What are OERs?

Open Educational Resources (OER) are openly licensed educational materials, such as textbooks, videos, images, etc, that can be legally shared, re-used, and adapted at no charge.

These materials use open licenses like the Creative Commons license structure to enable users to share and recombine materials to suit their needs. These licenses, while they respect traditional copyright, also enable users to distribute, reproduce, or incorporate these materials into new learning resources by providing advance permissions for how the work can be used. 

Given the rising cost of textbooks and the need to reduce the costs of education, OERs are an innovative way to save money not only for students but for libraries and institutions on a wider scale as more universities open up their content and adopt OER for use in their courses. In fact, in 2018 the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an organization that tracks the adoption of open textbooks, announced that the use of OERs had saved over 1 billion dollars at some 4,000 institutions (SPARC, 2018).

OERs can be very important for student success too, as early research them has shown. Students often report not purchasing textbooks due to high costs. However, without engaging with necessary information through textbooks, study guides, or exercises, student performance and retention can be lowered. A no-cost OER alternative help to ensure students have what they need to succeed.

Using OERs has numerous benefits such as:

  • cost savings for students and institutions
  • increased access to education
  • flexibility to customize content collections
  • increased student performance and retention



CC-BY icon"An Introduction to Open Educational Resources" was created by Abbey Elder and used under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY 4.0) license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

How open is open?

Useful open educational resources reduce the barriers for re-use and re-purposing, so there is a need to go beyond the ability to share a document. Open licenses, such as those utilized in OERs support wider usability by ceding permission for those uses. It's fine to be able to share a pdf, but it's better for everyone if that content can be shared, sliced up, and recombined for custom purposes. Open in this sense provides cost-free and perpetual permission to engage in what are sometimes called the "5 Rs of Open:":

  • Retain - the right to make, store, and control copies of the work.
  • Re-use - the right to make use of the content in a full range of situations, not a narrowly constrained use of traditional licensing
  • Revise - the right to adapt or modify the content, (e.g., adding to the information or making a translation)
  • Remix - the right to combine the work with your own work or with other openly licensed material (e.g., incorporating readings into a digital coursepack)
  • Redistribute - the right to share copies of the work, or of revised/remixed versions of the work
Legally Open vs. Usably Open
Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons Logo

One of the most widely used license structures used in OER is the Creative Commons (CC) License. CC-licenses use a small number of pre-defined structures that allow content creators to mark their work with permission for re-use in specified ways. When you see a CC license on a work, you will know exactly how it can be re-used, in what contexts, and what is required of you if you do. 

Creative Commons - Some rights reservedCreative Commons licenses do not eliminate copyright, but they do provide a simple and powerful tool to enable wide and permitted use of created work, without the necessity of locating the author to secure permission or negotiate a licensing agreement. By releasing the work under CC, the author is licensing the work for your use as long as you follow their specifications.

Visit the Creative Commons website for more information: https://creativecommons.org.

Creative Commons Kiwi by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand (CC BY) license

The licenses

Creative Commons licenses are built up from 6 simple basic pieces:

AttributionAttribution license (CC-BY) - the user agrees to give attribution to the original creator, usually by naming the creator and the work and providing a link to the original work

Non-commercialNon-commercial (CC-NC) - the user agrees that any sharing or re-use of the work will not be for commercial purposes

No-derivativesNo derivatives CC-(ND) - the user agrees that any sharing or display of the work will be unaltered copies of the work, not modified or remixed copies

Share-alikeShare alike (CC-SA) - the user agrees that any sharing of derivative work will be done under a license identical (not more restrictive) than the license on the original work

ZeroRights waived (CC-0) - the original creator has waived all rights to the work, releasing it to the public domain, freeing it to any use or adaptation, for any purpose, without attribution or licensing constraints

With the exception of CC-0, these pieces can be combined to create 6 different commonly used licenses plus the public domain waiver. Note that some combinations, such as SA+ND are logically incompatible and are not used. Most licensing specifications will include at least the attribution license, further restricting the logical possibilities. 

Creative Commons License Spectrum

As can be seen in the diagram below, the various combinations of CC-licenses allow for greater or lesser freedom of use. License combinations toward the bottom are much more narrowly constrained, with traditional copyright being the most restrictive. Moving toward the top, the licenses become much freer, allowing greater flexibility for modification and purpose, with the public domain (no restrictions) at the peak.

Creative commons license spectrum

"Creative Commons License Spectrum" created by Shaddim and used under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY 4.0).

Best Practice for Attribution

Best practice for using a CC license is to incorporate all of the following into a simple statement, for example:

 "Creative Commons License Spectrum" created by Shaddim and used under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY 4.0).

Note that statement includes each of the following, as well as links where possible:

  • Title of the work
  • Link to the original work
  • Name or online user name of the creator (add a link to the profile of the creator if possible)
  • The name of the license
  • A link to the license description on the Creative Commons site (creativecommons.org)

This Open Attribution Builder created by Open Washington is a great tool help you create a properly linked license statement.

Open Attribution Builder

There are numerous searchable databases and repositories for OER. Many allow you to search or filter your results based on the intended audience, license tpye, or material type (e.g., images, textbooks, or video lectures). Others are carefully curated in subject collections by editors who are expert in their field, including screening by peer reviewers, to ensure that you are accessing accurate, high-quality content.

OER Adoption Impact Calculator

This online tool can be used to help understand the financial and educational impacts of OER adoption. By setting various parameters like textbook cost, number of students per class, and student retention rates to quickly calculate and visualize the effect of utilizing OERs in your course or at your institution.

OER Adoption Impact Calculator