Busted: The Top 5 myths about OER

A version of this article was originally posted on the Northwestern Libraries Blog on March 2, 2020.

If you're an educator who has had to navigate the remote learning landscape of the past year, it’s very likely you’ve heard of Open Educational Resources. Open Educational Resources or OER are free teaching materials that are licensed for unrestricted distribution and modification to fit the course-specific needs of instructors. They come in a variety of formats (print and digital) and can be downloaded, saved, and accessed by someone without an internet connection. Some examples of OER include textbooks, websites, presentations, syllabi, and lesson plans.

In the past several years, there has been a significant increase in OER use and awareness among faculty in the United States. According to the Babson Survey Research Group, as of 2018-19, 44% of faculty were aware of OER, and 13% were using OER in their courses.

Here at Northwestern, the OER Faculty Grant has enabled faculty to find, develop, and use OER in their own classes. The completed projects have saved undergraduate students hundreds of thousands of dollars and have made important contributions to subject areas where few open resources existed.

While OER use is on the rise, there are still some common misconceptions that we’d like to address.

Myth 1: Open simply means free

We access free content on the internet every day. What's the difference between open content and free content, or a library-licensed e-textbook and open textbook?

Open does mean free, but it's more than that. Most free materials online have some restrictions on use, requiring you to make a Fair Use analysis whenever you want to reuse or share the content. Copying, modifying, and re-distributing free materials that are available online might be copyright infringement if the materials are not distributed under an open license. Materials that are considered "open" have been given an open license by their creator that enables users to download, edit, and share materials with others without restrictions.

For example, a faculty member could find an open textbook online and then add to, edit, or reorganize the content to create a text that is tailored to their teaching needs. Students in the class would get the textbook for free, and the fact that it's open allows them to keep a copy of it forever. In addition, that same textbook could be shared, adapted, and used by instructors across the globe, empowering learners who may never have had access to the materials otherwise.

Myth 2: All OER are digital

OER usually begin as digital files, but they do not need to remain digital in order to be accessed and shared. Digital files can be converted to PDFs and printed by students on their personal printers. They can also be uploaded to print-on-demand services to be printed and bound at cost, which is still significantly cheaper than purchasing a print book from a commercial publisher.

At Northwestern, some faculty who use OER have shared the full text of their open textbooks in their Canvas course, and then also made it available via a print service for those who prefer to work on paper. See examples of open textbooks available to order via Lulu and Amazon.

Myth 3: Free = low quality

We leave quality judgments to faculty, but there are many steps in place to ensure that open textbooks are the same or better quality as traditional textbooks. Most OER publishers create guidelines and peer-review processes to make sure the open textbooks they're sharing have been vetted and approved. The Open Textbook Library, a collection of over 800 open textbooks, has strict criteria that require all textbooks to be in use at 2 or higher education institutions in order to be accepted into the library. Plus, 60% of their textbooks have been faculty reviewed, so you can get an idea of the book's strengths and weaknesses before diving in yourself.

In addition to OER publishing standards, there is a lot of evidence to support the quality and impact of OER on student learning. In one recent example, a 2018 large-scale study out of the University of Georgia found significant improvements in student outcomes when provided with open course materials.

Myth 4: Copyright for OER is complicated

As was mentioned in Myth 1, OER are open because they have been given an open license by their author. Open licensing works in conjunction with traditional copyright, allowing authors to retain their copyright while giving others the right to copy, distribute, and share their work non-commercially. These open licenses are called Creative Commons (CC) licenses, and you don't need to be a lawyer or a copyright expert to use them. Authors simply choose a CC license (which comes in varying levels of "openness") and then include a copyright statement in their work to let others know which CC license it has.

If you'd like assistance with choosing or applying CC licenses to your work, the Libraries have copyright experts who can help.

Myth 5: OER authors don't get paid and no longer have rights to their work

Creating open materials takes time and energy, and authors have the right to receive compensation, whether it's in the form of a stipend, course release time, or other incentives such as recognition on promotion and tenure documents. Unlike traditional publishing models, authors of open textbooks are not paid by publishing companies, but by funding sources, often in the form of grants provided by higher education institutions (such as Northwestern's OER grant), non-profit foundations, and even the Federal government.

And, as always, authors who assign open licenses to their work retain their copyright, and can even choose what level of openness they'd like it to have.

If you're interested in exploring open textbook creation or want to discuss a project idea for this year’s grant program, email Lauren McKeen McDonald at lauren.mckeen@northwestern.edu. Applications are due March 26, 2021.

This work is a derivative of "OER Mythbusting" by SPARC, used under CC BY. "Busted: The Top 5 Myths about OER" is licensed under CC BY by Lauren McKeen McDonald.