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OER policy making is a hot topic, though it is still at its beginning. The 2012 OER Paris declaration recommends to “reinforce the development of strategies and policies […] for the production and use of OER within wider strategies for advancing education“. But up to date only few institutions and even fewer states have decided to release a formal OER policy. Scientific research about OER policy making is rare as well, although there have been initial surveys by the OECD (Hylen, 2012) and UNESCO (Hoosen, 2012) about the dissemination of OER policies. Additionally a number of promising projects, like the OER Policy Registry by Creative Commons, the EU funded POERUP initiative and the OER Research Hub, are focusing on OER policy. Despite these achievements a number of essential concepts have not been clearly defined and academic analysis is still lacking behind. What we need is a comprehensive model of the goals, structure and function of OER policy making within the wider OER ecosystem. Initial questions like „What exactly are OER policies?“, „Who should develop an OER policy?“ and „How should an OER policy look like?“ are still under discussion. The following blog post contributes to this discussion by highlighting some basic issues, which are necessary for the understanding of this complex and multi-faceted topic. Therefore an initial typology of different kinds of OER policy emitting institutions is developed, which distinguishes between OER producers and OER founders on its top level. Looking at the topics an OER policy should cover it summarizes and extends the proposals which have been recently developed by The Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO (UNESCO & COL, 2011; Butcher, 2013). Last but not least it analyses the paradox relationship between top down and bottom up approaches, which have to be understood and integrated in every successful OER policy.

What are OER policies?

According to the English Wikipedia, “a policy is a principle or protocol to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes […]”, which is „generally adopted by the board of or senior governance body within an organisation […]” and “typically promulgated through official written documents”. In my opinion there are three points which should be kept in mind:

1. Policies are normative, e.g. they aim at steering the behaviour of people according to certain strategic goals.

2. Policies are implemented top down.

3. Policies are (ideally) manifested in written form, although an institution might invest some time in OER policy making, before a written policy is achieved.

But what about the particularities of OER policies? OER policies are, again quoting Wikipedia “principles or tenets adopted by governing bodies in support of the use of […] open educational resources […] and practices in educational institutions. More precisely Creative Commons defines OER-policies as “legislation, institutional policies and/or funder mandates that lead to the creation, increased use, and/or support for improving OER.“

One interesting aspect about the creative commons definition is that it also includes legislation, which is not (explicitly) included by the Wikipedia definition of policy given above. It can remain unsettled here if the policy concept by definition covers legislation or not. At least one can state that policy and legislation are closely connected concepts so that it makes sense to include legislation, when thinking about OER policy, especially on a national scale.

Types of OER policies

Policies are always made by and for special institutions and should be tailored to their individual needs. Different types of institutions therefore require different OER policies, which mirror the distinct needs of this type of institution. It is therefore important to look at the types of institutions that have an interest in emitting an OER policy.

Obviously, two very important types of institutions will be schools and universities. Both types can be characterized as OER producers, which possess a student body. The bulk of organisations that could pass an OER policy probably will belong to one of these two types. But there are other, less obvious institutions as well, which could produce OER and therefore implement an OER policy. Examples are libraries, commercial OER publishers, museums, broadcasting enterprises, private and governmental agencies and all other kinds of institutions, which publish contents that can be used for educational purposes. Foundations differ from these institutions in the sense that they do not primarily aim at producing OER, but at fostering the third party production of OER. Accordingly their policies will concentrate more on the conditions that have to be met in order to achieve founding, and not so much on the production process itself. The following diagram gives an overview of the different types of OER policy emitting institutions.


National OER Policies

National OER-policies are another special policy type, which could make a substantial contribution to the OER movement by making it more sustainable (Mulder, 2012). National policies will typically not be centralized within one document, but will be distributed within many different documents and legal statutes. A national OER policy can point into two directions:

1. It can directly address the members of the governmental body to produce or use OER.

2. It can address lower level actors and institutions by providing:

a. funding for their OER related projects and services

b. legal framework and standards

c. joined technical infrastructure.

A national policy therefore will cover aspects of both, production and funding. But it could even go beyond and address issues which cannot be handled on the institutional level like the legal framework and the provision of joined technical infrastructure. Seen from a holistic perspective it becomes clear, that a national OER policy can decisively define the appearance of the national OER ecosystem. Both policy levels, national and institutional, have to be seen as parts of an even wider multi-level structure, including the supra national level (e.g. the EU) and the sub institutional level (e.g. departments).


In practice the potential of national OER policies remains widely unutilised, since there are hardly any national policies yet, which are as far reaching and long running as just described (Hoosen & Butcher 2012). As a quick rule of thumb the strength of a national policy can be determined by asking following two questions:

1. Does the policy address the school sector and the higher education sector or only one of the two?

2. Does the policy include worksheets/learning objects and textbooks or is it limited to worksheets?

Some national policies concentrate only on one educational sector. A good example here is the Belgian approach with klascement, which seems to be (at least in practice) focused on schools only. The Dutch wikiwijs program was more comprehensive, addressing all educational sectors from pre-school to higher education. But also the wikiwijs approach was limited, since it did not include textbooks. In contrast OER activities within the United States are concentrating on schools and higher education as well as on worksheets and textbooks. The US OER policy therefore can be considered as the strongest policy of the given examples.

Which topics have to be addressed by an OER policy?

While in practice many existing policies focus on the field of intellectual property laws, in fact many other aspects are affected as well. Despite being different in detail most OER policies will share a similar skeleton of topics. Individual policies can be seen as concretions of this more abstract, archetypal catalogue. An initial catalogue of topics has been well described by two helpful publications, by the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and UNESCO. While “Guidelines for Open Educational Resources (OER) in Higher Education” concentrates on the higher education sector, “A Government Policy Development Template to Progress Effective Implementation of Open Educational Resources (OER)” addresses the national level. Both publications give a good overview of the topics an OER policy should address. The Policy Development Template originally distinguishes nine relevant key topics, which have been slightly rearranged in the following table:

Key Topic Related Questions
1. Introduction What is the mission of the policy? How can the relevant context be described? Who is addressed by the policy? What are OER? Why do we want to use OER? What benefits can you expect from using OER?
2. Intellectual Property Rights and Licensing Which publication should be licensed openly? Which open license should be used?
3. Curriculum Design/Materials Development Who designs the curricula and how? Which materials should be developed by whom? What processes need to be developed and installed? Which tools should be used?
a) Sourcing (procuring) content Up to which degree proprietary contents should be purchased additionally to the developed OER? Are OER developed by external contractors? How do the contracts have to be shaped?
b) File Formats Which file formats should be used in order to guarantee maximum factual openness?
c) Quality Assurance How can the quality of the developed OER be assured?
4. Human Resource Policy How can employees be motivated to engage in the development of open materials? Which reward systems have to be put in place? How should teachers be trained in order to develop the necessary skills to engage in OER professionally? Who “owns” contents developed during working time?
5. ICT Infrastructure and Connectivity Which ICT Infrastructure is necessary, to develop, store and use OER?
6. Costs How much money shall be used to develop OER? Where does it come from? How can be ensured, that the money will be available in the long term?

This catalogue seems pretty comprehensive, although it might be extended in the future:

1. Policy and strategy are closely relevant concepts. Before an institution releases an OER policy it`s recommended to develop an OER strategy first. The outcomes of this strategy development are necessary preconditions for the definition of an OER policy. Knowing why an institution invests in OER is crucial.

2. OER programs should be managed professionally to support evidence. In the struggle for the prerogative of interpretation between the conventional publishing industry and the OER movement, the latter has the better story to tell. But it is essential to add evidence. Within the field of politics it is not enough to know that something is right, you have to be able to proof it. Evidence starts with the effective, transparent and honest management of every single OER project, including documentation and the controlling of costs and progress. If possible, scientific supervision should be included as well. An institution should control it´s OER project portfolio also in order to correct it`s policy if necessary. As Hoosen and Butcher state „although effective policy is an important starting point, the real issue becomes that of consistency between policy and practice“ (Hoosen and Butcher, 2012).

3. Most institutions use OER (also) as a marketing instrument. A comprehensive OER policy therefore should address marketing and communication aspects as well.

4. Neil Butcher recently accented the importance of student integration for successful implementation of OER projects. Schools and universities therefore should describe within their OER policy how the relationship with this important stakeholder group will be managed. Though similar, this aspect is not covered by the human resources key topic, since students are not employees of a school or university.

5. Last but not least institutional culture and values like openness, collaboration and sharing are critical factors for a successful OER implementation. Many projects stress the structural side of change. But culture is at least as important, when implementing OER within an organisation. Since these are rather “soft” aspects, it`s difficult to address and communicate them in a suitable way, nevertheless it`s important to do so.

When bottom-up meets top-down

According to Robert Schuwer one of the lessons learned of the wikiwijs project is, that „a balanced approach of bottom-up and top-down“ is needed to successfully run an OER platform. In the same direction points Fred Mulder when stating that „The institutional struggle for sustainability with OER can/must be resolved by means of a national OER strategy“ (Mulder, 2012). Both, Mulder and Schuwer seem to agree that top-down approaches are needed within the field of OER to complement existing bottom-up approaches. The integration of both approaches seems fundamental to me when thinking about OER policy and needs further analysis.

The concepts „bottom-up“ and „top-down“ are not precisely defined and used in a variety of contexts. Within a multi-level governance context like OER the simplest way of using both concepts is to indicate the direction of historical development, in the sense that an development might have started at the sub institutional level, moved from there to the institutional level and finally reached the national level. In this context it`s interesting to see, that right now the institutional and the national level are approached from two sides, since additional to the existing OER grassroots movement the supra national level (UNESCO, OECD, EU) is pushing OER as well.

Another way of using the bottom-up/top-down distinction is more technical and refers to the organisational form of social systems, especially to decision making. Many traditional institutions including the church, the military and many cooperations are top-down organised, which means that hierarchy and power play an important role within their structure and culture of decision making. Schools and universities also belong to this type of organisation, although there have been attempts to overcome these patterns. In contrast bottom-up approaches prefer participation and consultation, why they are often considered to be more democratic. Many early OER projects were bottom-up organised, aiming at the social production of educational contents by the means of self-organising networks of loosely joined volunteers. But right now the OER movement underlies a potentially far reaching transformation. Ten years after its beginning as a grassroots movement, it has now reached the institutional level. This brings policy on the agenda. Not as a substitute to the former bottom-up concept, but as a supplement which enriches the spectrum of existing organisational forms for OER initiatives.

Since both approaches rely on completely different organisational principles we could expect mixing them to be difficult and risky. Since web based social production is still a young phenomenon, we do not know very much about the organisational dynamics of such systems and due to our limited experience it is hard for us to predict what will happen, when bottom-up and top-down approaches are being merged. Once again, there are no simple answers, no quick recipes, which make the organisational integration of both approaches simple. In fact it is necessary to differentiate and carefully examine the individual situation since the motive of bottom-up / top-down integration can appear within many different forms, as can be demonstrated looking at two examples.

On the macro-level it is a reasonable goal to make the existing OER initiatives more sustainable by the means of a national OER policy. But, bearing in mind the differences of both approaches described above, there seems to be the risk of chocking the communicative and cultural basis of the existing OER-community by the introduction of order and control. Despite this risk reality gives us good examples that bottom-up and top-down actually can be merged within the field of OER. One of them is the already mentioned Belgium OER portal “” which was founded by teacher Hans de Four back in 1998. After being run by Hans successfully for a few years, the Belgian government decided 2007 to found the service on a regular basis. Since January 2014 it is part of the Ministry of Education and it seems to perform pretty well since then. I guess the reason why is that klascement managed to keep the community processes and it`s communication culture unchanged. What changed was that klascement benefited better resource supply, but as far as its organisational structure and culture are concerned it is far from being transformed into a typical government agency.

A completely different characteristic of the bottom-up / top-down subject can be found at the meso-level, looking at schools and universities which want to release a policy in order to engage more within the field of OER. In this case the problem is not to conserve the bottom-up culture of existing OER grassroots against top-down hierarchy like in our first example. Rather the aim is here to implement bottom-up oriented processes within organisations, which typically possess (up to a certain degree) a top-down culture. Using a top-down approach to implement bottom-up culture certainly carries a good deal of paradoxicalness in itself. But again it seems to be possible (see OER-Research Hub), at least if being handled with good intuition. One thing should be very clear: Participation within an open learning context cannot be ordered, it must grow. So if we speak about OER policy, we are speaking about moderate provisions which foster participation without directing it.

In order to do so it seems advisable to combine the policy implementation process with bottom-up elements. An upstreamed consultation increases the probability, that the future policy will be understood, accepted and lived within the institution. Therefore it is helpful to develop the policy through an open and transparent process, which includes all relevant stakeholder groups like teachers, students, institutional management, technical support departments and many more. In the long run an OER policy only leads to the aspired change of attitude and behaviour if it is carried by the lived values of the organisation. Therefore it is important to support the necessary change of corporate culture actively at an early stage. A transparent and participative policy making process certainly makes a good starting point.


The current focus on OER policy is a consequence of the growing importance of institutions like schools and universities within the OER movement. It is crucial to see OER Policy making as a combination of structural and cultural challenges, which have to be interlocked in the right way to achieve successful implementation. Characteristic for OER policy is the tension between bottom-up and top-down approaches, which have to be integrated. Although seemingly paradox, empiricism tells us that this is possible.

All policies comprise similar topics, including intellectual property law, material design, human resources and ICT infrastructure. Nevertheless differences between varied types of institutions and their individual aims make it necessary to tailor each policy according to the special needs of the emitting institution.

National OER policies determine the framework within which other OER actors can develop. By doing so they form a mighty leverage to shape the OER ecosystem of a country. Though we are still at the beginning, initial achievements are promising. Approaches like the OER policy registry by Creative Commons provide the possibilities to follow and speed up the development. Supportive will also be, that openness and sharing are among the core values of the OER movement. If we manage to obtain this also for the field of policy by sharing our experiences and lessons learned, fast progression should be possible.