Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources (OER) is a term used for any educational materials that is freely available over the Internet. Often, the material is also covered by an open license, which specifies which additional rights users have to modify and share the material. The idea behind Open Educational Resources came out of the Open Source movement, where programmers freely share the source code of their programs with each other. It also builds on the traditional value of openness and sharing in academia, and takes advantage of the “zero marginal cost” distribution enabled by the Internet.

One of the early precursors was the idea of “learning objects”; discrete units of instructional material that could be reused and recombined for various purposes. This would allow a similar “pooling of resources” that had been seen in open source (Wiley, 2008). In 1998, David Wiley announced the first open content license. This license was based on the premise that educational content should be freely developed and shared "in a spirit similar to that of free and open software" (Wiley 2003, cited in Caswell, et. al. 2008). In 2002, UNESCO held a conference about the term Open Educational Resources (OER), which later became the accepted term for this material (UNESCO 2002). Since then, the “OER movement” has grown to include many different projects in countries around the world. Not all of these are suitable for comparative research, and a typology will help us understand better the different kinds of material available. There are many different ways to classify material, but in this case I have chosen to classify it based on purpose.


Typology of OERs based on their purpose

Although there is a lot of material on the Internet which could be used for educational purposes, in this paper we will focus on material that was intentionally developed and made available for educational purposes. I believe it will be useful to think of OERs as fulfilling three very broad purposes: direct use, reuse, and consultation. Which of the purposes are seen as most important, will have an impact on what kind of resources are produced.

By direct use, we mean that the student can visit the resource and use it to learn independently. This means that the resource would ideally contain all the material needed to learn, ie. be complete. The resource should also be developed for the web, taking advantage of the possibilities offered by interactive quizzes, simulations, games, and other mechanisms. Developing this material might be expensive, and it should be clearly targeted to a specific group. A good example in this category is the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative courses (see for example Dollar & Steif, 2008).

By reuse, we mean that the material can be modified, redacted, and integrated with other material. In this case, the student does not directly access the material, but it is mediated through an intermediary — for example a teacher, or a curriculum developer. In this case, the material needs to be openly licensed, so that the transformation is legal. In this case, the material does not need to be complete, or targeted to a specific group (since it will be repurposed). The material is also often not organized as entire courses, but as a large collection of small modules.


By consultation, we mean that the material will not be used directly by learners, nor will it be “reused” or repurposed by intermediaries. Rather, it will be available for people who are interested in learning about how a given class is taught. This could be other teachers, who wish to get inspiration about different ways of teaching the same thing, or students who are planning to choose a major, and would like to know what a given subject entails. This requires material that reflects as closely as possible what actually happens in the classroom, or is distributed to students in a normal situation.

Given these three purposes, only material that falls under the third category will be useful for comparative curriculum research. In this case, our research subject is not the open educational resources themselves (it would certainly be possible to compare the interactive educational web pages of two different countries), but rather we will use the OER to research what goes on in a traditional educational setting. In that case, it is important that the OER as accurately as possible reflects a given educational setting. This precludes using material that has been specifically designed for the web, or settings where the material has become too modularized and decontextualized.