Open Educational Resources (OERs)

As an online student, you may be searching for more ways to lower the overall cost of your college education. Besides affordable tuition rates for online degrees, utilizing open educational resources (OERs) helps reduce costs even more. Aimed to provide high-quality, easily accessible learning materials to all students, OERs are no-cost learning materials that can be used and edited, typically without requiring permission.

So, what exactly are open educational resources? How can usage reduce the overall cost of your online degree program? And where can you find them?

What are Open Educational Resources?

A Brief History of OERs

The history of open educational resources goes back to 1994, when the concept of learning objects entered discussions with educators and instructional designers. Learning objects promoted the idea that course materials could be easily reused in different teaching situations when created in a digital format. A few years later, the California State University system launched the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching (MERLOT) project to provide free online higher education course materials.


In 1998, the concept of open content was introduced. Based on the idea that open software movements could be applied to content, the open content concept resulted in the first public copyright license for documents, called the Open Publication License. Content with the Open Publication License could be reproduced and redistributed to other users.

In 2001, Creative Commons was founded with a variety of flexible licenses that were easier to use than the Open Publication License. Creative Commons licenses offer one-page explanations of associated permissions in an easy-to-understand format. The same year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced OpenCourseWare. With the goal to publish almost every university course for free, public, noncommercial access, OpenCourseWare has led the OER movement.

Open Educational Resources

The term open educational resources was first introduced by UNESCO at its 2002 Forum on Open Courseware. UNESCO defines OERs as “teaching, learning or research materials that are in the public domain or released with intellectual property licenses that facilitate the free use, adaptation and distribution of resources.”

Today, hundreds of universities worldwide use OERs, offering free university course materials online.

OERs can be created by professors, educational institutions, organizations, commercial publishing companies, governmental agencies, or individuals. With few ownership rights, usage of an open educational resource depends on its permissions. Many have a Creative Commons license or a similar public copyright license.

Readily available online, some OERs can be downloaded and shared among your classmates, and others can also be adapted. Since OERs can be edited and reshared, they can also be kept up to date on the subject material — unlike traditional textbooks that can become outdated within a couple of years.

Depending on how the open educational resources are licensed, they can be used in a variety of ways.

Using OERs in the online classroom doesn’t hinder student outcomes, either. Students have the same or greater engagement with OERs compared to those who used physical textbooks. The concept and availability of open educational resources is also attractive to many online college students. According to the 2018 Online College Students report by The Learning House, Inc. and Aslanian Market Research, 61% of students would definitely consider a textbook-free online course or program, in which only OERs were used.

Types of Open Educational Resources

The most common licensing for open educational resources is through Creative Commons. Some OERs are classified under public domain. However, other OERs licensed through Creative Commons may have some or all of these terms:

  • Attribution: Users must give credit when using materials, include a link to the licenses, and provide a notification if changes were made.
  • Non-commercial: The materials cannot be used for commercial purposes.
  • Share alike: If the material is altered in any way prior to being reshared, it needs to be distributed under the same license as the original.

How OERs Help the Cost of Textbooks

According to a 2018 survey conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of Cengage, 46% of current and former college students surveyed said the cost of textbooks and course materials had a significant impact on their financial situation. Meanwhile, 41% of students said the costs had somewhat of an impact.

The cost of college textbooks has gone up substantially in recent decades. During the past decade, the price of textbooks has increased four times faster than the rate of inflation. Additionally, the National Center for Education Statistics says the average spent on textbooks and other course materials is $1,200 per year.

Part of the reason for the increase in textbook costs is that many include access codes, which unfortunately for students, expire at the end of the semester. The codes give students access to accompanying workbooks, other materials, quizzes, and tests. When it comes time to sell a textbook after classes end, as most students do, textbooks are nearly worthless with an expired access code.

Typically used in place of physical textbooks, open educational resources allow you to potentially save hundreds of dollars per course on learning materials — as long as the program uses OERs. Since materials are typically free of charge, your cost of textbooks for an online college course becomes significantly reduced. There are no access codes, either, allowing OERs to be reused by you and among peers and instructors with no time limitation for access to materials.

Where to Find Open Educational Resources

There are many websites that provide online access to digital open educational resources.

As an online student, using open educational resources in your program can be greatly beneficial for you. Readily available online, OERs allow low-cost easy access to high-quality learning materials that are curated by professors and organizations worldwide.

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