Appreciate your objective and thoughtful feedback on the OERu strategic targets. Particularly since TRU, as a founding anchor partner, completed one of the first prototype courses and you can offer authentic and realistic estimates drawing on your institutional experience.
You offer valuable advice for a proposed process model, namely that two or three partners build a working model through "demonstrators" which will build confidence in the network to emulate the approach. I think the strategic planning documents should provide guidance on the process side of things as well.
A few responses to your observations and questions.
Irwin wrote "I can't speak to the current financial realities"
As an OER initiative which was bootstrapped in 2009, we are doing surprisingly well with 64% of our total operational costs covered from membership fees. We are well on track to achieve a fiscally sustainable collaboration without reliance on 3rd party funding - very few OER projects to date will be able to show a plausible pathway to fiscal sustainability by July 2015.
Since inception, we have focused on maintaining a very low cost base which is now paying dividends.
The deficit to date has in part been funded through 3rd party donor funding most notably the Hewlett Foundation. We receive a small contribution (CAD15,000) from the Commonwealth of Learning for the UNESCO-COL Chair initiative.
The council of Otago Polytechnic has bank rolled the accumulated shortfall for our foundation years - a bold and couragous committment to open education. However, we anticipate that by the end of the 2014 fiscal year, the OER Foundation will have cleared the amount owing to Otago Polytechnic for the accumulated deficit.
The current grant from the Hewlett Foundation will cover our operational deficit till 30 June 2015. This means we need to recruit 15 additional partners by this date.
Here are the numbers. The total operational cost for the Foundation according to 2013 audited financial statements was US$214,000. The target for breakeven is therefore 54 contributing partners (i.e. 214K divided by 4K for gold 3yr membership) assuming we maintain our low cost base and keep membership fees at the same level.
The adminstration overhead for external grants for a small organisation with only 2 FTE staff like the OERF is considerable - research and authoring of grant proposals, report writing, external evaluation etc. This is not to say that we will not pursue grant funding once we achieve the breakeven threshold - but we will have the advantage of focusing grant funding on strategic (rather than operational) projects.
Irwin asks: "What is the recruitment strategy? What has it been till now? How can the partners contribute to this growth? How has the word gone out to date?"
When we established the OER Foundation, we attempted blind written letters of invitation. This strategy did not produce results. The most successful strategy is "word of mouth" where middle and senior managers in the OERu partnership speak with their counterparts at prospective partner institutions to consider joining our family. Once this "lead" is established, the OER Foundation sends a formal letter of invitation detailing the benefits and how the OERu functions. We always offer the opportunity to discuss the OERu with senior leadership at the prospective partner through a synchronous web conference. Almost all partners have used the opportunity to discuss membership during a web conference. This is usually followed by a number of communications with myself to clarrify questions with the prospective partner as required by local due dillengence procedures.
Partners can help by establishing a "lead" for prospective partners. The OERF can then follow through with the formal invitation and membership discussions. If each partner were to establish one successful lead - we would double our recruitment targets. So this is doable!
And finally at what point does the payoff of membership, however we define that (a good discussion question?), need to be apparent?
Drawing on our research, the three most important reasons cited for joining the network in order of priority are:
- To be part of an international network
- Our philanthropic mission to widen access to affordable education
- To explore new business opportunities arising from open education models.
The fact that we are a charitible organisation is a key driver in the decision to be part of the family.
With reference to return on investment discussions, I think a key focus should be on how partners can extract immediate but tangible benefits from the collaboration - rather than esoteric future OERu learner numbers. It will take time to build a cohort of OERu learners in the absence of a coherent programme of study.
Your point about the OERu being a catalyst for local instittional discussions about innovation and change is insightful -- and perhaps something we should stress more in our recruitment.
As always Irwin - thanks for your valuable inputs.