The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1. Why open?

“[O]penness can be argued to be at the very core of higher education in the 21st century. In its most positive interpretation it is the means by which higher education becomes more relevant to society, by opening up its knowledge and access to its services. It provides the means by which higher education adapts to the changed context of the digital world.”
-Martin Weller, “The Battle for Open”

1.1 Tales of deadweight loss

This chapter is about sharing educational resources and about the wealth of educational material for economics that is freely available. Before we look at the advantages of sharing, consider the wasted effort in the current system. Situations like these may be familiar:

  • An economist in another institution has created a witty introduction to their field with recommended readings, but now they’ve retired and are not on email, and the references are starting to look dated. You could copy the list and apply some updates, but you do not own the copyright. Copyright applies automatically to an original work whether the author makes a copyright statement or not, and, for written works, does not expire until seventy years after the author’s death.[1]

  • A decade ago, a couple of academics created a site that gives an engaging and original overview of their field. However, the site uses an animated navigation widget that does not work with modern browsers, and the site’s authors have moved on to other careers. Just copying their content to another site and linking its pages together without the widget would help that content reach a new audience. The authors might be okay with this, but haven't declared the conditions for reuse of the site. They have moved on to other careers and their contact details no longer work.

  • A funded project created a site with a set of educational materials. Now that the funding stream has ended and the staff have moved to other roles, it is no one’s job to keep the site running. When the domain name elapses, the site will disappear although the material, with some tweaks, could still be useful.

We could do things differently. We could see copyright restrictions and technical barriers, that make sense in the commercial realm, as restricting educational resources from their full potential. When we create work, we could declare our intentions for it up front, so people do not have to take time asking us. We could work to free up education from some of these barriers while maintaining quality and making sure that creators of materials are properly credited.

This “opening up” of content can be done at any scale. The term “Open Educational Resources” can encompass institutional projects to put all course materials online by default, or it can refer to someone sharing a photograph on a site such as Flickr, with permission for other people to use it in teaching (Weller (2010)).[2]

1.2 Benefits of openness

The benefits to learners, teaching staff, and universities of releasing open educational resources have been widely studied.[3] For the purposes of this chapter, they can be grouped under three main headings:

  • Showcasing: open course materials are encountered outside academia, contributing to a better-informed public, especially to better-informed prospective students.

  • Productivity improvements: things that we do anyway can be done more easily, to a higher standard and more sustainably.

  • Transformation: a changed environment of educational resources enables (some would say requires) new approaches to teaching.

1.2.1 Showcasing

The free availability of education resources means prospective students are potentially better-informed about university subjects and about individual courses. Insofar as they take this opportunity, this should result in better enrolment choices and, down the line, greater satisfaction. The Open University has made a particular success of marketing courses by releasing open resources, generating thousands of new student enrolments (Weller (2010)).

The platforms considered later in this chapter, such as YouTube and iTunesU, are marketplaces of ideas in which market share produces tangible gains. Some institutions are highly visible on these platforms, but many are not. Those who make themselves visible by sharing good materials in a subject, as the Open University have done for many subjects including economics, create an association between that subject and their institution, especially among people who have not yet thought about formally studying the subject. Institutions that choose not to engage are, in effect, choosing to be less well-known.

A corollary of this benefit is better management of intellectual property. A formal process for releasing material openly online, including free licences, makes clear the rights of the university, the staff member, and third parties. If the staff member moves to another institution, they can continue to use the materials they’ve created even if the institution owns their copyright. Depositing materials in a public online archive makes it easy to show primacy if those materials are copied by someone else.

Top Tip:

If you are collaborating to create educational or reference materials, take a group decision right at the start about intellectual property. Will this be an open resource that people can adapt, or will you keep all copyright protections, with risks for sustainability? Licences are discussed in Section 4.

1.2.2 Productivity

Each course is different, and each lecturer is different. Any course will mix core concepts with the lecturers’ own ideas and examples. Open sharing is an opportunity to reduce duplicated effort in producing diagrams and graphs that are used in many courses. It is also an opportunity to specialise and trade, spending more time on what is distinctive to your own course and your own style of teaching.

As educational materials become more of a shared, global resource, individual teaching staff have more opportunity to reach a global audience, whether by sharing their lectures on YouTube, or creating text or interactive tutorials. A star lecturer would previously have audiences in the hundreds. Now, they can have audiences of hundreds of thousands, via lecture capture and video sharing sites such as YouTube.

From the students’ perspective, shared resources give them a much broader set of explanations to draw on for any given topic, so they have more ways forward if the textbook’s or lecturer’s explanation does not work for them.

In this context, shared learning resources does not mean greater intellectual uniformity. The open approach is about sharing and remixing, removing duplicated effort in production of “core” materials, so it actually favours intellectual diversity. For instance a standard set of materials explaining the axioms of rational choice theory could be annotated with explanations of why the axioms are implausible as descriptions of individual human choices. A detailed diagram of an economic model could be used in different educational contexts and educational levels, depending on how it is presented and annotated.

The quality of resources is naturally going to be more important to learners and educators than their licence, but ease of access is also important to them, especially for learners whose study involve multiple spaces and devices; a laptop at home, a mobile device on the bus, and other devices in a department or library.

The Finance and Economics Experimental Laboratory at Exeter (FEELE) lab used Wikiversity (one of Wikipedia’s sister sites) to document a range of Economics Classroom Experiments in 2007 and 2008. The Wikiversity community have recognised the quality of the material, badging the collection as a Featured Resource. They have taken care of keeping the software up to date, fixing vandalism and correcting minor errors. The open platform means that this material can be shared more sustainably than if it were on its own dedicated server.

Some of the open resources considered later in this chapter are remixable textbooks. Roshan Khattry, who introduced an open textbook at Spokane College in the US, found that adapting it to the course took a lot of work, but gave more autonomy to the course leader. Whereas a failing of a traditional textbook would have to be raised and discussed in a committee, adapting the open textbook is something he can do straight away.[4]

1.2.3 Transformation

The OER Research Hub is a long-term project to evaluate claims about OERs. In a report they published in 2014, they find strong evidence that "OER use and exposure leads to reflection on practice by educators. It causes them to incorporate a wider range of content, to consider different teaching approaches and to reflect upon their role as educator."[5] One driver of transformation is the change in teaching practice as staff are exposed to a greater variety of ways of explaining economic concepts. Another driver is the changed expectations of students, who have seen some of this variety online.

One aspect of changed pedagogy is the flipped classroom, where students watch video tutorials, and what was lecture time is used for other activities such as problem solving, case studies, or debates. Shirky (2005) observes, “We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning.”[6] Flipping is discussed in the Lectures chapter of this handbook.

Online access to the best lecturers or best animations will mean that students are better informed about economics and about specific concepts, but will also raise student expectations about their experience of university. It will mean lecturers spend less time repeating the standard presentation of the standard concepts, and more time finding their own memorable mark on the topic, whether in examples or delivery.

The advent of drum machines and similar music technology prompted a wave of interest in James Brown records whose drummers did a lot more than just keep the beat. While the technology undercut the demand for mediocre drummers, it created a premium for that hard-to-capture soulful quality. As online resources and communities make explanations of economic topics more freely available, institutions and instructors need to discover and emphasise their own distinctive offering.

Another way openness drives transformation is that students need to be more involved in the selection and evaluation of resources. No matter what is on the reading list provided by the lecturer, the ease and immediacy of Google and similar tools mean that students will turn them for help understanding difficult concepts. In effect there is a “shadow reading list” of material that students are finding online, which will be of varying quality. So critically evaluating resources for their credibility and relevance to the course needs to be no longer the preserve of the course leader but done collaboratively between learners and staff. The skill of critical evaluation needs to be introduced early on in the course and develop in parallel with understanding of the subject.

These examples illustrate that by responding to the way open resources have transformed the online world, courses become more student-centred: this is how open educational resources lead eventually to open educational practice.[7]

It is not obvious on first inspection, but some of Wikipedia’s articles on economic topics were written by university students in exchange for credit. A Rice University module on Poverty, Justice and Human Capabilities has substantially improved many articles over the years, among them Water scarcity, Illegal drug trade, Food security, Microfinance, and Economy of Nicaragua. As well as improving their chosen articles, following the site’s guidelines, students had to review each other’s work and respond to feedback and review from the Wikipedia community.

Although there is a stage fright to overcome about writing in the open, the student authors are rewarded with a very wide readership: the five articles mentioned get well over a million hits per year between them. This sort of activity illustrates that open education is are not just about free supplements or alternatives to standard textbooks, but more active and creative ways for students to engage with resources.


1. "How copyright protects your work"

2. Weller, Martin (2010). Big and little OER. In: OpenED2010: Seventh Annual Open Education Conference.

3. The benefits listed in this section draw on:
David Mossley (2013) Open Educational Resources and Open Education. Higher Education Academy

HE Academy/ Jisc (2012) “Open Educational Resources: An introduction for managers and policymakers”

Open Michigan (2011) “Open Educational Resources: Benefits for Faculty and Students”

4. Scott Jaschik (26 April 2017) “OER, on the ground” Inside Higher Ed

5. de los Arcos, B., Farrow, R., Perryman, L.-A., Pitt, R. & Weller, M. (2014). OER Evidence Report 2013-2014. OER Research Hub.

6. Clay Shirky (17 December 2012) “Higher education: our MP3 is the mooc” The Guardian

7. OpenMed project (2017) “OEP in your daily teaching”