The Economy of Free – Andrew Law, Director Multi-Platform Broadcasting, The Open University

Universities are making vast amounts of content freely available, be it under Open Learning initiatives, podcasting or captured lectures. Is this sustainable and what benefits does it actually bring to the University and its students?

Andrew is Director of everything that is given away for free.

We’re in an economic crisis. OU may be hit harder than other Universities, yet still believe that giving away content for free is the way forward.

  • BBC
  • iTunesU
  • YouTube
  • LearningSpace

‘…to promote the educational well-being of the community generally’ ‘…by a diversity of means such as broadcasting.’


Costs more money than get back when co-producing programs with people like BBC and Discovery Channel.

Does it have any impact? 1 billion viewing events of OU programmes globally. 35-38% of viewers know that it is an OU program. Just as likely to know that a program is a BBC channel. Gets very high AI (appreciation index). Every single program has branding but also significant direction towards further learning.

Last year, 2 million people started their learning journey at

There is still more money going out than coming in, but it is difficult to know what the benefit of content being viewed globally for free. Much content on found by Googling rather than direct from TV programs. Regardless, it is a significant part of the social mission.


Joined iTunesU two years ago. 280 hours of archived content (existing materials) now online. 300,000 downloads every week. So much content online that OU can guarantee being in top 10 (often in top 3). Used back catalogue of content to upload. Can knock Kofi Annan off iTunes homepage (brand placement) with Iceland content advert. Fraction of a cost (due to back catalogue) compared to creating TV programs, but smaller audience. Many outside the UK who are willing audience, however registrations as a result are low.

The most important thing is the way iTunesU are changing the ways that the OU think about the way they do things, including new ways of delivering content to new devices. This includes apps, video, ebooks. Put some content from into Apps for viewing anywhere, any time. How can we deliver content to learners in new and interesting ways.


YouTube – fairly large presence, but others larger (for example Coventry). Many on YouTube are on iTunesU. 2 million views of YouTube content last year, less that iTunesU and BBC but clear from comments that the University are reaching a different audience. No marketing or viral activity surrounding demonstrated video on measuring the speed of light by melting chocolate in the microwave.

Getting feedback from broadcast media, as well as getting comments and people wanting to send the OU their own content. This is new on this scale to the OU.

Economics: Going down by a factor of 10 from iTunesU. One click alone has been seen by half a million. This is more than BBC4 and some BBC2 programming. Bloggers and social bookmarking spiked Google search, YouTube then put video as pick of the day.

Likely to have download and creative commons version of YouTube next year.

As well as giving away content, need to make use of content coming in for free (either by users or other institutions).

‘Joining in’. On iSpot (a social networking sight for nature). OU have zero-content policy on here, only users putting content up (including discovery of a moth never previously seen in Britain).


Set up 3 years ago with help from Hewlett foundation. Took their existing Moodle and looked into releasing course content for free. Advantage of OU content is that it was already developed for viewing on screen (unlike MIT which was originally classroom-based learning). 5% of OU resources available now.

Economically didn’t cost much as funded by charitable funds but did cost time. 10 million registered users. Looking into other options to support the site. Advertising/business to monetize the project. Charitable funds are asking institutions across the world to find sustainable model rather than continuing charitable funds.

Over the next 6 weeks, bringing a new OpenLearn system and front-end, uniting content from BBC, YouTube, iTunesU and existing content using a Drupal front-end rather than Moodle due to flexibility.

Lots of existing students use OpenLearn to investigate what course they might study next. Many more students convert to paid course from OpenLearn than watching BBC content. Only need 1% students to make viable business model.

Do you want to join in? Cloned version of OpenLearn for institutions to upload own open content and use existing OpenLearn content. Not OU branded (branded for own institution). Derby are one of the institutions using this. Everything created in OpenLearn is released under CC licence (non-profit, share-a-like, remix).

SCORE is a HEFCE-funded project support individuals, projects, institutions and programmes within HE in England who are engaged in creating and sharing OERs. Whilst HEFCE funded at the moment, must look at business model to maintain.

OU, as part of social mission, are sharing content where they can. Also learning from areas where they are sharing content, particularly regarding digital access. Recreating TESSA project in HEAT (Health Education and Training) in Africa.

Question: iTunesU content appears more advanced (higher level) than YouTube. Are there going to be different levels of content required?

iTunes is ‘blind’ – you have to go find it, YouTube can be Googled – also comments, sharing own content. Some feel that Apple is stronger brand than YouTube, however big institutions don’t feel this. YouTube good for short-burst media.

Question: In a globalised world, OU using word ‘community’, but should it not be ‘communities’?

Many Universities have campuses globally, brick and mortar. The OU are exploring distance-based methods, including in Africa.

Question: Where does the OU sit in terms of governance of open content?

OU not the only organisation releasing ‘Open Content’. OU have editors who check content before released. Many institutions must be facing the problem of quality. What are they doing? One institution only put disclaimer.

Question: Strategy for Facebook?

OU have largish presence on Facebook but no strategy (yet). Semantics is something to keep an eye on it. Facebook and Google both give opportunity to develops apps. Gives opportunity to develop interoperable apps. OU already have a couple on Facebook (friendly recommender driven by Facebook).

Question: Possibility of other relationships similar to OU-BBC?

British Museum have developed relationship, recent series with British Museum branding. BBC struggles with partnerships, struggles with the OU. Currently relationship all about OU asking. Couldn’t manage 170 relationships with HE institutions, they struggle to manage one with OU.

New version of OpenLearn will have SSO. Through Shibboleuth, could show related content across the UK.

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