A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources

What are open education resources? What's the difference between open access and OER? We outline it all in this comprehensive guide.

An important thing about a textbook is that it actually gets read. However, all too often, cash-strapped students skip buying textbooks entirely, worsening their achievement prospects.

There’s no reason to give up, however. With tech advances making no-cost educational materials like educational resources (OERs) more accessible to use than ever, instructors can give all students — regardless of their socioeconomic status — a fair shot at academic success. 

Here’s a basic guide to open educational resources, their benefits, and tips for getting started.

What are OERs? How are they different from Open Access materials?

Certain types of educational materials are billed as OERs when they are actually something different, according to EducationWeek. Many people use the terms Open Access and OER interchangeably because they help students cut down on costs, but the two types of resources are not the same.

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are freely and publicly available teaching, learning, and research materials that are either a) in the public domain (which means that either the copyright holder has removed the copyright or the copyright has expired); or b) have been licensed in a way that permits anyone to revise, remix, and distribute the materials. 

In contrast, Open Access materials are available free online for anyone to use, but they cannot be edited, adapted, or redistributed. The fact that OERs can be changed is fundamental to distinguish between what is OER and what is merely Open Access. 

The unique rights associated with OERs are called “the 5Rs of OER,” which were originally defined by David Wiley (the founder of the open education movement). The 5R activities are*: 

  • Retain: the right to make, own, and control copies of the content
  • Reuse: the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  • Revise: the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  • Remix: the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  • Redistribute: the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

*This material was created by David Wiley and published freely under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license at: http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/3221.

OERs can form the backbone for a formal course or function as on-the-fly additions to an existing curriculum or program. For example, instructors can download a timeline for developments in the French Revolution, adapt it for their own course, share it with students, and distribute it with attribution. Open textbooks — digital materials that anyone can freely use— are also a type of OER. 

One important thing to note: OER can exist under a Creative Commons license; however, not all Creative Commons material can be altered. When searching for materials that can be adapted and remixed, it’s essential to check the details of the licensing agreement. 

Key Benefits of Open Educational Resources 

OERs can be a great alternative to traditional textbooks. In fact, a meta-analysis of several studies found that students who used open textbooks make a case for the same level of learning efficacy as those who used commercial textbooks. The analysis also found that the course withdrawal rate for courses using open textbooks was significantly lower than for courses using commercial textbooks. 

This suggests that something about the OER content generates better learning outcomes. After all, OERs enable instructors to create more relevant educational content. 

However, some experts argue that it comes back to one thing: cost. “It may not be that the OER materials are superior — rather it may be that when the class materials are free, students actually obtain and use them,” writes online education expert Ray Schroeder in this Inside Higher Education piece.

Indeed, textbook costs represent a heavy burden for students. While the rising cost of textbooks has settled into a plateau in recent years, this follows years of steep price increases (textbook costs increased by 88 percent between 2006 and 2016 in the US, far outpacing the inflation rate). In 2021 alone, a 4-year undergraduate student spent an average of $1240 on books and supplies for class.

According to a national survey conducted by the U.S. PIRG, in 2020, “65 percent of students surveyed reported skipping buying a textbook because of cost.” That statistic is much higher – 82 percent – for food-insecure students.

The academic consequences are severe. According to one study, “20% [of students] indicated that they had received a lower grade than expected in a course because they could not afford to purchase the course materials.”

OER eliminates this barrier entirely for students by providing access free of charge. For leaders who see inequality as something solvable as an institutional responsibility, OER provides an opportunity to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots in higher education. 

Navigating the OER Landscape

There are many software platforms that can help instructors create, edit, and distribute OER materials. Even common tools like Microsoft Word or Google Docs can be used to develop materials that can then be exported into a PDF and labeled as OER. More enterprising instructors can build their own websites.

Certain digital content platforms have built-in OER libraries. Common platforms include Merlot (which provides access to curated online learning and support materials and content creation tools). OER Commons also offers resources to faculty and students to help support their learning programs. 

Many instructors, however, still need the option of selecting a commercial textbook that really does a great job of covering their specific subject matter. Robust learning enablement platforms provide both traditional digital versions of commercial textbooks as well as OER titles and monographs at a much lower cost to students overall than traditional textbooks. This all-in-one approach can eliminate the need to purchase access to external platforms. It also means students can avoid creating multiple accounts to complete simple assignments.

Despite the many tools available, there is some debate over whether OER adoption is taking off. Indeed, a recent study from Bay View Analytics shows that the abrupt shift to remote learning during the pandemic had “a limited impact on OER awareness and use.” However, a letter penned by a leader from the University of North Carolina System Office argues that while sluggish adoption rates may be true across the US, it is not true within specific pockets of higher education (namely public institutions) where OER adoption has gained some serious traction. 

Make the Case for OER and Reap the Benefits

Forward-thinking instructors are seizing the opportunity to rethink how they support students in this digital age. And with all the tools and content available online, it’s easy for curious faculty members to dip their toes in the OER waters. 

Organizations like the CCC for OER, the Community College Consortium for OER, recommend involving librarians in discovering content. Instructional designers can help with the overall design and flow of the material. An organized institutional effort is needed to design a course where OER plays a starring role. This requires buy-in from the higher-ups in higher education.

To make the case for OERs, focus on how they improve student success rates. Most importantly, make a case for OER as an equity consideration: if all students have access to quality course materials, regardless of their economic standing, then the institution can play a role in promoting equity in education.

These benefits combined make it clear why OER is starting to gain traction among many higher learning institutions, paving the way for more student success. Reading this basic guide to open educational resources is just beginning your OER journey. You can learn more on why open educational resources matter in higher education.


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