OER Explained

There is tremendous interest among educators, students, parents and government officials to reduce the cost of education, and open educational resources (OER) are often cited as one means to do so. For example, according to The College Board (2015), higher-education students in the US pay $1,200 per year for textbooks.

However, in my conversations with educators at both secondary and post-secondary institutions, a number of different perceptions and understandings regarding OER have been described to me. Therefore, it seems worthwhile to put forth a definition of OER and describe how it is typically licensed and distributed.

OER Defined

The term “open educational resources” has been in existence since only 2002 (beginning at a UNESCO Forum on Open Courseware). However, if you talk with any five faculty or administrators at any academic institution, you will most likely receive five different descriptions or definitions of OER. Therefore, to make sure we are all on the same page, let’s start with a definition of OER.

OER is perhaps best defined as follows (quoting directly from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation):

OER 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 include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

To summarize, resources within the OER domain are available for reuse, with the types of re-use subject to the type of intellectual property license under which the resources are published. A bit later in this post we will discuss some of the various intellectual property licenses and the resultant implications regarding reuse.

Intellectual Property Licenses Used With OER

OER materials are typically released under some form of Creative Commons copyright license. Creative Commons, a nonprofit founded in 2001, enables individuals to share their creative works based on conditions set by the creator at no charge. A creator will generally use a Creative Commons license (versus standard copyright protection) when they want to encourage others to use and re-purpose their creative works.

Creative Commons licensing enables creators to select from a number of license types that range from retaining all usage rights (standard copyright protection) to releasing some or all rights for their creative works.

For details regarding the various licenses available under Creative Commons, please go to the Creative Commons website (https://creativecommons.org). Two notable types of Creative Commons licenses used with OER include:

  • Available for commercial use (e.g., CC BY, CC BY-SA, CC BY-ND)
  • Not available for commercial use (e.g., CC BY-NC, CC BY-NC-SA, CC BY-NC-ND)

Whether a license allows commercial use dictates whether the licensed material can be sold or must be made available for free. Regardless of whether commercial use is permitted, the source material must still be properly attributed.

Cost Versus No Cost (i.e., not all OER are available at no charge)

One common misconception is that all OER materials are available at no cost to the user. While some OER are indeed available at no cost, other OER have some cost associated with use—but those charges are generally a fraction of the cost of using standard copyrighted materials.

Several organizations that provide OER materials use a “freemium” model, whereby a subset of the OER are available for free but a more substantive set of resources has some associated cost. Other organizations provide content at no charge but have costs associated with services related to the deployment of the OER at an institution.

At Boundless, we use a freemium model: we only charge for access to Boundless courseware when it is assigned to a student within a course created by an educator, and the cost is $29.99 per student per course.

Awareness and Distribution Channels

In addition to determining which license to use for a particular resource, the creator must also determine how to make their OER available to the public, and then how to distribute the OER. The distribution channel will sometimes depend on the format of the resource (e.g., print versus digital). However, most works today are available digitally as the primary format (and sometimes print as secondary).

A number of “clearinghouses” exist to catalog existing OER (under a number of Creative Commons licenses). However, the majority of those clearinghouses do not themselves create new OER materials. MERLOT is an example of such a clearinghouse. Similarly, there are also nonprofit and for-profit companies that aggregate and distribute existing OER (but do not create new materials) and then provide services in association with the deployment of the resources.

Still other organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit) create new OER and also distribute it to organizations and/or students through its own or partner channels. For example, while Boundless has its own LMS-like distribution platform, most faculty provide Boundless courseware to their students through our simple and seamless integration with their institution’s LMS.


Interest in OER is growing rapidly around the world. OER resources are generally provided under Creative Commons licenses, which may permit commercial use. OER can often be found in clearinghouses such as MERLOT, or through an organization’s own marketing and distribution channel.



References and Resources:

Boundless’ Summary of Creative Commons ShareAlike License:  https://www.boundless.com/education/textbooks/guide-to-boundless-textbook/boundless-content-107/features-of-boundless-content-108/creative-commons-share-alike-license-110-17292/

Creative Commons:  https://creativecommons.org

Creative Commons, “What is OER?”:  https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/What_is_OER%3F

MERLOT II:  https://www.merlot.org/merlot/index.htm

Northwest Arkansas Community College Library, “OER Definition and History”:  http://library.nwacc.edu/c.php?g=225144

Wikipedia, “Open Educational Resources”:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_educational_resources


The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation website, “Open Educational Resources”:  http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education/open-educational-resources
Wiley, D. 2005. Report to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development:  http://www.hewlett.org/uploads/files/HistoryofOER.pdf

  • Irene Fenswick

    Dear Steve, thank you for the useful article and factual overview of OER! It’s seemed that OER has appeared earlier than in 2002. Interest in OER is growing rapidly around the world. If we review the OER situation in recent years, we find that the number of institutions making their courses available as OER has increased substantially. At the same time, there is some weakness of licensing options of Creative Commons. They can vary in different countries. Lack of understanding of copyright and open licensing at senior levels in academic institutions (as well as ministries etc.) is a roadblock for OER development.

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