tl;dr – If a resource is licensed in a way that grants you permission to engage in the 5R activities, and grants you those permissions for free, it’s an open educational resource (OER) – no matter where you find it or how it’s being used.


I have an obsession with definitions. It’s been true for decades. It manifest first with learning objects in the late 1990s, and then with open content and open educational resources (aka, learning objects with an open license) in the early 2000s. Apparently I’ve been unable to move on.

I’m writing about definitions again today. I used to think that I did this kind of writing to persuade you, dear reader. But I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m actually writing for myself – writing in order to understand. This has many unexpected benefits, one of which I’ll explain below. But on to the stuff about definitions.

For several years I have used a shorthand definition of OER as “free access plus permission to engage in the 5R activities.” For example, after reviewing several uses of the word “open” (as in open content, open educational resources, open access, open source, etc.) in The Consensus Around Open, I wrote:

Each and every one of these terms containing the word “open” and relating to education or educational technology has two things in common:

  1. Free access to the content, resource, journal article, data, knowledge artifact, software, or standard, and
  2. A formal grant of rights and permissions giving back to the user many of the rights and permissions copyright normally reserves exclusively for the creator or other rights holder.

As I continue to think (perhaps an unhealthy amount? do other people lie awake in bed worrying about this stuff?) about what it means for an educational resource to be “open,” I am coming to understand that this framing, while essentially correct, is wrong in an important way that both distorts and needlessly complicates our understanding of OER.

The ideas of free and permissions need to combine in the definition of OER, but in a slightly different way. Rather than defining OER in terms of “free access” and “a formal grant of permissions,” I’m beginning to believe that we should instead define OER in terms of a “free, formal grant of permissions.” This simplifies the concept of OER, which many still struggle to understand, anchoring it to one thing and one thing only – permissions.

As you ponder this simplified definition, you quickly realize it has several consequences. Perhaps the two most important consequences of a free, formal grant of permission to engage in the 5R activities are:

Permission to Consequences
Retain
Redistribute
The public will always have free access to the resource (the “free access” consequence)
Reuse
Revise
Remix
The resources can be used in novel ways (the “OER-enabled pedagogy” consequence)

As long as everyone in the world has free permission to make copies of a resource and redistribute them, there will always be free access to that resource (so long as anyone cares about the resource). As long as everyone in the world has free permission to make changes to and mashups of a resource, and reuse those however they choose, it will be possible for people to do things that were illegal / impossible / impractical to do before.

The free access consequence states that the public will always have free access to the resource, but not that the public will have free access to every copy of the resource. This framing, I believe, solves a family of longstanding (supposed) paradoxes that arise from the “free access plus permissions” definition.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A person downloads an OER to their laptop. They do not provide the public with free access to their local copy (e.g., using a file sharing service). Is the copy of the resource on their laptop an OER? Under the free access plus permissions definition, no. Under the permissions-only definition, yes.
  • An NGO downloads thousands of OER to a USB drive and delivers the USB drive to a rural community that does not have internet access. The members of the community are unable to provide the public with free access to their copies of the resources. Are the resources on the thumb drive OER? Under the free access plus permissions definition, no. Under the permissions-only definition, yes.
  • A student prints some OER, puts them in a three-ring binder, and puts the binder in his backpack. The public does not have free access to his backpack. Are the copies of the resources in his backpack OER? Under the free access plus permissions definition, no. Under the permissions-only definition, yes.
  • A teacher downloads an OER and then uploads it to her online course in her institution’s LMS. The public does not have free access to her course. Is her copy of the resource in the LMS an OER? Under the free access plus permissions definition, no. Under the permissions-only definition, yes.
  • A multinational textbook publisher downloads dozens of OER and places them in their proprietary courseware platform. The public does not have free access to the platform. Are the copies of the resource in the courseware platform OER? Under the free access plus permissions definition, no. Under the permissions-only definition, yes.

In each of these cases, a user makes a copy of an OER and places it outside the public view – some place where access is limited to a closed group of people. If free access to a resource by the public is an integral part of the definition of OER, then the person, the NGO, the student, the teacher, and the company in the scenarios above aren’t using OER. The resources they’re using ceased being OER the moment they failed to make their copies available to the broader public. Upon consideration, that seems nonsensical to me. When we move “free access” out of the definition of OER and instead make it a consequence of the definition, these paradoxes and others like them disappear.

This simplified definition of OER (as resources in which you have a free, formal grant of permission to engage in the 5R activities) also greatly simplifies our understanding of the opposite of OER.

Quick quiz – what’s the opposite of OER?

In this framing, the answer is simple – traditionally copyrighted resources. And just to be clear, the opposite of OER is traditionally copyrighted resources whatever their cost. This is a particularly useful distinction to be able to make as publishers lower their prices. When publishers claim their traditionally copyrighted content is becoming “more and more like OER” as it gets less and less expensive, we can easily say “no it isn’t” when we define OER solely in terms of permissions.

The same logic applies to works whose copyright has expired or that have been released using the CC0 legal tool. Everyone can engage in the 5R activities with works in the public domain. And printing them out doesn’t remove them from the public domain. Downloading them to a laptop or USB drive doesn’t remove them from the public domain. Uploading a copy to an LMS or courseware platform doesn’t remove them from the public domain.

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