Altruism and OER /OED: sharing, charity and the process of giving

Read any article about open educational resources or designs and the term ‘sharing’ pops up time and again. Whilst an apparently innocuous, self-explanatory term, for something so closely bound to notions of openness of why we think people want and are open and of how we imagine the mechanism of interaction and co-creation of common resources, it is often evoked with scarily little critical reflection. I propose here that it can be a misnomer and, as such, is operating as much to obstruct our analysis and critical understanding of the mechanisms for enacting openness.

The idea of sharing refers to what could be termed ‘reciprocal altruism’ – a form of altruism where there is anticipated to be exchange of things, often of those judged of broadly similar value. This notion of reciprocal altruism, often with an emphasis on the interaction that takes place not reasons for it, forms a cornerstone of how many people imagine how open education systems will work and should be configured; designers exchange designs, students review each others work, teachers share their resources. Ask why they think such interaction will take place and either the fall-back position of reciprocal altruism is assumed accepts begrudgingly accepts conscious self-interest.

Yet psychological, sociological and economic research tells us that there is more to altruism than reciprocity or sharing. Altruism for example can also take the form of kin selection, or nepotism, with individuals supporting others seen as similar to themselves thereby binding communities closer together. It can also take the form of charity – the act of giving to a stranger; the understanding of this is fundamental to entire sectors!

It seems to me that focusing on the act of ‘giving’ – looking at individual and structural motivations, intents, behaviours and social norms – can enrich our models of OER use. What if we look to interpret contributions to OER repositories or other open learning and design repositories as acts of altruism such as charity or kin-selection? Can we use such perspectives to build a complete picture of what openness is or could be like?

So why do people ‘give’? There are many overlapping theories. One perspective holds that people give to feel good or better about themselves (even to remove a sense of guilt or obligation). This ‘warm glow’ comes from  feeling the individual has made some altruistic or self-sacrificial gesture that will benefit the wider community. Of course, this doesn’t mean that such an act will benefit anyone, but that’s not the point, the point is that it might do and that’s enough. The implication for education is that a contributor may be more focused more on fulfilling self-need than the value of the contribution to the consumer or recipient. And indeed, this model of charity is often used to encourage educators to contribute (give) for those trying to teach in poorer resourced countries.

A second perspective argues that people give to boost social status, to be recognised as having given and for enhancement of self-image. Coupled with this are the ‘private benefits’ that giving may yield. As one study on charitable donations found ‘people who may have greater incentive to seek occasions for social networking place a much higher value on private benefits associated with their giving levels.’ It seems the power of the charity’s status in the community is also a central influence on contributions – people give more to things that are more valued by the community (for us this may be those teaching and learning and (open) education communities with higher status or visibility). Conferring social approval rewards conformity to, and replication of, particular norms and it is through this enforcement that social norms associated with types of altruism with be maintained. However, unlike charity, sharing expects external reward. Reward mechanisms such as ranking or stars would seem to be aimed at offering private benefit to individual contributors yet may conversely discourage charitable contribution.

A third explanation for altruism focuses on the perceived amount of benefit or cost to the individual. This means that often people give that which is of low value, marginal cost or give ‘away excess’. When we look at contributions to an OER repository or teaching and learning sharing website are we actually seeing people give away artifacts of relatively low value? (although this is not to say that OER repositories run the risk of becoming the equivalent of a second-hand charity shop clothes rail!). And, when posting on public websites there is the potential professional cost (such as others rating a contribution as of poor academic or scholarly quality). Of course, value is relative and what one group values highly another may not. For example, the author of a journal paper sees value in having it published and read by colleagues, whereas a publisher would, I guess at least from a commercial perspective, be concerned with how many copies are sold and if it appeals to its readership. An author no more readily invest the time writing it but then see that time wasted by it being published under someone’s name with no acknowledgement, than a publisher would want to see the time invested in editing, printing, publicity, subscription services and building reputation wasted by it being given away for free.

Other research on altruism suggests that people give because of empathic or emotional attachment. Behind this is presumably is a process of building an imagined beneficiary; the better the recipient (be that another teacher or learner) is defined, the greater the potential empathic response. Others talk of the importance of obligation, attribution, role identity and fairness.

I’ve also come across two other interesting ideas whilst writing this post. The first is that ‘discrimination is a necessary part of persisting altruism’ (Hardin). This ideas holds that in the real world everyone cannot be altruistic all of the time (or in fact some even part of the time). Consequently, for altruism to work as a strategy, groups evolve who gain benefit from mutual sharing which help them relative to other groups. The idea that altruistic activity must necessarily involve setting boundaries challenge a fundamental vision of open systems being places for everyone.

The second idea relates to the creation or management of public goods and the free-rider phenomenon (and I suggest we could consider open learning repositories and resources as public goods). I understand this idea comes from economic theory. It suggests that the ‘free-rider’ (in OER terms the equivalent of those who look at/take from sites but do contribute) will cause a group to provide itself with no more than a minimal level of public goods, even when they could all benefit much more if the goods were provided at higher levels (Kim & Walker). So, far from the public spaces at which sharing takes place maximising public goods, behaviour in this space may work against promoting significant quality or quantity of contributions.

In my work on the openED project, such perspectives may be quite enlightening. Why, for example, has there been almost no peer review of submitted assignments? Why have few beyond the project team offered additional support for free? Do participants in different countries have different attitudes towards the act of giving?

In conclusion, it seems to me that developers of open education resources repositories or sites for contributing learning and teaching ideas would find it useful to construct multiple models of altruism – for example ones that could sit alongside and complement a existing ‘model of sharing’. Whilst this may require a tempering of the more utopian hope that simply opening something up will be enough, or indeed the best solution, if theories of giving can help frame the strategy of fundraisers and charities, then they are certainly worth our attention also.

Bibliography for this post available on request. This post was inspired by a seminar presented by Rob Farrow last week about OER and its philosophical foundations.

3 Responses to Altruism and OER /OED: sharing, charity and the process of giving

  1. yishaym says:

    I always get a bit uneasy around fluffy feel-good models of altruism. Yes, we do have an innate desire to share, but there should be a hard, rationale explanation for it. Otherwise, it just doesn’t last.
    I think game-theoretic models could be useful here in understanding people’s incentive structures, and how we can design social protocols to sustain open sharing.

  2. Hi Simon

    Really interesting take on motivations for sharing. I think (in OER/academic fields anyway) we also need to do more to encourage and support the habit of sharing too, so that it becomes part of everyday practice. I guess altruism and habits are pretty inter-twinned so I think explore some models as you suggest could be very valuable.

  3. Interesting stuff! And I think I will write a full response on my own blog ( the next few days (time permitting). In the meantime, you might be interested in the draft chapter I co-wrote for the forthcoming book ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm & Philosophy’. The stuff at the start is most relevant and the whole thing makes more sense if you know the TV show. It’s available at

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