Musings on OER Policy

Policy favorable to OER is a critical component of the entire open education movement. OER policies currently exist at many levels: international, national, regional, local, and institutional. You can explore various OER policies around the world on the OER Policy Map maintained by the OER Research Hub. Creative Commons also maintains a list of proposed and adopted OER policies that is well-worth your perusal. As I have traveled hither and yon these past few months meeting with Hewlett grantees and others involved and interested in OER, the policy issue has continually surfaced as an important theme. These conversations have caused me to think more deeply about the role of policy in accomplishing Hewlett’s goal of mainstreaming OER.

Dr. Vance Randall, an expert in both education policy and educating about education policy (and former advisor to Senator Orrin Hatch) argues that policy is nearly always created to a solve a particular problem or set of problems. From this perspective, the best way to understand an existing policy is to identify the problem(s) it was created to solve (not always an easy task). In advocating for OER-related policies, we should be very clear about the problem the particular policy would solve. What’s more, we should recognize that OER policy can solve different problems at different policy levels. Using the “policy/problem/solution” concept as a framework, here is my current thinking (limited as it may be) about OER policy at the international, national, and institutional levels*. For each level, I provide the problems that I think are most easily solved by OER policy, problems I think are less likely to be solved, and my current vision for a “dream” policy. I am very open to feedback about my views on OER policy and hope that others will contribute to the conversation here.

International OER Policy

Policy at the international level related to OER is most likely to be useful in solving the OER awareness problem and the sustainable OER development problem. Awareness of OER is very low throughout the world. International OER policy established by IGOs like the European Commission, UNESCO, OECD, and the World Bank can do much to help solve the awareness problem by being committed to discussing the role of OER in solving broader educational issues at member state gatherings. IGOs that provide funding to member states could also require open licensing of materials produced with those funds. Non-funding IGOs could encourage their member states to adopt national-level policies that require open licensing of all materials produced with public funding. It seems less likely to me that international OER policy can as effectively or directly solve other problems related to OER, including adoption, discoverability/interoperability, and effective Open Educational Practice (OEP) at the classroom level.

A “dream” international OER policy would require member states of each of the respective IGOs to openly license all materials produced with public funds, as a condition of membership.

National OER Policy

Depending on the nation, national OER policies may help solve the sustainable OER development problem by requiring open licensing on materials produced with public funds. National policies could also solve the OER efficacy problem by providing funding for research related to OER and OEP. In democratic, decentralized states like the US, national OER policies are less likely to be effective at tackling the adoption and discoverability/interoperability problems.

A “dream” national OER policy would require all education materials produced with public funding (including all materials produced on-the-clock by faculty and teachers at publically funded institutions and schools) to be openly licensed and shared in a national repository that requires appropriate metadata tagging to increase discoverability.

Institutional OER Policy

Institutional OER policies could help solve nearly every problem related to OER mainstreaming. Institutional OER polices could help solve the OER awareness problem by requiring faculty and teachers to receive professional development related to OER. Institutional policies could also solve the OER development problem by requiring investment in faculty and teacher time to review, adopt, and adapt existing OER (and create new open materials when there are gaps). Institutional policies could solve the adoption problem in higher education by requiring faculty to use OER by default and only use propriety materials when adequate justification exists. In K-12, institutional polices at the school district level could require curricular review boards to give priority to open content and justify use of proprietary content (I suppose regional policies at the state level could do this as well, but it is much less politically viable in the US). Institutional policies could help solve the discoverability/interoperability problems by requiring that all newly created open content carry appropriate metadata, be shared via the national repository (if  my national “dream” policy were in place), and require investment in professional development related to effective strategies for finding OER (i.e. “How to Use Google Advanced Search”). Finally, institutional OER policies could solve the OER efficacy problem by encouraging and supporting in-house research on OEP.

A “dream” institutional OER policy in higher education would require faculty to adopt openly licensed content by default, and only allow adoption of proprietary materials if justifiable. A “dream” institutional OER policy in K-12 would require curricular review boards to give priority to open content and only allow adoption of proprietary content in extreme cases (if at all).

A final word about implementation: A policy means nothing if it is not implemented with fidelity. The best “dream” policy in the world is a pile of garbage if the solution it provides is not actually implemented. We need to be spending more time on encouraging implementation of existing OER policies while we are advocating for new ones. As a rule, I believe international policies are much more difficult to implement with fidelity than national policies. I also believe that national policies are much more difficult to implement than institutional policies.

My views on policy implementation, taken together with my argument about institutional OER policies, should leave no one surprised at my current thinking on the OER Policy space: In addition to advocating for policies at the international, national, and regional levels, we should be more intensely investing our energy and advocacy in pushing for solid OER policies at the institutional level – at colleges, universities, and school districts.

I give an important reminder here that the posts on my blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This post simply represents my current, jet-lagged thinking on OER policy. I welcome and encourage feedback from the field on this issue. I absolutely reserve the right to keep an open mind and change my views. Typing this also reminds me of one of my favorite lyrics by one of the greatest bands in the world:

A man came up to me and said:

“I’d like to change your mind

“By hitting it with a rock,” he said,

“Though I am not unkind.”


Let the kindly rock throwing begin.


*I have chosen not to address regional/local policies in this post, not because I feel they are unimportant, but because I see them as an extension of national policies or a reflection of institutional policies, especially in the United States. If someone has an argument for the uniqueness of local/regional OER policies in terms of solving key OER problems, I would love to hear it. I suspect there are some good cases to be made

**Since originally writing this post, I’ve discovered this gem of an article that addresses state-level OER policy issue quite well. Definitely worth the quick read:

3 thoughts on “Musings on OER Policy

  1. Dear TJ
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. In my current work, we argue that policy is important if OER is to become mainstream, so I agree there. However, I would frame the task differently. Whilst many really cool initiatives are to be found (even in Germany 😉 ), OER can really only realize its potential in the mainstream, if it tackles mainstream problems. That is why we argue that OER is a means, not an end in itself. We should look for typical problems in education systems first and search for solutions – which require policy interventions – which support OER production and use. In our current work, we have identified six typical problems: fostering the use of new forms of learning for the 21st century, fostering teachers’ professional development and engagement, containing public and private costs of education, continually improving the quality of educational resources, widening the distribution of high quality educational resources, and reducing barriers to learning opportunities. However, OER cannot automatically contribute to solving these problems. It needs smart policies to make that happen. Now we can ask ourselves, what kind of policies are needed to facilitate a positive contribution of OER to the problem solution and on what level (international, national, regional, institutional)?

  2. Thanks, Dominic. Very good points. After writing the post, I too realized that I had laser-focused on solving OER-specific problems, rather than education problems that OER can help solve. You are correct in implying that I’ve made OER the end and not the means. The six typical problems you’ve identified are a great framework for thinking about the relationship between OER and education policy.

  3. I’d add one suggestion to this useful framework, which I fear may tilt a bit too far toward requiring OER and thus generate opposition that could otherwise be avoided. Instead, I think we should also look for ways – along each of the landscapes you identify, international, national, and institutional – for policy to more securely support emergent behavior that advances our goals. At the international level, policy could support more OER-based cross cultural and cross border educational exchanges, at the national level, policy could support “coalitions of willing” educational institutions, and at the institutional level, policy could ensure meaningful support of faculty OER leaders – which I fully agree is critical. Ensuring the support of these emergent models will lead others toward similar practices as the advantages become manifest and help pave the way for the enacting the larger policy goals you accuately identify. We need to create the “cul de sac” phenomenon where neighbors see a cool new car in a driveway – and want the same for themselves.

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