Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Open Educational Resources

Open Educational ResourcesEdit


The Internet has heightened global communication. And with this heightened communication has come an emphasis on socialization resulting in the emergence of a number of active communities whose purpose is to collaboratively and freely create, share, and distribute useful resources, knowledge, artifacts, processes and the like. A prime example is the emergence of the open source community, which freely, openly, and collaboratively creates highly functional and useful software. Another example is the emergence of the Open Educational Resource (OER) community, which borrows much of its philosophical underpinnings from the open source community. The OER community freely, openly, and collaboratively creates credible, useful learning resources. This short chapter introduces interested readers to OERs; specifically, what they are, their ontogeny, some current examples of implementation, and some issues, challenges, and trends facing the OER community.

What are OERs?

Jan Hylén (2005) suggests the most widely used OER definition is as follows: “Open Educational Resources are digitized materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and re-use for teaching, learning and research.”

Further, Hylén suggests an OER is comprised of three things:

  1. Learning Content;
  2. Tools;
  3. Implementation Resources.

Learning content consists of a wide range of digital learning materials from full courses to modules to small knowledge assets. These materials could be in single mode form, such as textual material, or multimodal form, such as audio, video, and textual material. Further, these materials could be comprised of static knowledge objects such as electronic textbooks and web pages, or dynamic knowledge objects such as animations, simulations, and games.

OER tools refer to software and systems for authoring, repurposing, using, sharing, and distributing learning content. These tools include authoring tools for creating learning materials, search engines for locating learning resources, content repositories for storing learning materials, learning management systems for organized distribution of learning materials, and social networking tools for establishing online learning communities related to OERs.

Implementation resources refer to the licenses, such as Creative Commons licensing (see Liang, 2004, pp. 78-85), that enable publication and distribution of OERs while taking into consideration intellectual property and copyright. As well, implementation resources comprise support materials to help producers design effective learning content, and to help learners use learning content most appropriately.

OERs are dependent on three principles:

  1. Openness;
  2. Free availability;
  3. Customizability.

Openness is a measure of the accessibility of OERs. Ideally, OERs should be accessible to all who wish to use them and have as few restrictions attached to them as possible. Free availability infers that OERs should be made available without cost. Customizability entitles users to repurpose (should they wish to do so) pre-existing OERs to meet specific, local needs, and in some cases make derivative works.

Generally, OERs are created to meet specific, local needs, but then are made available for others to adapt should they wish to do so. The result is an ongoing collection of user-generated resources that are collaboratively and continuously developed, used, altered, redeveloped, and reused. Bruns (2007) refers to this continuous, user-led, collaborative cycle as “produsage”.

OERs are content objects. They do not represent the full teaching and learning experience as there are many other elements that go into the design of learning, such as the pedagogical principles used and the assessment strategies employed. Teachers and self-directed learners may use OERs, but each makes decisions about when, how, and in what context OERs are used, or how chosen OERs may be altered to meet specific needs. In other words, a course is more than just its content.

Ontogeny of OERs

According to Wiley (2006), the concept of OERs evolved, initially, from the concept of learning objects. Wiley suggests learning objects made popular the notion that digital learning materials could be developed with reuse and reapplication in mind. In the mid to late 1990s the open source software movement emerged as a legitimate alternative model to proprietary software development. Wiley speculated that the principles of open source could be applied to content and as such coined the term “open content” (in 1998) to represent this possibility. Thus the principles of openness and free availability become established with respect to digital learning materials. In 2001 Creative Commons licensing was developed by Larry Lessig (Wiley, 2006). Creative Commons licensing made it possible to distribute user generated digital learning materials while still respecting intellectual property and copyright. The result was a more credible, legal, and flexible licensing structure. Included in the licensing structure was a provision to allow derivative works, which made customization of created content a possibility. As such, the principle of OER customizability became established. UNESCO became interested in open, freely available, and customizable learning materials to help meet the educational needs of all humanity, particularly the developing world. A forum was held in 2002 by UNESCO which resulted in the adoption of the term “Open Educational Resources” to describe such learning materials.

OER Project Examples

The number of OER projects and initiatives is growing steadily worldwide. Some examples include:

  1. The OpenCourseWare (OCW) Consortium ( In 2001 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it would attempt to make the content of its courses freely available online for public, noncommercial use. Since then many institutions worldwide have followed suit. The result is the OCW Consortium, which acts as a portal to a variety of OCW. More than 200 institutions from around the world are currently members of the Consortium. Membership requires institutions to publish at least 10 courses for free, public access. The goals of the Consortium are to:
    • Extend the reach and impact of open courseware by encouraging the adoption and adaptation of open educational materials around the world.
    • Foster the development of additional open courseware projects.
    • Ensure the long-term sustainability of open courseware projects by identifying ways to improve effectiveness and reduce costs. (“OCW Consortium”, n.d.).
  2. MERLOT ( Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching is a learning object repository containing the metadata and links to a number of learning objects in a variety of discipline areas. (Note: MERLOT does not house the learning objects; its database contains metadata and links to contributed learning objects. As such, it is more aptly described as a “referatory” rather than a repository.) Access to the resources is free. Membership is also free. Members may contribute learning materials and create personal collections. MERLOT includes a provision to allow peer review of contributed learning objects.
  3. Wikipedia ( Wikipedia is a web application that allows users to contribute reference material as well as edit and append existing contributions. The result is a collaboratively developed, dynamic, freely accessible, freely available, extensive collection of encyclopedic reference material. The Wiki phenomenon has spawned a number of sister OER projects including WikiEducator and Wikibooks.
  4. Open Learning Initiative (OLI) ( Developed at Carnegie Mellon, the goal of the OLI project is “… to help the World Wide Web make good on its promise of widely accessible and effective online education.” (n.d.). The result is a number of open and free online courses which anyone may take.
  5. Rice Connexions ( The Connexions web site describes its philosophical make-up as follows: “Connexions is an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web. Our Content Commons contains educational materials for everyone — from children to college students to professionals — organized in small modules that are easily connected into larger collections or courses. All content is free to use and reuse under the Creative Commons ‘attribution’ license.” (n.d.).
  6. OER Commons ( The Open Educational Resources Commons is an online portal designed “To provide a single point of access through which educators, students, and all learners can search, browse, evaluate, download, and discuss open educational resources (OER) that are freely available online.” (n.d.). OER Commons houses a number of learning resources (from Kindergarten through to college) in a variety of disciplines.
  7. OpenContent ( OpenContent is a portal with links to a variety of resources, including a blog and wiki, related to open content.
  8. CLEA ( Create Learn Engage Activities on the Web is a web application that allows registered users to author and publish online learning activities. Further, authors have the option to allow their activities to be copied, edited and republished by others. Registration is free. Non registered users can still access and use all the learning activities made available by the various authors for free.

Issues, Challenges, Trends

At the core of the OER movement is the issue of openness. There remains the question as to whether a culture of openness is something that will be embraced more fully, or be adopted by only a few. On one hand advocates argue that openness is the only way to the future, particularly for publicly funded institutions. For example, Wiley (2007) suggests that OERs will become a service provided by higher education in order to maintain competitiveness. On the other hand some argue that there is no clear understanding of what “open” means and what the implications of adopting an open philosophy may be (Downes, 2006). For example, there is a sense that the attractiveness of an open philosophy will mean many will use, but few will contribute. The ambiguity of the term “open” is expected as the OER community is in its relative infancy; nonetheless, working out what openness will come to represent is a challenge for the future.

Another challenge facing the OER community is the issue of sustainability. Wiley (2007) defines sustainability in an OER context as “an open educational resources project’s ongoing ability to meet its goals.” In order to maintain momentum, meet respective goals – and to survive – a number of OER projects have adopted a wide range of sustainability models. Downes (2006) lists a number of these broken down into funding, technical, content, and staffing models. It appears there is no single, reliable solution to the sustainability challenge and that in order to expand the breadth, depth, and reach of OERs, a number of different sustainability models will need to be entertained, each unique to the local needs of a project. Downes (2006) suggests the way forward is to find ways for producers and consumers of OERs to do things for themselves. Further, he suggests that ”… the sustainability of OERs … requires that we think of OERs as only part of a larger picture, one that includes volunteers and incentives, community and partnerships, co-production and sharing, distributed management and control.”

At the Expert Meeting on Open Educational Resources held in Sweden in February, 2006, four sessions were held on key OER topics. Session 1 dealt with Intellectual Property Rights and Licenses for Open Content. A key issue was the need for flexible, easy-to-use and implement licensing in order to combat the restrictive licensing automatically attached to created works, while still respecting copyright, intellectual property and moral rights. One example of Open Content licensing is Creative Commons licensing. Fitzgerald (2007) concludes that “… open content licensing will provide a vitally important facility for sharing and reshaping knowledge in the name of culture, education and innovation.” Session 2 dealt with Developments and Trends in the Field of Open Educational Resources. Key findings included the need to localize content, to reach a critical mass of users not just content, and to establish a research agenda around OERs. Session 3 dealt with Arguments for Institutional Participation in OERs. It was suggested that participation in OER initiatives was “the right thing to do” as it speeds up innovation, fosters social equity, and promotes social responsibility. Session 4 dealt with Models for Sustainable Open Educational resources. Two approaches to sustainability were discussed. The first centred on the institutional model, which approached the production and distribution of OERs from a centralized perspective. The second approach centred on the community model, which approached the production, distribution, and use of OERs from a decentalized perspective. These approaches co-exist and require different models to sustain themselves and to scale to meet the needs of users.


Tim O’Reilly (1999) in Lessons from Open-Source Software Development asked: “And as the Internet, rather than the desktop, becomes the focus for new applications, do current open-source projects teach principles of large-scale collaborative work that can be applied fruitfully to endeavors other than software development?” One possibility is Open Educational Resources (OERs). The OER movement is still relatively new and key challenges of scalability and sustainability need to be resolved; however, momentum is building. A promising way forward is The Cape Town Open Education Declaration. This declaration represents a statement of principle and community action. The first paragraph of the declaration states:

We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge. They are also planting the seeds of a new pedagogy where educators and learners create, shape and evolve knowledge together, deepening their skills and understanding as they go (2007).

The full potential of OERs is to create, in essence, the great equalizer that makes knowledge available for all. The future holds the answer as to whether the full potential of OERs will become realized.


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