Introduction to Open Educational Resources

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Provide a definition of open educational resources.
  • Explain the difference between OER and other free educational materials.
  • Describe the challenges and benefits of using OER in a class.

The purpose of this handbook is to get you involved in the adoption, creation, and use of open educational resources (OER). In this chapter, we will introduce you to the concept of OER and the benefits and challenges of using them.

Attribution:“An Introduction to Open Educational Resources” by Abbey Elder is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 International license.


The open education movement was originally inspired by the open source community, with a focus on broadening access to information through the use of free, open content. As Bliss and Smith explain in their breakdown of the history of open education:

“much of our attention focused on OER’s usefulness at providing knowledge in its original form to those who otherwise might not have access. The implicit goal was to equalize access to disadvantaged and advantaged peoples of the world – in MIT’s language, to create ‘a shared intellectual Common.’”[1]

Following the rise of open education in the early 2000s, growing interest in MOOCs, open courseware, and particularly open textbooks catapulted the movement to new heights; however, there are still many instructors who have never heard of open educational resources (OER) today.[2]

What is an OER?

Open educational resources (OER) are openly-licensed, freely available educational materials that can be modified and redistributed by users. They can include any type of educational resource, from syllabi to full courses.

  • Openly-licensed: You can read about this more in the Copyright & Licensing chapter.
  • Freely Available: The resources must be freely available online with no fee to access. Physical OER may be sold at a low cost to facilitate printing.
  • Modifiable: The resource must be made available under an open license that allows for editing. Ideally, it should also be available in an editable format.[3]

The most comprehensive definition of OER available today is provided by the Hewlett Foundation:

“Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”[4]

With a definition so broad that it includes any educational material so long as it is free to access and open, it might be easier to ask, “What isn’t an OER?”

What is Not an OER?

If a resource is not free or openly licensed, it cannot be described as an OER. For example, most materials accessed through your library’s subscriptions cannot be altered, remixed, or redistributed. These materials require special permission to use and therefore cannot be considered “open.” Table 1 below explains the difference between OER and other resources often misattributed as OER.

Table 1: Components of an OER
Material Type Openly Licensed Freely Available Modifiable
Open educational resources Yes Yes Yes
Free online resources under all rights reserved copyright No Yes No
Materials available through the University Library No Yes No
Open access articles and monographs Yes Yes Maybe

Note: Although some materials are free to access for a library’s users, that does not mean that they are free to access for everyone (including the library). Similarly, while some open access resources are made available under a copyright license that enables modification, this is not always the case.

Check Your Understanding

Consider the free materials you currently use in your classes. Do these materials meet the definition of OER? Why or why not?

Benefits of Using OER

Attribution: “AIM Highlight Reel” by San Fransisco State University [Youtube] is available under a Standard Youtube License.

Benefits for Students

One of the first aspects of OER to be praised by the general public was the cost savings that they could bring to students. As Figure 1 shows, the price of college textbooks has risen greatly over the past 35 years, outpacing all other consumer goods in the Consumer Price Index by a great margin.


A line graph is displayed with two lines. The first, labelled "CPI" increases from 0% to just over 200% over 35 years. The second line, labelled "textbooks," rises from 0% to 900% over the same time period.
Figure 1: “Increase in Textbook Prices” by David Ernst, the Open Textbook Network, is licensed CC BY 4.0. Data source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The cost of textbooks has a profound impact on college students, many of whom must wait to purchase their course materials until well into the semester or choose not to purchase them at all.[5]

The cost of textbooks might not be a major issue on its own, but it can be an insurmountable hurdle for students already struggling to get by. As a recent survey found, 36% of college students are food insecure. This number is even higher for community college students, 42% of whom reported food insecurity.[6]

The problem of food and housing insecurity among college students cannot be fixed by adjusting the price of textbooks alone. There are a wide variety of reasons why these problems are in place.[7] However, the unexpected additional cost of textbooks can make the difference between a student persisting in college or dropping out.

Access to a Quality Education

When you choose to share course materials openly, you are providing students with the opportunity to engage with your content before, during, and after your course. Because OER are always free to access online, students who are interested in taking a course you teach can read up on the course ahead of time and ensure that they are ready and interested in the material. Moreover, students who have already taken your course can be safe in the knowledge that their course materials will not evaporate at the end of the semester and that they can continue to review the materials you provided to them for years to come.

The students who benefit from access to OER are not just the ones in your classroom. Unlike affordability initiatives like course reserves, OER are free for anyone in the world to access, whether they have a college affiliation or not.[8] This encourages aging learners and students in the Global South to explore educational content without having to commit the time and money they might not have to attend college.[9]

Benefits for Instructors

Although cost savings are a major talking point in favor of adopting open educational resources, instructors can utilize OER effectively without replacing paid resources at all.[10] In fact, the freedom to adapt OER to instructional needs is often the most attractive aspect of OER. Since OER are openly licensed, educators are free to edit, reorder, and remix OER materials in many ways.

Use, Improve, and Share

  • Adapt and revise resources that have already been created to fit your course syllabus.
  • Create an updated second edition of an existing OER.
  • Tailor resources to fit your specific course context (e.g., translation, local examples).

Network and Collaborate with Peers

  • Access educational resources that have been peer-reviewed by experts in your field.
  • Create a new open educational resource with a team of your peers.
  • Explore user reviews for a more in-depth understanding of the resources available.

Lower Costs to Improve Access to Information

  • Enable all students to have equal access to your course materials.
  • Provide students with the opportunity to explore course content before enrolling.

In the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast below, Dr. John Stewart, Assistant Director for the Office of Digital Learning at the University of Oklahoma, talks about his experience with OER.

Using Open Educational Resources in Your Teaching

Challenges of Using OER

There are many benefits to using OER in the classroom; however, there are also some drawbacks. The biggest challenge that instructors face when adopting OER is best encapsulated by the phrase “availability may vary.”

Subject Availability

Many of the largest OER projects funded over the past fifteen years targeted high cost, high impact courses to save students money. Because of this, most of the OER available today are for general education courses such as Psychology, Biology, and Calculus.

This does not mean that there are no OER available for specialized subject areas or graduate-level courses; however, there are more resources to choose from for instructors who teach Introduction to Psychology than for those who teach Electronic Systems Integration for Agricultural Machinery & Production Systems.

Note: This is beginning to change as more institutions begin publishing OER through regional and institutional grant programs.

Format & Material Type Availability

As with subject availability, the format and types of OER that have been developed over time have largely been targeted at high enrollment courses which could see substantial cost savings for students. There are many open textbooks available today, but fewer options for ancillary materials. You can find lecture slides, notes, and lesson plans online, but ancillary content such as homework software and test banks are harder to find.[11] 

Time & Support Availability

Although the other challenges to OER use are inherent to the resources themselves, this final drawback is a concern for you as a user and creator. It takes time and effort to find OER that might work for your course, and if you want to create and publish new resources, that takes exponentially more time.

Time constraints are always going to be an issue for instructors who want to try something new in their course. Luckily, there are resources available to help you locate, adopt, and implement OER. Contact your local OER expert on campus or your subject librarian if you need support.

This chapter has provided a brief overview of what OER are, why they are used, and the movement surrounding them. In the next chapter, we will review some items you should keep in mind when adopting or creating an OER for the first time.


  1. Bliss, T.J. and Smith, M. "A Brief History of Open Educational Resources." In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science, edited by Rajiv Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener, 9-27. London: Ubiquity Press, 2017. DOI:
  2. Weller, Martin. The Battle for Open: How Openness Won and Why it Doesn't Feel Like Victory. London: Ubiquity Press, 2014. DOI:
  3. Although all OER are openly licensed, many are released in formats that do not easily allow for adaptation.
  4. William & Flora Hewlett Foundation. "Open Educational Resources." Accessed June 15, 2019.
  5. Florida Virtual Campus. 2018 Student Textbook and Course Materials Survey: Executive Summary, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2019.
  6. Romo, Vanessa. "Hunger and Homelessness are Widespread Among College Students, Survey Finds." NPR: The Two-Way, April 2018.
  7. Goldrick-Rab, Sara and Cady, Clare. Supporting Community College Completion with a Culture of Caring: A Case Study of Amarillo College, 2018.
  8. Although OER are free for anyone to access, this access is still limited by who has access to the Internet. Still, since OER can be freely redistributed, some individuals have printed OER for dissemination in areas that do not have Internet access as well.
  9. Hodgkinson-Williams, Cheryl and Arinto, Patricia B. Adoption and Impact of OER in the Global South. Cape Town & Ottawa: African Minds, International Development Research Centre & Research on Open Educational Resources, 2017. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1005330
  10. Attribution: The Benefits for Instructors section of this chapter was adapted from the SUNY OER Community Course, licensed CC BY 4.0.
  11. Open textbooks have not always been the most common content shared or marketed as OER. One of the first OER projects, MIT OpenCourseWare, started offering lecture notes, syllabi, and other instructional content openly in 2001.


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The OER Starter Kit Copyright © 2019 by Abbey K. Elder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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