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Hi, A lot of bandwidth gets spent these days arguing that open education and free stuff is good … and that traditional colleges and textbooks are quickly approaching obsolescence. I am oscillating between enthusiasm and cynicism. Our open-source content-sharing project, LON-CAPA, just celebrated its 20th anniversary: , and we are starting a successor project, Looking back over those 20 years, it's been an almost constant uphill battle for funding. Some money came from grants, but that model is inherently unsustainable: you can get money for new initiatives, but you cannot get grant funding to sustain something that works. Some research funding was even harmful to our project, as it made us do experimental stuff that did not benefit the majority of our users. The remainder of the funding has come from traditional colleges and universities. Looking at MOOCs, open content, open-source software, etc, I still do not understand the business model, and I don't see it seriously discussed, except occasionally like in the Chronicle article about Coursera: - notice the "might" in the title. Somebody in the end has to pay for salaries, retirement, health insurance, connectivity, hardware, … at the moment, it seems like the business model is parasitic on traditional higher education. How is it going to move out of that mode? My cynical self is reminded of the infamous dot-com business model: "We make a loss with every customer, so let's get more." Are we heading toward a dot-edu bubble? Please convince me of the opposite. - Gerd. -- Gerd Kortemeyer, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Physics Education Director, LON-CAPA Project Michigan State University ********** Participation and subscription information for this EDUCAUSE Constituent Group discussion list can be found at


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Hi Gerd,

Sustainability of open projects is a key question. At one level, the answer to the question is not rocket science -- all that is required for sustainable open models is to integrate these activities as part of the core business and operations of the organisation rather than designing the open projects an "add-on" activity. That said -- its hard work.

I can't speak for other open projects, but happy to share how we set about achieving a sustainable open collaboration with the OER university network (see: 5 Things you should know about the OER university network plan ).  

We now have 70% of the contributing members necessary for a scalable and sustainable model to provide free learning opportunities for all students worldwide with pathways for learners to achieve credible credentials. I'm confident that we are well on track to achieving a sustainable global OER initiative. I think the following points have contributed to our success thus far:  
  1. A compelling vision aligned with the core business and mainstream operations of the partners who fund the project. We are are the first global network who will be able to accredit OER learning on five continents. The project is philanthropic and all our partners have a community service mission. It's smart philanthropy because the outputs and tacit knowledge gained through the OERu collaboration can be integrated into mainstream operations to improve ROI in open education approaches.
  2. We "bootstrapped" the project with realistic and achievable targets -- We started small and designed for sustainability from the onset. As you will see from our financial statements, our operational expenditure is around US$200K per year.  Growth in capacity requirements is funded by staff contributions from our member institutions. Unlike the venture capital model, we have not committed significant operational expenditure upfront before achieving a viable model. 
  3. A key factor of the OERu model is that recurrent costs will be recouped -- hence low financial risk for contributing institutions.
  4. Partners receive more in return than what they put into the collaboration.  OERu anchor partners agree to assemble two courses using existing OER. At current membership levels, a two course contribution will generate 34 courses in return. That's a pretty good ROI by any measure! 
  5. Open collaboration of course development contributes to quality enhancements which are difficult to replicate with closed single institution-based initiatives.  
  6. The OERu model is designed to be low risk, low cost but high impact. Leveraging the network effect, the benefits of participation exceed the direct costs of membership. For example, the cost of membership (i.e. US$4000 as a gold member)  provides a level of international exposure which would not be possible with the a comparable marketing budget spend. 
  7. The soft issues are important. Our project is values-based, i.e. working at the heart of the education endeavour, namely to share knowledge freely. We subscribe to radical transparency and openness as a matter of policy. All our meetings and planning discussions are conducted openly in the wiki. This builds trust among existing and future partners. We even develop funding proposals openly under free content licenses ;-).
  8. We have taken a decision not to innovate beyond the capacity of society, the economy and our member institutions to accept and implement the innovations. For example, participation in the OERu network does not require changes to existing institutional policy and anchor partners retain decision-making autonomy. 
  9. The economic fundamentals are sound. Demand for more affordable post-secondary education far outstrips the global capacity to deliver.  Moreover, the marginal cost of replicating digital knowledge is near-zero and collaborative development costs are cheaper (for example, if 10 institutions collaborate on the development of high quality teaching materials it is far cheaper than doing it alone).
  10. The model does not threaten existing enrollments -- we aim to build a parallel learning universe to augment traditional delivery. That is, we are targeting markets which are not traditionally served by the formal education sector.   
  11. We designed the OERu model so that the cost of "not participating" in the network is greater than the cost of being part of the network. We are the "competition" on the doorstep of institutions who are reluctant to engage in OER accreditation for this parallel learning universe. The OERu network will provide formal accreditation towards credible credentials for as little as 20% of the cost of full-tuition without government grant or subsidy. This is not theoretical speculation, we are doing it ;-).  However, as in the case of knowledge, which multiplies through consumption, the more members who join the OERu network, the greater the individual return on investment. 
I appreciate that bootstrapping a new open source software project in the formal education sector is not easy. Perhaps some of the points I have listed above could be reconfigured for designing a sustainable model for courseweaver.