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What is OER?

This section of the report provides an overview of Open Educational Resources. It may help the reader who is relatively new to the field and who needs to gain an overall understanding of OER and why OER may matter to the reader.

OER are digitized educational resources that can be shared over the Internet. They can be edited or customized, combined with other resources and new versions created. New versions may be called ‘derivatives’ to the legal fraternity and ‘mashups’ or ‘remixes’ to other people. For a resource to be optimally sharable (without incremental costs), it needs to be in a digital format that other people can use - they need to be able to open it with computer programs (or ‘applications’, or ‘apps’) that they have on their computers. Resources that cannot legally be edited or modified in any way may still be sharable, but usually need to be used in their entirety and not in parts.

Once an OER in digital format has been selected for use, it may be converted into print or or other physical format to make it accessible for instance to people who do not have computers or Internet access; or for art classes or medical training facilities.

OER may be text files, like ‘lecture notes’ that have been written so that a learner may read and learn; they may be video files that show how something is done or even show a lecturer giving a classroom lecture. OER may be a single picture of something that can help a teacher or an interactive science experiment in a virtual science laboratory. The possibilities are wide, but the common strand is that the item being shared can be shared at no cost via the Internet, provided the user has an internet connection.

To overcome the limitations imposed on learners who do not yet have internet access, many OER are stored on computer disk drives which are then plugged into computers in institutions or other organizations. These are rather like local or offline collections of resources that are like the Internet, but limited in the number of resources that can be accessed.

Free educational resources have been around for decades, but prior to the Internet being in wide use, they might have been printed books that were given to people. The cost of duplication always limited how widely resources could be shared. OER, being digitized, can be legally duplicated digitally as many times as anyone likes if there is an Internet connection. The cost never rises if there is a reasonable Internet connection. The costs only rise when the materials are printed or if a person is paying for Internet access per minute or for the volume of data transmitted to their computer.

OER are being created, used and customized by individual people, organizations and institutions. Some government departments have realized they can reduce the cost of distributing learning resources, while building up local small industries by investing in OER projects. OER enable learning resources to support local printing industries, because they can be printed close to where they are going to be used - if they are printed at all. OER enable schools and higher education institutions to reduce the number of books that are printed by allowing learners to use computers, tablet PCs or handheld computers (including smart phones) to read their books. Providing learners of all ages with access to materials that are free of charge via the Internet, widens the access to these materials to more people who might not otherwise have been able to utilize them. With hundreds of millions of young people out of schools and with no hope of ever being admitted even to a secondary school, OER provides a window of opportunity to give many more people access to learning.

In addition to the technical formats that are needed to enable one person to access and use the resources another user uploads to the Internet, specific copyright licenses have emerged to support the sharing of resources. The most commonly used copyright licenses are provided by Creative Commons and allow a range of flexibility for users to choose what she or he wants to allow others to do with the resources they have created without having to ask permission. Should the user wish to have more rights than what has been communicated in the copyright license, the author or ‘rights holder‘ can be contacted and permission requested. If standardized core curriculum outlines existed in the world and funds are directed to the creation of high-quality resources for all topics, in all languages and levels, more people could gain the benefit of education. In the words of Nelson Mandela: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. (Brainy Quote, 2011)