Open Education Resources: Why Were They Developed and What Are Future Implications

Linda Bain

Ontario Tech University


Open education resources (OERs) were introduced in 1999 as a means of i) cost savings for students and ii) a vehicle for the open dissemination and replication of knowledge.  This paper will explore the history of OERs and differentiate them from other custom-built learning resources.  Applications of OERs to social justice and equity will be examined. Open pedagogy and its impacts on both educators and students and barriers to implementation will then be explored.  Finally, this paper will examine and benefits of OERs within higher education and the greater impact of United National education goals. Recommendations for future research will also be made.


higher education, MOOCs, open educational practices, open educational resources, open pedagogy

What are OERs?

Open Educational Resources (OERs) describe any educational resources (curriculum maps, course materials, textbooks, streaming videos, multimedia applications, podcasts) that are openly available in the public domain under an intellectual property license (Olivier & Rambow, 2023). OERs do not require payment of royalties or license fees, and the user may reuse or repurpose the content without first requesting permission from the copyright holder (Olivier & Rambow, 2023). They are available to students at no cost, when in digital formats, and at low cost when provided in print (Jhangiani et al., 2018). Kwantlen University in Canada, often considered to be Canada’s leading institutional adopter of Open Textbooks and other Open Educational Resources (OER), (Kwantlen Polytechnic University,2023), describe OERs as teaching and learning materials that are: i) freely available, ii) in the public domain iii) published with an open license that enables the user to reuse, revise, remix, retain and redistribute them (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, 2023).

These activities were created by David Wiley, a professor at Brigham Young University (Wiley, 2014), and are commonly known as 5R activities (Wiley, 2014). Retention refers to making, owning, or controlling copies of the content (Olivier & Rambow, 2023). Reuse allows one to use OERs in various contexts. Revision refers to adapting, adjusting, modifying, or altering given content. Remixing permits the combining of original and revised content with other OERs. Finally, redistribution permits sharing of open material with students in the classroom at no cost. (Wiley, 2014).

Difference Between OERs and MOOCS

Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are courses that charge for certification and precede OERs by several decades. In creating MOOCs, the goal was to make learning materials available to anyone who could change, modify, or redistribute the material (Bonk et al., 2015).

With MOOCs, access is restricted to those enrolled in a given course with course materials protected by copyright (Rodríguez et al., 2017). As MOOCs are not freely available, they are not OERs (Rodríguez et al., 2017).


In 1994, The National Science Foundation provided a grant to California State University to identify and provide access to primarily free online curriculum materials for higher education (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017). This grant led to the 1997 creation of the first OER repository, Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT), a robust site with links to over 40,000 teaching and learning resources. As of June 15th, 2023, MERLOT hosts more than 100,000 learning resources and over 1000 course ePortfolios enabling educators to share intellectual content (MERLOT, 2023).

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched Open Course Ware in 1999, influencing the creation of OERs (Rodríguez et al., 2017). The intent was to share learning materials with anyone who could subsequently change, modify, or redistribute the material (Bonk et al., 2015). Many colleges and universities started or continued this process by using OERs to cut college costs and make higher education more affordable for students (Thompson & Cotton, 2017).

In 2002, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation was a primary contributor to OERs in the United States (Olivier & Rambow, 2023). Their objectives focused on promoting free educational materials for all and sought to support quality OER content in developing parts of the world. With the belief that “well-designed, customizable, openly licensed materials can engage students and energize educators in ways that enable more responsive teaching and better learning” (Hewlett Foundation, 2023, Open Education section, para. 1), this foundation has awarded grants worth more than US$170 million to develop and extend the reach and effectiveness of OER (Bliss & Smith, 2017).

At a July 2002 UNESCO meeting of developing world nations in Paris, the name Open Educational Resources (OER) was coined and adopted for this new education innovation.

Established in 2006, Khan Academy is a recent example of a well-known OER. Hundreds of millions have used Khan’s materials, which have been translated into 65 languages, and are used in schools and community colleges worldwide to support online learning (Bliss & Smith, 2017).


Benefits of OER

Social Justice and Equity

OERs can be a catalyst for social justice and equity. Ancillary educational costs drop when using shared resources made available by technological advances (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017).   This financial reprieve minimizes some educational barriers; however, societal inequity still exists. Approximately 57 million school-aged children worldwide do not attend primary school.

In 2015, all United National Members adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. At their core, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) consist of 17 goals and are an urgent call for action by all countries in a global partnership. The goals recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must be met by strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, spur economic growth, tackle climate change, and work to preserve our oceans and forests (United Nations, 2023).

Goal 4 is the “education goal” and states that we must “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all” (United Nations, 2023).   In 2019, UNESCO adopted the Recommendation of Open Education Resources to contribute and build “open and inclusive knowledge societies that share openly licensed learning and teaching materials for the benefit of students, educators and researchers worldwide (UNESCO, 2022, p. 24). The recommendation is the only existing international standardization tool to implement OER. Current global economic conditions require additional training beyond secondary schooling for an increasingly trained workforce. To this end, OERs encourage equity in learning for otherwise marginalized global citizens (Banker & Manning, 2023).

In order to achieve sustainable change for the future of human rights and social justice, it is essential to consider that open resourcing plans must also address equity, human rights, and social justice (Bonk, 2015).

Open Pedagogy

David Wiley describes traditional, ‘disposable’ assignments as “driving an airplane down a road,” adding no real value to the world (Wiley, 2014). Students dislike writing them, and faculty dislike grading them. Once graded, they are often discarded, and thoughtfully constructed faculty feedback is completely disregarded. Instead, what if OERs also included open pedagogy co-created by the students that were openly shared, replicated, and revised? Consider the open pedagogy definition of Dr. Rajiv Jhangiani, Vice Provost of Learning and Brock University:

An access-oriented commitment to learner-driven education and as a process of designing architecture and using tools for learning that enable students to shape the public knowledge commons of which they are a part (Open Educator Network, 2023).

More simply stated, open pedagogy invites students to co-create knowledge that will be used beyond the classroom. The concept of the student as creator requires that faculty not only adopt open educational resources but also adopt open educational practices to take advantage of the license to revise, remix, and involve their students in OER creation. Open access to education for students reduces financial barriers as they are not paying for a commercially produced textbook or product.

Of note, open does not mean free. There still needs to be funding to support the resource, yet often this cost is not passed along to the end user or student.


Many colleges and universities have started to use OERs to cut college costs and make higher education more affordable for students (Thompson & Cotton, 2017). However, universities have no financial incentive to provide support unless such activity is grant-funded (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017). Although the materials are free to the student, there is a cost to develop the resources, and funding must come from somewhere.  In addition, faculty members who wish to use  OER material for courses receive little support (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017). Despite the move forward, many faculty members are unaware of OERs and do not know where to find or locate the resources (Hilton, 2016), and adopting an open-access textbook can be more time-consuming and intellectually more demanding for an educator than adopting a commercial book (Wang & Wang, 2017).

For this student, by reducing ancillary educational costs typically associated with software, textbooks, and course fees, education may become more accessible (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017). By allowing instructors to share, replicate and revise course content, there is the potential to design more engaging, locally relevant, interactive teaching resources (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017). A shared goal exists to democratize education, encourage pedagogical innovation, and support scientific progress while creating, adapting, and adopting open materials (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

The Future of OER

Despite their growing popularity, changes are needed for OERs to be further implemented and adopted. Government and other organizations that fund scholarships must lead in open licensing to ensure copies of openly published manuscripts are held in an open repository. There also needs to be more education and awareness surrounding open resources (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017) and the shared benefits.   Education is needed to address the misconception that open resources are lower quality as they are freely available. There have been great strides made to support OERs in recent years; many are now supported by teaching aids such as test banks, instructor manuals, and lecture slides (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017). It is also essential to look beyond the cost advantages and consider the more significant implications of sharing, replicating, and reproducing intellectual knowledge.

Faculty must understand that students are not only benefiting from free, permanent access to course material but also the granting of permissions to revise, replicate and reproduce both content and pedagogy. As a positive example, engineering professor Richard Baraniuk of Rice University built a web-based platform called Connexions as he was frustrated by the lack of timely and relevant textbooks. Connexions facilitated the development and sharing of open-source educational content created by university professors worldwide. Now known as OpenStax, this platform has over 60 free high school and college-level textbooks and is projected to have saved students nearly US$40 million (OpenStax, 2023). OpenStax is now adopted by one out of every five degree-granting institutions within the United States.

Contrary to UNESCO goal 4, the cost of higher education in various parts of the world prevents people from getting a university degree because education is considered a privilege, not a right (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017). Consequently, those lacking a good education will be driven into poverty with little hope for a better life. Further research in the field of OERs is necessary to explore the full potential of what open educational resources offer (Jhangiani & Biswas-Diener, 2017).


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