LIDA103 Definition of OER

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Scenario 1:
A Free Software based education firm has four employees and a small office. They develop an educational Word Press stack and charge $5 / month for full access to all material. They have 100 users, so the revenue from these fees cover Registrar fees, DNS hosting, VPS hosting, theme costs, and hardware upgrades/repairs. They don’t need any other income because they have “day jobs” and this is their labor of love. Additionally, they document exactly how they built their content delivery system on their self-hosted wiki, so other educators and IT-minded service folks can take it and run with it. Although they charge $5 by policy, occasionally they let a student in need on for free, but this is the exception. When people ask, they state that the $5 fee is merely to keep base offerings in tact and that they lose money and time giving to this project already. They want to be nice, so to speak, but then need to cover costs. They don’t mind pitching in for the small office - as they all co-work and co-learn there for their day jobs, so it is worth the expense.

Scenario 2:
A new startup has branded itself “Open Learning Access” and moved into a small rural town, partnered with the local library under the City’s oversight and started a co-work co-learn space over 5 acres of parkland, library space, and picnic areas. There is a captive portal that puts meaningful credentialing and learning opportunities within 3-5 clicks. Users are required to log in for offerings and so that the facilitators of the project, a private business of individuals, can send content (portals) to students and update that portal often. There are partnerships with Arizona State and those offerings link to external sites and ultimately involve students enrolling in those programs, however, this startup has made the sign up and registration process streamlined through partnering with the institution, so this is the most frequently used program. Additionally, the local Community College teamed up with the lead developer and co-authored a course using the GFDL and OERu’s toolchain and link to that on the same “portal.” Additionally, the local nursing program at Northern University, has an open source Canvas instance with BY licensing for the “shells” that instructors make, including a fancy downloadable portfolio. The site also has links to programs that are completely external and proprietary.

Scenario 3:
The firm is Gitlab, a version control system which is self-described as “open core,” and calls proprietary offerings those which it charges for, which it only releases code for later. The community project has less features than the proprietary one, however, even some elements of the proprietary offering is on gitlab in one of their repositories, but not all of the code - nor do they provide a nice Chef script for it to be run by intermediate educators and researchers like they do the community project. They visit Universities and pitch their product, trying to get schools to pay for contracts and the proprietary stack instead of the community project (because they need revenue). The university staff finds the blending so distasteful that some of them want to use Github, which although completely proprietary is free of cost and will “allow them to get the job done.” Nevertheless, due to legal reasons, and the partnership with the federal programs at the lab, this institution is ultimately denied using Github by the provost. The discussion of the leaders at the site revolves around creating their own community Gitlab instance, thus avoiding the proprietary racket that Gitlab is offering, while stressing out staff and lowering productivity. OR, paying for Gitlab’s proprietary version to increase productivity and security (also self-hosted and complian) but ultimately supporting proprietary - and anti-research / open / education - thus causing a schism across the site. A few cranky quiet folks grumble about Mercurial, but no one cares.

Who is freer? Who is open? Who is not?

The first case is technically not open, right. But, when I look at other examples like Scenario 2/3, it sure feels more ethical and admissable of the term than those tw However, both Scenario 2/3 have community projects at their core, and are solidly open by definition. The mere fact that users have to $5 disqualifies Scenario 1, but it seems like an injustice. What am I noticing here? It seems like Open has a lot of nuance to it. Forgive me if the stories were lengthy, but wanted to get the “big idea” across for my own reflection (you may see why).



@mackiwg Any insight into what I am wrestling with here would be appreciated … know you are likely busy!

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@oemb1905 - sorry for the delay. I was sleeping, but expect a reflection soon.

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@oemb1905 - Thanks for sharing these scenarios. They’re certainly authentic as you are contemplating how OER can serve your communities, but at the same time figuring out how to sustain these services.

These questions are focused on building sustainable business models for open which we explore later in this course. For now, I think its useful to reflect on these scenarios in the context of the definition of OER.

Starting with the definition for OER

Let’s start by highlighting the key characteristics of OER:

  1. OER content resources must always be accessible gratis (without the need to register an account or placed behind a paywall), plus
  2. The 5 permissions (Reuse, Remix, Revise, Redistribute and Retain)

This point of departure provides a litmus test to ensure that implementations add sustainable value to the ecosystem.

Scenario 1

  • As you know, a free cultural works approved license does not restrict commercial activity or the right to earn a living.
  • What value does the Scenario 1 option add (when compared to the freely accessible OER elsewhere) for those contributing to the cost of operations. It needs to be more than just access to the material assuming the learners have affordable connectivity. For example, this might be a LAN that provides connectivity. So in this example, learners are “paying” for the connectivity - not the content.

Scenario 2

  • This looks like an indirect advertising/marketing model - a portal that advertises goods and services of organisations that “sponsor” the portal in the hope of downstream business from the communities you are serving. Realistically I wonder if the communities you are aiming to serve would have the disposable income to continue study and pay tuition for the third party institutions?
  • Apart from the conflation of proprietary content with OER - I’m not sure that this is a viable funding model.

Scenario 3

  • As you know, there are many FOSS projects that have a community edition plus proprietary code for additional features that aren’t released back into the community edition.
  • From my perspective, this is counter to the spirit of the GPL but for better or worse, there are commercial friendly FOSS licenses.

In summary

I think Scenario 1 is more aligned to the values of open education - the critical issue is to ensure that the payment is not for the content, but a contribution to services as value addition users would not be able to get from the open content offerings hosted elsewhere.

I hope these reflections help as you design your model.


I appreciate your reflection and insight. I think you summed up two things:

  1. Slight misconceptions I have about the leveraging or misuse of costs and how that applies to Open Educational Resources, namely distinguishing between content and services added … and

  2. Bias about the term (not negative) that stems from what I think some have called the distillation or diluting of the term “open” to include concepts and designs outside of its proper purview in the context of OERu

Additionally, your critique of Scenario 2, interestingly, was much harder than my own and I will need to think on that and do some deep thought for a few days as I progress through the course. Scenario 1, 2, and 3, moreover, are all scenarios based on real events - fyi, as I am sure you could tell in some cases. I hope you found my Mercurial comment funny, as an aside.

Thanks so much for the time and insight - truly helpful for a philosophy major turned Free Software hacktivist trying to make sense of this all. It is also nice to see how you leveraged convergent definitions in a liberal manner instead of utilizing them as a restrictive dogma to guide thinking - that is most appreciated and helpful.



To be fair, these are my personal views on free content when compared to non-free content. My thinking is underpinned by the four essential freedoms.

So in the case of OERu - learners can access the content of all our courses without the need to create an account. Educators have access to all the source materials in an open file format for all our courses in WikiEducator. In theory, they can access the source wiki markup without registering and account on the wiki. (For spam protection and attribution - authors need to create an account on Wikieducator.

Mini case study

OERu has remixed the Saylor Academy’s Principles of Marketing licensed under CC-BY. The value we have added includes:

  • Pedagogical improvements for independent study using a FOSS component based delivery system - see for example Core foundations of successful marketing.
  • Restructuring the course as three micro-courses with pathways for learners to achieve micro-credentials.
  • Widening options for academic credit beyond those available through the Saylor academy.
  • The OERu publishing model enables any institution in the world to replicate and publish their own versions of the course for local reuse. (We publish the technical recipes for how to do this on
  • We provide more affordable options for learners who can’t afford tuition at conventional universities. At OERu - learners study for free and only pay for assessment if they want academic credit. Costs are typically 80% cheaper than normal tuition.

The ecosystem benefits in both directions. For example, Saylor converted the OERu’s Learning in a Digital Age for their own offerings. In this way, higher education becomes more sustainable.

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Thanks for sharing the Saylor resources. In the past, I have used the term “educational backend” to refer to technological infrastructure and “educational frontend” to refer to the end user experience - both of course being implemented with Free Software. I have now, through this course and our dialogue, expanded the language around that to include the definition of OER and the Five Rs to the documentation of the student’s Haacking Club. Formerly, I only referred to Free Software.

Your improvements to the marketing side seems to be what I “educational midlevel,” or the design, leadership, and architectonics of the organization, which often includes the need for marketing, advertising, recruiting, etc. I like the term educational midlevel and the word design, in particular, because it is expansive enough to include both the interaction with the commons, which Saylor’s course and your adjustments pertain to, and it can also include internal architecture, or employee safety, space, and professional content, professional development, etc. I have largely coined this all myself, however, and perhaps you know of some formal courses that can house my ideas within the larger literature on the topic?

This was a good exchange and has helped me to reflect on my own work and practice, and has taught me a lot - thank you.

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Our pleasure. Each offering of LiDA is unique bringing new perspectives and discussions to the table. As a hacker with a major in Philosophy - you have an excellent background to contribute to the open education space.

Hello everyone,
While the 4Rs or 5Rs definition makes a lot of sense and adds clarity, in real life I often find hard to distinguish “pure” OERs… for example during my Master’s we had to create an artifact in the OER Commons. I preferred to write from scratch a small guide on the use of LibreOffice just because I wanted to be sure that all material used was OER.
My colleague started writing a module on Universal Design for Learning. Her main content was her owns based on free-access publications and web-resources. Although the content she used was freely accessible, she couldn’t detect and confirm if the resources she used were open. Consequently, she wasn’t sure if she should publish her artifact in the OER Commons. Finally, she re-reviewed her work and ensured that all references she used were OERs.
But I am still wondering if when we create an OER, we can use or quote copyrighted material in it. Let’s say that I bought a book (not open) and in an article that I write and I intent to publish as open, I use an extract from that book, accurately referencing it. Should I do that?


Hi Ana,

Good questions, and yes many aspects to consider when designing and developing OER learning materials. We will cover a number of these issues later in the course during the Copyright and CC remix sections.

If we can’t confirm an open license (even if the materials are openly accessible on the web) we must assume the default “all rights reserved” license.

The normal provisions for copyright exceptions for example fair use in the US or fair dealing apply. These exceptions include verbatim quotations of extracts from copyrighted works assuming it does not exceed what is fair and of course, must be properly attributed. Therefore the normal practice of citing quotations from copyrighted works which are properly attributed are fine.

You will need to consult your own national copyright legislation to see what is considered “fair”

Hope this helps!


Not a question, but I thought Wiley’s definition of the ‘5th R’ was interesting: “Retain – the right to make, own and control copies of the content”. Use of the word ‘control’ would seem to go against open principles (I appreciate ‘control’ can depend on context!).

Interested to see what others think here…

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In my own view, I think the “Retain” permission is a tad redundant. If a user can access resources for remix, they have autonomy to keep copies. While access to editable file formats promotes easier remixing, I’m not sure its a good idea to conflate technology with the “essential freedoms” from which the original 4R framework was derived.

David has written about the "ALMS" framework which I think is more useful in thinking about the technical aspects of OER.

Control (under the Retain dimension) could also mean the ability to lock and control OER behind a paywall and closed LMS system. Here the waters start getting murky ;-).

Had a question in mind, but similar to it was already in @annakrassa post and and answer given by @mackiwg :sweat_smile:

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A perfect example of the efficiency of open forums - no need to reinvent questions or answers ;-).

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Part of the issue here is defining ‘çovering costs.’ It’s like credit for prior learning, everyone agrees with it, but ask about dedfinitions and criteria and the list is almost as long as the various names we give to open and distance learning. The providers of the service will nbot all argue the same points of why they are just covering - actually recovering costs.

In the university context, is gets a little slippery. Harvard and MIT and other wealty institutions can give away $50K MOOCS - always easier to do when you have 10 billion dollars in your reserves. The problem is most universities also want to just recover costs and it gets complex about what does it cost really for a university without unlimited resources to promote OER? Difficult to standardise criteria for recovering costs and to monitor. No silver bullet answers here members of the jury.

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Some doubts:

(1) I would like to clarify where is the line between “not OER” and “OER with low level of openness”?

  • a material in a format that makes it difficult to be modified (PDF, website…) is still an OER? How difficult must be to modify in order to stop calling it OER?
  • if you create an image/infographic with free software tool, I understand it will be “more open” if you provide the source (for example .svg file) than if you just provide de image itself, although it has a .png format. But both are OER. Is that right?

(2) Another doubt regarding INNOVATION. I remember reading something about it in documents like 2012 Paris OER declaration o Cape Town Open Education Declaration. I think it was connected in the sense that using OER may change education paradigm. But I would like to know if there is a connection between OER and Innovation from the methodology point of view. For example, when creating a open material for my students, should I try to do it in terms of new ways of teaching (PBL for example)? Is it a personal decision? Is it implicit in the OER concept? I consider it is my responsibility to create “modern” materials (it is my responsibility to share quality materials), but it is connected to OER concept somehow?


UPDATE. I’m reading now some answers to my first questions in the links offered at the end of the unit :wink:

These are good questions.

At a basic level, OER is defined by:

  • Price - It must be “free” / Gratis
  • Permissions Redistribute, Reuse, Revise, and Remix permissions.

However, as you correctly point out, this does not take technological considerations into account, for example editable file formats.

In this regard, I recommend reading the ALMS Framework discussed by Wiley and others.

For us at OERu we require: OER + FOSS = Open


There has been some discussion about “Open pedagogy” but there are differences in opinion on the definition:

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I liked the definition which perhaps goes beyond a pure defnition by givng examples. The other definitions are fine - all focusing on open, public domain, and repurposing - but I like context because everything we do in education, erverything we do on this planet is linked to some kind of context (e.g., culture, history, family, value of education, etc.). The broader defintion is not for those of us in the choir; its in the millions of other educators, parents, and public officials who don’t know what it means, now little about the context of fair use and openness - for that reason a broader definition in and of itself becomes an open educational tool for educating the masses.