Defining OER

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits repurposing by others.

What are OER?

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provides the following definition of open educational resources:

“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.”

In other words, “OER” is a very broad term. We apply it towards anything that helps students master course concepts.

The key distinguishing factor is the copyright status of the material. If the course content is copyrighted under traditional, all-rights-reserved copyright, then it’s not OER. If it resides in the public domain, or carries Creative Commons or similar open copyright status, then it is OER.

The 5 Rs of OER

A useful way to appreciate the value of OER is to understand what you, the user of openly licensed content, are allowed to do with it. These permissions are granted in advance, and are legally established through Public Domain or Creative Commons copyrights:

  1. The Five Rs of OERRetain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. 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)

This material is adapted from original writing by David Wiley, which was published freely under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license at

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Download the 5 Rs of OER Infographic

Examples of OER

Types of OER include (but are not limited to) syllabi, lesson plans, learning modules, lab experiments, simulations, course videos, discussion prompts, assignments, assessments, library guides, and course design templates.


Many faculty already use OER in their classes — showing YouTube videos, using worksheets created and shared by other faculty, and using online simulations as learning activities. Faculty can create and share syllabi, lesson plans, and even full textbooks for their courses. They can collaborate with faculty at their own institutions, or other institutions around the world. They can access and remix existing OER and republish them to share with others.


Students can play a significant role in creating OER as well — from simple assignments to full textbooks. As an example, at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), students in Jessica Kruger’s public health course worked in groups and together to research, write, and create a full OER textbook. The result became the book Models and Mechanisms of Public Health. The book will live on in upcoming semesters as future students edit and provide updated content to the book as needed.

Instructional Designers

Instructional Designers can work with faculty and students to integrate OER into teaching and learning, and can also share and publish their course design templates as OER. Many instructional designers and technologists work with librarians and IT services to help integrate OER into learning management systems and other course learning platforms.


Librarians play a key role in OER initiatives – advocating, developing, exploring, and managing OER. Along with helping you find OER, librarians can help you better understand copyright and licensing concepts, and guide you through your Creative Commons licensing options if you choose to create materials yourself.

As the use of OER becomes more widespread, we have access to more repositories where you can search for OER. Keep in mind that while you may not find OER that perfectly suit your needs, most OER can be modified and customized to fit within the context of your course, or meet the needs of your students. Yes, that takes time and consideration, but that time and consideration can greatly benefit your own teaching and research, as well as the overall learning experience that your students have.

OER Licensing

Going back to our definition, we need to remember that OER are 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.

The most commonly used intellectual property license for OER that permits free use and re-purposing is called Creative Commons Licensing. Creative Commons licenses work with legal definitions of copyright to automatically provide usage rights pertaining to that work.

As you progress along your learning journey, you will have the opportunity to fully explore Creative Commons licensing and learn how to apply appropriate licenses to the OER you and your learners create and use.