Monday, October 15, 2012

Dutch disease and the failure of OER initiatives

Dead Aid I may have been skiving on my MOOCs over the past week, but I have been keeping up with my economics homework. I've just finished Dambisa Moyo's Dead Aid, and I was particularly interested in her description of Dutch disease with respect to African aid.

Dutch disease is where foreign currency floods a market, overpricing local commodities, forcing down the value of labour and ultimately cutting off the isolated economy from wider trade. Which is, when you think about it, pretty much the effect the huge influx of OER money has had on the academic economy. With no real demand for OERs, staff who have been teaching for years find the value of their labour is decreased or destroyed unless they secure huge grants (rise of the MOOCs). Disenfranchised by their institutions, they are powerless to compete freely since there is no open education market. Whatdya know, Marx (and Richard Hall) were right.

Moyo's answer to the problem of dead aid is a pretty Marxist solution too - a free market where the majority of revenues are spent on public goods. To translate this into the OER context means that we need to value OERs and the labour of those who produce them. OERs are pretty close to the definition of public goods, but at the present time, their production is financed by the economically damaging awarding of aid (grants) by external "benefactors" such as JISC. If you want to know all the reasons why that is a very bad idea, read Moyo:
"Just as throwing aid money at poor countries does not work, simply boosting investment is not the key to economic growth either. Only when capital is allocated to its most productive uses will an economy benefit, and this can only happen when governments are given incentives to respect and support those industries that can contribute to a country?s longer-term potential. The ceremony to cut the red ribbon to launch the newest road, bridge or port is easy. The hard part is ensuring the longevity of infrastructure, which can only be achieved if the economy is growing"
If we are serious about OERs, we need to reverse the failed strategy of throwing money at the problem and start building a genuine open economy of OER production and use.


  1. The seeds are planted and there are signs things are beginning to grow

    "@mhawksey would sustained OER practice development since 2009 with no additional funding be innovative practice? If so get in touch." DigiSim October 10, 2012

  2. Interesting post, thanks.

    I don't think OER initiatives have failed. I do think some overpromise themselves. I never thought OER would change the world: access to content is only one part of the picture. Necessary but not sufficient. Understanding the economics of openness is precisely about understanding labour, much more than it is about "monetarising content" as some people have talked about. Sustainability, for me, means that public education institutions do not undermine their own existence while they carry out their social missions.

    I myself warned folk that open education might be dangerous, for the reasons you describe:

    In terms of the JISC/HEA programme, we were always specific that we aimed to fund the sustainable release of OERs. More like teaching a man to fish rather than giving him fish. The wise project managers always understood this was pump priming, and used it to create momentum within their local contexts: that's what it was for.

    I honestly think that there has been a massive growth of high level content, partly aided by the UK OER programme. It's not a revolution, but I think it will leave a valuable legacy, however distributed, most of all in the number of people engaged with the work of the programme.

  3. I don't see this at all - I just don't get the connection you're making between OERs and teachers not getting their work valued. I think a stronger case could be made for OERs failing in that they haven't impacted upon higher education (and broader) practice as much as they should have.
    If anything I would argue the opposite is true - OERs are an example of finally putting teaching at the forefront and valuing it (awards, grants etc are a symptom of this, not an end to it). So teaching is no longer the poor cousin to genesis research. Well, it is in the eyes of some promotion panels, but OERs at least showcase that teaching can have real impact.
    So, sorry I think you've incorrectly extrapolated from this book.

  4. Thanks for the comments.
    In most of the HE situations I am aware of, teaching is a poor cousin the research. The influx of OER money has done nothing to improve the status of teaching (as opposed to writing grants about teaching).
    I don't see any significant uptake of OER in my day to day observation. I don't see any sign of a sustainable OER community. That's why I'm suggesting the "aid" approach has failed to deliver sustainability.

  5. Of course, 'little' OER is a sustainable policy - you're doing it right now.
    As for sustainability of big OER, I do get your point. The OpenMedia unit at the OU are looking at this very seriously and have proper grown-up KPIs and measures. And in terms of student recruitment, advertising reach etc, there is a strong case to be made for it being sustainable. In a new world you always need a bit of investment to get things going, but I agree it's entering the mainstream phase now where it just needs to work.
    Still don't get the link to undermining teaching though - that seems entirely separate and has more to do with REF, inbuilt research culture etc. Boyer's 1990 work on scholarship was an attempt to redress this, so it was a problem way before OERs.

  6. Right with you on the Little OERs. And yes, the problems with undervaluing teaching certainly didn't start with the invention of the concept of the OER.

  7. I agree that Richard Hall is right :->

    One of the very powerful messages coming through from recent projects like LanguageBox/FAVOR is that OER is helping academics realise more value from their teaching resources simply by allowing people to see and use them.

    I do worry about the wider implications of the MOOC movement as a way of disenfranchising the next generation of academics, which is a slightly different angle on what you are getting at.

  8. Alan, sympathy with what you are saying about this not necessarily helping teachers. This for me is Martin's point about impact and in my thinking (and minimal blogging) the imbalance of promise and practice

    I agree with Amber that there has been overpromise (comes with the territory of any elearning initiative?) but on the eve of OpenEd 2012 I am hoping to hear tales of promise realised and teachers helped (not threatened or devalued). At OpenEd 2011 I was very impressed by the emphasis placed by Under-Secretary of State Martha Kanter that saw this as about creating something better rather than cost cutting. She was talking about the Open Textbooks initiatives and this has been a bright beacon of hope for me (more than MOOCs I'm afraid) - helping learners and teachers where they need help. Hoping to hear more stories of promise realised and practice acknowledged this week. Chris