A Brief Intro to the Open Educational Resources Movement

The term Open Educational Resources (OERs) was coined in 2002 at a UNESCO education conference (“2012 Paris”, 2012). In the thirteen years since, many individuals and institutions have come on board and the movement continues to grow.

cover of college algebra textbook

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The concept behind OERs is simple. Instead of having textbook companies pay various authors to write a dozen competing textbooks and then charge students hundreds of dollars to access them, why not have a university or public foundation pay to have one really good textbook written, and then put it on the internet, for free?

OERs are free both in the sense of free speech and free beer. That is, they are free to use and usually free to modify, and there is no cost for students to access them. (Some OER groups do charge a price for a printed version of their book to cover the cost of printing and binding, but make the online version available for free [Douglas-Gabriel, 2015]). They are usually protected by a some-rights-reserved license, such as one of the creative commons licenses.

An increasing number of colleges and universities are encouraging or even requiring instructors to make use of OERs. University of Maryland University College recently made the news for eliminating textbooks and requiring total use of OERs and other no-cost resources (Mulhere, 2015). This movement has been spurred on by by concern over the rising prices of textbooks and also by an increasing urge to take advantage of the internet to make learning and knowledge accessible to all.

The cost of textbooks has, indeed, been spiraling out of control in recent years, becoming a significant burden for students in Canada and the US (Jerema, 2010; Weissmann, 2013).

OER initiatives have, in some cases, been shown to help reduce this cost sharply. For example, at UMass Amherst, “the university spent $60,000 on faculty grants to produce open textbooks and students saved roughly $1 million” (Mulhere, 2015).

One of the biggest challenges in the OER movement is quality assessment and assurance (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007). If an instructor is simply plucking a textbook off the internet, how are they to know that it is accurate and useful? The current best solutions are institutional backing and post-publication third-party review. By having OER projects housed under prestigious universities (such as OpenStax at Rice) and by encouraging the development of platforms for experts to rate, review, and revise OERs, concerns about quality can be allayed (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007; Douglas-Gabriel, 2015)

Critics and even proponents of OERs also ask: how will OERs be sustained? (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007) It’s easy to condemn textbook publishers for greed, but at least educational institutions can count of the profit motive to keep them making textbooks. Many OER sources are run by non-profits or grants, or out of university programs. If they lose funding, what happens then? They need to be hosted, maintained, and updated over time. So far, there doesn’t seem to be a unified answer to this problem (Atkins, Brown, & Hammond, 2007).



2012 Paris OER Declaration. (2012, June 22). UNESCO. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/WPFD2009/English_Declaration.html

Atkins, D. E., Brown, J. S., & Hammond, A. L. (2007). A review of the open educational resources (OER) movement: Achievements, challenges, and new opportunities (pp. 1-84). Creative common. Chicago. Retrieved from http://www.hewlett.org/uploads/files/ReviewoftheOERMovement.pdf

Douglas-Gabriel, D. (2015, August 17). How college students can save money on pricey textbooks. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/get-there/wp/2015/08/17/textbooks-can-be-incredibly-pricey-for-college-students-heres-how-to-save-money/ 

Jerema, C. (2010, June 18). Why textbooks are so expensive. Maclean’s. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/why-textbooks-are-so-expensive/

Mulhere, K. (2015, September 21). Is This the Solution to Crazy High Textbook Prices? Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/money/4017003/high-text-book-prices-solution/

Weissmann, J. (2013, January 3). Why Are College Textbooks So Absurdly Expensive? The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/01/why-are-college-textbooks-so-absurdly-expensive/266801/