Brave New (Open) World: Contextualizing Open Educational Resources

This is the first of a series of posts where I’m going to analyse the Open Educational Resources as one of the fundamental changes to the education landscapes in this digital age we live. In this first post I’m going to focus on the context of OERs and why they are here.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are a dream come true to educators all around the world. Who can deny having plenty of educational resources at hand that can be used as-is, repurposed and redistributed at no charge is a good thing? Who never felt the need for more resources than those provided in textbooks? For that matter, who among us didn’t have to build their own syllabus from scratch, gathering resources anywhere, even daring to cross the shady borders of fair use of copyrighted materials and the plain breaking of the law?

What are we talking about when referring to OER? The terms Educational and Resources are self-explaining enough, but what do we mean by Open? Let’s take a deeper look at that.

The term “Open” in this context is related to a movement for “openness” that has been pervading various fields of knowledge and society, such as finance (opennessin finance), governance (open government), education and research (open education, open educational resources, massive open online courses, opencourseware, open textbooks, open access), technology (open source software, open hardware, open networking, open standards). It is important to note, though, the different ways in which it is used on the different fields, sometimes meaning “transparency”, “free”, “collaborative”, “accessible” or any combination of those. This “openness” movement seems to be related to the advent  of the digital age, the network society, where the balance between speed and cost of communication and transmission of knowledge, along with a growing culture of empowerment of the individuals in terms of content creation and consumption, is very different from the previous “analogic” age, allowing for an effective sharing of knowledge with mutual benefits. Moreover, the “openness” movement is conceptually related to a philosophy that sees knowledge as a social good belonging to everyone, hence it must be shared at the broadest possible range to close the developmental gap at a global scale.

The multiplicity of meanings for the word “open” makes it difficult to agree upon a definition of OER, fueling the debate among academics. According to Yuan, Macaill & Kraan (2008) “the term was first introduced in a conference hosted by UNESCO in 2000 and was prompted in the context of providing free access to educational resources on a global basis”, but doesn’t give any precise and authoritative definition of OER. The same authors mention as well that the most widely accepted definition of OER (a working definition, that is), is OCDE’s (OCDE, 2007):

“digitised materials offered freely and openly for educators, students and self-learners to use and re-use for teaching, and research”

This is a somewhat limited definition of OER, because it appears to limit itself to contecnt that can ben shared through electronic means. That content can be varied, and includes not only full courses, courseware, content modules, learning objects, collections and journals but also lesson plans, syllabi and other educational content. This is only one of the three areas of “resources” stated by the OECD (2007), the learning content. The other areas include tools such as software, to suppoort the development, use, reuse and delivery of learning content, including searching and organization of content, content and learning management systemscontent development tools and online communities and implementation resources: intellectual property, licenses to promote open publishing of materials, design principles of best practice and localize content (OECD, 2007). Downes (2007) gives us a wider view of the OER concept by reminding us of the greater scope of educational resources usually needed to fulfill education other than mere “digitized materials” by citing a list from a report by UNESCO:

Visiting lecturers and experts

Twinning arrangements providing for the international exchange of students and academic staff

Imported courseware in a variety of media

Externally developed sponsored programs

Inter-institutional programmes developed collaboratively

Information resources of the Internet (UNESCO, 2002)

The debate on the nature of OER, what should be considered to be part of it or not, is not ending soon. Opinions are vary, but the core concept of openness is always there, and it supposed an inexorable change for higher education in since its appearance.


Downes, S. (2007). Models for Sustainable Open Educational Resources. Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects3, 29-44. Retrieved from

Gurell, Seth (autor) & Wiley, David (editor) (2008). OER Handbook for Educators 1.0. []

OECD (2007), Giving Knowledge for Free: the Emergence of Open Educational Resources,

UNESCO (2002). Free access to 2,000 MIT courses online: A huge opportunity for universities in poor countries. Paris,

Yuan, Li; Macneill, Sheila; & Kraan, Wilbert (2008). Open Educational Resources – Opportunities and Challenges for Higher Education.



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