What U.S. K-12 Teachers should know about #OER


In light of this week’s TES survey results on OER referenced by business , instructional technology, and  education sites, here’s what every teacher should know about OER and what policy makers and developers should know about how to support the creation, spread, and repurposing of OER.

When I first began teaching, many veteran teachers gave me free access to their instructional materials. Handouts, lessons, links, presentations, books, et cetera filled my once empty filing cabinets. Every May, when teachers retire, teachers descend to take coveted class-sets of materials (along with reams of paper, let’s be honest). Search #edcamp for links to shared resources and presentations. Note how many free lessons are available on TeachersPayTeachers.com. Read between the lines of Alice Keeler’s post “This Job is Hard to Go it Alone – #stealEDU.” Teachers share. Freely. Openly.

And yet, Open Educational Resources – OER – are still not commonly referenced or used shared in K-12 schools.

At least not yet.

Late June 2016, the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged the need for guidance by publishing the #GoOpen District Launch Packet. The packet offers school and district leaders a detailed pathway for OER adoption, and it follows the #GoOpen initiative first launched in February 2016. Since then, OER and #GoOpen are gaining traction.

Although the movement is reaching mainstream, many teachers still don’t know some key issues around it: its complex definition, the surrounding copyright issues, the benefits and risks associated with OER, and methods to make OER sustainable.

Defining OER

First, the most widely accepted definition of Open Educational Resources comes from the Hewlett Foundation:

OER are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

This definition provides a narrow definition of “open”: resources that are free and permit not just the reuse but also repurposing of materials, even allowing the new party to make a profit. This notion of “open” is probably one of the biggest challenges for teachers when determining whether something is OER. Open mean both free of cost (stealable) and open license. But there is a continuum here recognized in the literature (Cohen, Reisman, & Sperling, 2015; Tuomi, 2013; Wiley, 2014).

David Wiley stipulates that OER must include permissions for the 5R activities as defined by the website Open Content here:

  1. Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage)
  2. Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)

Research prior 2014 refers to the 4Rs, but in March that year, Wiley added the fifth R, Retain, in response to commercial publishers’ shifting practices of providing access to materials but not ownership (2016). The ability to own and retain resources is notable as more schools, districts and states rely on cloud storage. The fifth R ensures teachers and students have the right to own and keep their work.


Teachers are probably most familiar with Public Domain, but beyond that, the Creative Commons suite of licenses provides a range of openness. See this helpful flowchart to see how creators can use CC. In order for OER to go mainstream, more teachers need to know CC as well as they know their own curriculum standards.

The preferred license is the most open: CC-BY (Creative Commons Attribution). This copyright permits the 5 Rs (retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute). The most restrictive license is Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs, CC BY-NC-ND, which prevents users from profiting from the work and making derivatives. The growth of Creative Commons has positively affected the growth of OER. Additionally, since October 2015, the U.S. Department of Education requires all intellectual property created with discretionary competitive grand funds have an open license (2016).

Benefits and Risks

In the US, the most widely promoted benefit to OER adoption is cost reduction. The #GoOpen initiative emphasizes how OER can alleviate straining budgets and make funding available for other projects, technology investments, and professional development (Kelly, 2014; Kerres & Heinen, 2015; Mtebe & Raisamo, 2014; Wiley, 2014). Case studies show school systems using OER in conjunction with open textbook publishers, like Flexbooks or OpenStax, to cut costs. In higher education, OER adoption enabled the creation of the Z-Degree, zero-textbook-cost degree (Alexander, 2016).

Beyond saving institutions and students money, the literature also shows how OER adoption increases instructional flexibility and enables personalize learning. Differentiation is possible, and as Pitt (2014) notes, “Access to materials in a range of formats enables every student to participate in their preferred way” (p. 142).

While OER removes certain cost and licensing barriers, teachers and districts face multiple barriers to adoption. Both access and discovery of OER and quality assurance are issues for teachers. Finding resources that align to instructional standards that also match the content and theme of a lesson can be a struggle. The flipside is deciding which resource is the best fit or offers the highest engagement and academic value. Access to necessary technology, however, is becoming less of an issue.

Making OER Sustainable

The first phase of OER began with many organizations creating and publishing content, but now these repositories need maintenance and balance. Here, classroom teachers can play a pivotal role in spreading OER implementation and making it sustainable.

1. Write Reviews and Recommend Resources

Many OER repositories allow users to rate and review materials. This ensures quality resources are easier to find and increases the social sharing aspect of them. Consider the recipe comments on Epicurious as a model. Not only do reviews give their overall satisfaction with a recipe, but many will include specific ingredients, cooking methods, and modifications. Just like recipes, teachers can remix and repurpose OER, and leaving feedback about that process will help inspire others do to the same.

2. Develop Formal Evaluation Tools

If your local school, district, or state repository doesn’t have a ranking system, create one and make it robust. Ideally create a rubric that evaluates several criteria: standard alignment, grade-level appropriateness, learner engagement, duration, and level of instruction are just starting suggestions.

3. Talk about OER

Ideas and tools spread by word of mouth. If you use resources, talk about them in terms of “OER” and “Creative Commons.” Until these terms become as common as “gamification” or “badging,” OER will struggle to make a lasting impact. Finally, completely ditch #StealEDU. This mindset works against #GoOpen. “Stealing” is shady and subversive. Really, when teachers “steal resources,” they are taking, using, modifying, and improving freely available resources, which is what #OER is all about. So call it what it is.

4. Upload

Many, many educators offer resources on their blogs and websites. These should all be in OER repositories. If you are afraid of brand awareness, use the CC BY license to protect your intellectual property. If your work is worthy to share with one other teacher and all the students that benefit, then consider how your resource will benefit many students across your state, the US, and potentially the world.

5. Promote Digital Literacy

OER is only useful to teachers who understand how to use and remix them, so departments, schools, and districts should spend the time and resources to helping coach teachers through the process of finding and implementing them. This process can begin by school leaders recognizing technology-savvy teachers and inviting them to lead discussions and workshops. EdCamps already create a model for this.

Some Questions to Consider

In order to accelerate the diffusion of OER, districts should refer to Rogers’ five Perceived Attributes of Innovations: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability (2003, p. 222). From there, they can ask the following questions:

  • Do teachers know how OER benefits their teaching practice? How it save them time?
  • Do teachers know that many of their sharing practices are similar to OER’s 5Rs?
  • Do teachers believe finding, adapting, and using OER is too complicated? Is there a way to simplify it?
  • Do teachers have the time and the instructional freedom to experiment with OER?
  • Do teachers have the chance to see others’ using and supporting OER?

K-12 education can take advantage of OER and realize open education, but districts and educational leaders must support individual teachers. Although the movement is promising, growth depends on more individuals choosing to support OER.


#GoOpen District Launch Packet. (2016). U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from: http://tech.ed.gov/files/2016/06/GoOpen-District-Launch-Packet.pdf

Alexander, B. [Bryan Alexander]. (2016, April 20). Future Trends Forum #11: open education and the Creative Commons with Cable Green. . Retrieved from https://youtu.be/TdITeDi8w4s

Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2014) Opening the Curriculum: Open Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2014.  Babson Survey Research Group. Pearson.

Camilleri, A. F., Ehlers, U. D., & Pawlowski, J. (2014). State of the Art Review of Quality Issues related to Open Educational Resources (OER). Luxembourg : Publications Office of the European Union 2014, 52 S.

Chiappe, A. & Arias, V. (2015). Understanding Reusability as a Key Factor for Open Education: A Review. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(1). 40-56.

Cohen, A., Reisman, S., & Sperling, B. B. (2015) Personal Spaces in Public Repositories as a Facilitator for Open Educational Resource Usage. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(4). 156-176

de los Arcos, B., Farow, R., Pitt, R., Weller, M., & McAndrew, P. (2016). Adapting the Curriculum: How K-12 Teachers Perceive the Role of Open Educational Resources. Journal of Online Learning Research 2(1). 23-40.

Defining the “Open” in Open Content and Open Educational Resources. Retrieved from http://www.opencontent.org/definition/


Kelly, H. (2014). A Path Analysis of Educator Perceptions of Open Educational Resources Using the Technology Acceptance Model. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(2). 26-42.

Kerres, M. & Heinen, R. (2015). Open Informational Ecosystems: The Missing Link for Sharing Educational Resources. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(1). 24-39.

Mtebe, J. S. & Raisamo, R. (2014). Challenges and Instructors’ Intention to Adopt and Use Open Educational Resources in Higher Education in Tanzanial. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(1). 249-271.

Pitt, R. (2015). Mainstreaming Open Textbooks: Educator Perspectives on the Impact of OpenStax and Open Textbooks. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(4). 134-155.

Rogers, Everett M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

Tuomi, I. (2013). Open Educational Resources and the Transformation of Education. European Journal of Education (48)1. 58-78.

Weiland, S. (2015). Open educational resources: American ideals, global questions. Global Education Review, 2 (3). 4-22

Wiley, D. (2014, March 15). Clarifying the 5th R. Retrieved from http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/3251

Wiley, D., Bliss, T.J., & McEwen, M. (2014). Open educational resources: A review of the literature. In J. Spector, M. Merrill, J. Elen, and M. Bishop (Eds), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, pp. 781-789. New York: Springer.

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