What are Open Educational Resources (OERs)?

Open educational resources (OERs) are materials that have been made available for reuse, adaptation or redistribution. They are often shared under a Creative Commons licence which specifies how you can deal with them. Exact definitions of OERs can vary, but most incorporate the following key characteristics known as the 5 R’s.

The 5 R’s

David Wiley’s 5 R’s have become a touchstone definition of OERs.

Retain: Create and control a copy of the resource.
Reuse: Publicly use a version of the resource, whether original or adapted.
Revise: Edit, adapt or otherwise modify a copy.
Remix: Incorporate elements of the resource into a new creation.
Redistribute: Share your original, revised or remixed creations with others.

Not all OERs will realise these qualities in full. Depending on how they are licensed, some kinds of reuse may be restricted.

A simple diagram showing five spheres reflecting the five R's: retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute.

Open licences and Creative Commons

Openness can be seen as a scale from public domain at one end, to all-rights-reserved works on the other.

Creative Commons licences provide a standardised way to grant the public permission to use work under copyright law. They have become the gold standard in licensing OERs and other open access works.

Creative Commons licences are built using four elements that govern the use and reuse of material. These are:

BY BY (Attribution): Credit must be given to the creator.
SA SA (Share Alike): Adaptations must be shared under the same terms.
NC NC (Non-Commercial): Only non-commercial uses of the work are permitted.
ND ND (No Derivatives): No derivatives or adaptations of the work are permitted.

Creative Commons licences can be more open or less open, depending on the elements they use. The most open is the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence, which tends to be preferred by open access and OER advocates.

Some licences, such as the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND) licence, don’t allow permit revising or remixing. Educational resources using such licences are still OERs – still free to download, use, and share – but they do not meet the best-practice standards of the 5 R’s.

A creator can also dedicate their work to the public domain using a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) licence. By adopting a CC licence with none of the above elements, the creator effectively relinquishes their copyright. This licence is most commonly seen on open datasets.

You can explore available licences on the Creative Commons website. We also explore licence considerations further in our Find and Evaluate OERs and Adopt, Adapt, or Share OERs pages.

Benefits of OERs

  • Reduce costs for students

    Textbooks are often a considerable cost to students – one that is increasingly difficult for them to meet (Lambert & Fadel, 2022). Textbook price increases have significantly outpaced consumer price growth, and new editions cost an average of 12% more than those they replace (Education Data Initiative, 2022).

    The impact of this cost is disproportionately felt by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Library copies of texts can help, but library ebooks are usually subject to access restrictions and cannot always be relied upon.

    Using open textbooks, when available, supports more equal participation in education.

  • Remove access barriers to course materials

    Some texts are only available to libraries under restrictive licences, limiting how many users can read library copies of ebooks.

    These limits are keenly felt during open book exams and other assessment periods, where students can find themselves locked out. Publishers may also withdraw access to certain titles or change access arrangements mid-semester.

    OERs guarantee access to all, throughout semester. Students can also download and annotate copies, or convert them to different formats, if needed.

  • Allow freedom and flexibility in teaching and assessment

    OERs offer a broad range of options for instruction and assessment. Material can be adapted to best align with students’ needs and backgrounds, or to suit the specific focus of a subject. OERs can also be remixed, so a teacher can select the best aspects of multiple options, instead of being locked into a single textbook.

  • Include different voices and perspectives

    OERs provide an opportunity to diversify the range of voices and perspectives in course materials (Lambert, 2018).

    Traditional publishing models draw heavily on contributors from already overrepresented backgrounds. OERs, however, can be enhanced and adapted by a broader pool of contributors, enhancing the available body of knowledge.

    OERs can also be modified to include voices and perspectives previously missing. They can thereby provide a vehicle for traditionally marginalised people to share knowledge and perspectives directly with teachers and learners.

  • Highlight Indigenous knowledges and voices

    Indigenous voices and perspectives have long been excluded from academic discourse. Using OERs creates opportunities for teachers to adapt materials and bring in the voices of Indigenous Australians.

    The Advancing Melbourne strategic plan stresses the importance of strengthening the “recognition, curation and activation, within the academy, of Indigenous knowledges.” OERs offer a way to help realise this goal and advance reconciliation.

    An example of this goal being facilitated in the high school context is the University of Melbourne’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Curricula Project, an OER designed to help school teachers include Indigenous knowledges in the classroom.

  • Avoid reinventing the wheel

    Excellent teaching materials demand time and creativity. Selecting high quality OERs can save teachers from having to create materials from scratch.

    Resources can be incorporated into curricula as they are, or used as a starting point to adapt to the needs of the subject and its students.

  • Contribute to the global scholarly community

    Creating new OERs, or enriching existing OERs with new content, allow teachers to contribute to the broader scholarly community. They can also help uplift teachers and learners from less resourced regions and institutions.

    UNESCO’s OER Recommendation (2019) highlights the important role OERs play globally in addressing inequality and moving towards more inclusive and sustainable practices. Their subsequent Recommendation on Open Science (2021) also emphasises the transformative potential of OERs in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Enable ongoing access and lifelong learning

    The use of OERs in subjects allows students to retain access to material beyond their time at university. This is not the case for most ebooks accessed through the library, which will become inaccessible to students when they are no longer enrolled.

    OERs also allow graduates and other members of the public to access materials and learn from them, staying up to date with current teaching.

Further Support

To discuss how you can integrate OERs into your teaching or research, please make an appointment with your Faculty or School Liaison Librarian.

Delve deeper into OERs

Find out more about open educational resources through our other pages:

Page last updated 2 June 2023.

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