The Internet has not only facilitated connectivity between people, but it has also helped us to connect with educational material quite different from that of a physical textbook. We are consuming information at a much more rapid rate, and we are also becoming producers of content online. With the use of hyperlinks we are also connecting one content material with another, allowing for a more dynamic-instantaneous flow of knowledge as opposed to the static print in a physical textbook. People have started seeing the potential that this brings to education and are placing educational content online. These educational materials include lectures, videos, images, textbooks to name a few.

Open Content

David Wiley, one of the pioneers and proponents open education, coined the term “open content” in 1998, which was mainly directed at online educational content. He did so recognizing the similarities between open source / free software movement and distance learning. The construct of “open content” has changed over the years, and it’s better understood if thought of as a flexible concept. This is the definition given at www.opencontent.org:

What does “open” mean? The word has different meanings in different contexts. Our commonsense, every day experience teaches us that “open” is a continuous (not binary) construct. A door can be wide open, mostly open, cracked slightly open, or completely closed. So can your eyes, so can a window, etc.

The “open” in “open content” is a similarly continuous construct. In this context, “open” refers to granting of copyright permissions above and beyond those offered by standard copyright law. “Open content,” then, is content that is licensed in a manner that provides users with the right to make more kinds of uses than those normally permitted under the law – at no cost to the user.

In 2001 MIT announced its initiative to place educational content online resulting in the launch of OpenCourseWare in 2002. It was one of the first entities to post entire courses from their curriculum online for other people to use for free. The project, which still exists today (MIT OpenCourseWare), is one of the first examples of digitizing educational content to be openly shared.

Open Educational Resource

In 2002 UNESCO first described the term “Open Educational Resource” (OER) in an effort to provide online education for humanity.

Open Educational Resources (OER): OER are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium that reside in the public domain and have been released under an open license that permits access, use, repurposing, reuse and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions (Atkins, Brown & Hammond, 2007).

OER can include full courses/programmes, course materials, modules, student guides, teaching notes, textbooks, research articles, videos, assessment tools and instruments, interactive materials such as simulations, role plays, databases, software, apps (including mobile apps) and any other educationally useful materials.

There are a few definitions of the term Open Educational Resources by other entities which can be found in this Wikipedia article.

Intellectual Property and Creative Commons License

One of the most important factors to consider when using OER is the intellectual property and the different rights behind the learning object. These rights help protect the owner from other people using their work without permission. In order for the author to give permission for free use, adaptation, and distribution, many use what is called a Creative Commons license.  The author can add this license to their work and this allows and/or restricts what the user can do with the content.  The combination of OER and the permission of the Creative Commons license are essential components of new forms of digital scholarship. This facilitates and enrich open collaborative and/or cooperative work between people and  content in the era of digital social network. Of note David Wiley also generated a framework to assess how “open” a website is. This framework consists of 4Rs: reuse, remix, redistribute, and revise.

More Detailed Explanation of Creative Commons License

The Future of OERs

OER has given room to novel pedagogical practices. As information continues to grow exponentially, we also need to empower learners, teachers, and institutions on how to assess the quality of these educational resources. We need to ask ourselves if our past practices of keeping up with information are suitable with this new form of participatory knowledge scholarly work. The use of OER in medical education has not been extensively explored. Additional examples of OERs include iTunes U, Carnegie Mellon, YouTube Education, and Open Michigan. As you can imagine this type of online practice can support blended education, lower the cost of education for students, breed a new form of scholarship, enrich education in developing countries, and provide a new ecosystem for research. Unlike physical textbooks, OERs are easy to update, receive instantaneous feedback, and as previously mentioned modify, reuse, and redistribute. It is important to note that these resources take time, effort, and financial cost to create and keep current. Nonetheless, OER can help institutions with their branding, attract students, help society at large, and provide a new platform for funding.

This post is an initial exploration into open educational resources. This practice has the potential to reduce training cost, increase institutions’ branding, help practitioners stay more up to date, and to offer a new platform for digital scholarship. Let me know what you think.

 Further Reading

  1. David Wiley. History of Open Educational Resources. http://www.hewlett.org/library/history-of-open-educational-resources. July 2006. August 25, 2012.
  2. Scanlon, E. (2013). Scholarship in the digital age: Open educational resources, publication and public engagement. British Journal of Educational Technology. doi: 10.1111/bjet.12010
  3. EDUCAUSE. 7 Things you should know about open educational resources. May 27, 2010. August 25, 2013.
  4. UNESCO. Guidelines for open educational resources (OER) in higher education. 2011. August 25, 2013
  5. Martin Weller. The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. 2011. August 25, 2013.
  6. psutlt. David Wiley’s Keynote on Open Education.  Online Video. YouTube, May 6, 2009. August 26, 2013. 

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Javier Benitez, MD

Javier Benitez, MD

ALiEM Featured Contributor
Javier Benitez, MD


Medical doctor, tweets not medical advice or endorsements. Interested in #MedEd & technology. Always learning. I'm no expert. No financial conflict of interest.
Javier Benitez, MD