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Open Educational Resources: OER FAQ

A guide to textbooks, course materials and multimedia which are free or or low cost for educational use. These resources were created with the intention of being widely used and are legal to use in courses with proper citation.

Common Questions

What are Open Educational Resources (OER)?

Open educational resources (OER) are educational materials that are distributed at no cost with legal permission for the public to freely use, share, and build upon the content. The Hewlett Foundation defines OER as “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. OER include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge” 

"OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that 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." - Hewlett Foundation

The 5Rs of Openness (David Wiley)



Further Reading

Open Textbooks Could Help Students

Why should I adopt an open textbook?

Open textbooks are more affordable than commercially available textbooks; this permits student education budgets to stretch further, thus giving students greater flexibility in their education choices. Furthermore, faculty can readily customize open textbooks to better meet their local teaching and learning needs. Open textbooks provide pricing, flexibility and customization advantages that commercially available textbooks currently do not provide, customize and update open textbooks.

How do OER help educators and students?

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.

What is the difference between ‘free’ and ‘open’ resources?

Open educational resources are and always will be free, but not all free resources are OER. 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.

Are all OER digital?

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.

How do you tell if an educational resource is an OER?

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 a lesson plan or activity 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.

What are the disadvantages to using open textbooks?

Some disadvantages of OER include:

  • Quality of available OER materials is inconsistent. However, this is also true of commercial textbooks, which vary widely in quality. As the number of open textbooks increases, there will be a concomitant increase in overall quality.
  • Materials may not meet Section 508 ADA accessibility requirements and must be modify to bring into compliance. In fact, this is true of many commercial textbooks. Open textbooks will ultimately meet and exceed Section ADA accessibility requirements, as currently fulfilled on commercially available textbooks.
  • Faculty need to check for accuracy of content of open content, just as they do with commercially available content.
  • Customization may be necessary to match departmental and/or college curriculum requirements. However, customization of content will ultimately be more flexible in open content than it currently is in commercially available content.
  • Technical requirements to access the content vary. Interoperability standards that permit transportability across many technology platforms are now in the making.

Can OER be high quality if it is free?

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. 


This FAQ page of the guide was created using resources from Creative Commons, Consortium for Open Education Resources, and Director of Neil Butcher & Associates; policy & technical expert on education planning, use of educational technology and distance education under a CC 3.0 and CC-BY 4.0 licenses.

Advanced Questions

Is OER related to the concept of resource-based learning?

There has been significant emphasis placed in OER discussions on the quality of OER. This makes the concept of resource-based learning of particular interest. Despite this, debates over OER have typically made little reference to the concept of resource-based learning until recently. This may be because the emphasis in most global OER discussion has been on the sharing and licensing of existing materials, a significant proportion of which has included simply sharing lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations used in face-to-face lectures.

What does the notion of resource-based learning mean, in essence? It means moving away from the traditional notion of the 'talking teacher' to communicate curriculum; a significant but varying proportion of communication between students and educators is not face to face but rather takes place through the use of different media as necessary. Importantly, the face-to-face contact that does take place typically does not involve simple transmission of knowledge from educator to student; instead it involves various forms of student support, for example, tutorials, peer group discussion, or practical work.

Resource-based learning is not a synonym for distance education. Rather, resource-based learning provides a basis for transforming the culture of teaching across all educational systems to enable those systems to offer better quality education to significantly larger numbers of students. Many courses and programmes at all levels of education now incorporate extensive use of instructionally designed resources, as educators have learned the limitations of lecture-based strategies for communicating information to students. The use of resource-based learning does not of course imply any intrinsic improvements in quality of learning experience. The extent to which shifting the communication of curriculum to instructionally designed resources leads improves the quality of education depends entirely on the quality of the resources developed.

To summarize:

  • There is no direct relationship between OER and resource-based learning.
  • Many OER available online have not explicitly been designed as part of a deliberate strategy to shift to resource-based learning.
  • Likewise, most practice in resource-based learning currently uses fully copyrighted materials rather than OER.

Nevertheless, linking OER and resource-based learning provides an opportunity to leverage both most effectively.

How open is an open licence?

A common misconception is that ‘openly licensed’ content belongs in the public domain, and that the author gives up all of their rights to this material. This is not so. In fact, the emergence of open licences has been driven strongly by a desire to protect a copyright holder’s rights in environments where content (particularly when digitized) can so easily be copied and shared via the Internet without asking permission.

A broad spectrum of legal frameworks is emerging to govern how OER are licensed for use. Some of the legal frameworks simply allow copying, but others make provision for users to adapt the resources that they use. The best known of these is the Creative Commons licencing framework (see It provides legal mechanisms to ensure that authors of materials can retain acknowledgement for their work while allowing it to be shared, can seek to restrict commercial activity if they wish, and can aim to prevent people from adapting it if appropriate. Thus, an author who applies a Creative Commons (CC) licence to their work specifically seeks to retain copyright over that work, but agrees – through the licence – to give away some of those rights.

A bit about Creative Commons (CC):

  • The CC approach provides user-friendly open licences for digital materials and so avoids automatically applied copyright restrictions.
  • The CC licences take account of different copyright laws in different countries or jurisdictions and also allow for different language versions.
  • To make the licensing process as simple as possible for users, the Creative Commons site makes use of a licence generator that suggests the most appropriate licence based on a user’s response to specific questions regarding how their work can be used.
  • All of the CC licences include basic rights that are retained by the authors, asserting the author’s right over copyright and the granting of copyright freedoms.
  • Within this framework, the CC licences allow authors, in a user-friendly way, to grant other people the right to make copies of their work and, if they wish, to allow other people to make changes to their work without seeking permission.
  • The CC licences also allow users to apply some restrictions on these permissions, for example, requiring attribution of the authorship of the original work, or restricting reuse of the resource for commercial purposes.

See Appendix One for a full overview of the Creative Commons licences.

What is the difference between OER and open access publishing?

Open access publishing is an important concept, which is clearly related to – but distinct from – that of OER.

Wikipedia notes that the term 'open access' is applied to many concepts, but usually refers either to:

  • 'open access (publishing)'; or
  • 'access to material (mainly scholarly publications) via the Internet in such a way that the material is free for all to read, and to use (or reuse) to various extents'; or
  • 'open access journal, journals that give open access to all or a sizable part of their articles'.[2]

Open access publishing is typically referring to research publications of some kind released under an open licence. OER refers to teaching and learning materials released under such a licence. Clearly, especially in higher education, there is an overlap, as research publications typically form an important part of the overall set of materials that students need to access to complete their studies successfully, particularly at postgraduate level.

Nevertheless, the distinction seems worth applying because it allows more nuanced discussion and planning about which kinds of open licences would be most appropriate for different types of resources.

Shouldn’t I worry about 'giving away' my intellectual property?

A key concern for educators and senior managers of educational institutions about the concept of OER relates to ‘giving away’ intellectual property, with potential loss of commercial gain that might come from it. This is often combined with a related anxiety that others will take unfair advantage of their intellectual property, benefitting by selling it, plagiarizing it (i.e. passing it off as their own work), or otherwise exploiting it. These concerns are completely understandable.

In some instances, of course, when educators raise this concern, it actually masks a different anxiety – namely, that sharing their educational materials will open their work to scrutiny by their peers (and that their peers may consider their work to be of poor quality). Whether or not the concern is justified, it is important to determine what is truly driving the concerns of educators. When the concern is the loss of commercial opportunity, this requires a particular response (engaging with the incentives for sharing). But when this is masking a concern about peer and student scrutiny, this needs to be dealt with differently (and will usually involve some policy or management drive to overcome resistance to change).

As more institutions around the world are, at different levels, requiring their educators to share more materials under open licences, experiences clearly demonstrate that this opening of intellectual property to peer scrutiny is having the effect of improving quality of teaching and learning materials. This happens both because educators tend to invest time in improving their materials before sharing them openly and because the feedback they receive from peer and student scrutiny helps them to make further improvements.

While a small percentage of teaching and learning materials can – and will continue to – generate revenue through direct sales, the reality has always been that the percentage of teaching and learning materials that have commercial resale value is minimal; it is also declining further as more and more educational material is made freely accessible on the Internet. Much of the content that was previously saleable will lose its economic value while the niches for sale of generic educational content will likely become more specialized.

However, if a resource truly has potential to be exploited for commercial gain through sale of the resource, then it should be possible – and encouraged – for an educator (or an institution) to retain all-rights reserved copyright over that resource. Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and copyright policies for education need to be flexible enough to allow the educator and/or institution to retain all-rights reserved copyright for resources that have this potential commercial value.

It is becoming increasingly evident that, on the teaching and learning side, educational institutions that succeed are likely to do so predominantly by understanding that their real potential educational value lies not in content itself (which is increasingly available in large volumes online), but in their ability to guide students effectively through educational resources via well-designed teaching and learning pathways, offer effective support to students (whether that be in practical sessions, tutorials, individual counselling sessions, or online), and provide intelligent assessment and critical feedback to students on their performance (ultimately leading to some form of accreditation). Although it may seem counter-intuitive, therefore, as business models are changed by the presence of ICT, the more other institutions make use of their materials, the more this will serve to build institutional reputation and thereby attract new students.

Given this, it is important for copyright holders of educational materials to consider carefully what commercial benefits they might find in sharing their materials openly. Of course, the primary benefits of harnessing OER should be educational (see 'How can education benefit by harnessing OER?' below), but the issue of sharing content openly may also be considered a strategy to protect oneself commercially.

The following benefits can accrue from sharing content under an open licence: {{left margin|1em|

  • As digitized content can so easily be shared between students and institutions, sharing it publicly under an open licence is the safest way to protect the author’s IPR and copyright; the licence can ensure that, when content is shared, it remains attributed to the original author. Open sharing of content can more rapidly expose plagiarism, by making the original materials easy to access. In addition, releasing materials under an open licence also reduces the incentive for others to lie about the source of materials because they have permission to use them.
  • Sharing of materials provides institutions opportunities to market their services. Educational institutions that succeed economically in an environment where content has been digitized and is increasingly easy to access online are likely to do so because they understand that their real potential educational value lies not in content itself, but in offering related services valued by their students. These might include: guiding students effectively through educational resources (via well-designed teaching and learning pathways); offering effective student support (such as practical sessions, tutorials, individual counselling sessions or online); and providing intelligent assessment and critical feedback to students on their performance (ultimately leading to some form of accreditation). Within this environment, the more other institutions make use of their materials, the more this will serve to market the originating institution’s services and thereby attract new students.
  • For individual educators, proper commercial incentives for sharing content openly are most likely to flow when institutions have policies to reward such activity properly. Up to now, many institutional and national policies and budgetary frameworks have tended, at worst, to penalize collaboration and open sharing of knowledge (by removing possible streams of income when knowledge is shared openly) or, at best, to ignore it (as so many universities do by rewarding research publication over other pursuits). Thus, for most educators, the incentives lie in changing the institutional and national policies and budgetary frameworks so that they reward collaboration and open sharing of knowledge.
  • Even if institutional and national policies and budgetary frameworks do not reward collaboration and open sharing of knowledge, there are still incentives for educators to share their resources openly. Open licences maximize the likelihood of content-sharing taking place in a transparent way that protects the moral rights of content authors. Furthermore, people who seek to ring-fence, protect, and hide their educational content and research will likely place limits on their educational careers. They will also increasingly be excluded from opportunities to improve their teaching practice and domain-specific knowledge by sharing and collaborating with growing networks of educators around the world. Those who share materials openly already have significant opportunities to build their individual reputations through these online vehicles (although, of course, the extent to which they manage this will remain dependent on the quality of what they are sharing).}}