Open Educational Resources: The Story of Change and Evolving Perceptions

From No Shelf Required:

Although the term may still not be familiar to the wider public—including college students and faculty—Open Educational Resources (OERs) have been an integral part of education worldwide for at least two decades. OERs generally refer to digital educational materials that anyone anywhere can use freely and legally, including the user’s right to copy, share, enhance and/or modify them for the purposes of sharing knowledge and enabling education. These run the gamut and stretch beyond digital textbooks—usually perceived as the most common educational resources—to include everything from course materials, university courses, e-learning platforms, software, and streaming videos to lectures and digital repositories of monographs and journals.

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Regardless of how different and varied OERs may seem at first—ranging from single books to multi-functional and comprehensive platforms—what makes a resource an OER is that it is freely available to anyone, notwithstanding a person’s location and affiliation. OER users may well be college and university students, but they may also be independent learners, researchers or lay readers. Of course, ‘open’ does not mean ‘without any restriction’ or ‘without any financial support.’ It simply means ‘free access.’

Likewise, ‘open’ does not mean ‘without financial backing.’ The mechanisms through which resources become ‘open’ and ‘free’ are complex, always evolving, and require ongoing financial support. A variety of financial models exist on the market that contributes to the sustainability of OERs (Downes, 2007), ranging from, among others, endowment models (funding is usually received from charitable foundations) and membership models (participating organizations contribute a certain amount as members) to sponsorship models (a range of commercial messages, more subtle or less subtle, may interrupt learning and reading), and institution models (various institutions assume the full responsibility for their OER initiatives and bear the financial burden).


  • MIT OpenCourseWare, an online platform housing free
    eductional and teaching materials from MIT courses
  • Open Textbook Library, a catalog of free, peer-reviewed, and
    open textbooks
  • Open Course Library, a collection of materials, including syllabi,
    course activities, readings, and assessments
  • Khan Academy, an online source of short lessons in the form of
    videos and practice exercises and materials for educators
    National Science Digital Library, a library of collections and
    services supporting STEM education
  • OER Commons, a collection of over 50,000 university courses,
    open textbooks, interactive mini-lessons, and K-12 lesson plans
  • Wikipedia, the world’s most used free encyclopedia
  • Wikimedia Commons, a repository of free digital images
    and various media files

In the context of libraries, OERs as we know them have been around for longer than two decades. Librarians have, in many ways, contributed to the infrastructure of open education long before various types of OERs became the norm. The Internet Archive, for example, has been up and running for nearly a quarter of a century, while Project Gutenberg, the first online repository of public domain content—also a form of OER built and maintained by volunteers, including librarians—has its beginnings in the early 1970s. These initial undertakings paved the way for the advent of new, more specialized types of OERs used today. And as education began moving in the direction of open digital textbooks—scattered in disparate sources online that students and faculty had little awareness of—librarian roles in colleges and universities began to shift, requiring more active participation in the discovery of OERs.

What exactly has contributed to the explosion of OERs in recent years? The steep cost of textbooks and higher education in general, particularly in the United States, is frequently attributed to their popularity perhaps more than any other factor. According to the College Board, undergraduates now spend an average of $1200 on textbooks annually, and this remains a concern.

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  • OERs are widely and universally available
  • technology has made the cost of sharing OERs practically non-existent
  • given their digital nature, OERs can be modified to fit various needs
  • OERs help accelerate the advancement of human knowledge
  • due to ongoing technological improvements, OERs can reach learners faster than print textbooks
  • OERs allow students and parents to save significantly
  • OERs promote self-directed learning
  • OERs reach large numbers of learners at the same time, regardless of their location
  • OERs have revolutionized the way remote students or long-distance learners approach education
  • OERs allow for a more extensive peer review process

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1 thought on “Open Educational Resources: The Story of Change and Evolving Perceptions”

  1. I love OERs, but I have a few reservations about them.

    I find it hard to imagine life before Wikipedia, although using it effectively requires some critical faculties that were not so acutely needed in the old days.

    I try to take one or two online college courses a year on something I either have no experience with, or my knowledge has either decayed from lack of use or its shelf-life has expired. I get a lot out of these and feel they help keep my brain active and useful.

    How do they compare to f2f education? Not all that well. Completing an ungraded, on-demand, unscheduled online course requires tremendous discipline, at least for me. It’s too easy to put off the next session and lose interest. Scheduled sessions make it a little easier stick to the course for me, but it still requires more discipline than showing up f2f for a class.

    Discussion and interaction is a big part of learning for me. Online discussion groups help. Live discussions with audio and video are sometimes stimulating, but still not as effective as being in the same room with live bodies, and they can be hard to schedule around, especially when participants are spread across time zones, as they almost always are. Email and chat discussion groups are easier to work around, but they can be time-consuming in their own way and lack even more immediacy.

    However, even given these deficiencies, the abundance of free online courses make me glad I’ve made it into the 21st century.

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