Reflections Newsletter

Enhance Your Teaching and Enable Others to Learn with Open Educational Resources (OER), Spring 2012

By Michael B. McNally, Doctoral Candidate, Library and Information Science, Faculty of Information and Media Studies

Over the last decade, Open Educational Resources (OER) have emerged as a growing phenomenon in the educational field aiming to make learning materials freely available over the Internet with the goals of facilitating lifelong learning, enhancing scholarly collaboration, and providing broader access to publically funded educational resources. The term Open Educational Resources can be traced to a 2002 educational conference hosted by UNESCO where OER were defined as, "the open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communications technologies, for consultation, use and adaption by a community of users for noncommercial purposes."1 The UNESCO conference was created in response to the initiative by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to make nearly all of its courseware material freely available over the Internet. Although the majority of OER materials are for university level material (both graduate and undergraduate), resources are also available at the primary and secondary levels. Underpinning OER are open licenses that ensure free access to materials; however, in some cases licensing restrictions may limit one’s ability to alter another’s OER. The most widely used system for licensing OER is the Creative Commons approach.2 OER are sometimes alternatively called Open CourseWare (OCW).

The rise of OER reflects a broader trend towards greater openness to intellectual works and is conceptually linked to other ‘open’ movements including open source software and open access scholarly publishing. This trend for increased openness has strong linkages with the academic concept of the free exchange of information. At the same time, intellectual property mechanisms, including patents and copyrights, have become increasingly prominent for commodifying intellectual work and limiting access to information. While universities are not immune from the increased pressure for producing commercializable innovations, providing free access to education materials in the form of OER is important for several reasons. At a global level, the provision of educational resources without cost is an important mechanism for social and economic development and for facilitating both international and intercultural information exchanges. For governments, OER allow for wider interaction with higher education resources, and promote lifelong learning. For universities, providing free access to course materials is not only a means of attracting students and showcasing the university’s research, but also reflects the fact that such institutions rely on taxpayers’ money. The importance of OER for individual scholars is two-fold, as we can both develop and share

OER and use existing OER to enhance our own teaching. With respect to creation, OER are a way of communicating one’s knowledge to the broader community and can also be used to enhance one’s scholarly reputation. As users, academics can draw on a vast array of existing materials and use, and in some cases modify existing OER,3 to create more effective learning environments both in the classroom and online.  OER include a wide range of educational resources from course materials such as syllabi and lecture notes to streaming videos, podcasts, and any other materials that are intended for teaching and learning. OER also include tools for developing, managing, and distributing educational content and implementation resources that allow the open publishing of material such as the Creative Commons licensing system.4 In addition to covering a wide range of teaching and learning materials, a diverse range of facilities and services exist to encourage the use of OER. Repositories and directories for OER and OCW such as the Open CourseWare Consortium5 and the OER Commons,6 allow for locating OER material. Individual universities are also increasingly providing access to courseware materials. The most prominent example of a university initiative is MIT’s OpenCourseWare site.7 Discipline specific portals also exist, such as MathWorld,8 which provides both access to and the ability for academics to contribute free mathematical resources. Finally open universities have emerged that not only encourage the development of OER but also use such materials to provide open education, an example of which is the pan-national African Virtual University.9 While no comprehensive statistics are available, there has been considerable uptake in the development of OER. For example, MIT’s OpenCourseWare portal averages 1 million visits each month,10 and the Open CourseWare Consortium provides access to over 6,600 courses from 65 institutions including MIT, Tufts University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Irvine among others.11 The OER Commons has over 32,000 resources available including materials for the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.12 In Canada, major OER projects include BCcampus13 a provincial initiative for allowing the open use of higher education materials within British Columbia, and Athabasca University, which in 2011 was awarded the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in OER.14

For more information about OER, see the UNESCO and Commonwealth of Learning Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources (2011) and the UNESCO OER portal. While slightly older, the OECD’s 2007 examination of OER, Giving Knowledge for Free (available electronically through Western Libraries), provides a detailed and nuanced discussion of many of the crucial elements of OER. Finally for those interested in creating and using OER, it is important to have an understanding of the various licensing mechanisms and conditions. While not all OER use a Creative Common (CC) license, most do and detailed explanations of the various CC licenses are available through the Creative Commons website.

1UNESCO, Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries: Final Report, (UNESCO, Paris 1-3 July, 2002, CI/INF/IS/2002), annex 5: http://portal.unesco.  org/ci/en/files/2492/10330567404OCW_forum_report_final_draft.doc/OCW_forum_report_final_draft.doc

2Creative Commons, "About Licenses," (n.d.): http://

3It is important to note that not all OER can be modified or adapted. Users must consult each individual OER’s license to determine its terms of use.

4OECD -- Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, (OECD, Paris, 2007), 30-31.

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