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What Are Open Educational Resources?

Open educational resources blew up in higher education when the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative launched 15 years ago. But what exactly are they?

Though the term "open educational resources" has become widely used in recent years, not everyone is clear on exactly what it means.

According to the Hewlett Foundation, whose definition is considered the most official, says Lisa Petrides, the CEO and founder of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), "[open educational resources] 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 (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."

There are, however, two other two definitions that include slight variations.

1. ISKME — which runs OER Commons, a curated digital public library and collaboration platform for open educational resources that's built by and for educators and was initially funded by the Hewlett Foundation — emphasizes that anyone can use and reuse these resources at no charge, without having to ask for permission, and that the creator of these resources decides not to keep many ownership rights.

2. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) mentions that it's legal to copy and adapt resources that are either in the public domain or have an open license.

Also, it goes by three different names: open educational resources, open education resources and openly licensed educational resources. The differences between these terms are mostly stylistic, Petrides said, but they ultimately mean the same thing.

The whole open educational resources concept blew up in higher education when the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative launched 15 years ago. MIT published no-charge and open material from thousands of its courses online for anyone to access worldwide.

Educators and students have been using the material to improve their knowledge about a subject, and independent learners have been exploring areas outside their professional fields, among other things. In fact, most of the website's more than 2 million visits each month come from students and self learners. Educators make up 9 percent of the visits, according to the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative.

Higher education institutions embraced open educational resources more quickly than their counterparts in K-12 education, where a lengthy procurement process generally controls textbook adoption. Community colleges in particular have really run with it. That said, K-12 schools and districts have been turning more attention to open educational resources over the last few years, and their efforts have ramped up since the U.S. Department of Education's launch of the #GoOpen campaign in early 2016.

As part of this campaign, states and school districts are committing to adopt more open educational resources. These commitments have brought together education technology leaders and curriculum directors to work on open educational resources instead of making decisions on their own, Petrides said.

Practically speaking, she added, open educational resources have come to stand for affordability, access, equity and teacher professionalism. Some policymakers and community colleges have embraced open educational resources as a way to cut down on expensive textbook costs, which in turn increases equitable access to learning material.

"Affordability was a metric that a lot of the policymakers could really wrap their heads around," Petrides said, "because you could go back to your constituents and say, 'We can save you money.'"

Educators are also recognizing that creating their own open educational resources or choosing which ones to use gives them more control over their classroom.

Going deeper

Open Education Week Raises OER Awareness in Higher Education

Open Education Resources: Will They Transform Curriculum Planning?

13 States Kick Off Open Education Resources Initiatives