Monday, 19 March 2012

Open, closed and the need to just survive! – Week 9 CCK12

The readings this week on openness and transparency were extremely interesting. I believe deeply in the concept of openness in education for the following reasons:
  • It is an extremely helpful way to build up educational resources, curriculum, ideas, AND strategies that result in better teaching and more effective learning experiences
  • It is a powerful tool for building educational communities of learning and peer relationships
  • It develops global linkages and knowledge sharing
  • It is a cost-effective way for small organizations with scarce resources to learn and grow
  • It prevents the constant need to reinvent the wheel and allows educators to build on and adapt existing sources of knowledge
  • It allows for sharing of promising practices and tools across wide and diverse geographic and economic areas 
  • Ordinary people and organizations get to chose what is worth sharing and publishing, not large publishing houses or government. 

The non-profit organization for which I work has in fact as long modeled this sort of open and transparent information sharing. We have freely and openly shared (via the Internet) all of our resources from printed guides to webinars to online self-study websites to podcasts to e-communiqués and newsletters. Although we are a small organization with just four staff, our resources are extremely well-regarded and thousands upon thousands of resources are downloaded each year from our website – and all for free.

Small as we are, we’ve been inspired by other large organizations to openly share for the benefit of others. We are energized when others write and tell us how much our publications have helped them.

HOWEVER! As much as we value this openness, we’ve become a bit jaded by it and are changing our philosophy. We are really wrestling with this abundance versus scarcity philosophy. Perhaps we are doing something wrong in our free and open approach – advice would be appreciated! Here is the situation:

We find that the sharing often goes one way. From us to others and not back. We find that sometimes because we give things away for free that they aren’t valued as much as resources or webinars that people pay for. Sometimes people think “free” means poorly done and that experts and quality cost money.

Mostly importantly, we receive a very small amount of government funding; in fact, we must raise over 50% of our budget from other sources of income. Soon, we will need to look at cutting back our staff, especially given the poor state of the Ontario economy when government funding may in fact decrease. Therefore, for fiscal reasons, we are planning to start a social enterprise in order to make money from the resources that we have normally given away for free.

Here is a perfect example of why we have to change our strategy. Last year, a colleague and I wrote a resource that we freely posted to our website. This Guide was so popular that it was downloaded over 50,000 times in just two months (with no advertising). On our website, we have a paypal link that said “We are pleased to share this resource with you. However, we are a small nonprofit and we would request that each person or organizational downloading this report make a minimum donation of $2 towards our organization”. And, while 50,000 people downloaded our report, NOT ONE PERSON made a donation to our organization. This led us to think that we are not just open sharers of information as we’d always liked to think, but instead, we are perhaps suckers?

During our 10 years of open information sharing, we always hoped (naively I’m sure) that some philanthropist would notice our excellent and free resources and our generous spirit of sharing and offer to sponsor us. But that never happened either.

We sadly cannot afford to be so generous any more – perhaps larger organizations with deeper pockets can. Instead, we are moving towards a social enterprise and moving our resources over to Our resources will continue to be free for our members, but outside organizations will need to start paying for them.

Do you think there is a better solution than our planned social enterprise? We want to keep being open and generous, but it doesn't seem sustainable. Are there models whereby organizations can share and yet receive some kind of compensation for their generosity and skills and talent? Stephen Downes mentions several helpful funding models in his paper "Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources" ( but those models seem to apply more to the formal world of academia than to the informal world of nonprofits. Your ideas would be most welcome!

We hope our social enterprise will give us the money to continue doing what we do best – helping small literacy organizations to survive and thrive! And, we will find ways to continue some open sharing however, as it is deeply embedded in our culture.

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