Free and Open as a Business Model in HE?

Last week, my son told me that he and his friends had decided that each of them must learn a programming language and make videos to teach other people on their website. He said that he would like to learn JavaScript first. I gave him a book on JavaScript which I bought some time ago and let him to have a look at. He followed the instructions and started to write his very first code. He sent the “cool stuff” he had just made to his friend. His friend loved it and asked him how he did this. My son told him which book he used and promised to bring it to the school next day. A few minutes later, this friend sent him a message “Haha…, downloaded the whole book in five minutes.” My son moaned “who would buy it for 30 quid if you can get it for free?” I was amused by how quickly this 11 year old boy got what he wanted from the internet without spending a penny.

According to Chris Anderson in a podcast, “the great Internet: Free for All” (see Lorna’s blog), people under 25 years old believe that everything on the internet is going to be free whereas people beyond that age may not. He argues that free may be the better way of doing business as opposed to charging users for goods and services in the future. The notion of this new business model is to give away 99% of your products to most people for free but charge for 1% of products for profit from a small number of dedicated users. This results in the majority of users benefiting from free products and services and the charged users being happy with what they have paid for.

How would this industrial economic model affect and apply to higher education provision and the HE market? Can a university give away 99% of its courses for free and still make a profit? What new services and functions should universities provide to attract students when all the course materials are freely available online? What different business models are needed to diversify their income sources? Influenced by the success of Open Sources Software Movement, MIT OpenCourseware, OU OpenLearn and many other universities around the world have started to provide free access to courses for students, educators and self-learners. However, sustainability and scalability have become a big challenge for most OER initiatives once huge foundation funding goes away. Can free and open become one of core business models in HE in the same way we have seen in software, music and the game industry? Perhaps, the HEFCE/Academy/JISC Open Educational Resources Programme provides a good starting point for institutions to think about these questions and develop new approaches for higher education provision in the digital age. It is important that institutions will need to identify their own business case and explore new business models to make Open Educational Resources more sustainable/scalable. Lou McGill and her colleague have conducted a study which examined various business cases for sharing learning materials and provided some possible future business models for institutions to engage with open educational resources. This report is available at

One thought on “Free and Open as a Business Model in HE?

  1. I am self taught with programming. Sometimes I think it’s the best way. I learnt and am still learning php and mySQL but already have two successful products on the market and one larger one in development.

    It’s certainly a very productive thing to get into.