TEACHING AT PITT: Open Educational Resources have benefits for instructors and students


For most instructors, the “go-to instructional resource” for their course is a textbook and any supplemental materials that may come with it. This might include workbooks, activities, homework assignments, quizzes, tests and more.

This has been a tried-and-true approach for a very long time. But, as we all know, the access to these materials doesn’t come cheap. In fact, according to the College Board, the average college student will spend more than $1,200 on books and materials each year. They also point out that, for the last decade, the average cost of textbooks has risen four times faster than the rate of inflation. This has led more than 60 percent of college students to forgo buying textbooks at least once in their academic career because they could not afford them.

Driven primarily by a desire to make instructional materials more accessible, a movement has been growing in higher education to provide copyright-free, open-access textbooks, and other materials to students. These instructional materials are known as OER — Open Educational Resources.

Put simply, OER refer to any type of educational materials that are freely available for teachers and students to use, adapt, share and reuse. This is not a new idea. The concept was pioneered by MIT in 2001, and the term OER was coined back in 2002 at a UNESCO conference.

A common misconception is that OER simply means “online,” but it’s a bit more complicated than that. According to the Hewlett Foundation, a major sponsor of OER initiatives, OER are “any teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others.”

OER can include full courses, supplemental materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software and any other tools materials, or techniques that can be used to support broad access to knowledge. But, in all cases, the key distinguishing characteristic of OER is the intellectual property license and the freedoms the license grants to others to share and adapt it. If a lesson plan or activity is not clearly tagged or marked as being in the public domain or having an open license, it is not OER.

OER can help ensure that cost is not a barrier to accessing high-quality resources.

But, instructors who use OER — myself included — have found other benefits as well. For example, OER allow educators the ability to adapt instructional resources to the individual needs of their students. In addition, OER often help faculty to ensure that resources are up to date — no waiting for the next print edition of a text.

OER also can save instructors valuable time because they can use high quality materials that have already been developed and classroom tested. And, OER are infinitely reusable. This lets instructors add, subtract or just tweak materials to meet the specific needs of their courses. In short, OER can make life easier for both the students and instructors alike.

I have been using OER in my general education Astronomy courses for several years now. Many students have expressed their relief at not having to buy a textbook or temporary access to online materials. It’s true that some students would prefer a hard copy of the text. But, of course, there is usually nothing in an open license to prohibit students from making a printed copy for their own use.

I think one of the greatest benefits of going with OER is that I am quickly and easily able to add materials to cover “headline science” topics that are related to course content such as the Greenland Crater discovery or the exploration of Ultima Thule. OER give me a great deal of flexibility to make my courses as relevant and engaging as possible.

So, in summary, OER provide many benefits:

  1. They help to make high-quality educational materials affordable for all students.
  2. They allow for quick adaptation of instructional materials to specific courses.
  3. They allow instructors to target the needs of their particular students.
  4. They save instructors time because the materials are already developed and tested.
  5. They can be edited, expanded, or reused in many ways.

Are you interested in giving OER a try? The University Library System has some wonderful resources produced by our own director of scholarly communication and publishing, Dr. Lauren B. Collister. From an introduction to OER and how to get started, to finding and adopting materials, and even to the creation and copyright of your own work, ULS OER has it all. And, don’t forget that the staff of the Teaching Center is available to help you incorporate OER in your courses.

John G. Radzilowicz is a teaching and learning consultant for the University Center for Teaching and Learning and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Physics & Astronomy.