Open Education Resources, or OERs, is a concept that's captured the imagination of faculty around the world who are looking to either find free and open resources to use with their students, or to contribute their own resources for other faculty to use.

But beyond a general sense of wanting to give students free access to high-quality course material, what does OER mean? Where can resources be found? And where can materials be placed?

This document is designed to provide a very brief overview of these issues, with the goal of getting faculty up-and-running very quickly. There is no shortage of information about OERs. The trick is finding the time to read all of it. This document, designed to be read in around 20 minutes, is a carefully curated collection of the best links pertaining to OER.

This document is based on previous work by the CUNY Open Education Resources (OER) Group.

An Introduction to Open Education Resources

Open education resources (OER) are freely available and distributable course materials. While often times the emphasis is placed upon open access textbooks, OER can and does encompass all matter of materials, from syllabi to presentations to course shells/frameworks.

There are many definitions and interpretations of OER, but for our purposes, the focus will be placed upon OER materials that are:

  • available at no cost to faculty and to students
  • can be modified by faculty and/or students
  • can be redistributed by faculty who have made changes to the original OER work

Most of this information can be gathered from the license accompanying OER materials.

Traditionally, faculty members are given a class to teach. The class might have a textbook attached to it, or the faculty member might need to select a text. The text might have material related to the class, from handouts to slides. The faculty member might modify this material for her own class, but she cannot legally share the changed materials. Additionally, students will need to purchase the text, and, depending upon the discipline, access to some kind of electronic complement. All of this is closed and expensive. Faculty can create custom editions of textbooks, but they are stuck with the content within the individual books. Faculty can also create course packets, but the process is labor-intensive.

OER presents an alternative to this. Faculty can choose pre-existing materials, just as they do with traditional textbooks, but they can reconfigure content as they see fit, pulling elements of one text into elements of a different one, even rewriting sections, if the faculty member wishes. When the course is complete, the faculty member can make her material available, so that other faculty, possibly from within the same department but potentially from a different institution, can adopt and adapt the material.

OER is not just textbook material. It can include anything from entire course shells, to syllabi, to assignments, to presentations.

For students, OER means less money spent on course materials and course materials that are specifically tailored to the work of their professor. Instead of forcing a textbook into a pedagogical structure, the textbook and course materials are driven by individual pedagogy.

By sharing materials, faculty expand the reach of their work and make it easier for work and ideas to be enhanced. This David Wiley talk provides a nice overview of OER:

David Wiley discussing OER at TEDxNYED

The Importance of Open Education Resources

Chart showing rise in cost of textbooks

Open Education Resources (OER) are important for many reasons. One reason, as the above chart illustrates, is the cost of textbooks, which is rising at a rate higher than most other consumer goods. Given the rising cost of tuition at many institutions, many students simply cannot afford to buy textbooks. OER is a way to make sure every student has access to course materials, with cost taken out of the equation.

OER also allows faculty to create material that is customized for their classes. Where most textbooks will have their strengths and weaknesses, OER material allows a faculty member to pull only strong material into their class.

OER also represents an opportunity to have one's own materials enhanced. By allowing material to be modified by other faculty around the world, an OER creator has the chance to see material used in ways never imagined. New sections and chapters can be added and enhanced creating a work stronger than the original. That type of exposure and collaboration is simply not possible with material that lives on a local computer or only in print.

Finally, OER gives faculty a wide variety of material to draw upon for their own classes. Imagine being given a last-minute assignment for an unfamiliar class -- a textbook might help get you up to speed but what about the syllabus? The assignments? The exams? OER gives a wide variety of materials from which to build a class without having to start from scratch.

OER is important because it provides affordable material to students, allows faculty to enhance their own work, and provides faculty with content for classes.

This short video illustrates the benefits of OER. Creative Commons and licensing will be discussed below.

Creative Commons video about the benefits of OER

Finding and Evaluating Open Education Resources

There are a few things to consider when evaluating OERs:

  • Provenance
  • Licensing

Provenance is probably most intuitive: make sure OER material is coming from a reputable source. The reputation can be based upon the OER project or host, or the person who developed the materials. It can also be based upon the quality of the material themselves. Anyone interested in a more general overview of website evaluation can consult this guide.

Licensing can be a bit more challenging to consider. The license controls what can be done with the work, so the first consideration should be if the material is actually allowed to be used. For instance, most proprietary textbook content cannot be publicly shared, so, depending upon the license, a faculty member could not repost content, outside of what is permitted by Fair Use. A Creative Commons license is usually used to indicate that a work can be used and how it can be used. This page explains the various licenses in plain, non-legal language. This post explores the strengths and weaknesses of the various Creative Commons licenses in a more in-depth manner. This entire OER is licensed under a Creative Commons Attirbution-ShareAlike license, meaning the entire class could be modified and used as the basis for a new class, or could be used as-is for a class, with the only limitation being that the original work would need to be credited and any new works would share the same license.

With these evaluation tools in mind, there are a wide variety of OERs to explore for content. In the spirit of OER, this module will not attempt to catalog all of them. Instead, interested faculty might begin with a list curated by Open University's Support Centre for Open Resources in Education: Faculty might also consult:

Google can also find Creative Commons materials. Simply do a Google search on your topic, go to advanced search, and narrow the results by usage rights. Free to share, use, or modify is probably the best place to start:

screenshot of Google Search advanced settings

screenshot of Google Search advanced search usage rights filter

Using Open Education Resources in Your Class

Using OER materials in a class is remarkably similar to using any materials. The difference, and challenge, lies in the format limitations. Not everything is available everywhere, so faculty might spend some time trying to track down the material they need in the format in which it is needed. For instance, a biology professor might want some OER materials on cell division. The professor might find some OER readings, but no activities, in a particular collection. The professor could either search other collections, as outlined above, the professor could adapt a comparable assignment on a similar topic, or the professor could create the missing content herself.

Because OER encompasses so many types of materials, faculty might find it helpful as a source of inspiration. The syllabus of a similar class might provide new insights into how to approach a topic. Someone else's assignment could open the gates to a completely new way to assess student learning.

Creating and Hosting Your Own Open Education Resources

Once you have found and reworked OER materials, you'll want to share what you've enhanced. The easiest way to make your content available is to an audience beyond your class is to add it to the collection where you found the material you modified. This lets other faculty see how you developed material and keeps related material together. Another advantage of submitting to the platform where you found material is that many platforms will then handle attribution for you. For instance, Openstax CNX will attribute work automatically when you upload into it.

Faculty looking to share original work can find a platform that looks interesting. They also might consider their local institutional repository, which is often a destination for OER materials.

In general, faculty want to make sure material they wish to share is:

  • Findable. That means including metadata about the work and the class so users will know what to expect. ENG210 can mean a lot of things, but Introduction to British Literature is more universal. OER material can be placed anywhere online, but they are usually easier to find when they're part of a collection of other OER materials.

  • Usable. Material should be as open as possible. That means original files, like Word files, which can be more easily edited and modified than a PDF.

  • Licensed. Make sure you indicate what can be done with the work and any restrictions you have, although the less restrictive the license, the better.

  • This document was adopted from a class hosted on Canvas, a free platform that facilitates open classes. The modules are built in wikis, meaning they can be edited by anyone, or only by people with a certain role in the class. Anyone looking to create an entire class, might consider it as a host for materials.


Open Electronic Resources (OER) have advantages for faculty and students. For students, it all but guarantees access to course materials, and presents a significant cost savings. For faculty, it represents the chance to explore and modify new content and to expand one's pedagogical reach, moving from teaching students around an institution to potentially teaching students from around the world.

Hopefully this has given you the tools to take the next step into OER.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

This work is derived from Steven Ovadia's oer.class on Github. This version by Mark Eaton, also on Github.