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Purpose of the Guidelines

Open educational resources (OER) are materials used to support education that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared. These Guidelines outline key issues and make suggestions for integrating OER into higher education. Their purpose is to encourage decision makers in governments and institutions to invest in the systematic production, adaptation and use of OER and to bring them into the mainstream of higher education in order to improve the quality of curricula and teaching and to reduce costs.

Rationale for the Guidelines

The higher education context

In the current knowledge-driven global economy, higher education systems play major roles in social development and national economic competitiveness. However, they face immense challenges in meeting rising enrolment demands worldwide. Forecasts suggest that current global enrolments of 165 million will grow by a further 98 million by 2025. However, this growth is unlikely to be accompanied by equivalent increases in the human and financial resources available to the higher education sector.
Many institutions are incorporating information and communication technologies (ICT) into their management, administration and educational programmes in order to serve their students more cost-effectively and to prepare them for the world into which they will graduate. In many developing countries, however, access to hardware, software and connectivity remain challenges. It is therefore critical to adapt pedagogical approaches and learning materials to this environment while ensuring high quality and relevant educational opportunities.
In parallel, ICT are dramatically increasing the transfer of information through global communication systems, leading to an explosion in the generation and collective sharing of knowledge. The participation of non-specialists in previously specialised disciplinary areas is extending the boundaries of scholarship, while dynamic knowledge creation and social computing tools and processes are becoming more widespread and accepted. This opens up opportunities to create and share a wider array of educational resources, thereby accommodating a greater diversity of student needs. The digitisation of information, combined with its increasingly widespread dissemination, poses significant challenges to concepts of intellectual property. Copyright regimes and business models for publication are under scrutiny.
Increased online access to OER has further promoted individualised study, which, coupled with social networking and collaborative learning, has created opportunities for pedagogical innovation.

Open licensing and the emergence of OER

Open licences have emerged in an effort to protect authors’ rights in environments where content (particularly when digitised) can easily be copied and shared without permission. Open licences seek to ensure that copying and sharing happen within a structured legal framework that is more flexible than the automatic all-rights-reserved status of copyright. They allow permissions to be given accurately, while releasing the restrictions of traditional copyright.
OER are part of this process. They allow for more flexibility in the use, reuse and adaptation of materials for local contexts and learning environments, while allowing authors to have their work acknowledged.
Some advocates of OER say that a key benefit of open content is that it is ‘free’, but this is simplistic. Open content can be shared with others without asking permission and without paying licence or other access fees. However, some important cost considerations must be taken into account. Taking effective advantage of OER requires institutions to invest systematically in programme/course design and materials development and acquisition. Time must be invested in developing courses and materials, finding appropriate OER, adapting existing OER and negotiating copyright licensing (if material is not openly licensed). There are also associated costs such as the procurement and maintenance of ICT infrastructure (for authoring and content-sharing purposes) and bandwidth.

Educational institutions are making these investments in order to improve the quality of teaching and learning. They enable peers to share materials and enrich the curriculum for students. Institutions using and adapting OER can find this a cost-effective way of investing in materials design and development.

The transformative potential of OER

The growing demand for higher education and the ongoing rollout of ICT infrastructure have created unique challenges for higher education institutions in an era of tight resources. It has become increasingly important for educational institutions to support, in a planned and systematic manner:

  • Development and improvement of curricula and learning materials;
  • Ongoing programme and course design;
  • Organisation of interactive contact sessions with and among students;
  • Development of quality teaching and learning materials;
  • Design of effective assessment tools for diverse environments; and
  • Links with the world of work.

OER can make a significant contribution to these processes. However, OER do not automatically lead to quality, efficiency and cost-effectiveness; much depends on the procedures put in place. The transformative educational potential of OER depends on:

  1. Improving the quality of learning materials through peer review processes;
  2. Reaping the benefits of contextualisation, personalisation and localisation;
  3. Emphasising openness and quality improvement;
  4. Building capacity for the creation and use of OER as part of the professional development of academic staff;
  5. Serving the needs of particular student populations such as those with special needs;
  6. Optimising the deployment of institutional staff and budgets;
  7. Serving students in local languages;
  8. Involving students in the selection and adaptation of OER in order to engage them more actively in the learning process; and
  9. Using locally developed materials with due acknowledgement.

The transformative potential of OER also includes the benefits of sharing and collaborating among institutions and countries, and the creatively disruptive role of OER in opening up new educational models.

Scope of the Guidelines

Given the potential of OER to improve higher education systems, UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) have developed these Guidelines, after broad consultations with stakeholders in all regions of the world, to support governments, higher education institutions/providers, academic staff, student bodies and quality assurance/accreditation and recognition bodies. A UNESCO-COL companion document, A Basic Guide to Open Educational Resources (OER) (Butcher, 2011),5 provides more detailed information about all aspects of OER.



5 See