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Open Educational Resources (OER) and Libraries
Posted On March 2, 2009
In my trends watch at the beginning of the year (, I mentioned that openness is increasingly a characteristic of many sectors and technologies—open access, open library, open source, open standards, open platforms, and more. Another open trend that is growing quickly is the adoption of open source textbooks. (I covered some of these initiatives in my October 2008 NewsBreak Update column in Information Today.) But, the more broadly named movement has come to be known as open educational resources (OER). OER focus not only on textbooks, but also on full courses, course materials, modules, journals, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques that are critical in the learning environment.

At the ALA Midwinter meeting in Denver, I attended a forum sponsored by SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). To a fairly large group of librarians in attendance, a panel of speakers introduced OER and the philosophy behind it. The forum highlighted examples of how different constituencies are currently advancing OER on campuses, and offered suggestions for how librarians can further engage to support OER. Speakers argued that OER are a logical extension of what the library community supports in the Open Access movement, and underscored the need for the larger playing field on which scholarly communication takes place to be made more equitable.

Richard Baraniuk, an architect of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, which aims to accelerate efforts to promote open resources, technology, and teaching practices in education (, is founder of Connexions, an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web ( He’s also professor of electrical & computer engineering at Rice University. He cautioned that publishers are in fact pricing themselves out of business—our current model is unsustainable. He says that OER results in better, faster, stronger education and a more collaborative faculty environment. OER provides outreach to the world and brings welcome "inreach," or give-back from others. Baraniuk urges librarians to get involved by educating colleagues, participating in OER quality control initiatives, and contributing our knowledge to the commons.

David Wiley, also a leader of the Cape Town Declaration, is "Chief Openness Officer" for Flat World Knowledge (FWK), a new approach to college textbooks that offers rigorously reviewed textbooks online free of cost to students ( He is also associate professor of instructional psychology & technology at Brigham Young University. He explained that the OER movement involves 4 types of permissions that include the rights to make changes—the "4Rs," which are Reuse, Redistribute, Revise, and Remix. Several Creative Commons attribution licenses can then specify the conditions, such as the user must share back or the use must be non-commercial.

Wiley urges librarians to expand their thinking about IRs (institutional repositories), for example, to archive educational materials. He also suggests librarians join campus policy discussions about intellectual property (IP). Are faculty allowed by the institution to share teaching materials?

Some OER Initiatives

The Connexions Content Commons contains educational materials for everyone—from children to college students to professionals—organized in small modules that are easily connected into larger collections or courses. All content is free to use and reuse under the Creative Commons "attribution" license. Authors are encouraged to write modules that stand on their own. Connexions first began back in 1999 and offered its first course texts in 2000. The site recently introduced the latest version of its Connexions Markup Language (CNXML).

Connexions is also now collaborating with the California-based Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (, which recently worked with Connexions and other organizations and initiatives to launch a new Community College Open Textbook Project site ( The Project is a one-year feasibility study funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation ( to examine sustainable approaches to promoting use and development of high quality, open textbooks.

FWK recently came out of private beta. FWK textbooks are much like traditional textbooks in that they are written by top authors, per reviewed, supported with teaching aids (like an instructor manual, slides, and assessments), and have available review copies for teachers. FWK textbooks are unlike traditional textbooks in that they have Creative Commons licenses (CC BY-NC-SA, attribution, non-commercial, share alike), are always available in full text online for free, are offered in a variety of affordable formats (paperback black-and-white ($30), full-color ($60), audio book ($30), individual book chapters as audio ($3), etc.), and are supported by a variety of study aids available at the student’s option (not forcibly bundled with the book).

See also the OER Commons (, established in 2007 by ISKME (, an independent, nonprofit institute at the forefront of education innovation. OER Commons has forged alliances with more than 120 major content partners to provide a single point of access through which educators and learners can search across collections to access over 24,000 items, find and provide descriptive information about each resource, and retrieve the ones they need.

Further Reading

For an interesting and extended commentary on the new world of online textbooks, check out the special issue of EDUCAUSE Review, "The Case of the Textbook: Open or Closed?" Jan-Feb 2009, ( Articles discuss the options and issues on all sides—for publishers, students, authors, and institutions.

Lev Gonick, CIO at Case Western Reserve University summed up the situation bluntly and boldly in a guest blog post at The Wired Campus ( "One area where I predict fundamental change is the impact of open educational resources on the textbook market. Traditional textbook publishers have held an iron lock on the industry’s model for too long, and universities have been tacitly complicit of the system. In the Web era, however, this oligopolistic business practice is imploding. Indeed, the whole learning process is changing thanks to the Internet." Pointing to various open courseware initiatives and new learning activities, he continues, "It’s actually not only the future of the university that is in play. How we produce, organize, and distribute open education resources is at the heart of the future of education around the world."

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Steve Carson3/2/2009 2:12:16 PM

Your readers might also want to explore the courses available through the OpenCourseWare Consortium (, a collaboration of more than 250 universities worldwide sharing materials from more than 7,800 courses in nine languages.

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