Democratising Higher Education with OERs & FOSS

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Rather than write a slide-based presentation for the Open Education miniconf at Linux.Conf.AU 2019, I thought I'd try an approach that seemed to work quite well recently: write my presentation as a blog post and make it available for posterity, before and after. You can find this post quickly by going to if you want to look at it on your own device.

Update: If you'd like to see me presenting this talk, the video is now available. There're lots of other talks from the conference, too - I encourage you to have a browse!

So why am I here and what am I talking about?

I'm here because I love building stuff. I'm also a fan of sharing, and of the Commons (both analogue and digital). Unsurprisingly, I'm a committed adherent to and advocate for the principles underlying Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and Creative Commons licensing.

As a person who has a lot of time working with technology and has had a great education thanks to a combination of luck, hard work, and privilege, I have realised that I have an opportunity to parley my good fortune to make the world a better place.

After quite a bit of thinking about it, I've really only identified one thing that I feel confident is an unambiguously "good thing" to do: increasing opportunities in education, particularly for girls and women. So I focus my energies on removing as many barriers as I can that hinder people all over the world from reaching their educational potentials.

Living the Dream

After following a relatively convoluted path for many years, I consider myself very fortunate to be working in my dream role today: I'm the Open Source Technologist for the Open Educational Resource Foundation (OERF). I say it's my dream role because it allows me to support my family, work on something I find personally fulfilling because it's completely aligned with my personal interests, skills, and values, and gives me the huge satisfaction of knowing I'm doing something that will create opportunities for millions of people I've never even met.

The OERF is a charitable foundation, hosted by the Otago Polytech in Dunedin (South Island, New Zealand). I think it's fair to say we're a lean operation... with two full-time staff: the founder, Wayne Mackintosh, who's a committed FOSS-using academic and a genius at getting people to do the right thing (as well being the UNESCO chair in OER), and me - so the Open Source Technologist is the only technologist. You can start to see why I love this role.

Our Aims

The Foundation has three main aims:

  1. to create the curriculum materials for an entire university's worth of academical "courses" that are entirely licensed as "Free Cultural Works" (CC-By or CC-By-SA) - this is the curriculum analogue to FOSS.
  2. to create and lead a partnership with higher education institutions around the world to create a new type of higher education model. These partners recognise the value of collaborating on learning materials and are committed to expanding global access to high education, the articulation of academic credit, and see an opportunity in extending their assessment services to learners who aren't formally enrolled in their institutions.
  3. to create a platform for delivering these collaboratively assembled and accredited courses to anyone who has access to the internet, allow them to study those materials at no cost, and with low cost formal assessment services provided by our partners. This allows learners to gain academic credit from accredited institutions, potentially leading to a formal qualification. We encourage others (especially our partners) to copy our approach where it appeals to them.

Radical Openness

Prior to my involvement, Wayne decided that the organisation would be "radically open". And he means it. How it works:

  • our constantly evolving strategic direction is openly published as a Free Cultural Work,
  • all decision making is done collectively with our partners and the results (and thinking behind them) is proactively published,
  • all our meetings are streamed, videoed, and made available for posterity, along with post meeting reports summarising the discussion and any decisions reached, and
  • wherever possible, the OERF uses FOSS (we all use Linux internally), contribute to upstream projects, and release any internally developed software as FOSS.

Here's an example of what it looks like: our 2018 partner meeting in Port Macqurie, NSW, Australia.

Associated Policies

In addition to its commitment to openness, the OERF undertakes its activities in accordance with a few general principles:

  1. All our curriculum materials should be available for any educator to incorporate into any course an educator chooses, in a way that respects their authorship and the provenance of the materials.
  2. Most higher education institutions choose a monolithic learning management system (LMS) to frame learner interactions, allowing only authenticated learners to participate, and on matriculation they lose access to their learning materials and artefacts. Instead, we prefer a more flexible, open, and persistent environment that is also more relevant to learners: the Internet. 
  3. No learners studying, nor educators contributing to, our course materials should be disadvantaged because they cannot afford proprietary software to do so, nor should they need to entrust any of their creative efforts, or personal privacy to any third party with a commercial interest.
  4. This entire process should be fiscally sustainable, not based on pure charity, but due to enlightened self-interest from educational institutions (who realise they are in imminent danger of having their business models permanently disrupted).

Open, Reusable, Editable, Distributable content

All our curriculum materials should be available for any educator to incorporate into any course an educator chooses. We use the powerful (but relatively transparent to non-technical users) versioning capabilities of MediaWiki to version all content and provide an educators' analogue to a git repository. Our curriculum material site is and it is usually among the top 100k sites on the web.

Loosely Coupled, no Monoliths

Rather than an LMS, we adhere to the "Unix philosophy" in our technology platform - all of our learning materials are delivered by a loosely coupled selection of excellent FOSS applications via the open Internet, and can be viewed by anyone, anonymously.

Collaborating with other learners does require authentication to manage behaviour and demonstrate participation, however this is almost entirely done using FOSS web services we host.

We select the software components for our "Next Generation Digital Learning Environment" based on being FOSS licensed, web-based, open standards compliant, fit for purpose, mobile-friendly, and flexible (e.g. with respect to authentication methods).

We also consider scalability - although our current learner numbers are low, in the hundreds or thousands, we expect to scale to hundreds of thousands in the coming year or two, and eventually to millions of learners.

Thanks to our component model, if we identify a better FOSS component to fill a particular niche, we simply replace what's there already. Our solutions can evolve quickly (especially compared to most of academia) and relatively painlessly from our learners' perspective.

Respect People

To ensure we do not open our learners or collaborators to exploitation by corporate interests outside of our control... we don't use any tools run by corporations in our teaching process. We see them as largely incompatible with the sharing necessary for real teaching and learning. Our entire software stack is comprised of FOSS, including collaboration tools for both learners and educators.

Sustainable Model

Of course, as with any FOSS project, for the OERF's approach to succeed, it must appeal to the enlightened self-interest of its participants. Our aim, as a charitable foundation is not to profit, but to achieve sustainability while maximising our impact...

Part of that is consistently achieving sufficient income and the other part is minimising costs. We have done the latter to the extent possible (our small staff overhead and an annual IT budget for software and infrastructure is $5000!). Other than a small but much appreciated grant from the Hewlett Foundation (we're a long time grantee), we are already self-sustaining.

The major of our income comes from our partners' membership fees (which are about USD4000 per year, although some opt to pay somewhat more), which they choose to pay for a variety of different reasons.

For some it's a matter of fulfilling their "greater good" mission. For others, it's a philosophical direction which appeals - improving access to education to those who currently have no realistic opportunities to pursue it due to their location, cultural restrictions, and personal circumstances.

Many of our partners realise that their current situations are precarious - that they are in imminent danger of having their business models permanently disrupted by technologically savvy initiatives like ours  - it's in their best interest to be part of them.

Many also recognise an opportunity in becoming familiar with the FOSS technologies that we're implementing and making available to our partners - if they choose to implement any one of our chosen technologies at their own institutions rather than a proprietary alternative, the cost savings alone (as well as increase capabilities) would easily compensate of many years worth of our membership fee.

The FOSS Stack

At a conference like this, people like to get specific about the technologies we use, so let's look into that (updated list as of August 2023) for the time we have left! Happy to talk to anyone further about all the details!


Blog comments

This is very inspiring!

Looking forward to chasing those links and learning more. I would love to contribute to these changes in education.

Is this also posted on If so, can you share link? I will post more comments later after reading more closely and watching video - this is excellent. Jonathan Haack

In reply to by Jonathan Haack (not verified)

Sorry for the delayed response! Not sure if it's also on - is that due to it being youtube and/or cloudflare? I agree that I'd prefer it was also available on PeerTube...

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