Defining OER

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The purpose of this handbook is to help you use, create, and share "open educational resources" (OER)[1]. Digital technologies, combined with the enablers of our networked society, provide teachers, lecturers and trainers with new and exciting opportunities to rediscover and implement a core value of education, namely to share knowledge freely.

Defining OER

The term "Open Educational Resource(s)" (OER) refers to educational resources (lesson plans, quizzes, syllabi, instructional modules, simulations, etc.) that are freely available for use, reuse, adaptation, and sharing. In contrast, Open Educational Practices (OEP) involve the processes that create an educational environment where OER are used as learning resources. OEP focuses on the approaches that are used to support the "demand side of education and not so much on the supply side" (OER) (Blackall & Hegarty, 2011). An openness to collaboration, sharing, networking and creating an online identity are some of the characteristics required to practice in this environment.

The term "open educational resources" was first used in July 2002 during a UNESCO workshop on open courseware in developing countries (Johnstone, 2005). Most definitions of the term include content, software tools, licenses, and best practices. OER is a burgeoning field of practice and exploration as evidenced by the growing number of research studies including the OECD (2007), OLCOS (2007), and Hewlett Foundation (Atkins, Brown and Hammond, 2007) reports. There is an emerging research community gaining momentum and focusing on investigating the impact of OER on learning and the education environment.

Inspirational OER projects

There are several inspirational projects mentioned in this handbook. Two have attracted particular attention: Wikipedia on account of its rapid growth and development through vibrant ad hoc communities, and the MIT OpenCourseWare project as one of the pioneers of open courseware.

  • In January 2001, Wikipedia was launched as an online encyclopaedia that anyone could edit. Most people thought that it would never work. During its first month Wikipedia accumulated 17 articles, by April it had 1,000, in October more than 10,000 and by the end of 2002 it crossed the 100,000 article mark (Zachte, 2008). It is now the largest encyclopaedia in the world and a tremendous resource for students and lecturers.
  • In 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its OpenCourseWare project, announcing plans to publish almost all of its course materials online for others to use, modify and share freely. The world of higher education was in shock. People couldn't believe MIT would give away its "crown jewels" when the rest of the world was trying to commercialize teaching and learning activities. With a combined belief in open access to education and the power of collaboration to improve materials, and with financial support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, MIT began to release hundreds of courses to the public. The success has been resounding. To date, MIT has published over 1800 courses online, and they are being accessed by more than one million users every month. (MIT OpenCourseWare, n.d.).

Hundreds of similar initiatives (such as WikiEducator[2], OER Commons[3], and Connexions[4]) exist with innovative tools and services to enable sharing and collaborative production of learning resources. These include initiatives focused on:

  • developing royalty free textbooks for primary and secondary schools;
  • simplifying licensing of resources for authors and educators;
  • packaging and indexing educational materials so they are easier to find and use;
  • nurturing online communities for teachers and authors; and
  • growing open education as a field and a movement.

Prominent global players in this arena include the UNESCO, the OECD, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Sun Microsystems who have helped to create a global open education space.

From small (and ambitious) beginnings at MIT with the OpenCourseWare project, the OCW Consortium[5] emerged, and has grown its membership to more than 100 institutions around the world. All are committed to publishing course materials online in a spirit of collaboration and sharing towards a broader vision of quality education for all via access to OER.

The authors of OER can grant users of their materials a variety of permissions, including permission to: modify them, translate or improve them, and share them with others (some licenses restrict modifications and/or commercial use).

Getting started with OER

While the idea of creating and building open educational resources may seem a little intimidating at first, the best qualifications for doing so are a passion for sharing knowledge and a willingness to learn. As an educator you are the most important contributor to OER, because you understand the needs of students and have expertise in at least one, if not multiple, fields. Contributors to OER each have different levels of technical, design, and teaching abilities, so don't worry if you don't feel like an expert in every area. In order to grow sufficiently to serve educators and learners around the world, the OER field needs the support of educators like you!

A journey of a hundred miles begins with one step -- Ancient Chinese Proverb

As you embark on this journey and discover a wealth of OER to augment your educational practices, invite peers and colleagues to travel along and share experiences with the community.

This handbook is an OER. Your contributions to the next edition will be most welcome.




Atkins D.E., Brown J.S., Hammond A.L. (2007). A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities, Hewlett Foundation. Available online:
Johnstone, S. (2005, October 24-28). Forum 1 Session 1 – Background note Open Educational Resources and open content: an overview. UNESCO Virtual University. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from
MIT CourseWare. (n.d.). Site Statistics. Retrieved May 12, 2008, from
OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. (2007). Giving Knowledge for Free - The Emergence of Open Educational Resources, OECD Publishing: Pembroke, MA. OLCOS. (2007). Open Educational Practices and Resources. OLCOS Roadmap 2012, Salzburg. Retrieved from
Savage, C. (2007, June 5). Posting on IIEP-OER mailing list.
Schmidt, P. (2007, November). "3.2 From ODL to Open ODL and Open Educational Resources (OER)." UNESCO OER Toolkit Draft. WikiEducator. Retrieved March 26, 2008, from
Schmidt, P. and Surman M. (2007). “Open Sourcing Education: learning and wisdom from iSummit 2007." Retrieved June 4, 2008, from
Zachte, E. (2008). Wikipedia Statistics. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved May 12, 2008, from