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.
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 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
The complexity of OERs
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.