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Author: Oliver Dreon, PhD and Greg Szczyrbak, MS

Online learning environments offer exciting opportunities for expanding the types of instructional materials that teachers can use. Because interaction is mediated digitally, teachers can tap into simulations, videos, case studies, and so much more to support student learning.

Although online spaces offer a great variety of instructional content, some challenges emerge. For instance, instructors may have difficulty finding materials that perfectly align with the focus of their classes. Other instructors may struggle to find educational materials that use the same terminology they use in their classes or ones that address concepts in the same way they introduce them. At times, locating the ideal digital content can feel like searching for the proverbial “holy grail.”

Another challenge that some educators encounter when selecting instructional materials for their classes is cost. It's estimated that the typical college student spends more than $500 each year on textbooks for his or her classes. Looking at historical textbook costs, NBC's review of Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicates that over the last thirty years, textbook prices increased more than 1,000 percent, roughly three times the rate of inflation. Factor in the rising cost of tuition, and we find that many students are struggling to meet the financial burden of their education.

Fortunately, a relatively new type of instructional material can provide some assistance. Open educational resources (OERs) are learning objects that are licensed to permit educators to freely use, revise, customize, and share them. Rather than trying to find content that fits perfectly, educators can use OERs to tailor content to better fit the curriculum and instructional focus of their courses. Because OERs are available for free, educators can use them in their classes without imposing a financial burden on students. With several repositories available online, finding OERs is relatively easy. Here are a few of the most widely used sites for finding open educational resources.

MERLOT (www.merlot.org): Not to be confused with the wine, MERLOT stands for Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching. MERLOT was developed by the California State University system and offers a curated collection of open educational resources including animations, simulations, textbooks, and presentations. The site is also organized by audience so teachers across the educational spectrum are able to find OERs to fit their needs.

OERCommons (www.oercommons.org): OERCommons was developed by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, a group funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Similar to MERLOT, OERCommons offers a searchable database of open educational content that is organized by subject, grade level, and media type. One important difference, however, is that OERCommons allows educators to search based on accessibility type. One challenge that many online educators face is finding learning objects that are accessible to all students. With OERCommons, teachers can select accessibility options to refine their search for specific types of learners. OERCommons also encourages the community to create new OERs, offering three authoring tools to build media-rich documents, interactive lessons, and interactive modules.

OpenStax (cnx.org): Created by Richard Baraniuk at Rice University, OpenStax houses thousands of open textbooks accessible online and downloadable to almost any device. The open textbooks cover a wide range of topics from economics to physics to psychology. Each of the texts is licensed so educators can legally transform the materials to fit their needs. The site also offers its own authoring platform to enable educators to easily contribute content to the open resource if they wish.

OER Knowledge Cloud (https://oerknowledgecloud.org/): This United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) site is not a repository of instructional materials. Instead, it has been established to identify and collect reports and research to provide open access and stimulate scholarship on all aspects of open educational resources. Users can search for articles, books, and proceedings and can browse by regions of the world or by specific countries.

As educators search such repositories for OERs, they will encounter a variety of different licenses that detail how the materials they find can be used. OERs are shared under Creative Commons licensing, which identifies the conditions under which the materials can be shared, used, and transformed while maintaining the original creator's copyright. Creative Commons provides a range of licensing options that grants different types of permission for how the materials can be used. Some of the possible OER licenses include the following:

CC BY: This is the most open and accommodating license, allowing educators to distribute, remix, tweak, and customize content as they see fit. The only requirement is that the original author be credited for his or her work.

CC BY-SA: This license allows educators to distribute, remix, tweak, and customize content. Any derivative works, however, must identify the original author and be shared under the same license.

CC BY-ND: This license is one of the least accommodating of the Creative Commons licenses. Although educators are free to share these materials, they are not permitted to remix or revise the materials to create a derivative work. As with all licenses, the original author must be attributed.

CC BY-NC: This license allows educators to distribute, remix, tweak, and customize content for noncommercial purposes only as long as any new works acknowledge the original creator.

CC BY-NC-SA: This license allows educators to distribute, remix, tweak, and customize content for noncommercial purposes. The original creator must be acknowledged, and the derivative work must be shared under the same license as the original.

CC BY-NC-ND: This is the most restrictive of the Creative Commons licenses. Although it permits educators to share a resource for noncommercial purposes, it does not allow the material to be changed in any way.

By using OERs with their online classes, educators can provide students with free, high-quality materials that can effectively support student learning objectives. The variety of available materials, including everything from a single activity to a textbook to even an entire class, provides educators with flexible options for incorporating OERs in small steps or great leaps. There is nothing in the way for any educator who wants to give an OER a try.


Poken, B. “College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977.”

NBCNews.com, August 6, 2015. http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/freshman-year/college-textbook-prices-have-risen-812-percent-1978-n399926 (accessed October 27, 2016).

Oliver Dreon is the director of the Center for Academic Excellence, and Greg Szczyrbak is a learning technologies librarian at Millersville University.