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Open, or Not Open. That is the Question.
Sorel Reisman
OCT 04, 2013 10:08 AM
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Open, or Not Open. That is the Question.

If you're a faculty member with teaching responsibilities and don't know about "open," it's time you found out. Even if you're a taxpayer and not a faculty member — or certainly if you're both — and don't know about it, it's time you found out.

The word open has been bandied about by politicians, educational administrators, and the press with reckless abandon over the past year or so — especially in the context of MOOCs. (If you think you're going to read about MOOCs here, you're not. I'm saving that for another time.) Open is a word that has taken on a whole new meaning, and one that is largely incorrect.

In the context of education, the word has a very specific meaning. In particular, it relates to something called "open education resources," a concept that has been around since it was adopted in 2002 at the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Forum, "The Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries," funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Open educational resources (OER) are not the same as "open source" software, or "open access" publications. Whereas those also have relatively specific definitions, they share the implication of "freeness" in their use of the word open. We all know that open source software isn't really free. Much has been written about that, and I'm not going into it here. Neither am I going to write again about the non-freeness of open access publications. But in most cases, when we talk about OER, mostly they really are free.

The definition that came out of that UNESCO meeting states that OERs are learning materials that are in the public domain, web accessible (via IP addresses), and have a license that allows for free access and free reuse. (Note that there might be a cost to acquire an OER, but thereafter, the license is supposed to allow you to reuse it.) Examples of OERs include learning objects, open courseware, open textbooks, and possibly even open access journals and open source software — depending on whether these meet the definitions of OER.

The notion of licensing is very important when we talk about OER. If you're unfamiliar with it, look into the Creative Commons licensing methodology (, which is used for declaring different aspects of availability and reusability of online materials. (I'll write more about CC licensing in the future too.)

So, why did I say this should be of interest to you if you're a faculty member? If you're teaching, and responsible for assigning reading or other kinds of classroom materials, rather than taking the easy way out by simply adopting an expensive textbook, you can save your students a lot of money (and also send a message to textbook publishers) by finding (free) OER and using that instead. There's an awful lot of free material available that can be used to replace increasingly expensive textbooks — if you bother to look.

One of the more popular and long-standing sources of open courseware can be found at the OCWC website ( The consortium is an outgrowth of the MIT OpenCourseware project that received a lot of press several years ago. There you'll find fully online courses that might be suitable for your classes, or maybe even for your own self-improvement.

But all OERs are not necessarily full courses. In fact, the OER definition includes something called learning objects. Many definitions and standards exist for learning objects — even IEEE has a standard — but for the most part, they are online items designed for instructional use, whether for demonstration purposes in a traditional classroom or embedded in a fully online course, even in a MOOC (which is just an online course!). A learning object can be microscopic, as small as a test item, for example; or a simulation or animation; or it can be a complete online course. If you go to the OCWC site you'll find full online courses.

In my real life, I'm the managing director of an open educational digital library of learning materials, most of which can be properly called OER learning objects. The digital library, called MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching), is unique for many reasons. But in the context of this blog, it's worth noting that the more than 40,000 open learning materials in the library are categorized in many different ways, including as microscopic reusable learning objects, as open textbooks, and also as open courses.

If you want to know more about OER, I suggest you visit the OCWC website or our recently redesigned MERLOT website ( Given that the MERLOT site is new as of 15 October 2013, I'd be interested in your feedback. Please log in below to add your comments.

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About Sorel Reisman

Sorel Reisman

Sorel Reisman is the Managing Director of the international consortium, MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) in the California State University Office of the Chancellor, Professor of Information Systems at California State University, Fullerton, President Emeritus (2011) of the IEEE Computer Society, editor-in-chief of the IEEE eLearning Products and Services Committee, and member of the board of the Open Courseware Consortium (OCWC).

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Mind the Cloud: by Thoran Rodrigues
Musings from the Ivory Tower: by Sorel Reisman
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