What are Open Educational Resources?

There are two overlapping ways of viewing open educational resources. The first focuses on the materials produced and the platforms used to produce and distribute them. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) provides a description of this viewpoint in the following way:

The foundation of Open Education is Open Educational Resources (OER), which are teaching, learning, and research resources that are free of cost and access barriers, and which also carry legal permission for open use. Generally, this permission is granted by use of an open license (for example, Creative Commons licenses) which allows anyone to freely use, adapt and share the resource—anytime, anywhere. “Open” permissions are typically defined in terms of the “5R’s”: users are free to Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix and Redistribute these educational materials. [1]

These materials can include:

  • full courses
  • course materials
  • lesson plans
  • open textbooks
  • learning objects
  • videos
  • games
  • tests
  • software
  • any other tool, material, or technique that supports access to knowledge[2]

OER can be licensed according to a number of different standards, with creators making their own decisions about whether they would like attribution or whether they are comfortable with others incorporating their materials into texts that create profit for others in some way.

The second, broader conceptualization of open educational resources refers to an approach to scholarship and teaching more generally. In her 2016 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Self as OER,” Maha Bali reflects:

When we look at common definitions of Open Educational Resources or OERs (e.g., OER CommonsThe William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) it is clear that there is tendency to equate open educational resources to open educational materials and tools, such as course materials in text, audio, or video format, open textbooks, and educational software. But what if we adopt a different perspective, a broader understanding of OERs, which includes the processes and products of open scholarship as valuable, and viable, resources too? What if we focus on these practices as much as educational content in our conversations on open educational resources?[3]


This Project’s OER Orientation

In this dissertation, I draw from both the conventional definition of OER and Bali’s broader interpretation of the term. At a material level, I seek to make this project freely available for reuse, adaptation, and distribution outside of for-profit contexts. When possible, I will also align my project’s digital platform with the open-access movement by choosing open-source applications and plugins whenever I have the option to do so.[4]

However, I most identify with Maha Bali’s privileging of open education as a process. By seeking open-access material platforms and making my work available for public intervention and distribution in this way, I seek to affiliate my work with a discourse community that approaches open scholarship as a mode of thought and ongoing engagement. I expand on these concepts in the Project Motivation section of this text.



Larger Stakes


There are many gatekeepers that govern access to high-quality academic content.[5] Many scholars and educators have called for researchers to work outside of profit-oriented publication and distribution networks as a way to disrupt systems of privilege within academia.[6] An OER dissertation might address two primary concerns about the limitations of open scholarly publications more generally:

1) Accountability:

Access to the feedback of a dissertation committee is one kind of visible accountability to high research standards.

2) Production Support:

By its very nature, a dissertation is already supported by two kinds of labor:

  • It represents the sustained labor of a researcher who gains an advanced degree, departmental support, and the opportunity to establish a professional reputation through its creation.
  • It represents the investment of public resources into a written academic document. (More specifically, these public resources include funding for university departments, faculty advisors, graduate TAships, and research resources.)

Why not direct these resources toward the production of educational materials that can help advance the public university’s goal to improve education for the community that supports it?


Pie chart displaying that 65% of students opted out of buying texts, while 35% did not.
According to a Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) study conducted with data from 2014, 65% of students opted out of buying a required college textbook due to financial pressures.

Two the key goals of the OER movement are to (1) incorporate more dynamic and responsive interactions into learning materials, and (2) to help reduce the financial burdens of higher education.

This movement has the potential to reduce larger-scale educational inequalities in the US. A 2018 Student PIRGs study found that as a result of escalating textbook prices, a majority of students do not purchase all of the required textbooks for their courses.[7] The authors of this paper suggested found that widespread adoption of OER could save money at the individual and national level. As Kaitlyn Vietz points out, “In Massachusetts, Greenfield Community College’s use of OER in three of the six courses in our study meant that students there could spend as little as $31 per course on materials, compared to a national average of $153 per course” (3, emphasis mine). This same study analyzed the average textbook costs associated with ten keystone introductory courses across forty colleges and universities and concluded that “switching the ten introductory classes in our study to OER nationwide would save students $1.5 billion per year in course materials costs” (Vietz 3, 8-9).

Overdetermining factors that affect students’ decisions not to buy required texts include:

  • A widespread adoption of textbooks that are tied to one-time use electronic codes
    • This practice makes it impossible for students to purchase used textbooks.[8]
  • Escalating tuition prices for public and private higher education

These practices both exacerbate and are intensified by inequalities in our existing education system.

  • Increasingly high tuition and textbook prices combine to create added burdens on people who have limited financial resources. The more expensive the textbook, the more it will disproportionately affect people who are not wealthy.
  • The adjunctification of higher education creates pressures that threaten widespread OER adoption. As Laura McKenna observes:

Given broader changes in higher education, the third-party education services that administer and grade the student assessments on the digital platforms have found a welcome market. As universities shift an ever-growing share of their payroll to adjunct faculty, fewer and fewer full-time, tenure-track professors are teaching introductory undergraduate classes, leaving that responsibility to the low-paid temporary instructors who are overburdened and have little say over what course materials to use.

Many educators and institutions are teaming together to use their collective resources and influence to address some of these concerns. UW-Madison is among them.

In August 2016, the Educational Innovation program at UW-Madison published a statement of commitment to OER as well as an Open Educational Resources Strategic Framework. In concert with this initiative, UW also has an active OER Working Group and a Pressbooks User Group.

General OER Resources for Content Creators

There is an existing community of creators who are thinking about the process of composing, remixing, and sharing OER. The British Columbia Campus team is an especially prominent group. Their OER Self Publishing Guide provides additional context for open educational practices as well as a series of overviews that explain process, regulations, and workflow.

Further Reading

Becoming an Open Educator (open course), Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPS) Project. 1 September 2016, accessed 28 Feb 2018.

Wiley, David, and Cable Green, “Why Openness in Education?” in Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies (open textbook). Ed. Diana G. Oblinger. Educause, 2012. (ISBN 978-1-933046-00-6)



  1. "Open Education." SPARC,  https://sparcopen.org/open-education/. Accessed 22 Jan 2018.
  2. "What Are Open Educational Resources?" Rod Library Guides, University of Northern Iowa, http://guides.lib.uni.edu/oer. Accessed 20 January 2018.
  3. Bali, Maha."Self as OER.The Chronicle of Higher Education. 26 Aug. 2016, https://www-chronicle-com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/blogs/profhacker/self-as-oer-selfoer/62679. Accessed 10 January 2018.
  4. For example, H5P activities are open-source, as is Hypothes.is.
  5. Andrew V. Suarez and Terry McGlynn outline some of the barriers to broad access to scholarly publication in their November 2017 op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Fallacy of Open-Access Publication." Although this article title implies a conflict between their perspectives in this project and my own, I do agree with many of their points about the need for content accountability and the fact that this process requires financial support in some form. As I highlight above, however, I am proposing this kind of OER dissertation as one kind of academic production that accounts for some of these concerns.
  6. I use the term "profit-oriented" deliberately. I believe in supporting writers and researchers for their work. I also believe in setting up modes of academic participation that are self-sustaining (read "not-for-profit").
  7. Vietz, Kaitlyn. "Open 101: An Action Plan for Affordable Textbooks." Student PIRGs. Washington, DC. Web.
  8. For more information on the impact of electronic codes on the textbook resale market, see Laura McKenna's "Why Students Are Still Spending So Much for College Textbooks," The Atlantic, 26 Jan 2018,