The terms open education, textbook free, and zero textbook have appeared more and more often in journal articles and at higher education conferences. This movement away from traditional course content is part of a larger shift in higher education to reduce (or eliminate) financial barriers to education. The main objective of this change is to encourage institutions to curate quality content that doesn’t add to students’ financial burden. Not only are open educational resources (OERs) a key part of bringing these cost-saving measures to students, but they also provide instructors with a wide variety of options to meet students’ diverse learning styles and needs.
This article takes a close look at the definition of OERs and also provides a three-step guide to help you identify, search for, and legally and ethically use quality OERs in your online course.
What are OERs?
As often as you hear the term OER, there’s sometimes confusion about what is and isn’t an OER. The Internet provides a plethora of freely accessible content, but just because a piece of content is free to view doesn’t mean it’s an OER. Rather, open educational resources are any materials (e.g., text, video, interactive media) that are freely available and have an open license.
An open license means that the creators of the resource have given up some of the privileges granted to them under copyright law. For example, some OER licenses may allow you to copy, make changes, and upload whole textbooks to your online course, while others may ask that you only share the work unchanged. Step 3 of this article will go into more detail about the types of open licenses.
Most content on the Internet has full copyright protection and therefore may not be copied or uploaded to your learning management system without complying with copyright limitations. Similarly, even if a textbook is out of print, it’s still protected by copyright law. Steps 2 and 3 go into more detail on how to distinguish between OERs and other freely accessible content, and how to find OERs specifically.
Step 1: Align
Before you search for OERs, you need to ensure that the content you’re seeking aligns with your course and program outcomes. Rather than just trying to find the flashiest content, you should focus on locating content that will help your students master the learning objectives your course has set out.
The general idea is to abide by the principle of backward design: ensure that your instructional materials (in this case, OERs) prepare students for the assessment you intend to deliver, which, in turn, should properly assess students’ progress toward a learning objective. For more on how to create a coherent course in which all elements align with your goals, check out our article on the course design triangle and our video on course mapping.
Step 2: Search
Once you know what content you need to prepare students for your assessment(s) (in turn addressing your learning objectives), it’s time to search for appropriate OERs. But with so much free content online to sift through, how do you know how to find content with an open license that you are permitted to use in your class? We recommend the following strategies.
Start your OER search with an online repository. Because repositories collect and compile a variety of resources on specific topics, they tend to be a one-stop shop. When using repositories, be sure to use the advanced search features to specify that you want open resources, or to help you find specific resources.
The MERLOT II repository, for example, offers an ISBN search tool, which allows you to locate OERs that could replace a specific textbook. When you enter a book’s ISBN, the tool will automatically populate several suitable OERs that you can select to support the learning objectives that your textbook would have otherwise covered. MERLOT can locate open courses, journal articles, texts, and other learning materials that are comparable to a textbook.
Below are a few of the most popular OER repositories.
If repositories don’t provide the materials you need, you can also try using a general search engine with advanced filters. For example, a Google Advanced Search offers options for searching materials with certain usage rights. With these filters, you can tailor your results, for example, to show only materials that are free to use, share, or modify. However, search engines are not perfect, so make sure to verify the license before including a resource in your course (see Step 3).
Although the materials in your school’s library may not technically be OERs (insofar as the library is paying someone for access to them), library collections are typically free for faculty members and students to access because the library has already purchased access to this digital content. Libraries give you access to databases, journals, and catalogues that you can use to build your course without additional costs to students. You may not be able to upload the material to your course directly, but you can always provide links that students can access, provided that they’re familiar with how to gain access to library materials remotely.
Step 3: Evaluate
Even if you successfully find a resource that has an open license, that obviously doesn’t guarantee high quality. Taking at least some time to evaluate each OER will help you ensure your course content is accurate, trustworthy, and of high academic value.
Below are six criteria that you can use to quickly measure a potential resource and determine its suitability for your course.
- Scope: Content is (a) peer reviewed or contains appropriate references to verifiable resources, (b) original or from a primary source (which you can locate and use instead), and (c) aligned to the course’s learning objectives.
- Authority: The publisher is known and respected among professionals, the author is an expert in the field, the host site is reputable, and the content is unbiased.
- Reliability: The content (a) was published recently or contemporary to the discovery of the information, (b) is highly trafficked or referenced, and (c) is located on a stable URL (e.g., on the institution’s own servers, on a library or government archive site, on the site of a repository or organization that has a long track record).
- Licensing: Content is published under a flexible and easy-to-meet licensing requirement (e.g., a Creative Commons license).
- Accuracy: Content is thoroughly documented, is updated frequently, and aligns with the course’s other materials and objectives.
- Professionalism: Content has quality graphics, no broken links, complementary color schemes, and an uncluttered layout. Content does not require any kind of registration to access.
If an OER meets most or all of these standards, you can be confident that it will be academically rigorous and support students’ learning.
Unless they’re in the public domain, OERs are protected under copyright law just like any other work of intellectual property. However, OERs have open licenses, which are licenses whose goal is to make copyrighted works more widely available without the expectation of payment.
Many OERs have licenses from Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that has created easy-to-understand open licenses that explain exactly how you’re allowed to use others’ works. If you comply with the simple terms of the license, then you are welcome to use the work. However, if you’re unable to comply with the terms of a license for any reason, you have two options:
- Don’t use the work.
- Use only a small portion of the work in compliance with fair use standards.
If you need help determining how to make a strong claim for fair use, check out our article “Fair Use in More Detail,” or if you’re unsure about how to handle copyright issues in general, check out our article “Copyright and Plagiarism: The Bare Minimum Instructors Need to Know.”
OERs are changing the way we teach. Because course writers can easily customize OERs for a specific course or topic, institutions can curate innovative content from multiple authors and perspectives to help students master course and program goals. In addition, OERs often feature multimedia and other interactive elements for more engaging course content. By adopting OERs, institutions will be better positioned to create coursework that meets students’ dynamic needs to provide a better, more unique learning experience.