Open educational resources (OER) are educational resources that are both free to access digitally and carry permissions for unrestricted usage, sharing, and editing. OER can be any type of teaching or learning materials. This isn't limited to textbooks, but also includes syllabi, course modules, videos, tests, journal articles, assessment tools, and any other materials used to support learning. Some OER are also available in print for the cost of printing.
It is important to note that there are some free materials that have copyright restrictions that do not allow for restricted usage, copying, editing, etc. These are not OER, but as still are classified as Affordable Course Content.
The non-traditional copyright restrictions that allow for flexible permissions are often referred to as the 5Rs. They allow users to:
1. Retain: Make, own, and control copies of the content
2. Reuse: Use the content in a variety of ways
3. Revise: Adapt, adjust, modify, or customize the content
4. Remix: Combine the original or revised content with other OER to create something new
5. Redistribute: Share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others
Many worry that free means corners have been cut. It's important to remember that OER are the same as traditional learning materials, except for their cost and copyright/licensing restrictions. They often originate from professors or universities rather than the traditional textbook publishers. For example, an algebra textbook from OpenStax will be very similar to the algebra textbook you're currently using: it can cover the same materials, look similar, and contain problem sets. The major differences between the two would be cost and publishing permissions.
Studies have shown that students perceive OER to be the same or better to use than their commercial counterparts. There are similar results when looking at the efficacy of these resources: a vast majority of students who use them perform as well or better than those using traditional materials. (Open Education Group. 2016. The Review Project.)