The concept of open education encapsulates a simple but powerful idea that the world’s knowledge is a public good and that the open web provides an extraordinary opportunity for everyone to share, use, and reuse knowledge. In short the “open” in Open Educational Resources means they must be free and provide the permissions to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute. However, we need to examine the concept in more detail.



Option 1

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 or 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 (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond 2007[1]).

Option 2

Open Educational Resources (OER) are materials used to support education that may be freely accessed, reused, modified and shared by anyone (Downes 2011[2]).

Option 3

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others (Creative Commons[3]).

Option 4

OER are learning, teaching, and research materials in any format or medium that reside in the public domain or are under copyright that have been released under an open license, that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, adaptation and redistribution by others.[4].

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Reflecting on the requirements for a definition of OER

Thinking about OER

There is a diverse range of opinion on the specific requirements of what constitutes an open education resource. In writing about the definition of OER, David Wiley indicates that the word “open” can have different meanings in different contexts and in practice it is a continuous (not binary) construct. “A door can be wide open, mostly open, cracked slightly open, or completely closed. So can your eyes, so can a window, etc.”[5]

A precise definition of OER impinges on the range of opinions regarding fundamental questions associated with interpretations of the meaning of the freedom to learn, for example:

  • Should a definition of OER include the requirement of an open content license, for example a Creative Commons license or the GNU Free Documentation License?
  • Is no-cost access to a learning resource on the Internet sufficient to qualify for a definition of OER?
  • Must a definition of OER incorporate the rights to adapt and modify a resource without restriction for different learning contexts?
  • Does the concept of freedom include the right to earn a living from OER?
  • Are restrictions on reuse permissible for a definition of OER?
  • Is there a requirement for technical related provisions, for example that an OER must be distributed in editable file formats?

Critical analysis of an OER definition

Consider, for example, the following description of OER and reflect on the questions which follow.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) describes OER as:

…digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning and research. OER includes learning content, software tools to develop, use and distribute content, and implementation resources such as open licences. This report suggests that “open educational resources” refers to accumulated digital assets that can be adjusted and which provide benefits without restricting the possibilities for others to enjoy them.

—OECD, 2007[6]


Reflections on the OECD definition of OER

Indicate whether the following statements, with reference to the OECD definition above, are true or false:

  • OER must include an open content license to qualify as OER.
    • True
      • Incorrect. Materials dedicated to the public domain would qualify as OER (the public domain declaration is not a license). However, in the absence of a clear description of the licensing terms, we cannot assume that materials accessible on the web qualify as OER. Therefore the majority of OER will utilise an open content license.
    • False
      • Correct. Materials dedicated to the public domain do not use an open content license yet meet the generic requirements for OER.
  • A digital version of the OER must be accessible at no-cost to all users.
    • True
      • Incorrect. The OECD definition “restricts” gratis access to educators, students and self-learners. Not all users are included.
    • False
      • Correct, a no-cost version of the resource is not available for all users – it’s restricted to certain categories of users.
  • The OECD definition requires that users must be free to adapt and modify the OER.
    • True
      • Incorrect. The OECD definition is problematic because it does not clearly state that modified works are permitted. It is ambiguous on the terms of reuse, and could exclude modified works because the definition only “suggests” (not requires) that OER should not restrict the freedoms of others to enjoy them including the freedom to “adjust” the original.
    • False.
      • Correct. The OECD definition is ambiguous on the rights to modify OER, and suggests that reuse is restricted to “verbatim” copies of the original. We can infer this because it only “suggests” (not requires) the right to “adjust” the original.
  • The OECD definition would permit an entrepreneur in the developing world to repackage and distribute a collection of OERs to users who do not have access to the Internet in return for a fee for this value-added service.
    • True
      • Incorrect. The OECD definition merely “suggests” that the possibilities for others to derive benefit and enjoy them should be encouraged, but stops short of incorporating this as a requirement for OER.
    • False
      • Correct. The OECD definition restricts reuse to teaching, learning and research, thus excluding entrepreneurial activities around value-added services for OER distribution.

These questions illustrate that a definition of OER entails more than the requirement to provide access to digital resources on the web. Moreover, there are multiple dimensions which must be considered when evaluating the “openness” of online resources.


  1. Atkins, D.E., Brown, J.S. & Hammond, A.L. (February 2007). A Review of the Open Educational Resources (OER) Movement: Achievements, Challenges, and New Opportunities. Report to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. p. 4.
  2. Downes, S. 2011. Open Educational Resources: A Definition.
  3. Creative Commons. Undated. What is OER?. Retrieved 20 June 2012.
  4. UNESCO. 2019. Draft definition accepted during expert meeting in Paris in preparation of the OER recommendation to be considered at the 2019 General Conference of member states.
  5. Wiley, D. (No Date). Defining the “Open” in Open Content. Retrieved 27 December 2010.
  6. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2007). Giving Knowledge for Free: The Emergence of Open Educational Resources. Paris: Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, OECD. p. 10.