1 OER: What they are and why you should find out more!

Learning outcomes

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

    • Define open educational resources (OER) and detail the characteristics of OER

Key OER definitions

What are OER?

Open educational resources (OER) are learning and teaching materials that are either in the public domain or have been released under an open licence. OER can be freely used, changed, or shared with others.

The term OER is used to refer to a wide range of materials such as textbooks, learning objects (quizzes, puzzles, games, etc.), images, video, music and audio clips, subject or course syllabi and even courseware.

Watch this video created by UNESCO which explains what an OER is based on the definition proposed by the UNESCO OER Recommendation (UNESCO, 2022).

Watch: Open Educational Resources concept: What is an OER? [0:57]

Note: Closed captions are available by clicking on the CC button in the video.


Now we’re going to look at the concept of the 5Rs and how they tie into the definition of OER.

The 5Rs

According to David Wiley’s (n.d.) influential definition, a true OER is one that is “either (1) in the public domain or (2) licensed in a manner that provides everyone with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities.”

Wiley describes these 5Rs as follows:

  1. Retain – make, own, and control a copy of the resource (e.g., download and keep your own copy)
  2. Revise – edit, adapt, and modify your copy of the resource (e.g., translate into another language)
  3. Remix – combine your original or revised copy of the resource with other existing material to create something new (e.g., make a mashup)
  4. Reuse – use your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource publicly (e.g., on a website, in a presentation, in a class)
  5. Redistribute – share copies of your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource with others (e.g., post a copy online or give one to a friend)

It’s important to remember, however, that openness is always a scale. As we’ll see when we look at Creative Commons licences, some open licences don’t allow full engagement with the 5Rs – they may not permit revising or remixing, for example. Such resources are still OER – still free to download, use, and share – but do not meet the gold standard of ‘true’ OER.

Nonetheless, the 5Rs have become a touchstone for definitions of OER.

Read: Defining the ‘open’ in open content and Open Educational Resources

Wiley’s above definitions are published with a Creative Commons Attribution licence on his blog post.

Now let’s consolidate our understanding of OER by watching the first few minutes of this visual explanation on the basics of OER. Please watch to 2:17 mins.

Watch: Understanding OER [Watch up to 2:17]

Note: Closed captions are available by clicking on the CC button in the video.

Now that you have an understanding of what an OER is, we’re going to look at how OER relate to the concept of Open Educational Practice (OEP).

Open Educational Practices

Open Educational Practices (OEP) are often discussed in relation to OER and the open education ecosystem. Although definitions of OEP vary, an oft-cited one by Ehlers (2011, p. 4) reads:

OEP are defined as practices which support the (re)use and production of OER through institutional policies, promote innovative pedagogical models, and respect and empower learners as co-producers on their lifelong learning path.

OEP thus supports and draws on high quality OER for collaborative and flexible learning. Beyond content production, they provide an environment where open access to educational content and services are the accepted norm.

Such practices may include open pedagogies, the development and use of OER, sharing a range of materials and knowledge, and integrating openness throughout the classroom

Before we move on there is a final concept that it’s important to define to avoid confusion: what is not an OER.

What is not an OER

If a resource is not free and openly licensed, it cannot be described as an OER. For example, most materials accessed through a library’s subscriptions cannot be altered, remixed, or redistributed and therefore cannot be considered “open.”

OER are not the only educational materials to be found on the Web. Unfortunately, most resources on the Internet are closed resources, even if they are available for free. Materials that are under full copyright, or which are not accompanied by a specific licence allowing anyone to copy, adapt and share them, are not OER. You can use these materials only within the copyright exceptions in your country.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems allow publishers and vendors to impose limitations on the sharing and use of digital material. DRM are common for ebooks and videos. DRM-free resources eliminate such limitations and can be opened with ease on a range of devices and apps, and the files can be freely shared, edited, and reformatted – although copyright and licence conditions will apply. Most of the electronic journal articles we access through our subscriptions are DRM-free. However, although OER are all free of DRM, when we talk about “DRM-free resources” we’re referring to those that involve a cost – a cost usually borne by library subscriptions, in the tertiary education context. Unlike open access material, DRM-free material is still paywalled. Thus, unlike OER, DRM-free resources are not openly licensed and cannot be reused, revised, remixed, or redistributed, without breaching copyright (unless permissions are obtained).

Watch the below video explaining the difference between OER and DRM-free resources.

Watch: OER & DRM Free Resources [3:20]

Note: Closed captions are available by clicking on the CC button in the video.

OER glossary

There is a range of language and terminology used in the world of OER. We’ve introduced you to some key terms in this chapter, but to assist you across the coming chapters, at the end of the book there is a glossary of terms that you can refer to at any time.

Do: Drag and drop

Complete the below drag and drop so you can see how well you are grasping the content we’ve covered so far.

So, now we know what OER are (and what they are not!), but why are OER and OEP important?

Watch the below video to start thinking about open education and why it matters.

Watch: Why Open Education Matters [2:28]

Note: Closed captions are available by clicking on the CC button in the video.

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. The William and Flora Hewlett and Andrew W Mellon foundations are credited with starting the OER movement in 2001 when they co-funded MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative (Brown & Adler, 2008). The following year in 2002, participants at UNESCO’s Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries expressed their “wish to develop together a universal education resource available for the whole of humanity, to be referred to henceforth as Open Educational Resources” (UNESCO, 2002, p. 28).

Following the rise of open education in the early 2000s, growing interest in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), open courseware, and particularly open textbooks, catapulted the movement to new heights. Thousands of organisations across the world have joined the movement and contributed their own OER; however, there are still many instructors who have never heard of OER today.

Do: Explore OER Commons

OER Commons is a freely accessible online library of open educational resources and other freely available instructional materials. Explore the OER Commons to start getting a sense for OER and the possibilities.

Key takeaways

We’ve reached the end of Chapter 1!  Together we’ve dipped our toes into the world of OER, what they are, and why they matter. We hope this has whet your palette and got you excited for the coming chapters in which we’ll be taking a deep dive into the world of OER.

In Chapter 2 we’ll be taking a closer look at the importance and benefits of OER for learning and teaching, barriers to their adoption and arguments against, and how libraries fit into the picture!


Brown, J., & Adler, R. (2008). Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review, 43 (1), 16-32.

UNESCO. (2002). Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries, UNESCO, Paris, 1-3 July 2002: final report. https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000128515

Ehlers, U-D. (2011). Extending the territory: From open educational resources to open educational practices.  Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 15(2). https://www.jofdl.nz/index.php/JOFDL/article/view/64

Wiley, D. [n.d]. Defining the “Open” in Open Content and Open Educational Resources. https://opencontent.org/definition.


This chapter has been adapted in part from:


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