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Open Educational Resources: Background Information

A guide for faculty on finding and using OERs in the online classroom


Open educational resources (OERs), according to an often-cited definition, 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.” (Atkins, Brown, and Hammond, 2007, p. 4)

In other words, OERs are any type of educational material that’s freely available for teachers and students to use, adapt, share, and reuse. 

 OERs include:

  • learning content
    • videos
    • audio clips
    • images
    • lecture notes
    • reading lists
    • course assignments
    • syllabi and lesson plans
    • textbooks, reports, articles, and other documents
    • data
    • instructional games
    • tests and quizzes
    • etc.
  • tools
    • software
      • course management systems
      • bibliographic management systems
      • video editing programs
      • Web page editing programs
      • desktop publishing programs
    • operating systems
    • etc.
  • implementation resources
    • intellectual property licenses
    • best practices documents
    • interoperability measures
    • etc.


OERs started as a grassroots movement by educators worldwide.  Funded by grants and private donations (particularly from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which has already given more than $110 million in support of OERs), the OER movement has attempted to bring into the educational process groups who have been traditionally shut out, including K-12 teachers, scientists and engineers working in the industry rather than in academia, and those who aren’t fluent in English.  The OER movement’s goal is to make education available to everyone around the world (particularly those in the developing world, who could not otherwise afford an education, as well as self-learners).

The OER movement has become an institutional movement as well, with early pioneers such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology putting an increasing amount of course material – including complete course lectures – online. (By 2010, MIT’s OpenCourseWare site contained material for approximately 2000 classes in more than 30 academic disciplines, and more material is still being added; as of 2013, material is available for approximately 2150 classes.)

Other prestigious educational institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and U.C. Berkeley, have begun to make at least some of their educational content freely available online as well. 

In general, completion of an institution's OER material does not allow those who access the material to receive degrees, certificates, or course credit, nor do users have access to the institution's faculty members. There are some notable exceptions to this, however -- for example, the Khan Academy, which provides access to more than 4400 videos on a variety of topics, awards badges to people who complete various tasks on the site. And in May 2012, MIT and Harvard announced edX, a learning platform that may award certificates for people who demonstrate mastery of edX course material.

The worldwide educational community met in September 2007 in Cape Town, South Africa and produced the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, a document advocating the continued development and sharing of OERs in support of worldwide education, particularly in developing countries.

There are currently more than 300 institutions in more than 30 countries around the world that are creating or using OERs, and OER material is available in more than 10 languages.

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