"OER creates an unprecedented opportunity to bring continuously improving, high-quality courses within reach of more community college students, including at schools that might not otherwise be able to offer those courses." Marshall (Mike) Smith, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits sharing, accessing, repurposing -- including for commercial purposes -- and collaborating with others. Ripe for future development, OER are already gaining in scope and quality and are supported by an increasingly robust community that includes many of the most distinguished scholars and educators around the globe. Academic policy makers and government officials at all levels, national, state and local, have a unique – and still largely untapped -- opportunity to improve learning outcomes, reduce costs, and improve the quality of teaching by making modest additional investments in OER. Doing so will also have significant multiplier effects as the quantity of free, high-quality open learning materials steadily increases and the most relevant materials become easier to find.

A single missing ingredient is preventing the most promising outcomes associated with OER from benefiting a wider audience of students and schools: more active support and leadership from higher education governance officials. Without that leadership involvement the opportunities presented by the still mostly grassroots OER movement will not be effectively harnessed, and the OER movement will continue to operate primarily on the periphery of the higher education establishment rather than closer to its core where its impact would be truly transformative.

OER include items such as free textbooks, courses, course materials, streaming audio/video of classroom lectures, tests, software and any other tools, materials or techniques used to transmit knowledge that have an impact on teaching and learning that are freely available for use. But OER are not just free learning materials and resources. OER is also the underlying open, creative, collaborative process itself, one that enables continuous rapid improvements in the quality of both teaching and learning.

While OER have been singled out by innovative scholars and some local and national government officials, and possess the potential to support significant improvements in access and success in higher education, remarkably few higher education governance officials are aware of or are taking institutional advantage of the usefulness, cost-savings, and quality of these resources. The information and advice in this Guide aims to address that problem and focuses primarily on OER within the context of higher education, and in particular, at community colleges, where their utility is so clearly evident.

The use of OER allows more rapid transfer of high-impact practices in pedagogy while also reducing a growing financial barrier to access in the form of increasingly costly textbooks and other instructional materials, such as password-protected online content. Unlike traditional textbooks, OER are available free online and can be printed, viewed or used on demand. In addition, some innovative newly formed, startup education publishers also release their resources under open licenses that allow for updating, customization, and personalization of content online, making teaching and learning more effective and efficient. Frequently, these resources can be ordered as print-on-demand textbooks or media files, usually at prices far lower than traditional textbooks. OER are particularly useful at educational institutions such as community colleges where students, or the schools themselves, lack the financial resources required to to enable the most rapid learning and progress possible.

Early evidence indicates that OER fosters student success. Students who used one of the first high-quality OER ever developed, a math course created by Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative, learned more quickly and at much lower costs, according to a carefully conducted double-blind study.[1] In this case, students derived benefit from the inclusion of learning paths that were created by a highly skilled team of cognitive scientists in addition to the open nature of the course itself, which brought success within reach of all students at no cost to them.

What’s more, rapidly evolving, highly sophisticated collaborative OER production and use methodologies are generating more high-quality OER each day. These materials can be applied to a growing number of courses and course levels. When these materials are further developed and used within an appropriate supportive policy framework they are likely to enable even more rapid and increasingly dramatic, measurable improvements in both the quality and speed of teaching and learning. They also substantially reduce, and in some cases even eliminate entirely, costs for learning materials imposed on students.

The present lack of higher education governance involvement in the OER movement is primarily a generational issue. Despite their many skills and talents, the vast majority of today’s higher education governance officials have no experience assisting or supporting the development and use of OER. Typically, many of the most senior officials, including boards of trustees and collegiate foundation development officers, have had little or no exposure to OER, in contrast with their personal involvement in other campus-based activities with which they are more familiar. Despite documented widespread interest among both faculty and students, many senior higher education governance officials may not even know what OER are, or may confuse OER with less useful materials, such as "online textbooks" or, more generally, "stuff you can find on the Internet."

To date, only a handful of higher education boards of trustees, regents and senior academic officers have conducted public hearings, held meetings or offered seminars that focus attention on the institutional opportunities associated with OER, or on how their schools might benefit by participating in the OER movement in a more systematic fashion. This Guide seeks to change that by helping higher education governance officials better understand Open Educational Resources and their benefits to students, faculty and institutions of higher learning. This paper offers an overview of OER, examines the latest developments in the field and explores policy implications for those charged with governing higher education.

  1. The Open Learning Initiative: Measuring the Effectiveness of the OLI Statistics Course in Accelerating Student Learning Marsha Lovett, Oded Meyer, and Candace Thille, Carnegie Mellon University, 2008: http://oli.web.cmu.edu/openlearning/files/theinitiative/publications/jime-2008-14.pdf


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