© Giulia Forsyth, 2012
© Giulia Forsyth, 2012

This is the second of five posts on open education from Chapter 10 of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first post was ‘What do we mean by “open” education‘?

Open educational resources are somewhat different from open learning, in that they are primarily content, while open learning includes both content and educational services, such as specially designed online materials, in-built learner support and assessment.

Open educational resources cover a wide range of formats, including open textbooks, video recorded lectures, YouTube clips, web-based textual materials designed for independent study, animations and simulations, diagrams and graphics, some MOOCs, or even assessment materials such as tests with automated answers. OER can also include Powerpoint slides or lecture notes. In order to be open educational resources, though, they must be freely available for at least educational use.

For a useful overview of the research on OERs, see the Review Project from the Open Education Group.

Principles of OER

David Wiley is one of the pioneers of OER. He and colleagues have suggested (Hilton et al., 2010) that there are four core principles of open publishing:

  • Reuse—The most basic level of openness. People are allowed to use all or part of the work for their own purposes (e.g., download an educational video to watch at a later time).
  • Redistribute—People can share the work with others (e.g., email a digital article to a colleague).
  • Revise—People can adapt, modify, translate, or change the work (e.g., take a book written in English and turn it into a Spanish audio book).
  • Remix—People can take two or more existing resources and combine them to create a new resource (e.g., take audio lectures from one course and combine them with slides from another course to create a new derivative work).

This open textbook you are reading meets all four criteria (it has a CC BY-NC license – see below). Users of OER though need to check with the actual license for re-use, because sometimes there are limitations, as with this book, which cannot be reproduced without permission for commercial reasons; for example, it cannot be turned into a book for profit by a commercial publisher, at least without permission from the author. To protect your rights as an author of OER usually means publishing under a Creative Commons or other open license.

Creative Commons licenses

This seemingly simple idea, of an ‘author’ creating a license enabling people to freely access and adapt copyright material, without charge or special permission, is one of the great ideas of the 21st century. This does not take away someone’s copyright, but enables that copyright holder to give permission for different kinds of use of their material without charge or any bureaucracy, such as writing for permission.

The spectrum of Creative Commons licenses

The are now several possible Creative Commons licenses:

  • CC BY Attribution: This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.
  • CC BY-SA This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This is particularly important if your work also includes other people’s materials licensed through the Creative Commons
  • CC BY-ND. This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.
  • CC BY-NC. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.
  • CC BY-NC-SA. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.
  • CC BY-NC-ND. This license is the most restrictive of the six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

If you wish to offer your own materials as open educational resources, it is a relatively simple process to choose a licence and apply it to any piece of work (see Creative Commons Choose a License). If in doubt, check with a librarian.

Sources of OER

There are many ‘repositories’ of open educational resources (see for instance, for post-secondary education,  MERLOTOER Commons, and for k-12, Edutopia). However, when searching for possible open educational resources on the web, check to see whether or not the resource has a Creative Commons license or a statement giving permission for re-use. It may be common practice to use free (no cost) resources without worrying unduly about copyright, but there are risks without a clear license or permission for re-use. The Open Professionals Education Network has an excellent guide to finding and using OER.

Limitations of OER

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the take-up of OERs by instructors is still minimal, other than by those who created the original version. The main criticism is of the poor quality of many of the OERs available at the moment – Powerpoint slides, lecture notes, reams of text with no interaction, often available in PDFs that cannot easily be changed or adapted. Even some of the simulations available are crudely made, with poor graphics, and a design that fails to make clear what academic concepts they are meant to illustrate.

Falconer (2013), in a survey of potential users’ attitudes to OER in Europe, came to the following conclusion:

The ability of the masses to participate in production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production, may exploit this mistrust of the free. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualised measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

If OER are to be taken up by others than the creators of the OER, they will need to be well designed. It is perhaps not surprising then that the most used OER on iTunes University were the Open University’s, until the OU set up its own OER portal, FutureLearn, which offers as OER mainly textual materials from its courses designed specifically for online, independent study. Once again, good design is a critical factor in ensuring the quality of an OER.

Hampson (2013) has suggested another reason for the slow adoption of OER, mainly to do with the professional self-image of many university faculty. Hampson argues that faculty don’t see themselves as ‘just’ teachers, but creators and disseminators of new or original knowledge. Therefore their teaching needs to have their own stamp on it, which makes them reluctant to openly incorporate or ‘copy’ other people’s work. OER can easily be associated with ‘packaged’, reproductive knowledge, and not original work, changing faculty from ‘artists’ to ‘artisans’. It can be argued that this reason is absurd – we all stand on the shoulders of giants – but it is the self-perception that’s important, and for research professors, there is a grain of truth in the argument. It makes sense for them to focus their teaching on their own research. But then how many Richard Feynmans are there out there?

There is also considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. For instance, Coursera MOOCs are free, but not ‘open’: it is a breach of copyright to use the material in a Coursera MOOC without permission. On the other hand, edX MOOCs usually have an ‘open’ license.

There is also the issue of the context-free nature of OER. Research into learning shows that content is best learned within context (situated learning), when the learner is active, and that above all, when the learner can actively construct knowledge by developing meaning and ‘layered’ understanding. Content is not static, nor a commodity like coal. In other words, content is not effectively learned if it is thought of as shovelling coal into a truck. Learning is a dynamic process that requires questioning, adjustment of prior learning to incorporate new ideas, testing of understanding, and feedback. These ‘transactional’ processes require a combination of personal reflection, feedback from an expert (i.e. the teacher or instructor) and even more importantly, feedback from and interaction with friends, family and fellow learners.

The weakness with open content is that by its nature, at its purest it is stripped of these developmental, contextual and ‘environmental’ components that are essential for effective learning. In other words, OER are just like coal, sitting there waiting to be loaded. Coal of course is still a very valuable product. But it has to be mined, stored, shipped and processed. More attention needs to be paid to those contextual elements that turn OER from raw ‘content’ into a useful learning experience. This means instructors need to build learning experiences or environments into which the OER will fit.

How to use OERs

Despite these limitations, teachers and instructors are increasingly creating open educational resources, or making resources freely available for others to use under a Creative Commons license. There are increasing numbers of depositories or portals where faculty can access open educational resources. As the quantity of OER expands, it is more likely that teachers and instructors will increasingly be able to find the resources that best suit their particular teaching context.

There are therefore several choices:

  • take OERs selectively from elsewhere, and incorporate or adapt them into your own courses
  • create your own digital resources for your own teaching, and make them available to others (see for instance Creating OER and Combining Licenses from Florida State University)
  • build a course around OER, where students have to find content to solve problems, write reports or do research on a topic
  • make use of a whole course from OERu, then build student activities and assessment and provide learner support for the course.

Learners can use OER to support any type of learning. For instance, MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) could be used just for interest, or students who struggle with the topics in a classroom lecture for a credit course may well go to OCW to get an alternative approach to the same topic.

Still worth the effort

Despite some of the current limitations or weaknesses of OER, their use is likely to grow, simply because it makes no sense to create everything from scratch when good quality materials are freely and easily available. We have seen in Chapter 9 on selecting media that there is now an increasing amount of excellent open material available to teachers and instructors. This will only grow over time. We shall see in Section 10.10 that this is bound to change the way courses are designed and offered. Indeed, OER will prove to be one of the essential features of teaching in a digital age.

Over to you

Once again, this aims to be a fairly descriptive account of OERs. Is it accurate and balanced? Have I missed anything? (Open textbooks, open research and open data are discussed in the next post, and the implications of OER for the design of teaching is discussed in the post after that).


Open textbooks, open research and open data


Falconer, I. et al. (2013) Overview and Analysis of Practices with Open Educational Resources in Adult Education in Europe Seville, Spain: European Commission Institute for Prospective Technological Studies

Hampson, K. (2013) The next chapter for digital instructional media: content as a competitive difference Vancouver BC: COHERE 2013 conference

Hilton, J., Wiley, D., Stein, J., & Johnson, A. (2010). The four R’s of openness and ALMS Analysis: Frameworks for open educational resources. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 25(1), 37–44.

Li, Y, MacNeill, S., and Kraan, W. (undated) Open Educational Resources – Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education Bolton UK: JISC_CETIS



  1. Hi Tony

    Thank you for an accessible overview of OER – we will share it with our network at ROER4D (www.roer4d.org) based at the University of Cape Town.

    I just wanted to discuss some issues about MOOCs and OER in your post:

    You say “the OU set up its own OER portal, FutureLearn, which offers as OER mainly textual materials from its courses designed specifically for online, independent study”. FutureLearn is a MOOC platform provider and hosts material from a number of institutions, not just the OU-UK. Most FutureLearn courses are not OER (have CC licences). (The University of Cape Town is developing MOOCs on the FutureLearn platform). The courses do not have to be OER, although some courses might release some materials as OER if they choose to do so.

    I am also interested in your statement: “There is also considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. For instance, Coursera MOOCs are free, but not ‘open’: it is a breach of copyright to use the material in a Coursera MOOC without permission. On the other hand, edX MOOCs usually have an ‘open’ license”. Most MOOCs I have seen on both the edX and Coursera platforms are copyright to the institution with materials being used for personal use but not licenced as OER. There are a handful of courses on both the platforms (including Coursera) that do release materials as OER, but these seem to be in the minority. It would be interesting to see if there are any studies looking into this. My understanding is that the institution, not the platform, determines the licences. Of course the platforms might make it easier or more difficult to licence materials depending on contracts and platform design.

    Best wishes

    Sukaina Walji
    Research on Open Educational Resources for Development (ROER4D) in the Global South

    • Many thanks for this, Sukaina. You are completely correct. ‘FutureLearn’ was a typo/a senior’s moment on my part; I meant OpenLearn, which is the OU site for its free materials.
      You are also correct about the licensing arrangements for edX and Coursera. The difference of course is that edX is an open source platform, so institutions are free to adopt or adapt it.
      I believe the reasons institutions protect the copyright on MOOCs is because many faculty do NOT want their materials used by others, which is a major limitation for creating new OER.
      My main point still stands (and in fact is reinforced by my own mistakes): MOOCs have caused great confusion about what open means.
      I will make these corrections immediately and thank you for such a detailed and useful comment

      • I agree that MOOCs have created a lot of confusion about what it means for a resources to be open. At the University of Saskatchewan we have our second open course launching next week (our first based on a for-credit course). We don’t call them MOOCs, but TOOCs for Truly Open Online Courses. All materials that we created for the courses carry a CC license. The courses are running through Canvas, which allowed to make everything except the quizzes and discussion forums open. All resources also reside on a separate site so learners can continue to access them beyond the length of the course. I’d like to see this model spread so that more open courses are actually open.

  2. Thanks Tony
    The discussions found within the recent BCcampus Open Textbook Workshop, _ https://p2pu.org/en/courses/2675/adopting-open-textbooks/ _ could provide additional reference for Readers.
    OER sense-making happens when discussing specifics (i.e. a one-on-one focused discussion about a Teacher’s current resources, needs and expectations) and can be difficult in generalizations. You might contact Clint Lalonde for more information about the course and participants’ interactions.

  3. Hi Tony,

    You may be aware that recently David Wiley has added a 5th R to his 4R framework – Retain http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/3221

    We include this 5th R when we talk about the BC Open Textbook Project and believe that, in the context of textbooks, this is becoming a crucial issue. More often than not, digital textbooks from commercial publishers come with Digital Rights Management (DRM) locks. These locks prevent students from keeping their textbooks. So instead of buying a paper textbook which they can retain for as long as they need it, students now must purchase access codes to digital resources that expire after 6 to 12 months. Meaning the student looses access to their learning resources when it may, in fact, still be useful and relevant to them. For that reason, we think the 5th R is an important expansion to Wiley’s 4R framework.

    • Thanks, Clint. I agree – retain is very important for open-ness. I did add retain as a fifth principle though in the following section, on open textbooks. I’ll make the edit so it appears in the OER section. Many thanks.

    • Good question, Robert.
      The best people to ask would be the folks at Creative Commons, who specialize in such questions, but my view is: yes, you can use proprietal resources to create OER, whether it is software such as Word, or hardware such as video recording equipment.
      It is the creator of the material, the content creator, that holds the copyright to the content, not the carrier of the content, unless the carrier has explicitly claimed prior rights to any content created using that software.
      In other words, read very carefully the agreement you sign when buying Word or other software or equipment, but it is usually the creator of material that can waive or assign the copyright for open use.

      • As long as you can retain, revise, remix, redistribute and reuse the content without being required to purchase anything, it is OER. There are clearly degrees of ease to each of the 5 R’s and there are people and organisations that are pushing the definition. For instance, some of the e-book offerings aren’t what I’d call easy to revise and redistribute, but they’re getting by as OER, anyway.


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