Models, What Models?

This week’s quest asks merchants to explore the long-term sustainability models of each of the main players in the OER field and discuss the rationale behind them. Pending the return of some emails that might give me a more insider perspective (I don’t blame them for the delay–they just might have something more important to do, like, oh, worry about the long-term sustainability of their jobs) here’s what I can gather:

THEY DON’T HAVE ANY!

There are hints at diversification, inklings of refined value propositions, and some definite short-term cobbling going on, but nothing (in my opinion) unified and coherent enough to be called a “model.”  MIT, arguably the flagship of the OER movement, has placed considerable effort of late into moving supporters into more active, (financially) committed roles: there are “why I donate” snippets on every page, an ever-present “donate now” button and a newly formed corporate sponsorship campaign (two levels $10K and $100K–right now one company is listed on the site.) To be honest, these efforts give me a not-so-subtle vibe of desperation. This does not bode well for the organizations following in their wake.

Some interesting adaptations, and some aberrations: Open U of the UK seems to be sidestepping all the funding questions by simply granting credit and degrees and charging tuition. Teachers’ Domain seems to be capitalizing on a well-estabilished brand/reputation (WGBH) such that grant funding is never in short supply. Hippocampus has full-on banner ads on the site, Curriki cleverly veils them as “featured sponsors.” The Stanford project was funded by a venture capital firm…as far as I know a completely novel approach, but gives no indication as to what the nature of the “investment” is nor any explicit plans for the future. oersust_table_financial

In terms of the more “human” element of sustainability, it seems (interestingly, and perhaps critically) that the more open, the more community-based the initiative, the more unstable and difficult to sustain it becomes. Also interesting is how few of these initiatives actually involve volunteer materials creation or maintenance. Yet another dimension to the definintion of “open.”oersust_table_human

This quote, pulled directly from one of the organizations profiled in this post (I’m not saying who it is…the point is that it could be almost anybody) pretty much sums it up:

(insert the name of any OER initiative) recognizes that the scope of coordination activities and the requirements for sustaining (Open Education efforts) is rapidly increasing. Maturing the organization is critical for its long-term success. To that end,  (initiative) is advancing the current collaborative framework, exploring a variety of business models, and developing its sustainability plan so (initiative) can serve the current and future academic technology needs of faculty, students, staff, and institutions.

The major initiatives seem to be at different stages as regards their “long-term sustainability models.” Some are still blissfully sailing along on the generous surge of Hewlett foundation funding, with no indication that they will ever need another cent beyond it. Some have online “voices” tinged with a faint edge of panic; the presence of “donate” buttons on homepages seems strongly correlated with the age of the initiative and older sites seem much more likely to be promiently touting the benefits of everything from materials submission to coporate sponsorship. Others, like the one cited above, seem to recognize their own impending crises. They are diversifying funding/revenue channels and working to build their brands. One has to wonder, though, if it all might be too little too late for some.

  1. The paragraph you cite at the bottom of the post could have been lifted from any of our grant applications five years ago. Granting agencies (whether federal or private) all have a requirement for this kind of language. The problem to me seems to be that, almost without exception, these paragraphs have always read just as you cite above: “exploring a variety of business models.” If you took language like that to a VC you’d be laughed out of the room. Actually, you would never have been invited into the room.

    Gary Lopez at Hippocampus / NROC / MITE is one of the very few people in the OER world who can tell you the point in time at which his venture becomes self-sustaining. In addition to being a superhero in the OER world he’s also a fabulously talented business person, and has a chart where the cost and income lines for his project eventually cross. Flat World Knowledge has a chart like this, too.

    Organizations like BYU IS, the OU UK, and the OU NL may be the only kinds of organizations that can make strong sustainability arguments – because they actually have distance learning services they can upsell to OCW users (including enrollment, assessment, and credential awarding), making their OCW efforts contribute financial resources to their institutions. For schools with OCWs but no distance learning offering – and therefore no direct way to monetize what they do – the foreseeable future appears to be hat-in-hand. And given the near-term economic climate, those hands may not be able to afford holding the hats out for very long.

    Nice work assembling this data – the tables are extremely useful. (28/30)

  2. ldswhy

    SaraJoy! I love the charts–thank you very much for an insightful analysis. I think the wikipedia model of sustainability needs to be considered–finding ways that people who are passionate about a topic can and want to contribute. (thinking in terms of the work of Arthur Brooks–today’s forum). As you shared with me once–there is plenty of time, we just need to channel it in the right way. http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2008/04/web_20_clay_shi.html

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