Free but not open

Despite being four weeks (and four blogs post) deep in the semester, I am only now realizing that I have yet to define what open educational resources are. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and create my own definition of OER, here is how the Hewlett Foundation defines OER (bold added by me):

OER are 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. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge.

The two important parts of this definition are that these open resources are free AND can be re-purposed by others due to the property license under which they are released. Considering that last week I talked about OER for their potential to save students money, it would be easy to stop at the fact that they are free. Even in my own mind I tend to stop at the idea that OER are a cause worth promoting because they relieve the financial burden students face (aka they are free). But stopping at this simple fact would be selling OER very short of their full potential. A truly open resource comes with the “5R” permissions: retain, reuse, revise, remix, redistribute. Without spending too much of this post explaining each of those (which I’m not sure I can sufficiently do at this point in time anyway as I am still learning myself), I prefer to focus on why this understanding of the word “open” is so essential.


Let’s take the above gif, courtesy of the Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. While the character happily exclaims “I’m free!” as he jumps out of the prison which has held him captive, he immediately trips and finds himself in the stocks. Let’s look past the fact (for now) that he means a different kind of free. Back to the gif, this is essentially what happens with resources when we stop our definition at the idea of being free (no cost). Even if OER can be provided to students for no cost, users are not able to revise the materials to fit their course needs or remix, redistribute, reuse, or retain. Imagine a course where the textbook, and other course materials, is tailored to the professor’s lectures, homework assignments, tests, etc; a course where everything fits and flows together. This can be done with OER and the permissions they allow. With other materials, professors are bound by the copyright laws most of us are familiar with. Copyright laws that are “all rights reserved.” Free may relieve the financial burden students face, but it does nothing to relieve the restriction on creative freedom.

So maybe we should rethink the way we think of free. In class this week, David Wiley referenced GNU and their explanation of what they mean by “free software.” As a lover of language, I found the way they explain “free” as particularly insightful (bold as found in the original text):

“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software,” borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom, to show we do not mean the software is gratis.

Posted in: OER

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