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Defining Open Educational Resources

Defining the term OER

You may have heard the term “OER,” and wondered – what exactly does it mean? OER refers to any educational content that is ‘free’ and ‘openly-licensed.’

  • Free – No cost to students, so no exorbitant textbook prices
  • Openly-licensed – When something is ‘openly-licensed,’ it means that the author/creator has made their work available for others to use,  share, and adapt, typically by licensing the work with a Creative Commons license or other open-source license.

In other words, OER:

  • Are teaching materials that can be shared freely and publicly, and
  • Provide explicit legal permission to adapt the materials for customization

“OER may include everything from a single video or lesson plan to a complete online course or curriculum and also include the software platforms needed to create, change, and share the materials.”

Sparks, Sarah D. (March 28, 2017) “What Is OER? Answers to 5 Questions About Open Educational Resources.” Education Week

OER are often delivered in digital formats online, but they can be shared in print as well.

This type of “open” sharing is a newer model, different from what is permitted under traditional copyright. OER can increase access and equity by making course materials more readily available to students in a period when textbook costs are higher than ever.

Attribution: [The Council of Chief State School Officers] (Dec. 14, 2016) What is OER? (1:39) [Video] Retrieved from https://youtu.be/LDTCdMKlDQw (CC BY 4.0)
Attribution: [Brendan Walsh] (June 2, 2012) Why Open Educational Resources Matter (2:09) [Video]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/43323388 (CC BY 3.0)

OER vs. free materials

What is the difference between learning material we describe as ‘OER’ and learning material we describe as ‘no-cost’ or ‘free?’

The critical thing that sets OER apart from cost-free resources is that they have what is colloquially referred to as “open licenses.” This means the author/creator has chosen an intellectual property license to allow their work to be available for others to use, share, update, revise, and adapt. This means you don’t need to purchase a copy or contact the rights holder for permission to redistribute or adapt the work.

This is achieved by authors selecting a Creative Commons license Item opens in new tab/window. for their work. These licenses provide a transparent way for authors to grant permission for users to do the 5Rs.

What are the 5Rs?

5R logo: Blue circle with white 5R text inside and the 5 "r" words written in green around circle.
  • Retain – permission to own, archive, and make copies of the content
  • Reuse – permission to reuse content in its unaltered form
  • Revise – permission to adapt, adjust, modify, and alter content
  • Remix – permission to combine original or revised content with other content to create something new
  • Redistribute – permission to share copies with others in its original, revised or remixed form
    (You may see this referred to as the ‘5 R’s’)

This type of “open” sharing is a newer model, different from what is permitted under traditional copyright.  

Identifying learning materials that are OER

The way to determine if a learning material is OER is by looking for the intellectual property license. If you see it has a Creative Commons license that permits editing and remixing, then you can call it OER! We’ll go into more detail about the mechanics of this in a further section, but for now, to understand why open educational resources came about, it’s important to review intellectual property and current copyright law.

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