Like any healthy ecosystem, the life cycle of open educational resources (OER) is one that requires multiple actors all relying on each other for survival.
In the case of OER, four distinct parts make up the lifeblood of these free, digital educational materials. On one side of the cycle, a dedicated community of OER and open access supporters create content to fuel the movement. This community of researchers, academics and authors, give the OER the heartbeat it needs to survive.
On the flip side, packaging OER in a product and making it easy to distribute to the right audiences complete the cycle.
Though the pieces of the equation appear vastly different on the surface, together they create the environment in which OER flourishes. Before the cycle can flow seamlessly, each of its parts must be better understood individually.
Building a Community
Constructing the foundation for open educational resources falls in the hands of the educators, researchers and open access supporters who make this content readily available. Think of this crowd as the sunlight that fuels life in an ecosystem and sets the tone of what’s to come. These OER enthusiasts are the lights that breathe life into the open access movement.
For example, MIT OpenCourseWare, a pioneer in the open access movement, opened its course materials to the public in 2002 and since then dozens of other academic institutions have followed suit.
Of course, OER goes beyond just content directly associated with academic institutions and includes research, case studies, multimedia and other materials from a range of sources, like Creative Commons and the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources.
Additionally, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provides grants to members of the OER community aiming to improve education around the world by making these free materials readily available online.
Creating and Organizing Content
Stemming from the OER community comes the content the group creates and shares. The materials available through OER repositories, like Connexions or OER Commons, and other databases include full courses, multimedia tools and other materials on everything from algebra to zoology.
OER is particularly beneficial for both learners and educators as it gives users the option to revise, reuse, remix and redistribute the content as they see fit. For example, a college professor could use OER to mix and match content to provide students with free learning materials for a customized curriculum.
Giving students and educators the opportunity to create free lesson plans or exam preparation without the cost of traditional study materials opens up education beyond the binding of a textbook.
Despite the array of materials available through OER repositories and other Internet warehouses, finding this content as a new OER user is not intuitive or easy, but other pieces of the ecosystem address this.
Developing a Product
Entering a new ecosystem almost anywhere in the world likely means encountering an overwhelming mass of biodiversity. In the OER ecosystem, this same overwhelming feeling can creep up when users encounter open content available in several locations but don’t know where to first look.
This is where companies, nonprofits, academic institutions and other open access organizations excel. In creating products that use OER, these organizations have all addressed some of the most stifling problems of open materials: they’re hard to find and aren’t immediately trustworthy.
Blindly searching for OER as a student or educator can lead down some dark Internet tunnels filled with detours and dead ends. Products like Boundless, edX, and Khan Academy all solve this challenge by providing easy, trustworthy ways for users to search and trust open resources.
Distributing the Right OER
The last portion of the OER ecosystem addresses the challenge of getting relevant information to appropriate audiences. Without a clear path for who should use OER products or who benefits most from the content, even the best-intentioned products could fall by the wayside.
To ensure the most relevant OER reaches audiences of educators, students or other learners, a product must create a simple and well-marked distribution path.
For example, at Boundless we ensure our content is relevant to student users by aligning OER to students’ readings, assignments and courses. Not only do students have a free alternative to textbooks, but they can also count on these materials to correspond to both their course and knowledge levels.
Keeping the Cycle Alive
With even just one link in this four-part cycle broken, the OER ecosystem would struggle to reach its highest potential. Each of its components—community, content, product and distribution—work together to create a healthy and sustainable environment in which OER can thrive.
If more educators and learners use these open materials through different products and distribution channels, the open educational resources community has more motivation to continue creating and sharing content to keep the ecosystem alive.