What does “Open” Mean in Open Educational Resource (OER)?

It may seem very strange to those not exposed to the Open Educational Resource (OER) movement, but the everyday term “open” is imbued with layers of meaning, much like lawyers use the term “cause.”  Simply put, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The idea of “open” intellectual property is not a new one. Many writings and other creative works have been within the public domain for a very long time, or since inception.  You can freely do whatever you want with the text of the Constitution of the United States. You can copy it, store it, modify it, retain it, and even sell it. Millions of other works fall into that category, as do things that are very old and the writers are long dead.  You can rest assured that Chaucer will not be suing you for printing out an excerpt from the Canterbury Tales and passing it out to students.

The idea of OER steems from the idea that people may want to give their work to the world free of charge, but they want to retain some rights.  The most common right retained (no matter what license or lack thereof is used) is the right to attribution.  That is, if you use my work, the least you can do is tell your readers that it is mine. Many in the OER community are zealous about this idea of unfettered information and advocate a sort of information anarchy where knowledge is power, and the power belongs to everyone.    

UNESCO describes OER this way:   “Open Educational Resources (OERs) 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.”  This most certainly gives many potential OER writers and users pause. I refer to this as the expansive definition of open because “freely” covers a vast amount of ground, most of it which is unnecessary for teachers to use the material to provide high quality, no-cost educational materials to students.  The salient characteristics are commonly referred to as the “Five Rs:”

Retain:  This essentially means you own the content and nobody can take it away.  Things like corporate “access codes” that expire four months into a four and a half month term certainly don’t qualify.  If you buy a book, you own the book and thus can retain it.

Reuse.  This means you can use the material in any way you see fit, such as including it in an online course, teaching from it in a classroom, and making a video of you presenting it.

Revise.  This means you can alter the content, such as adding your own content, updating the content, or translating it into another language.

Remix.  This means you can take chunks of the work and add it to chunks of other works.  Many style guides would treat this as a “long quote” but there are no limitations as to length.

Redistribute.  This means you can pass on the original work to others, and also includes your “revisions” and “remixes” of the content.

These ideas are often seen as binary states.  Either you can redistribute the content or you cannot.  Either you can revise the content or you cannot. Creative Commons (CC) licenses do a great job of defining these binary states for your work in both legal and human language.  CC licenses are so ubiquitous in discussions of OER that the two are often conflated by educators wanting to provide students with no-cost materials, but not knowing how to approach the problem.  

I support and applaud the work the Creative Commons folks have done and will continue to do, but I acknowledge that those binary options are not appropriate for every author’s needs and taste. I for one think they are bad for scholars working toward tenure and libraries that need to justify expenses to administrators and legislators.  My OER materials are released under a license of my own devising, and some people wouldn’t consider them “open” by the expansive definition. This leads to my applied definition of “open” that professors considering OER should focus on.  There are really only a couple of criteria:

  1.  Student’s can access the material free of charge, both legally and practically.
  2.  Student’s will always be able to access the material free of charge.         

One fundamental principle of OER is the need of educators to rethink the role of “the textbook” in what we do.  We don’t use textbooks in real scholarship. We analyze many different things (mostly primary sources) and synthesize them into a cohesive whole when we write.  I urge you to think of your classes as being defined by your syllabus and your sense of what is valuable in your context.  If we think that way, we don’t have to worry about finding the “right book” for the course.  There is no telling students “We’ll be skipping chapter five” and sheepishly avoiding the fact that we aren’t going to cover half the book at all.  You may use any combination of primary sources, government documents, YouTube videos, and CC licensed textbooks. The possibilities are limitless.

My point is not to insult the idea of open resources as defined by the expansive view, but to point out that in a practical sense the standard is very high and often difficult to reach by busy teachers struggling to curate high-quality resources for students.  Perhaps the most common example of my point is the use of YouTube videos in online courses. These are not CC licensed; they are most often licensed under YouTube’s “standard” license. This does not hamper your students at all. Provide a link or embed the video and away you go.  My overarching point is don’t overthink CC licenses and limit yourself to CC licensed content. If I want my students to read something on a Nobel Prize winner’s blog, then I’ll provide a link to the content.

One final point:  Most of the material you will want to use was written by scholars with a passion for their fields.  If you email them and ask to use their content in a specific way and you aren’t trying to make money from their hard work, you will get permission most of the time.  The CC license at the bottom of the page is a quick, clear, and unambiguous green flag to use the content, but it is not necessary.