Open Educational Resources (OER) are defined as instructional materials that are fully accessible and reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge (adapted from the Hewlett Foundation definition of OER).
Open educational resources give educators the ability to adapt instructional resources to the individual needs of their students, to ensure that resources are up-to-date, and to ensure that cost is not a barrier to accessing high-quality standards-aligned resources. OER are already being used across America in K-12, higher education, workforce training, informal learning, and more.
Open educational resources are and always will be free, but not all free resources are openly licensed. Free resources may be temporarily free or may be restricted from use at some time in the future (including by the addition of fees to access those resources). Moreover, free-but-not-open resources may not be modified, adapted, or redistributed without obtaining special permission from the copyright holder.
Like most educational resources these days, most OER start as digital files. But like traditional resources, OER can be made available to students in both digital and printed formats. Of course, digital OER are easier to share, modify, and redistribute, but being digital is not what makes something an OER or not. This flexibility is important, because it no longer makes print and digital a choice of one or the other. OER textbooks, for example, can typically be printed for $5-50 (compared to $100-300 for traditional books) while still being available free digitally.
The key distinguishing characteristic of OER is its intellectual property license and the freedoms the license grants to others to share and adapt it. If an instructional resource is not clearly tagged or marked as being in the public domain or having an open license, it is not OER. It’s that simple. The most common way to release materials as OER is through Creative Commons copyright licenses, which are standardized, free-to-use open licenses that have already been used on more than 1 billion copyrighted works.
Studies at both the K-12 and higher education levels show that students who use OER do as well, and often better, than their peers using traditional resources. Also, many OER are developed through rigorous peer review and production processes that mirror traditional materials. However, it is important to note that being open or closed does not inherently affect the quality of a resource. Being open does enable educators to use the resource more effectively, which can lead to better outcomes. For example, OER can be updated, tailored and improved locally to fit the needs of students, and it also eliminates cost as a barrier for students to access their materials.
Educators and researchers create, review, and edit OER to determine whether they are a good fit for their students. Educators know their students best, and OER provide them with a broad range of high-quality resources including assignments and professional development that empower educators to customize lesson plans to meet the unique needs of every student. And, with an increasing number of resources available online to see how other educators have used and evaluated OER, it’s easier than ever for educators to find pre-curated, ready-to-use OER materials that are best for their students.
Unlike digital platforms offered by traditional publishing companies, OER are free of cost and free from restrictions on how educators and students may use them. OER give educators the choice to adapt full lesson plans, or customize assignments that better align with individual student learning styles. OER also give educators the choice to provide input and author their own content. Publishers limit these digital services to paying customers who can only access content for a limited period of time. Publishers also limit authorship to their own network – restricting other qualified professors and teachers from contributing content. With OER, educators and students provide input, keep their materials forever, and can refer back to them in the future – not just for a trial period or the buying cycle for traditional textbooks.
Open licensing is a simple, legal way for authors to keep their copyright and share their work – like an image or textbook – with the public under the terms and conditions they choose. The key distinguishing characteristic of OER are their open licenses, which communicate the permissions to share and adapt the educational content, while ensuring that the author receives attribution for their work. The most common way to share materials as OER is by applying a Creative Commons (CC) license. The CC licenses are standardized, free to use open copyright licenses, and have been adopted by millions of people around the world. You can add a Creative Commons license to your work without any fees, paperwork, or registration.
Creative Commons licenses provide an easy way to manage the copyright terms that attach automatically to all creative material under copyright. The licenses allow that material to be shared and reused under terms that are flexible and legally sound. Creative Commons offers a core suite of six copyright licenses. Because there is no single “Creative Commons license,” it is important to identify which of the six licenses you are applying to your material, which of the six licenses has been applied to material that you intend to use, and in both cases, the specific version.
CC licenses may be applied to any type of work, including educational resources, music, photographs, databases, government and public sector information, and many other types of material. The only categories of works for which CC does not recommend its licenses are computer software and hardware. You should also not apply Creative Commons licenses to works that are no longer protected by copyright or are otherwise in the public domain. Instead, for those works in the worldwide public domain, we recommend that you mark them with the Public Domain Mark.
Fully accessible refers to the practice of designing learning materials that can be navigated and understood by all users, including those who have visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities (adapted from the National Federation of the Blind and the Rouse and Souza definitions of accessibility).