3 What is OER?

Learning Objectives

This chapter will support learners in being able to: 

  • Define Open Educational Resources (OER)
  • Describe the 5R permissions
  • Identify examples of OER types
  • Recognize the role open licensing plays in OER

Introductory Video: What is OER?


What are Open Educational Resources (OER)?

The nonprofit organization Creative Commons  provides the following definition of open educational resources (OER):

“Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research materials that are either (a) in the public domain or (b) licensed in a manner that provides everyone with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities.”

The key distinguishing factor of this type of educational resource is the copyright status of the material. If course content is under a traditional, all-rights-reserved copyright, then it’s not an OER. If it resides in the public domain or has been licensed for adaptation and distribution, then it is an OER.

The 5 Rs of OER

You just viewed the introductory video where the presenters discussed how the 5Rs are critical in defining and distinguishing open educational resources from other types of learning materials. These 5R permissions are what make OER different from material which is copyrighted under traditional, all-rights-reserved copyright.  Another way to frame this is that open in open educational resources doesn’t simply equate to being free; in fact, it more accurately can be described as:


open = free + permissions (the 5Rs)

The 5Rs

The 5Rs are a useful way to appreciate the value of OER. These permissions help you, the user of openly licensed content, understand what you are allowed to do with the work. These permissions are granted in advance and are legally established through Public Domain or Creative Commons license:

  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  • 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)

Examples of OER Stakeholder Involvement

As you learned from the video and from the definitions above, OER can encompass a variety of teaching and learning materials. 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.

Listed below are a few examples of the ways in which faculty, students, librarians, and instructional designers may use or support the adoption of open educational resources.


Many faculty already use OER in their classes — for example, showing an openly licensed course video or using worksheets created and shared by other faculty. Faculty can create and share syllabi, lesson plans, and even entire 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 re-publish them to share with others.


Students can play a significant role in creating and improving OER ─ from simple assignments to full textbooks. One example from Plymouth State University includes students working together to find public-domain materials, write topic introductions, craft discussion forum prompts, and create assignments to go along with the materials to create a full OER textbook. The result became The Open Anthology of Early American Literature.


Librarians play a key role in OER initiatives by advocating for, 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. You will explore this further in Chapter Four, Finding OER.

Instructional Designers

Instructional Designers can work with faculty and students to integrate OER into teaching and learning and 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 such as Blackboard, Canvas, and Brightspace.

Review of Open Licensing & OER

Going back to our definition, we need to remember that OER reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license permitting their free use and repurposing 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.

The next chapter will introduce Creative Commons licenses briefly, and later chapters will provide a more comprehensive overview, including how to license your own OER when you adapt or create.

A (Very) Brief History of Open Educational Resources

  • 1994 – Wayne Hodgins coined the term “learning object”
  • 1998 – David Wiley coined the phrase “open content”
  • 2001 – Larry Lessig, Hal Abelson, and Eric Eldred founded Creative Commons
  • 2001 – MIT introduced their OpenCourseWare project (MOOCs)
  • 2002 – UNESCO coined the term “Open Educational Resources” (OER).
  • 2012 – UNESCO adopted the 2012 OER Paris Declaration, an international commitment to OER
  • 2019 – UNESCO updates their definition of OER, creating conversation within the open community about the impact of this change on the ability to reuse OER

This movement continues to gain momentum, and the community of open education practitioners continues to expand. Educators around the world are increasing their use and creation of these resources in their teaching and learning.

Pressbooks Feature Alert!

The blue box below contains another example of H5P. There are over 50 different H5P codes you can build and embed into your book to help students engage more deeply with the content.


Concept Review

Explore Further

Want to learn more about the history of OER?

Bliss, T. J. and Smith, M. (2017). A Brief History of Open Educational Resources. In: Jhangiani, R S and Biswas-Diener, R. (eds.) Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. (pp. 9–27). London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bbc.b.

Wiley, D. (2020, January 16). Clarifying and Strengthening the 5Rs.  Iterating Towards Openness: Pragmatism Before Zeal. https://opencontent.org/blog/archives/6271



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