Reading – Open Educational Resources Definitions

The Open Educational Resources Definitions

As the definition of OpenCourseWare was pushed toward “college and university‐level educational materials which are organized as courses,” the question arose what to call openly licensed educational materials at the K-12 level or organized in some other fashion. “Open content” is too general, and “OCW” is too specific. The term “open educational resources” was born out of this conversation. But what, exactly, does the term mean?

While a large number of competing definitions of the term “open educational resources” exist, with each focusing on different nuances of the copyright permissions structure or the different motivations for sharing open educational resources, a review of these definitions reveals a common baseline understanding. Educational materials which use a Creative Commons license or which exist in the public domain and are free of copyright restrictions are open educational resources. A rich collection of work and writing underlie this common understanding.

As an emerging construct, a significant amount of the existing literature is dedicated to defining the term open educational resources and clarifying the motivations underlying this body of work (Hylén (2006), OECD (2007), Geser (2007), Atkins, Brown, and Hammond (2007), Baraniuk and Burrus (2008), Gurell and Wiley (2008), Brown and Adler (2008), and Plotkin (2010)). Mike Smith, Director of the Hewlett Foundation Education Program which provided much of the early funding for work in the area of open educational resources, wrote, “At the heart of the open educational resources movement is the simple and powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that technology in general and the World Wide Web in particular provide an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse that knowledge” (Smith & Casserly, 2006, p. 10).

Writing in 1975, MacKenzie, Postgate, and Scupham said, “Open Learning is an imprecise phrase to which a range of meanings can be, and is, attached. It eludes definition. But as an inscription to be carried in procession on a banner, gathering adherents and enthusiasts, it has great potential” (p. 15). Rumble (1989) added, “Nearly 15 years later, one has to ask oneself whether there is a greater degree of clarity” (p. 29). In fact, the situation with regard to this word “open” is largely unchanged almost 40 years later.

The most frequently used definition of “open educational resources” comes from the report of the meeting where the term was first coined. In 2002, UNESCO convened the Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries. It was in this Forum where Saul Fisher from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recommended the that the group adopt the phrase “open educational resources” to describe the new model of sharing educational materials that had brought the group together. The group agreed and offered the following definition:

The open provision of educational resources, enabled by information and communication technologies, for consultation, use and adaptation by a community of users for non-commercial purposes (UNESCO, 2002, p. 24).

Forum participants set an idealistic goal for the idea of open educational resources later in this same document, inadvertently providing a second definition for the term: “a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity” (UNESCO, 2002, p. 28). Since 2002, many other definitions have been offered. While none can be considered authoritative, a review of the definitions provides a more nuanced understanding of the term’s meaning.

Defining the Term “Open”

Rather than try to define the entire term open educational resources, some researchers split the term up in order to define its components seperately. Hylén (2006) problematizes each of the three concepts in the name, questioning what is meant by “open,” “educational,” and “resources,” as do Mulder (2007) and OECD (2007).

Wiley (2010) assumes common understanding of the term educational resources, and argues that open is a matter of (1) cost and (2) copyright licensing and related permissions. For Wiley, open means that a resource is available free of cost and that four permissions (called the “4Rs”) are also made available free of cost. These permissions include:

  • Reuse: the right to reuse the content in its unaltered/verbatim form (e.g., make a backup copy of the content)
  • Revise: the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into an- other language)
  • 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)
  • Redistribute: the right to share copies of the original content, the revisions, or the remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

Wenk (2010) repeats the definition put forth by in defining openness:

  • The freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it.
  • The freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it.
  • The freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression.
  • The freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works (p. 435)

Both the 4Rs framework established by Wiley and the “Freedom Defined” framework promoted by Wenk focus on granting permissions regulated by copyright. This is the reason many definitions of open educational resources include open licenses as a critical component. For example, Patricia, del Rocio, and Elizabeth (2010) define OER are “resources that provide educational content with an open license that facilitates their use, adaptation and modification.”

Tuomi (2006) takes another approach to defining openness, though one still focused on permissions. Tuomi describes OER as “sources of services” that:

(a) provide non-discriminatory access to information and knowledge about the resource (level I openness)
(b) the services of which can be enjoyed by anyone with sufficient non-discriminatory capabilities (level II openness)
(c) can be contributed to (level III openness) (p. 34)

Because definitions of OER place such an emphasis on copyright permissions and licensing, a basic understanding of the most commonly used open licenses, the Creative Commons licenses, is critical to understanding what OER are.

OER Definitions Operationalized in Policy

As the requirement to produce and use OER becomes common in grant policies and programs, a bright line definition of OER becomes necessary for compliance and reporting purposes. The Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges’ (2010) policy on Open Licensing on Competitive Grants states that all “digital software, educational resources and knowledge produced through competitive grants, offered through and/or managed by the SBCTC, will carry a Creative Commons Attribution License” (p.4).

At the federal level, the 2010 Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT) committed $2 billion in federal grant funding over four years to “expand and improve their ability to deliver education and career training programs” (p.1). The intellectual property section of the grant program description requires that all educational materials created with grant funding be licensed under a Creative Commons BY license.


The Hewlett Foundation, which has been funding OCW and OER work for over a decade, provides an explicit definition of open educational resources. When I have to choose a single definition, this is the one I typically use.

OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

This page is adapted from the Wiley, Bliss, and McEwen chapter titled “Open Educational Resources: A Review of the Literature,” to appear in Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 4 edition, and is not covered by the course’s CC BY license.