Introduction to Open Educational Resources


Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Define “open” in the context of open educational resources (OER).
  • Relate the concepts of “open” and OER to your personal instructional practice
  • Explain the difference between OER and other free educational materials.
  • Describe the potential benefits of OER for instructors, for students, and for SAIT

This chapter will introduce you to the concept of OER and the benefits and challenges of using them.


Attribution: “Open Educational Resources: What and Why [Youtube]” by Jason Hardwick is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence.


The open education movement was originally inspired by the open source software community, with a focus on broadening access to information through the use of free, open content.  OER has always been a grassroots initiative, with many individuals and organizations contributing to its development.  One of the first major initiatives was MIT’s OpenCourseWare Iniative, founded in 2001 . As Bliss & Smith (2017) explain in their breakdown of the history of open education:

Much of our attention focused on OER’s usefulness at providing knowledge in its original form to those who otherwise might not have access. The implicit goal was to equalize access to disadvantaged and advantaged peoples of the world – in MIT’s language, to create ‘a shared intellectual Common.’[1]

However, OER is not an exclusively North American movement, as can be seen from the timeline of OER events below. For example, significant growth occurred after the UNESCO Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries convened in 2002.  In part, the final declaration at the forum stated that participants “expressed their… wish to develop together a universal educational resource available for the whole of humanity, to be referred to henceforth as Open Educational Resources.”[2]


Dig Deeper   To learn more about the history of OER, review: A Brief History of Open Educational Resource and OER – A Historical Perspective.


Following the rise of open education in the early 2000s, growing interest in open courseware (particularly open textbooks) catapulted the movement to new heights; however, the movement toward greater OER awareness among instructors is growing at a slow and steady rate. A survey done in the U.S. in 2018 indicated that 47% of instructors had never heard of OER, while the remaining instructors had some degree of familiarity with the concept. There is still quite a large number of instructors who are unaware of OER, but the percentage has shrunk by 19% since 2014, showing that awareness is growing. [3]

What is an OER?

The most comprehensive definition of OER available today is provided by the Hewlett Foundation:

Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.[4]

So, Open educational resources (OER) are openly-licensed, freely and easily accessible educational materials that can be adapted and redistributed by users. While many think of OER as referring predominantly to open textbooks, OER includes a vast variety of resources, such as videos, images, lesson plans, coding and software, and even entire courses.



Attribution: “What is OER? [Youtube]” by The Council of Chief State School Officers is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 licence.


In order for a resource to be considered open, it must fulfill the following criteria called the 5Rs:

  • Reuse – take a resource and use it in any context that you want
  • Remix – take multiple resources and mixing them together to create a new resource[5]
  • Revise – take a copy of a resource and change it and adapt it to the local context[6]
  • Retain – take a copy and have control of that copy forever
  • Redistribute – the right to freely share what you have created[7]

With a definition so broad that it includes any educational material so long as it is free to access and open, it might be easier to ask, “What isn’t an OER?”

What is Not an OER?

If a resource has a traditional copyright licence or requires a fee to be accessed, it is not considered an OER. For example, most materials accessed through the library’s subscriptions cannot be altered, remixed, or redistributed. These materials require special permission to use and are therefore not “open.” Similarly, YouTube’s standard license includes a traditional copyright statement that does not allow videos to be retained (saved), altered, or remixed. At SAIT, we refer to materials that can be accessed freely by students (via the general internet or a library subscription) but do not meet the 5Rs as accessible resources. Learn more about how you may use accessible resources in the Copyright & Licensing chapter.

Table 1 below explains the difference between OER and other resources often mislabeled as OER.[8]

Table 1: Comparisons of Learning Resources
Material Type Openly Licensed Freely Available Modifiable
Open educational resources Yes Yes Yes
Accessible online resources under all rights reserved copyright No Yes No
Digital materials available through the Library No Maybe No
Print materials available through the Library No Maybe No


The definitions of “accessible resources” and “open educational resources” are a combination of permission (license) and cost. Click each quadrant below to see what you can do with different materials.



Make a list of the free materials you currently use in your classes. Next, categorize each resource as OER, accessible, or other.  How many OER are your students using?

Benefits of Using OER

Benefits for Students

One of the first aspects of OER to be praised by the general public was the cost savings that they could bring to students. Along side tuition fees increases at Canadian institutions of about 3% every year, compulsory fees can set students back nearly $1,000 a year and are often not covered by student loans. According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian student paid approximately $921 in compulsory fees during the 2018/2019 school year. [9] This price was up 4.2% from the previous school year.

The cost of textbooks has a profound impact on college students, many of whom must wait to purchase their course materials until well into the semester or choose not to purchase them at all.[10] A 2018 survey of SAIT students found that over 90% of respondents were very concerned about textbook costs.[11] In 2019, 25% of SAIT students reported they never or rarely purchased any textbooks for their course, citing the cost.[12]


In 2019, on third of SAIT student respondents to a SAIT survey reported they either rarely or never purchased their required course textbooks. A 2021 SAITSA report found "90% of our student base have concerns about textbook costs, while 63% would choose an OER over a mainstream textbook."
Many SAIT students report concerns about textbook costs.

The cost of textbooks might not be a major issue on its own, but it can be an insurmountable hurdle for students already struggling to get by. A recent study at the University of Manitoba indicated that 35.3% of students experienced some degree of food insecurity throughout their degree.[13]

The problem of food and housing insecurity among college and university students cannot be fixed by adjusting the price of textbooks alone. There are a wide variety of reasons why these problems are in place.[14] However, many students cited the inaccuracy in cost-of-living estimates on student loan applications as a major reason for running out of money near the end of the semester. [15] The unexpected additional cost of textbooks can make the difference between a student persisting at SAIT or dropping out.

Access to a Quality Education

When you choose to share course materials openly, you are providing students with the opportunity to engage with your content before, during, and after your course. Because OER are always free to access online, students who are interested in taking a course you teach can read up on the course ahead of time and ensure that they are ready and interested in the material. Moreover, students who have already taken your course can rely on the fact that their course materials will not evaporate at the end of the semester, and that they can continue to review the materials you provided to them for years to come. With an increase in inclusive access models from major publishers, temporary access of educational materials are becoming more common. This type of access may reduce the entry cost for students to access a textbook for one semester, but this access is typically limited and comes with other hidden costs.[16]

The students who benefit from access to OER are not just the ones in your classroom. OER are free for anyone in the world to access, whether they have a university affiliation or not.[17] This encourages learners and students to explore educational content without having to commit the time and money they might not have to attend post-secondary.[18]

Benefits for Instructors

Although cost savings are a major talking point in favour of adopting open educational resources, instructors can begin to integrate OER into their courses without removing the paid resources they find useful. [19] While creating an entire OER textbook can seem like a daunting task, the gradual integration of small OER as supplementary resources can be built up over time. Over a few years, instructors may find that they have tailored so many small OER to their course content that these resources are more effective in supplementing the course than the paid resource they were previously using. In fact, the freedom to adapt OER to instructional needs is often the most attractive aspect of OER. Since OER are openly licensed, educators are free to edit, reorder, and remix OER materials in a variety of ways.

Use, Improve, and Share

Many instructors report that they use their required course textbooks in different orders than suggested, or skip entire portions of the textbook altogether.[20] The use of OER allows instructors to adapt and revise existing versions of openly-licensed textbooks in order to better fit their course material. Supplementary resources may be added directly to the text, streamlining resource access for students, and giving a clear course outline that aligns with the syllabus. Instructors may also update an existing OER to provide modern and culturally relevant examples.

Network and Collaborate with Peers

A major worry with open resources is that they may be seen as less reliable than traditionally published materials that go through rigorous editing processes. However, by opening up resources, it makes it easier for peers across institutions to review and edit each other’s work. The ability for others to edit and re-share work also allows you to explore the reviews and gain a deeper understanding of the available resources. Not to mention, creating open resources is a great chance to build a team of peers to help build a new and valuable learning tool.

Lower Costs to Improve Access to Information

One of the most popular reasons for creating and reusing OER is that it allows every student to have easy access to course resources. This, in turn, benefits instructors, for all of their students will have all the tools needed to succeed in the course, regardless of financial or accessibility barriers. Open course resources may also lead to more passionate and engaged students, as students will have the chance to explore course material before enrolling in the course.

Benefits for the Institution

The benefits of using OER are more readily seen for students and instructors, but research has shown that institutions also see overall benefits. For example, it was found that OER use can increase student retention, progress, and completion by decreasing student costs[21]. Additionally, a recent report from Achieving the Dream, OER at Scale: The Academic and Economic Outcomes of Achieving the Dream’s OER Degree Initiative, reveals that when institutions strategically support and provide OER courses for students, there is opportunity for financial return on investment for the institution. Students who enrolled in OER courses tended to enrol in more course credits than students who enrolled in non-OER courses, thus generating additional tuition revenue.[22]



Reflect on the courses in your program. List the benefits to the students, to you as the instructor, and to SAIT if some of these courses were using  only OER materials.



Challenges of Using OER

There are many benefits to using OER in the classroom; however, there are also some drawbacks. The biggest challenge that instructors face when adopting OER is best encapsulated by the phrase “availability may vary.”

Subject Availability

Many of the largest OER projects funded over the past fifteen years targeted high cost, high impact courses to save students money. Because of this, most of the OER available today are for general education courses such as Psychology, Biology, and Calculus.

This does not mean that there are no OER available for specialized subject areas or graduate level courses; however, there are more resources to choose from for instructors who teach Introduction to Psychology than for those who teach Electronic Systems Integration for Agricultural Machinery & Production Systems.

While this remains an issue, the increasing awareness surrounding open education has led to a greater production of materials across all subjects. See our Finding OER chapter for more resources.

Format & Material Type Availability

As with subject availability, the format and types of OER that have been developed over time have largely been targeted at high enrolment courses which could see substantial cost savings for students. There are many open textbooks available today, but fewer options for ancillary materials. You can find lecture slides, notes, and lesson plans online, but ancillary content such as homework software and test banks are harder to find.[23] 

Time & Support Availability

Although the other challenges to OER use are inherent to the resources themselves, many instructors are also concerned about the impacts on their workload and current instructional activities. It takes time and effort to find OER that might work for your course, and creating and publishing new resources takes exponentially more time.

Time constraints are always going to be an issue for instructors who want to try something new in their course. Luckily, the Reg Erhardt Library at SAIT has a variety of resources that can help you find, adapt, and create OER.  Contact your liaison librarian for help searching for OER, or reach out to the OER librarian to learn more about supports available when modifying or creating OER using the free Pressbooks publishing program.  If you are interested in creating OER for a course or program, speak to your Academic Chair to see how OER may fit into larger curriculum projects. Finally, some faculty have found creative ways to incorporate OER into external grant opportunities from the federal government or nonprofit organizations – see if your associations or organizations have something similar.


This chapter has provided a brief overview of what OER are, why they are used, and the movement surrounding them. In the next chapter, we will review some items you should keep in mind when adopting or creating an OER for the first time.


  1. Bliss, T J and Smith, M. 2017. A Brief History of Open Educational Resources. In: Jhangiani, R S and Biswas-Diener, R. (Eds.) Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science (pp. 9–27). London: Ubiquity Press. DOI:
  2. UNESCO. (2002). Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries: Final Report (CI.2002/CONF.803/CLD.1). UNESCO. p.6. Retrieved from
  3. Seaman, J.E., & Seaman, J. (2019). Inflection Point: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education. (pp. 25-26)
  4. William & Flore Hewlett Foundation. (n.d.). OER defined. Retrieved from
  5. The resource must explicitly state that it is available for remixing and redistribution by others. Some open licences may include restrictions on how others may use the resource. You can read about this more in the Copyright & Licensing chapter.
  6. Although all OER are openly licensed, many are released in formats that do not easily allow for adaptation.
  7. Council of Chief State School Officers, (2016)."What is OER?" Youtube. Retrieved from
  8. Although both print and digital materials are free to access for a library's users, that does not mean that they are free to access for everyone. As well, some digital materials have a licence that permits distribution or reuse with a specific group (i.e., current students), but the licences will not allow modification.
  9. The Daily. Statistics Canada. (2018). Tuition Fees for Degree Programs, 2018/2019. Retrieved from
  10. Florida Virtual Campus. (2018). 2018 student textbook and course materials survey: Executive summary. Retrieved from
  11.   Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (2018, February). 2018 OER Student Panel Survey Report. Calgary: SAIT.
  12. Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (2019, January). 2019 OER eTextbook Survey Report. Calgary: SAIT.
  13. Entz, M. Slater, J. & Desmarais, A.A. (2017). Student Food Insecurity at the University of Manitoba. Retrieved from
  14. Goldrick-Rab, S. & Cady, C. (2018). Supporting community college completion with a culture of caring: A case study of Amarillo College. Retrieved from
  15. Maynard, M. Meyer, S.B. Perlman, C.M. & Kirkpatrick, S.I. (2018). Experiences of Food Insecurity Among Undergraduate Students: "You Can't Starve Yourself Through School". Retrieved from
  16. "Does Inclusive Access save students money?" (n.d.) Retrieved from
  17. Although OER are free for anyone to access, this access is still limited by who has access to the Internet. Still, since OER can be freely redistributed, some individuals have printed OER for dissemination in areas that do not have Internet access.
  18. Hodgkinson-Williams, C. & Arinto, P. B. (2017). Adoption and impact of OER in the Global South. Cape Town & Ottawa: African Minds, International Development Research Centre & Research on Open Educational Resources. DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.1005330
  19. The Benefits for Instructors section of this chapter was adapted from the SUNY OER Community Course, licensed CC BY 4.0.
  20. Liebermen, M. Inside Higher Ed. (2019). Slow Burn for OER Adoption, Awareness. Retrieved from
  21. Hilton III, J. L., Fischer, L., Wiley, D., & William, L. (2016). Maintaining momentum toward graduation: OER and the course throughput rate. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 17(6).
  22. Open Educational Resources: Basics & Beyond” by Jamie Holmes, Pamela Louderback, Ed.D, & Ann Raia, Council for Online Learning Excellence (COLE) is licensed under CC BY 4.0
  23. As of Fall 2022, several large nonprofit organizations are in development of open homework platforms, including LibreText and BCcampus. Access to these math, science, and business platforms should be announced in 2023.


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Foundations of Open Educational Resources Copyright © 2022 by Southern Alberta Institute of Technology is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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