Towards a definition of OER

Our collective understanding of the definition of OER is maturing in parallel with increased adoption of open education in our formal education institutions around the world. In nurturing the development of a sustainable open education ecosystem, there is growing consensus that a definition of OER ideally needs to incorporate three interrelated dimensions:
  1. Educational values: OER should be free;
  2. Pedagogical utility: OER should embed the permissions of the 4Rs (reuse, revise, remix and redistribute); and
  3. Technology enablers: Technology and media choices should not restrict the permissions of the 4R framework.

Each component is summarised below.

Educational values: OER should be free

When thinking about the free in OER, many people associate this with learning content which is accessible at no-cost to the user. However, free also refers to personal liberty -- the freedom or permission to act without restriction. Consequently, there are two dimensions which need to be considered under the meaning of free in OER: no-cost (gratis) and the freedoms of the users (liberty).

  • OER must be accessible at no-cost to the user (gratis)
    To qualify as OER, there must always be a version of the materials freely accessible at no-cost to the user. This does not necessarily imply that distributors of OER content may not charge for packaging, distribution or value-added services, but it does require that a version of the OER is always available at no-cost. Consider for example the OER Handbook hosted on WikiEducator. Educators are free to use, adapt or modify a copy of the OER Handbook at no cost. Moreover, users are free to copy the OER Handbook and host this on any website of their choosing or print the book themselves. Some users may choose to purchase a bound version of the OER Handbook from or download a version at no-cost on the website.
  • OER should respect the freedoms of the users (liberty)
    The freedoms of OER users are derived from the essential freedoms of the free software movement. They are encapsulated in the 4R framework (reuse, revise, remix, redistribute) and decisions about technology and media choices below.
    For instance, restricting the right to earn a living from OER can be considered a material restriction of the essential freedoms and rights to redistribute OER. Consequently the OER Foundation does not advocate the use of the non-commercial restriction as in the case of some OER projects. The discussion on user freedoms in the context of OER is a complex debate and falls outside the ambit of this unit. However, you can read more about these issues in the suggested readings below.

Pedagogical utility: The 4R framework

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Key points

With OER you are free to:

  1. Reuse - the right to reuse the content in its unaltered / verbatim form (e.g., make a digital copy of the content)
  2. Revise - the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language or modify a learning activity)
  3. Remix - the right to combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  4. 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)

—David Wiley[1]

Content is open to the extent that its permissions enable users to engage in the 4R activities. Content is less open to the extent that its permissions restrict users access (e.g., forbidding derivative works or prohibiting commercial use) to the 4R activities.

The 5th R

In the academic world, open access publishing has gained considerable momentum. In less than a decade, open access has reached the tipping point where there are more academic papers available for free when compared to paid access in many fields of study[2]. However, notwithstanding the impressive progress with open access, many publishers require that the original authors sign-off ownership of their work to the journal which restricts the original authors from reusing and adapting their own work. Conversely, learners who wish to share the outputs of their creative efforts using open licenses, for example, reflections posted in discussion forums in the university the learning management system, may lose access to their learning artefacts when the course is completed.

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Key points

This leads me to feel that the time has come to add a 5th R to my framework – “retain”:

5. 'Retain - the right to make, own and control copies of the content.

—David Wiley, 2014[3]

In practice, it would not be possible for educators to engage in the reuse or remix activities without access to the original resource. "Retain" as the 5thR is therefore subsumed in the 4R activities. It its useful to note that Wiley's purpose with the 5R framework is to help educators understand and remember the key rights associated with OER[4].

Technology and media choices

Digital technologies are the enablers for the 4Rs above. However, technology and media choices can also restrict the 4R activities. There are two important considerations pertaining to technology and media choices for OER:

  • Access to the tools required for editing, and
  • Ensuring that OER is meaningfully editable.

In both instances, the minimum requirement is to adopt open standards for storing OER. An open standard refers to file formats which are publicly available with unencumbered rights to use the standards or specification concerned. For example, the open web is built upon the specifications of the World Wide Web Consortium which ensures that all browsers can implement the protocols on a royalty free basis. In this way, both free software and closed software browsers can access and interpret the digital information on the world wide web.

Similarly OER should be stored and distributed using open standards and formats which are easily editable. In this way we can ensure that:

  • All users will have unrestricted access to the tools required to revise and remix OER content. All users should be free to use the software of their choice, and should not be required to sacrifice their freedoms or be forced to purchase software licenses in order to participate freely in the 4Rs. Therefore, digital content which necessitates the user to acquire a software license in order to modify or adapt the source materials imposes restrictions in the 4R activities. So for example, video files should avoid using closed file formats like Windows Media Video (WMV) or Flash Video Format (FLV) which may force some users to sacrifice their freedoms by requiring the installation of patented or encumbered codecs for editing these files. Educators and OER developers should be encouraged to respect the freedoms of future users by providing open file formats of their creative works.
  • All users have the capacity to edit an OER to suit their local needs. For example, while the Portable Document Format (PDF) is an open standard for document exchange it is not easy to edit other than minor changes. OER offered in this format only cannot be revised easily for suitable local use.

Any questions?

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Further reading (optional)


  1. #Wiley, D. (No Date). Defining the "Open" in Open Content. Retrieved 27 December 2010.
  2. Paun, C. 2013. Open access reaches tipping point in sciences – Study. University World News, 23 August 2013 Issue No:284.
  3. David Wiley. 2014. The Access compromise and the 5th R, 5 March 2014.
  4. Wiley, D. 2014. Clarifying the 5th R, 15 March 2014.