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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on OER

This page contains a list of frequently asked question on OER and Open education.

Q: What are Open Educational Resources?

We utilize the SPARC definition: "Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that are free of cost and access barriers, and which also carry legal permission for open use. Generally, this permission is granted by the use of an open license (for example, Creative Commons licenses) which allows anyone to freely use, adapt and share the resource—anytime, anywhere."

Other OER Definitions:

  • OER Commons: “Open Educational Resources are teaching and learning materials that you may freely use and reuse, without charge. OER often have a Creative Commons or GNU license that state specifically how the material may be used, reused, adapted, and shared.”
  • The Cape Town Open Education Declaration: “Open educational resources should be freely shared through open licenses which facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone. Resources should be published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms. Whenever possible, they should also be available in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities and people who do not yet have access to the Internet.”
  • UNESCO: "Open Educational Resources (OER) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them. OER range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation."
  • William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: "Open Educational Resources 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 repurposing by others. OER include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge."

Q: How do you tell if a free resource is "open?"

The key distinguishing characteristic of OER is its intellectual property license and the freedoms the license grants to others to share and adapt it. These freedoms include:

  1. Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

If a lesson plan or activity is not clearly tagged or marked as being in the public domain or having an open license, it is not OER. The most common way to release materials as OER is through Creative Commons copyright licenses, which are standardized, free-­to-­use
open licenses that have already been used on more than 1 billion copyrighted works.

Creative Commons licenses are customizable copyright licenses that work alongside copyright law to give explicit permission for users to reuse items under specific circumstances. Applying a Creative Commons license to your work changes the familiar "All rights reserved" to "Some rights reserved," with explicit rules about what can and cannot be done with the item.

Q: What is the difference between OER and other free online resources?

All OER are free to access, but not all free resources are OER. What makes OER different is their copyright licenses. Free-but-not-open resources cannot be edited without obtaining permission from the copyright holder.

Q: Can OER be high quality if it is free?

Studies at both the K-­12 and higher education levels show that students who use OER
do as well, and often better, than their peers using traditional resources. Also, many
OER are developed through rigorous peer review and production processes that mirror
traditional materials. However, it is important to note that being open or closed does not
inherently affect the quality of a resource. Being open does enable educators to use the
resource more effectively, which can lead to better outcomes. For example, OER can
be updated, tailored and improved locally to fit the needs of students, and it also
eliminates cost as a barrier for students to access their materials.

Q: Who will guarantee the quality of OER?

This question is possibly reflective of a deeply entrenched notion of educational materials as being ‘publications’, the quality of which is controlled by educational publishers. This notion has been – and remains – valid but reflects a partial understanding of the scope and diversity of educational materials used in many teaching and learning contexts. It also reflects a false delegation of responsibility for quality to a third party. This mindset shifts into the OER space in the form of an unstated assumption that one or more dedicated agencies should take full responsibility for assuring that OER shared in repositories online are of a high quality. In addition to this being practically impossible, it masks the reality that the definition of quality is subjective and contextually dependent.

In the final analysis, responsibility for assuring the quality of OER used in teaching and learning environments will reside with the institution, programme/course coordinators, and individual educators responsible for delivery of education. As they have always done when prescribing textbooks, choosing a video to screen, or using someone else’s lesson plan, these agents are the ones who retain final responsibility for choosing which materials – open and/or proprietary – to use. Thus, the ‘quality of OER’ will depend on which resources they choose to use, how they choose to adapt them to make them contextually relevant, and how they integrate them into teaching and learning activities of different kinds.

This task of assuring quality has been complicated by the explosion of available content (both open and proprietary). This is both a blessing, as it reduces the likelihood of needing to develop new content, and a curse, as it demands higher level skills in information searching, selection, adaptation, and evaluation. As institutions share more educational content online, they will want to ensure that this content reflects well on the institution and may thus invest in improving its quality before making it available in repositories. In the OER environment, quality assurance will thus be assisted by the development of such repositories, which will provide at least first levels of quality assurance.

But these investments on the part of institutions will simply serve, over time, to create more opportunities for finding good materials to use. The primary responsibility for finding the right materials to use, and for using them to support effective education, still resides with the institutions and educators offering the education.

Q: How can education benefit by harnessing OER?

The most important reason for harnessing OER is that openly licensed educational materials have tremendous potential to contribute to improving the quality and effectiveness of education. The challenges of growing access, combined with the ongoing rollout of ICT infrastructure into educational institutions, indicates that it is becoming increasingly important for them to support, in a planned and deliberate manner, the development and improvement of curricula, ongoing programme and course design, planning of contact sessions with students, development of quality teaching and learning materials, and design of effective assessment – activities all aimed at improving the teaching and learning environment while managing the cost of this through increased use of resource-based learning.

Given this, the transformative educational potential of OER revolves around three linked possibilities:

The transformative educational potential of OER revolves around three linked possibilities:

  • The principle of allowing adaptation of materials provides one mechanism amongst many for constructing roles for students as active participants in educational processes, who learn best by doing and creating, not by passively reading and absorbing. Content licenses that encourage activity and creation by students through re-use and adaptation of that content can make a significant contribution to creating more effective learning environments.
  • OER has potential to build capacity by providing institutions and educators access, at low or no cost, to the means of production to develop their competence in producing educational materials and carrying out the necessary instructional design to integrate such materials into high quality programmes of learning.

Deliberate openness thus acknowledges that:

  • Investment in designing effective educational environments is critically important to good education.
  • A key to productive systems is to build on common intellectual capital, rather than duplicating similar efforts.
  • All things being equal, collaboration will improve quality.
  • As education is a contextualized practice, it is important to make it easy to adapt materials imported from different settings where this is required, and this should be encouraged rather than restricted.

Q: Does use of OER preclude use of commercial content? 

  • While it may be a worthy, if somewhat idealistic aspiration to make all educational content available free of charge, in-principle decisions to exclude commercial content from consideration in teaching and learning environments are likely to be inappropriate. Such a stance ignores the reality that there are many high-quality educational materials available for purchase and that, for in certain circumstances, their use may be more affordable than attempts to produce that content openly. Thus, the most cost-effective way to develop and procure resources for use in teaching and learning is to explore all available options, rather than excluding some on principle.
  • OER and commercial content can thus be used together in courses and programmes, although course developers need to be careful not to create licensing conflicts by integrating materials with different licensing conditions when designing teaching and learning materials. It thus seems a worthwhile practice, however, during design and development of educational courses and programmes, to consider all possibilities when developing and procuring content. Of course, as a consequence of digitization of content and the growth of openly available content online, educational publishing business models will shift and the mix of open content and commercial content will continue to change.

Q: Where do I find OER?

The scope and availability of OER is ever expanding. Every week, new resources are being added to the global body of resources. A current problem arising out of this growth is that there is no single comprehensive listing of all OER (nor, given the rapid expansion of content online, is there ever likely to be one). This means that, in order to find appropriate OER, the searcher will need to employ a number of search strategies:

  1. Use a specialized OER search engine: While search engines such as Google and Bing are a good general starting point for finding content online, there are also some specialized search engines that search specifically for OER. Their listings, however, are selective based on different search criteria so it is a good idea to try more than one. Here are a few of the popular ones
  1. Locate a suitable OER repository: Searchers should also access the major OER repositories to search for OER. Most are institutionally based, focusing on the materials released by that organization. A famous example is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open Courseware Repository (MIT OCW). Some repositories, such as MedEd PORTAL, have a specific subject focus, in this instance, medical photos and multimedia. Below are a few of the more significant OER repositories (See OER repositories):
  1. Use OER directory sites: There are many sites that have a search facility whose results point to places elsewhere on the Internet where resources match search criteria. They themselves do not act a repository, but have identified quality resources and store them in a database of web links. Their databases usually have a particular focus. In the case of OER Africa, for example, they highlight quality resources developed in and about Africa. Here are just a few:

Q: How can I share my OER with others? 

Once a resource has been developed and an open license has been selected (see OER Commons: http://www.oercommons.org/ for more information), the resource will need to be stored in an online repository in order for others to access it.

There are various options regarding where these resources might reside:

  1. Use the institutional repository: Many organizations, and especially universities, are setting up their own collections and making them available online as OER or OCW. If the writer or developer works for such an institution, the expectation will be that OER developed under the auspices of that institution should reside within their repository. For the University of Regina, most OER are created and listed in Pressbooks at https://opentextbooks.uregina.ca.
  2. Select an open repository: Various repositories welcome contributions from multiple locations. JORUM (http://www.jorum.ac.uk/share), for example, welcomes submissions that support the British curriculum at further and higher education levels. OER Commons has a facility (https://www.oercommons.org/contribute/) to allow users to contribute materials. Generally, open repositories require the person submitting the resource to register and log in before uploading the resource. They will also require information about the resource to allow it to be catalogued and tagged. This is necessary in order to allow search facilities to find it. The submitted resource will be vetted by a review team to ensure quality before being added to the repository’s database.
  3. Build the OER online: It is also possible to build a resource online. A few sites that encourage development of OER within their online environments. They can then automate processes such as acquiring a Creative Commons licence and adding the resource to the database. One such example is Connexions (http://cnx.org), which allows teams to develop modules of learning on their site. Users open an account, develop the materials online, and then publish them once they are satisfied. WikiEducator (http://wikieducator.org) uses a similar method to allow educators to develop teaching materials collaboratively online.
  4. Exploit social networks. The world of social networking has also opened new possibilities for publishing OER online. A site such as Flickr (www.flickr.com) allows its users to publish photographic materials with Creative Commons licenses, while YouTube (www.youtube.com) allows the same for digital video materials. Networks like Twitter and Facebook can be used to spread awareness of the materials posted on the Internet by sharing the links.

Q: How much can I change OER for my own purposes?

In most instances, a user has enormous latitude to adapt OER to suit contextual needs where the license allows adaptation. If, however, the license restricts adaptation (as, for example, the Creative Commons license with a ‘No Derivatives’ restriction does), others may not alter the resource in any way. It has to be used ‘as is’. This right is not reserved often in OER.

The vast majority of published OER welcome users to adapt the original resource. Common ways in which OER can be changed include the following:

  • Mixing: A number of OER are mixed together and additional content is added to create an altogether new resource. This is common when course designers need to develop materials and resources to match a local curriculum or programme. A common concern is that it is rare to find existing OER that fit perfectly ‘as is’.
  • Adaption: This occurs when one OER is used and multiple adaptations are developed to suit multiple contexts. It could be that the language is translated into others but usually adaptation requires local case studies/examples to be added to make the materials relevant to students in a particular context.
  • Asset extraction: It is also possible to extract only some of the assets of a resource or course and use them in a completely different context. This is especially true of media elements such as photos, illustrations, and graphs, as developers often lack the skills or resources to develop their own versions of commonly used visual aids.

In many ways, the fact that changes may be made to the original is what makes OER – compared with other forms of copyrighted materials – especially useful to programme developers.