role. First of all, teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or in the health sector have more open practices than in humanities and social sciences, business or law. We explain this by a greater sensitivity to the principles of open knowledge, already more common in their research activities, and to a stronger social norm pushing them to choose a more open license.

Then, the FUN platform offers teachers the possibility of charging students to obtain a certificate of passing exams related to the course distributed online. Teachers choosing this option tend to choose a less open license. This result can be explained by the desire to obtain financial income linked to this educational investment, but only indirectly since access to the course remains completely free for all the courses offered on the platform.

This research shows that the democratization of higher education cannot happen naturally through open educational resources. To promote their development and dissemination, various public interventions will be useful.

First of all, campaigns to raise awareness of open educational resources among teachers, especially those in disciplines that are not very open, but also among students must be put in place. Then, it seems important to adapt the method of financing education in order to financially encourage teachers to adopt this type of practice.

Author Bio: Julien Jacqmin is Associate Professor in Economics at Neoma Business School