Hello! My name is Dr. Rob Austin McKee, professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at the University of Houston – Downtown. In this video, we’re going to be discussing Open Educational Resources, commonly abbreviated as OER. In doing so, we’ll cover some basics regarding copyright law, the principle of fair use, open licenses, the public domain, and some ways to reduce costs for students beyond using OER. I’ll also discuss some of the benefits of OER to students and educators. Si hablas español, tenemos una versión en español de este video disponible en el canal de YouTube MGT.EDU. A transcript of this video is available on my website, robaustinmckee.com.
So, what are Open Educational Resources? What do we mean by OER? Let’s start with a little history. The term was coined in 2002 at a forum organized by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. It has since been adopted and adapted by many other organizations, including nonprofits, colleges, universities, the United States Congress, and even state legislatures. UNESCO defines OER as “teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.” OER may include full course curricula, course materials, modules, textbooks, media, assessments, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques, digital or otherwise, used to support access to knowledge. Although there are several competing definitions of OER, that definition is representative of a lot of the definitions out there. Admittedly, there is a lot to unpack in that definition. So, let’s do some unpacking.
In my opinion, the most consequential aspect of OER is the legal requirement related to the public domain and open licenses. Most creative works are covered by intellectual property protections like copyright, trademark, or patent laws. For brevity and relevance, I’m going to focus on copyright issues. Copyright law is interesting – and I know you’re thinking, “Rob, it can’t possibly be interesting. Please don’t talk about it.” But give me a moment here – interesting because copyright exists the moment a work is created and fixed in some form such that others can perceive it. So, a copyrightable work is protected even if it hasn’t been registered. When people write articles and post them to their personal blogs, they’re protected. When people post pictures or videos they’ve taken to their social media accounts, they’re protected. When people create illustrations, record songs they’ve written, or produce myriad other forms of creative works, they’re protected.
It can be easy to violate some of these protections unintentionally. We’re going to discuss three ways to avoid copyright infringement: 1) using works that are part of the public domain, 2) using works released by open licenses, and 3) using works per the principle of fair use.
Let’s start with fair use, which allows portions of copyrighted works to be freely used by the public for a limited and “transformative” purpose such as commentary, criticism, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, research, and parody. Think "Weird Al" Yankovic. It is this principle that allowed me to quote, verbatim and without permission, UNESCO’s definition of OER. I can quote that passage because I am attempting, at least, to add new insights to these ideas in a way I hope will benefit the public. Moreover, I have quoted only a small portion of the text available at the website, and I am unlikely to harm the organization, financially or otherwise, by doing so. There are also special and specific fair use guidelines that apply to educational settings allowing educators to use materials or portions of materials for noncommercial, academic purposes. These guidelines represent more of an informal agreement between copyright holders and educators than codified law. Still, they generally provide a lot of freedom to educators and, if followed, should prevent lawsuits and other legal unpleasantries. Please note that assembling academic coursepacks is not considered fair use. If you want more information on fair use guidelines for educators, look up Circular 21 published by the Copyright Office, available at Copyright.gov. It’s 24 pages of thrilling text, so please don’t take what I’ve said over the past 24 seconds as an open license to use copyrighted material at liberty under the guise of fair use.
If you do want an open license to use something, you should look for something with… an open license. Ah! See what I did there? That was good! When a resource has an open license, it generally provides universal, free, and perpetual permission for any person to – per the Creative Commons definition of OER – engage in the 5R activities: retain, revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute. Those 5Rs would seem to allow us to do basically anything we want with a resource, other than perhaps use it for commercial purposes. However, in practice, these permissions vary depending on the specific license applied to the work.
If something has a Creative Commons license, which is the standard for OER textbooks, at minimum, we may copy, distribute, display, and perform the work, as long as we provide attribution or credit to the proper parties. We may also be able to create and distribute derivative works and use the work for commercial purposes, depending on the specific license. So, we need to read the license. I understand that the term “license” has an intimidating connotation in our world of verbose and incomprehensible user agreements and privacy policies, but Creative Commons uses language that is simple and concise. I promise. Their website, CreativeCommons.org is an excellent resource for helping us navigate some of these issues, so I encourage you to check it out.
Now, let’s discuss the public domain for a moment, which encompasses works not protected by intellectual property laws. As such, there are no restrictions on their use. There are at least four reasons a work might be a part of the public domain. The copyright may have expired. The copyright owners may have forgotten or otherwise failed to renew the copyright properly. The copyright owners may have intentionally dedicated the work to the public domain. Aww. And, the work may not be protectable under copyright law. For instance, facts and theories per se are not granted copyright protection. However, unique expressions of facts and theories are protected. It is an individual’s responsibility to verify that a given work is part of the public domain before using it. However, finding curated collections of works in the public domain is easy. For instance, the Library of Congress website has a portal to a vast collection of works in the public domain. Again, I encourage you to check it out.
If you’d like more information about copyright law, the principle of fair use, or the public domain, please refer to Copyright.gov, which I mentioned before.
Let’s now discuss some things not covered by the term OER, but that may still help us to reduce costs for our students. First, we can provide students with links to copyrighted works that individuals or organizations have made publicly available online because, in such cases, we would not be retaining, revising, remixing, reusing, or redistributing those works. So, we would not violating copyright protections. These types of resources might include online newspapers, periodicals, magazines, journals, trade publications, videos, and even personal websites or blogs. We can appropriately discuss such works in our classes per the fair use guidelines for educators. Of course, we should carefully vet any such materials, but the same can be said for OER or any other materials we wish to use in our courses, including traditional textbooks. Also, there is an ever-present possibility that such works will be removed or restricted at some point by the individuals and organizations who posted them.
As a second option beyond OER, we can utilize the vast resources available at our respective university libraries, which impose no additional fees to students beyond what they may have already paid as part of their tuition. You might be surprised to learn how much material can be accessed through your library’s website, often with convenient and immediate digital access. Just remember, you should never post the actual documents for students to access, not even to a Learning Management System like Blackboard, because doing so would technically violate copyright protections. However, you can post the links to such materials.
As a third option beyond OER, we can develop our own resources for use in our classes. For instance, I wrote my own case study for use in my MBA classes rather than use a case study from a publisher that may charge $15 per student per semester to access it. So, if I have 150 students per semester, I would save my students $4,500 over a single academic year. To me, that savings represents a worthwhile investment of my time to write the case. And, I may eventually choose to release the case study under an open license so that others may use it freely as well.
Cost-savings for students are an important benefit of OER. Over the last decade or so, textbook costs have risen at a rate several times that of inflation. Imagine, from your students’ perspectives, the benefits of you replacing a $100 textbook, a $200 textbook, or an inexplicably $300 textbook with a free OER textbook. The cumulative financial impact of such a decision on our students’ lives could be substantial, especially if that decision is made in multiple courses in a student’s degree plan. It has been widely reported that a majority of college students have chosen not to buy or rent a textbook and other course materials because of their costs, which is clearly going to diminish their chances of success. So, using OER benefits students beyond the financial realm. It can impact their classroom performance. And, as faculty, we never again have to hear the frustrating statement from a struggling student, “Yeah, I didn’t buy the book.”
I understand that alleviating students of the cost burden imposed by traditional textbooks by adopting OER may represent a cost to us, as educators, in terms of vetting the OER materials and adapting some of our current lecture materials, etcetera. Admittedly, it may take some extra time and energy. But – and you might think I’m crazy for saying this – there is a particular joy in revising and revitalizing a course that we may have been teaching the same way for years. OER gives us freedom, independence, and ownership of our courses because we are at liberty to retain, revise, remix, reuse, and redistribute these materials in ways not possible with traditional textbooks.
If you’d like to explore some OER materials for your courses, you just need to type “OER” along with your subject area into a search engine of your choice and hit “enter.” If that seems too aimless, ambiguous, or precarious for you, I’m also going to provide some specific recommendations. OpenStax, a nonprofit out of Rice University, offers excellent resources covering a wide range of subjects, often including test banks and PowerPoint slides as supplements to their textbooks. The library websites for The University of Minnesota, The University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Pittsburgh, and the State University of New York have excellent resources, as does OER Commons and The Community College Consortium for OER, among many others. Start somewhere and see where you end up.
I’m going to stop here. Thank you so much for watching. I hope you found this video informative and at least mildly entertaining. If so, smash that like and subscribe to the channel. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, or you just want to say hi, please leave us a comment below. Again, my name is Dr. Rob Austin McKee with MGT.EDU, the open-access business school. See you nerds in the next video!