Why are Open Educational Resources?

The Council of Chief State School Officers provides the following definition:

OER 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 re-purposing by others.

The 5 Rs of OER

What makes OER truly "open," are the permissions to Revise, Remix, Reuse, Retain, and Redistribute the content contained in them. These 5R permissions are what make OER different from material which is copyrighted under traditional, all-rights-reserved copyright. The creator/licensor retains copyright while granting permissions.

Another way to frame this is OER accurately can be described as:

open = free + permissions (the 5Rs)

These permissions help users of openly licensed content understand what they are allowed to do with the work. These permissions are granted in advance and are legally established through Public Domain or Creative Commons licensing:

  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)

  • 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)

  • 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)

  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)

  • 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)

OER in Higher Education

OER can encompass a variety of teaching and learning materials. Types of OER include (but are not limited to) syllabi, lesson plans, learning modules, lab experiments, simulations, course videos, discussion prompts, assignments, assessments, library guides, and course design templates.

Listed below are a few of the ways in which faculty, students, librarians, and instructional designers may use or support the adoption of open educational resources.


Many faculty already use OER — examples include showing an openly licensed course video or using curricular material created and shared by others. Open licensing allows faculty to create and share syllabi, lesson plans, and even entire textbooks for their courses. Further, OER provides opportunities for faculty in different institutions around the world to collaborate and to build off of each others' work.


Students can play a significant role in creating and improving OER ─ from simple assignments to full textbooks. One example from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire is The Open Anthology of Early American Literature. This anthology was created by students working together to find public-domain materials, write topic introductions, craft discussion forum prompts, and create assignments to go along with the materials to create a full OER textbook.


Librarians play a key role in OER initiatives by advocating, developing, exploring, and managing OER. Along with helping faculty find existing OER, librarians can often explain copyright concepts and provide guidance in adaptation and creation of OER.

Instructional Designers

Instructional Designers can work with faculty to integrate OER into courses; they can also help to share and publish course design templates as OER. Many instructional designers and technologists work with librarians and IT services to help integrate OER into learning management systems such as Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace, Moodle, etc.

Open Licensing & OER

By definition, OER reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license permitting free use and repurposing by others.

The most commonly used intellectual property license for OER that permits free use and re-purposing is called Creative Commons (CC) Licensing. CC licenses work with legal definitions of copyright to automatically provide usage rights pertaining to that work.

Modules 3 and 7 address Creative Commons licensing more fully, and provide information that will be helpful in choosing appropriate licensing to newly created or adapted OER.

A (Very) Brief History of Open Educational Resources

  • 1994 - Wayne Hodgins coined the term “learning object”

  • 1998 - David Wiley coined the phrase “open content”

  • 2001 - Larry Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred founded Creative Commons

  • 2001 - MIT introduced their OpenCourseWare project (MOOCs)

  • 2002 - UNESCO coined the term "Open Educational Resources” (OER).

  • 2012 - UNESCO adopted the 2012 OER Paris Declaration, an international commitment to OER

  • 2019 - UNESCO updated their definition of OER, creating conversation within the open community about the impact of this change on the ability to reuse OER

This movement continues to gain momentum, and the community of open education practitioners continues to expand. Educators around the world are increasing their use and creation of these resources in their teaching and learning.

Explore Further

Read the following resources to learn more about the history of OER.

Bliss, T. J. and Smith, M. (2017). A brief history of open educational resources. In: Jhangiani, R S and Biswas-Diener, R. (eds.) Open: The philosophy and practices that are revolutionizing education and science. (pp. 9–27). Ubiquity Press. https://doi.org/10.5334/bbc.b

Weller, M. (2017). The battle for open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. Ubiquity Press. https://doi.org/10.5334/bam

Wiley, D. (2020, January 16). Clarifying and strengthening the 5Rs. Improving learning. https://opencontent.org/blog/archives/6271


Information for this module was consulted and adapted from:

"Defining the "Open" in Open Content and Open Educational Resources" by David Wiley is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

"Defining OER" in Welcome to Understanding OER, by SUNY OER Services is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

"Defining Open Educational Resources" by William Meinke is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

"What is OER" by The Council of Chief State School Officers is licensed under CC BY 4.0.