OER Handbook/Introduction

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Note: The page is outdated, please see http://www.wikieducator.org/OER_Handbook/educator instead.


The purpose of this handbook is to help you get started in creating Open Education Resources, or OER for short. The term Open Educational Resources describes liberally-licensed educational content (text, audio, video) and other resources that support the production, distribution, and use of such content.There is no generally accepted definition of OER. The term was first used in July 2002 during a UNESCO workshop on open courseware in developing countries. Most existing definitions include content, software tools, licenses, and best practices. A first set of exploratory studies have been undertaken and published by the OECD (2007), OLCOS (2007), and the Hewlett Foundation (Atkins et al. 2007), and a research community is emerging to investigate the effects of OER on learning and the education environment.

Currently there are over 100,000 pieces of OER spread across many different websites. OER is developed by people all over the world and are available in dozens of languages. Contributors to OER each have different levels of technical, design and teaching abilities. The authors of OERs grant anyone the freedom to use their materials, modify, translate or improve them, and share them with others (some licenses restrict modifications or commercial use). Most open educational resources are provided in digital formats, which makes it easier to share and adapt them. Wikipedia, the volunteer-created encyclopaedia, is an OER, textbooks can be OERs, and open courseware (OCW) is a type of OER that organizes educational content into courses.

The issue of open educational resources and content has also attracted attention from researchers and international institutions. The UNESCO International Institute for Education and Planning (IIEP) has organised an on-line discussion forum on open educational resources that brought together 480 participants from 90 countries. The discussion covered a wide range of issues, including the availability of OER, barriers to participation, and what technology is needed to support OER.Catriona Savage to IIEP-OER mailing list 5 June 2007

While the idea of creating an OER resource may seem a little intimidating at first, but the best qualifications for creating OER is a willingness to learn and an idea for something to teach.

Why OER?

Before undertaking an OER project, it is important to understand why you are creating it. After all, some might argue that much of the information on the web is essentially free, so there's no point in creating OER. The answer to that concern lies with copyright. Downloading an image without permission may seem harmless, but it can expose you and the institution you work for or represent to liability.

What about Fair Use?

U.S. copyright law (as well as other countries) allow for select uses of copyrighted material without the copyright holders' consent. There are no concrete rules regarding fair use, but here are a few ways in which it is measured:

  1. The nature of the work. That means whether or not it is being used for a non-commercial purpose. When something is copyrighted is used for a non-commercial use, it is more likely to be considered fair use.
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work. The more useful something is to the common good, the more likely it will be considered fair use. For example, a paragraph about fire safety tips is less protected than a popular song.
  3. The amount of the work used. The less you use of a copyrighted material, the more likely it will be considered fair use. As an example, 30 seconds of a movie might be considered fair, while 30 minutes would not.

Copyright laws vary from country to country, so it is a good idea to check with local laws and regulations regarding copyright.


But I'm using it in a classroom, isn't that fair use?

Fair use does protect most uses in the classroom. The problem becomes when you want to share these resources online. Fair use does not protect you when placing educational materials online in a place where anyone can see them. Because educators are not protected when sharing online, many opt to put the material behind a password, often using learning management systems such as Blackboard and Angel. While this solution is acceptable legally, there is a lot of missed opportunity. Creating lesson material, even derivatives from copyrighted work is time-consuming, and every teacher knows the value of sharing material. But with copyright restrictions, finding and sharing educational resources becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Value/proposition of OER

To fill this need, so-called "copyleft" licenses were developed to allow content creators to license their material in such a way that other people can use them without the need for permission. Imagine being able to look through an online photo gallery, select two or three images and use it to create a new picture specifically for your classroom. No permission needed, and you can share it with others.

As another example, imagine being able to take a song and video of a local event to create a documentary. With OER, all of this possible. But it won't happen unless people such as yourself take the time to create OER.

More information on licensing is available in the licensing section.

A Short History of OER

There are now many incredible projects, but two have attracted a lot of attention: Wikipedia and the MIT OpenCourseWare project. (Some text in this section was adapted from Surman and Schmidt 2007)

  • 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 it collected 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. http://stats.wikimedia.org/EN/TablesWikipediaEN.htm 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. It announced that it would publish all of its course materials online, open for others to use, modify and share free of charge. The world of higher education was in shock - how could MIT give away its "crown jewels" when the rest of the world was trying to commercialise 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 Hewlett Foundation, MIT began to release hundreds of courses to the public. The success has been resounding. As of today, MIT has published over 1700 courses online, which are being accessed by more than one million users every month.http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Global/AboutOCW/evaluation.htm

In the years since, dozens - or, more likely, hundreds - of initiatives have emerged to promote the cause of open educational resources. This includes initiatives focused on: creating royalty free textbooks for primary and secondary schools; making content licensing easier for 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. Important global players like the Hewlett Foundation, UNESCO, Sun Microsystems or the OECD have also stepped into (and helped to create) an open education space.

Del.icio.us tags: oer-toolkit projects link to del.icio.us search

For example, MIT started the first open courseware project in 2002. Today, the open courseware consortium counts more than 100 members from across the world who have committed themselves to publishing course materials on-line using free and open content licenses.

Models of OER development

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

A few years ago a man named Eric S. Raymond wrote an essay called "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." The essay discussed two different software models, one called the "cathedral" and the other "bazaar." When a cathedral is built, the church oversees the workers who each build a piece of the cathedral according to a master plan. By analogy, this is similar to traditional software design. One group, management, oversees the programmers who each build pieces of the program according to a plan. In the bazaar there is no single group who is in charge. Each person can barter and take parts from anybody else in the market. Raymond compares bazaars to the open source model of development. In the open source model of software development, anyone can start a project. Some projects have requirements before you can submit code, but virtually every project is willing to accept help. Additionally, assuming the software licenses are compatible, code developed for one project can be used with other projects. Of course, not every project fits strictly in a 'cathedral' or 'bazaar' model, with some bazaar-like projects taking more direction from an oversight group than others.

To better illustrate the difference between the two, here is an example of each model.

Cathedral: The Windows operating system. Windows is developed by Microsoft with a large team of programmers. Each programmer works on a specific part of Windows until it is completed and added to the greater whole. Windows is elaborated planned and development largely follows that plan.

Bazaar: Gimp is a photo-editing software program somewhat similar to Photoshop. It was created by volunteers and donations. Programmers from a variety of industries contribute code and test for software bugs. Others contribute plugins that give extra functions to Gimp (special filters, format compatibility, etc.). Some didn't like the Gimp's appearance and created their own project called Gimpshop, which looks more similar to Photoshop. Meanwhile, development still continued on Gimp.

Raymond's essay is relevant to those who want to make OER. There is a great deal of variation in how OER projects are run. Some projects, such as OpenCourseWare are run by an institution and participation in development is generally limited to members of that institution. In contrast, Wikipedia will accept information from everyone, even if the contributor would prefer to remain anonymous. Although some have strong feelings about how projects should be run, there isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer. The larger the project, the more likely it is that there is some sort of guiding group or organization in charge of the project.

The OER you build will most likely take place under some sort of bazaar model. Because bazaar-model development can seem a little chaotic and confusing, this handbook is meant to guide you through each step of the process.


Lecture-based OER are resources specifically designed to assist in lectures and other forms of didactic learning. Lecture-based OER include images, text, and video. Podcasts and screencasts might also fall under this This type of OER can be easy to create and simple to distribute.


Student-based OER can have two definitions. One definition is that OER are resources that are primarily used by the student. Examples of student-based OER include simulations, interactive websites and tutorials. Another definition of student-based OER is open resources that were created by students. These resources are typically hosted on services such as YouTube, as most institutions will not generally host student content for extended periods of time.

The OER lifecycle

Professor David Wiley, a notable figure in the open education movement, believes that OER follows a lifecycle. This handbook is organized according to this lifecycle. The OER lifecycle is as follows:

  1. Get
  2. Localize
  3. Remix
  4. Use
  5. License
  6. Redistribute

This life cycle applies to an individual OER as well as large OER projects. Each of these parts have their own unique considerations. The lifecycle is not necessarily followed sequentially. Some parts, such as localize and remix, can be done simultaneously.

Get: Searching and finding OER. Getting OER may include using search engines, repositories and finding individual websites. Some potential OER material is not online, including things like class projects. This handbook will show you how find quality OER materials.
Localize: Localizing is a complex topic. Essentially localizing means making a resource more useful to a particular situation. For example, translating instruction from one language to another.
Remix: Remixing is the act of taking two OER materials and merging them to form a new OER. Arguably, remixing is one of the most enjoyable parts of OER. Use: This section covers the actual use of OER.
License: Covers Creative Commons and GFDL licenses. Also explains the differences between Creative Commons licenses. The handbook will not advocate one particular license over another, but instead provide multiple perspectives, because which license you choose is a personal choice.
Redistribute: Once the OER is finished it should be distributed and made available for the open education community to begin the lifecycle again.

Advantages and disadvantages

While there are many advantages to OER, there are things to consider before undertaking an OER project.

Advantages to OER
Freedom of access; both for yourself and others
Freedom from proprietary systems and corporations
Potential publicity
Contribution to a community
Helpful to future educators
Potentially beneficial to developing nations
Avoids vendor lock-in

Disadvantages to OER
Starting large projects can be difficult
Some projects, such as an OCW, require startup resources
Requires varying degrees of continual financial support
Licensing and obtaining copyright clearance can be difficult
Some institutions may be hostile to 'giving it away.'
May not be as polished as rival commercial offerings

Key questions for educators

Depending on the situation, an OER project may or may not viable. The following are a few questions that you might ask yourself as you consider OER. As you read through the OER handbook, you'll be better able to answer these questions.

How much time are you allotting for this project?
How many people do you need to help with this project?
Which people in management need to buy-in to this program?
Is there an existing open resource that fulfills the need as well as the proposed project?
Which resources do you plan on using? Are they open or closed?
Will the project be advantageous to other educators?
Has the project been approved by the legal department or appropriate person?

Key questions for policy makers

Is the institution in question receptive to OER?
Have you discussed this project with legal counsel?
Have you measured the costs for the proposed project?
Do you have sufficient funding?
Are there plans in place to maintain funding?


The ultimate value of OER can be summarized in one word: freedom. With OER, educators are free to create and supplement existing resources, including 'closed' or proprietary ones. These same OERs can remixed, or modified, to create new OERs and meet local needs. OERs have tremendous benefits for developing nations and financially-strapped institutions. However, OER projects do require resources, both for initial development and maintenance. OER development also requires support from management, legal counsel and, ideally, colleagues. Developing OER can follow two general models: cathedral and bazaar. Bazaar model development can occur in many different ways, including Wiley's OER lifecycle. While OER can be very rewarding, careful planning needs to occur. This handbook will better prepare educators and policy-makers to determine whether OER is right for them.