Open Education FAQ

Open education University of Windsor with book in background and open access lock

What are Open Educational Resources (OER)?

In its simplest form, the concept of Open Educational Resources (OER) describes any educational resources (including curriculum maps, course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, multimedia applications, podcasts, and any other materials that have been designed for use in teaching and learning) that are openly available for use by educators and students, without an accompanying need to pay royalties or licence fees; they are free of copyright.

What is the difference between 'free' and 'open' resources?

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are, and will always be, free, but not all free resources are OERs. Free resources may be temporarily free or may be restricted from use at some time in the future (including by the adition of fees to access the resource). Moreover, free-but-not-open resources may not be modified, adapted, or redistributed without obtaining special permission from the copyright holder.

How do you tell if an educational resource is an OER?

The key distinguishing characteristic of OER is its intellectual property license and the freedoms the license grants to others to share and adapt it. If a lesson plan or activity is not clearly tagged or marked as being in the public domain or having an open license, it is not OER. It’s that simple. The most common way to release materials as OER is through Creative Commons copyright licenses, which are standardized, free-to-use open licenses that have already been used on more than 1 billion copyrighted works.

Can OER be high quality if it is free?

Studies show that students who use OERs do as well, and often better, than their peers using traditional resources. Also, many OERs are developed through rigorous peer review and production processes that mirror traditional materials. However, it is important to note that being open or closed does not inherently affect the quality of a resource. Being open does enable educators to use the resource more effectively, which can lead to better outcomes. For example, OER can be updated, tailored and improved locally to fit the needs of students, and it also eliminates cost as a barrier for students to access their materials.

What is an open textbook?

An open textbook is a textbook licensed under an open copyright license, and made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public. They are available for free as online versions, and as low-cost printed versions, should students opt for these.

What makes open textbooks different from a traditional textbook?

Traditionally-published textbooks are produced under closed copyright, meaning they cannot be shared, re-used or re-purposed. They are usually costly (hundreds of dollars each) with new editions published frequently, making texts only a year or two old out of date. Even if they are published digitally at half the cost, they are still expensive and come with digital rights management that means they only appear for a short period of time (4-6 months) on a student’s e-reader.

The open licensing of open textbooks allows for collaborations on and improvements to textbooks from contributors around the world. In contrast to traditional textbooks, with open licenses, faculty are free to adapt any portion of a textbook without requiring students to purchase an entire book only to use a small portion.

Why is open education important?

First, open education appears to be the most viable way to bring down the extremely high cost of teaching materials – for example, from a $120 textbook to a $20 textbook with no compromise in the quality of the presentation or print quality.

Second, open education strives to bring people back into the educational equation, in particular those people who have been "shut out" of the publishing world, like talented K-12 teachers, scientists and engineers out in industry, and people who do not read and write English.

Third, open education strives to reduce the time lag between producing a textbook and getting it into the hands of students. By the time most books are printed, they are out of date. This is particularly problematic in fast-moving areas of science, technology, and medicine.

Is OER the same as open learning/open education?

Although use of OER can support open learning/open education, the two are not the same. Making ‘open education’ or ‘open learning’ a priority has significantly bigger implications than only committing to releasing resources as open or using OER in educational programmes

Open learning is an approach to education that seeks to remove all unnecessary barriers to learning, while aiming to provide students with a reasonable chance of success in an education and training system centred on their specific needs and located in multiple arenas of learning. It incorporates several key principles:

  • Learning opportunity should be lifelong and should encompass both education and training;
  • The learning process should centre on the learners, build on their experience and encourage independent and critical thinking;
  • Learning provision should be flexible so that learners can increasingly choose, where, when, what and how they learn, as well as the pace at which they will learn;
  • Prior learning, prior experience and demonstrated competencies should be recognized so that learners are not unnecessarily barred from educational opportunities by lack of appropriate qualifications;
  • Learners should be able to accumulate credits from different learning contexts;
  • Providers should create the conditions for a fair chance of learner success2.
  • As this list illustrates, while effective use of OER might give practical expression to some of these principles, the two terms are distinct in both scope and meaning.


Information from Sparc Open, OpenStax, and BCcampus