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Student guide to Open Educational Resources (OER): What is OER?

This guide focuses on open educational resources (OER) for TCC students and how to find, use, and cite openly licensed multimedia and materials

Start here: Key concepts and definitions

Introduction to OER vocabulary, concepts, and open licenses

OER is an educational movement

OER stands for "Open Educational Resources" and is linked to an educational movement that began about 20 years ago and has become a global educational movement. Faculty who use OER in their courses are using freely available, high-quality educational resources in order to bring textbook costs down for students. OER, in essence, then are freely available, openly licensed resources -- textbooks, media, videos, articles, and more -- that are useful for teaching, learning, and assessing as well as for research purposes.

Reasons to use OER infographic

Credits:  Infographic from Open Education Consortium, CC BY. Material used in this content box has been adapted from "Learn OER" modules, Open Washington, by the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, licensed under CC BY 4.0. Except where otherwise noted, the content in this guide by Jennifer Snoek-Brown, Tacoma Community College Library, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

graphic of copyright symbol and penBefore we start talking about Open Educational Resources (OER), let’s briefly discuss the foundational concepts: copyright and licenses, particularly open licenses.

What is copyright?

Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship. The copyright symbol probably looks familiar: ©

But, this is important to remember! Copyright is the DEFAULT -- a work does not have the copyright symbol, ©, on it be protected under copyright law.

When is your work protected?

Your work -- yes, even the work you create as students for classes! -- is under copyright protection the moment it is created and in a "tangible form." Virtually any form of expression will qualify as a tangible form, including the scribbled notes on the back of an envelope that contain the basis for an impromptu speech. 

What does copyright protect?

Copyright protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.

Copyright covers both published and unpublished works. Again, you do NOT have to put the copyright symbol, ©, on something to have it be protected.

Everyone is a copyright owner

So, if you created your original work in a tangible form, like in a paper or a PowerPoint slide, congratulations! You are now a copyright owner. This connects us to another critical concept: license.

Image source: This image on "OER Mythbusting!" is licensed under CC BY 4.0

What is a license

In an academic context, a license is permission you get from the copyright owner of the work you want to use. A license basically grants permissions, but sometimes it states restrictions as well. It specifies what can and cannot be done with a work.

In short,

  • Copyright = (a form of) intellectual ownership
  • License = permission or consent from the copyright owner to use the copyrighted work
  • Licensing = obtaining permission or consent from the copyright owner to use the copyrighted work

What is an open license?

An OPEN license is a type of license that grants permission to access, re-use and redistribute a work for free, with few or no restrictions. With open licenses, creators still maintain the rights to their copyrighted work -- they are not "giving" away their work or their copyright.

Bottom line? Think of an "open license" as "free + permissions."

oer logoWhat is OER?

Wouldn’t it have been nice if a resource you found and wanted to use -- like an image you found through a Google search -- and the creator of that image somehow said to you, “I’m free to use, no strings attached, you don’t need to ask for my permission because it is already granted”?

Open Educational Resources (OER) are an answer to that need. OER is a subset of FREE and openly licensed works that are educational in nature. OER is all about SHARING.

There are millions of educational resources out there that are available for others to freely use and share. There are all kinds of materials, like textbooks, streaming videos, software, as well as images and multimedia.

OER explained in less than 2 minutes:

Here's a video produced in Washington state that explains the concept of OER in less than 2 minutes:

The "5 R's" of OER:

With openly licensed materials, you can do a combination of some or all of the following, depending on the license:

  • Reuse:  Use content in a variety of ways (on a website, in a video, in a handout, etc.)
  • Remix:  Combine the original or revised content with other material(s) to create something new (like a mashup)
  • Revise:  Adapt, update, modify, or alter the content (apply a filter, correct mistakes, translate into another language, etc.)
  • Retain:  Keep the original content (download, store, make copies, etc.)
  • Redistribute:  Share copies of the original content (send a file via email, upload document in a Canvas course, distribute handout copies in class, etc.)

Image source: "oer_logo_EN_1" by Breno Trautwein is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What are "Creative Commons" licenses?

"Creative Commons" licenses are referred to as "CC" licenses, and they are examples of open licenses. So if someone creates OER and wants to share it with others, then they put CC licenses on their work to make it clear that they are sharing their work. That means if you see a CC license, then you know it's OER!

There are 6 main kinds of CC licenses. Basically, when someone puts a CC license on something they've created, like an image, then that person is telling you, the student, HOW you can use that image -- and how to CITE that work in the process!

Elements of Creative Commons licenses

Here's a video that explains the concept and major elements of CC licenses:

Chart of CC licenses

And here's a chart of the different CC licenses, for easy reference:

Creative Commons licenses and terms

  • CC BY (Creative Commons Attribution)
  • CC BY SA (Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike)
  • CC BY NC (Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial)
  • CC BY ND (Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives)
  • CC BY NC SA (Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike)
  • CC BY NC ND (Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivatives)

What is a Creative Commons "Zero" license?

There is an additional license, called the "CC 0" (CC Zero) license that releases modern works into the public domain (which is explained on the next tab). This CC0 license looks like this:

public domain

So... what do I have to know about these licenses?

So the main takeaway here, is that when you see a symbol and/or accompanying text on an image or video or webpage or document like the ones you see in the chart above, then you know this means you can use it and cite it -- in OR outside the classroom.

Image source: "Creative Commons Licenses" by Furman University Libraries, educational use

What is public domain?

A public domain work is a creative work that is not protected by copyright, which means it’s free for you to use without permission. Works in the public domain are those whose intellectual property rights have expired, have been forfeited, or are inapplicable.

A public domain license may have only those words -- "public domain" -- listed, or use a public domain license graphic:

public domain

There is an additional license, called the "CC 0" (CC Zero) license that releases modern works into the public domain with a Creative Commons license.

public domain

Public domain vs. open license vs. all rights reserved

To recap, please see the infographic below to visually see the difference between open license, public domain and all rights reserved copyright.

open license v. public domain v. all rights reserved

Image source: "Difference between open license, public domain and all rights reserved copyright" by Boyoung Chae is licensed under CC BY 4.0

How do "citing" and "attribution" connect?

Citing openly licensed materials, whether they're images or videos or textbooks, is often referred to as "attribution" in the OER world. To "attribute" something, you are giving credit. It's the same idea as "citing" -- just a different term for it. 

Citing = Attributing
Citation = Attribution

You can cite or attribute openly licensed materials in different ways. I explore two different ways to cite/attribute OER on this guide's "How to cite OER" page. Always check with your instructor about which citation method they prefer.

Quick guides (handouts) about OER vocabulary, concepts, and open licenses:

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Jennifer Snoek-Brown
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CC BY SA license

Except where otherwise noted, the content in these guides by Tacoma Community College Library is licensed under CC BY SA 4.0.
This openly licensed content allows others to cite, share, or modify this content, with credit to TCC Library. When reusing or adapting this content, include this statement in the new document: This content was originally created by Tacoma Community College Library and shared with a CC BY SA 4.0 license.

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