What are Open Educational Resources?


Open educational resources (OER) are cost-free and openly licensed educational materials that can be used for teaching, learning, research, and other purposes. This definition comes from the Creative Commons organization.

In other words, OERs:

  1. Are teaching materials that can be shared freely, and
  2. Provide explicit permission to adapt the materials for customization

What’s the difference between learning materials we describe as “OERs” and learning materials we describe as “zero-cost” or “free?”

The critical thing that sets OERs 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, and even build upon.

This is achieved by authors selecting a Creative Commons license for their work. These licenses provide a transparent way for authors to give permission for users to:

  1. Retain the right to own, archive, and make copies of the content
  2. Reuse – content can be reused in its unaltered form
  3. Revise – content can be adapted, adjusted, modified, and altered
  4. Remix – original or revised content can be combined with other content to create something new
  5. Redistribute – copies of the content can be shared with others in its original, revised or remixed form

To understand why open educational resources came about, it’s important to review intellectual property and copyright law.

What is copyright?

Copyright is a form of protection granted by U.S. law to the creators of “original works of authorship” including scholarly and creative works. Creators do not have to register their work or attach a copyright notice in order for copyright protection to apply to the work; the protection exists automatically from the time the work is created. Even napkin doodles are protected by copyright. Unpublished and published works are covered under copyright as well. Kind of counterintuitive, right?

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. Check out some scenarios to clarify your understanding on what can be copyright protected and what can’t.

What “rights” are protected under U.S. Copyright Law?

Copyright holders have exclusive rights to:

  1. Reproduce their work
  2. Prepare derivative works
  3. Distribute copies of their work
  4. Perform their work publicly
  5. Display their work publicly

Are OERs online materials only?

No. OERs can be any type of educational content: a video, a simulation, an image, a blog, a podcast, a textbook, any variety of textual material, like lecture notes. OERs are often delivered in digital formats online, but they can be in print as well. 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 lets you edit and remix the material to suit you, then you can call it OER.