Getting Started Using Open Educational Resources (OERs)

A Surreal Door Opening to a New World: Getting Started Using Open Educational Resources (OERs)
Contributed By

Elizabeth Trach

Professional Writer and Blogger

Getting Started Using Open Educational Resources (OERs)

Posted in Pro Tips | August 09, 2017

Open educational resources (OERs) are online resources that are available for anyone to use. These resources include curriculum, activities, worksheets, testing materials, supplemental videos, interactive modules, and more.

Click here to watch our webinar recording and learn how to build curriculum with free resources using OERs.

While most people understand that OERs are "freely available" for wide use, there are more to OERs than most people realize. In fact, there are many copyright rules to keep in mind, and just because they're free doesn't mean you can use materials any way you want. Many authors still want credit for their time and effort—and the law is on their side.

Still, there's no reason to fear OERs, especially once you understand the ins and outs of these useful resources.

OERs versus Free Resources

OERs, while free, are not the same as free resources. Free resources are any educational products available on the internet at no cost. These may be provided as teasers by publishers or put online by generous instructors. They may be free, but you don't necessarily have the right to use them, let alone change them.

For example, you may only be allowed to use them for certain purposes and may not be allowed to take a screenshot of the artwork or a diagram to paste into another worksheet you make on your own. Though the resource comes at no cost, it's part of a whole package that you don't have the right to alter.

OERs, on the other hand, are unique because they are open. This means that instructors and students have the right to copy and adapt the resources as they wish, perhaps adding to them or completely changing them. This gives educators a great deal of freedom to cobble together the perfect course or activity from a variety of sources and to tweak resources to make them work for their needs.

A Brief Look at Creative Commons and the Types of OERs

If you're still feeling confused about the difference between OERs and other free resources, understanding Creative Commons licenses may help. Creative Commons licenses make it easy for creators of any online work to keep the copyrights to their material while still allowing others to use it.

For example, if a photographer takes a photo of a ladybug, she may choose a traditional "all rights reserved" copyright approach that doesn't allow for any reuse of her work. She may also choose to publish her work with a Creative Commons license that lets others use the photo as long as they follow her chosen guidelines. In this case, anyone who uses her photo has to attribute it to her, perhaps in a caption on a worksheet or blog post.

Image from Wikipedia

As you can see in the chart above, there are many different combinations of the rules, from the open license described above to more restrictive ones that allow people to use the work for educational but not commercial purposes. Other licenses allow use of the work but stipulate that it cannot be altered for any reason.

Understanding the licenses your OERs fall under will help you make smart choices about using these materials in a way that's legal and fair for everyone.

The Pros and Cons of Using OERs

The Internet, for better or worse, has revolutionized the way instructors gather materials for their work. As with any new tool, there are pros and cons to using OERs in your practice.

The Pros

  • Enhance Course Content—With little to no extra investment, instructors can supplement existing textbooks and courses with additional material.
  • Keep Up-to-Date—Rapidly changing fields like science and technology can be hard to keep up with, but OERs allow teachers and students to stay on top of new developments.
  • Expanded Access—Because OERs are available to anyone, barriers like age, mobility, and socioeconomic status are less likely to keep students from getting the education they deserve.
  • Increased Creativity—The ability to remix and reuse OERs can be a boon to student creativity and can help instructors turn traditional assignments into fun, multi-faceted activities.

The Cons

  • Copyright Confusion—As detailed above, fear of misusing copyrighted material or misunderstanding Creative Commons licenses may hamstring otherwise enthusiastic instructors.
  • Quality Concerns—The open nature of OERs means that anyone with a computer can create and publish new resources. With few organizations serving as gatekeepers, there's little quality control.
  • Vetting Time—Instructors may sift through many OERs to find ones of high quality. There's also no central database, making the time investment in finding great OERs a challenge.

You can minimize the drawbacks of OERs by utilizing trusted OER providers such as CK-12 and Merlot, as well as paying careful attention to best practices as you implement them.

Getting Started Finding and Evaluating OERs

How do you know that an OER is worth your time? Fran Kompar, Director of Instructional Technology and Digital Learning, suggests beginning to curate your resources by answering a crucial question: what gap do you need to fill with your OER? Once you can articulate your purpose, it's much easier to plan your search at various OER sites.

Next, you'll need a strategy to curate the OERs you find. It is recommended to look at several sources in order to compare and evaluate them, perhaps tagging them with Google Keep or Pinterest to bookmark your research. When you have a good organizational system in place, you can pull up your ideas and synthesize the best pieces into one perfect piece for your purposes.

Then there's the C.R.A.A.P. Test ...

What's the C.R.A.A.P. Test and How Does It Work?


To help decide which resources are worth earmarking for future reference, it's helpful to use the C.R.A.A.P. Test. This mnemonic stands for the key features you should look for in any OER to make sure it's worthwhile for your purposes, including:

  • Currency—Is the material up to date?
  • Relevance—Is the material closely tied to your needs and coursework?
  • Authority—Is the author and/or publisher a reputable, knowledgeable source?
  • Accuracy—Is the material factual and on point?
  • Purpose—Is the material for education, or advertising? Check for bias before passing it along to your students.

Using OERs in an Online Learning Environment

Now that you know how to evaluate OERs, watch as Director of Educational Strategies Adam Larson walks through the process of using OERs in a digital learning environment, in this case, Schoology's LMS. This video will give you a better understanding of what the process of incorporating OERs into your everyday can look like.


While OERs are a relatively new and unfamiliar terrain for many educators, they can be powerful resources for saving time and enhancing learning experiences. But with great power comes great responsibility. By understanding the basics shared in this article, you're well on your way to making OERs work for you.


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