Free the OERs?

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Over the last few years, the adjective “open” in Open Education Resources (OER) has come to mean “free.”  That is, an OER, for all practical purposes is being interpreted by most people as Web-based materials that are free of cost.  In addition, some (many?) are claiming that for an OER to really be an OER, it must carry a CC BY license.  If these things are in fact true, that would mean that if you find something on the WWW, you don’t have to pay to use it, you can change it any way you like, use it any way you like – whether for commercial or non-commercial purposes, just so long as you give attribution to your source.  Sounds pretty liberal to me.  Maybe too liberal? What do you think?

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New Survey on MERLOT OERs

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Homilies can be misleading.  “You get what you pay for.”  Or, “The best things in life are free.” Which is it?   Clearly they can’t both be right.  In the case of Open Education Resources (OER), the best things in life really are free.  I am constantly amazed by discussions and debates about the value of OER.  It’s pretty clear to me, and I can’t understand why it’s not clear to everyone, that OER is a free resource that anyone can voluntarily use, or not.  If you discover something and don’t like it or think it is inappropriate for your needs, you can just ignore it.  This is especially true if you are searching MERLOT ( where you can often tell something about the quality and appropriateness of the learning materials that you find there.

A few years ago I taught an online course for Sloan-C (now known as Online Learning Consortium).  One of the course topics concerned the use of repositories such as MERLOT’s, for instructors to discover and use OER.  When I later asked the students of the course, all of whom were fulltime instructors at colleges and universities, if they found the course valuable, almost all said yes.  When I asked them if they intended to use OER repositories in their own teaching, they were more equivocal.  They told me that the felt they didn’t have enough time to integrate discovered OER into their everyday teaching activities.  This is a pretty sad state of affairs because most of us, for whatever reasons, often cop out, and because of time constraints or just plain laziness adopt a course textbook that will wind up costing students $100 or more.  This is particularly sad, since there are so many OERs available for free that would cost the students practically nothing.  MERLOT contains, for example hundreds of Open Access textbooks that would satisfy many course requirements.  Even when a conventional textbook is adopted, the MERLOT ISBN Finder can be used by an instructor or even a student to find supplementary OERs related to an adopted textbook.

If you are a user of MERLOT OER, I invite you to participate in a new survey co-sponsored by MERLOT and the UK Open University’s OER Research Hub in which we are trying to learn about the usefulness of OER.  What are your thoughts about the usefulness of MERLOT OER?  Participate in this survey and help us to cast some light on how we can make OER more useful and cost effective for both ourselves and our students. All comments are welcome!

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A Word About Open Access Educational Technology Journals

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Last November I blogged about the true meaning of the word “open” as it relates to OER (Open Education Resources), Open Source (software), and Open Access (journals, journal articles and textbooks).  Today I want to expand a bit on the concept of Open Access (OA), and also provide a list of useful journal resources that are, in one way or another, Open Access.

If you want to know about the history of (or anything else about) OA, I suggest you reread my blog, Is it Really Open, or Google the term and choose from the 2.2 billion hits (in 0.22 seconds).  One of the other things you will probably discover is that OA can be pretty complicated.   For example, there are different levels of Open Access – Gold, Green, and some argue Platinum.

Open Access Platinum level means that the material is free to use and available from the publisher, as soon as the publisher makes it public – similar to MERLOT’s Journal of Learning and Teaching (JOLT).

Gold level material is usually also published by a real publisher – as opposed to self-published, but it’s usually not available for free the day it’s published.  So if you want to access Gold level OA material for free, you’ll have to wait 12-18 months (the “embargo” period) after it’s been first published.  If you want it sooner, you can buy it or subscribe to the journal.  How and when such material becomes free depends on the policies of the publisher.  Also, authors who choose to publish this way may have to give up their copyright to the publisher.  When that happens, the publisher can let the author make a not-final, “preprint” version of the paper immediately available on a server other than the publisher’s.   Many, if not most of IEEE’s recent journal articles are available this way.

To complicate all this a little more, some Gold publishers let authors pay a fee, after a submission has been reviewed and approved for publication, to forgo the embargo period, allowing the material to be freely available the day it’s published.  That is, for a fee paid by the author, these days it’s usually between $2K-$3K (or whatever the market will bear), a Gold paper is made immediately available to readers for free, somewhat like Platinum OA.

Green OA is like a green light given by a publisher to allow the author to immediately post their work on a server other than the publisher’s, for unrestricted free access.  So this is similar to Platinum in that it’s available right away, but not on the publisher’s server.

On top of all this is the matter of licensing.  Who owns the article or text that is made available as Open Access?  Traditionally, authors own what they write unless or until they sign away (transfer) the copyright to someone else – usually a publisher.  The transfer terms and restrictions on distribution can vary, and are a matter between the author and the publisher.  For true Green OA, there is no copyright transfer; authors own their material and do what they want with it.  In any case, like OER, OA materials, when posted online should carry a Creative Commons license informing readers how they can use or reuse the material.  The license may be issued by the author or the publisher, depending on who finally owns the copyright.

Below is a list of educational technology journals that claim to be Open Access.  Because it’s hard for publishers of OA to generate the kinds of revenue they need to stay in business, there’s no guarantee that any in the list will be there when you go to find them.

American Journal of Distance Education
Asian Journal of Distance Education
British Journal of Educational Technology
European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning
HETS Online Journal
International Journal of ePortfolio
International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning
Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks (JALN)
Journal of Distance Education
Journal of Educational Technology & Society
The Journal of Educators Online
Journal of Interactive Online Learning
Journal of Instructional Pedagogies
JOLT – Journal of Online Learning and Teaching
Journal of Virtual Worlds and Education
Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration
The Texas Journal of Distance Learning
International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning (all issues)
DEANZ – The Journal of Distance Learning

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Is it Really Open?

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If you are reading this blog, you probably know a fair bit about the concept of “openness.” You may even think that an “open” item is something that you can find online that is free, and available for your use, and even for your reuse. By “reuse” I mean that you think you can change it and then “reuse” it for your teaching or research needs.

Well, that may or may not be true. In fact, the word “open” can be used in a number of contexts. For example, when we talk about “open source,” we are explicitly referring to software. Moodle, the learning management system (LMS) is an example of open source software. The source code is available for you to reuse, modify, etc. as you wish. Of course there can be other conditions related to open source software, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.

Then there is the term “Open Access.” Open Access is a movement that concerns the publication of free, online journals, journal articles, and textbooks. Material published under an Open Access policy is generally freely available for you to access without having to subscribe to a publication, or even join a society that publishes such publications. The Open Access movement started as a result of demand by various research communities to allow government-funded research to be freely available since the public (taxpayers) had already paid for it. The Open Access movement has been extended beyond journals and journal articles to now include textbooks. You should note however, that just because something is Open Access doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a copyright. In fact, such materials continue to be owned (copyrighted) by the author, the publisher, or both. And if you cite material from an Open Access publication, it must be cited in exactly the same manner as if the material were from a traditional publication.

Finally we have Open Education Resources (OERs). This is a term that was first defined more than 10 years ago at a Hewlett foundation-supported UNESCO conference, and it concerns online learning materials, sometimes called learning objects. Hewlett defines OERs as:

OER (sic) 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. (For more information, visit

From a practical sense, OER’s generally have a license that indicates what you can and cannot do with them. Creative Commons (CC) licensing ( defines six possible licenses that an OER can carry. Depending on the license, they may or may not be free, and you may or may not alter them. It all depends on what the owner of the OER declares in the CC license.

The MERLOT collection ( is unique in that it contains a wide selection of open materials, many of them carrying a Creative Commons license. The materials include Open Access articles, Open Access textbooks, open journal articles and OER’s. The MERLOT OER’s include learning materials as” microscopic” as simulations or animations that can be embedded by an instructor into an online course, through to complete online courses.

It’s really easy to search MERLOT II for all or any open texts, open courses, and OER’s, with and without Creative Commons licenses. I urge you to visit, click on the Search tile, and explore our Advanced Search functions. While you’re at it, you might check out our Search Other Libraries tile) which allows you to search more than 20 other libraries of learning materials, all at the same time. Remember, if you’re looking for free textbooks, you want to look for the category “open texts.” Or, for free courses, look for “open courseware.” And if you need more guidance in how to do this, you can visit the new context-sensitive Help part of our new MERLOT, or you can email the webmaster at

Happy hunting!

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MOOCs, MERLOT, and Open Educational Services: A Message from the MERLOT Executive Director

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MOOCs, MERLOT, and Open Educational Services:
A Message from the MERLOT Executive Director

The appearance of massive open online courses (MOOCs) may seem sudden, but for those who have been laboring in the vineyard learning to use technology to create and distribute content, mediate pedagogical interaction, and facilitate the business processes of education, MOOCs are the just the next stage in the development of open educational resources (OER). The evolution of OER began with open learning objects (LOs) in the late 1990s. These LOs crawled from the primordial technological sea and continued evolving with the OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiatives in the early 2000s, which were then followed by open textbooks (OTs) (see Figure 1). MERLOT’s new student-centered portal, MERLOTx, provides easy access to this wide range of OER species.

Explanation of MOOC's
Figure 1. MOOCs as a recent evolution of OER

Educators welcomed each of these OER species happily and without much threat to the ecosystem of higher education. But at this early stage of MOOC evolution, there are different reactions. Optimists see synergy in the open online character of MOOCs that is a panacea for expanding access to affordable learning, developing new pedagogical techniques, and enabling global learning communities to create knowledge together. Pessimists see instead an invasive species that will destroy institutions, demobilize faculties, and dilute learning to a fast food, virtual drive-by experience.

Realistically, MOOCs are too new for there to be compelling evidence of their value, cost, and risks. The potential benefits and threats to academic quality, student outcomes, institutional integrity, and administrative processes are not yet known. However, the emerging features of MOOCs that have made them distinctive from the other types of OER are the services integrated with the content. The MOOC platforms for organizing and delivering the multimedia content, integrated with the social media tools for engaging individuals, and the assessment and analytic tools for providing feedback on learning and teaching are critical services that manage the content delivery within a design for learning. These services available through the open enrollment of MOOCs are the additional benefits that have been recognized as valuable by some learners, teachers, and institutions.

Open educational services are the tools that are free for anyone to use to design their own program of study using OERs or proprietary content. MERLOT has been providing open educational services to the world for years. MERLOT’s open library provides easy and free access to a diversity of free learning resources to support the individual’s learning needs, including developing the prerequisite knowledge and skills to successfully complete a MOOC or an online, hybrid, or face-to-face course. MERLOT’s Personal Collection tool enables individuals to organize and annotate their selected learning resources by defining their course of study, their learning outcomes, their prerequisite learning needs, their assessment methods, and more. MERLOT provides a “one-click” function for sharing personal collections, which then can be personalized. MERLOT’s Content Builder tool enables individuals to create an e-portfolio that can capture and share skills and knowledge; learners can publish their learning products with a user-friendly, web-authoring tool using text, images, and videos, and their e-portfolio can be formatted in an IMS Common Cartridge with Creative Commons licensing for easy distribution. MERLOT hosts these e-portfolios and enables members to share their works with a click of a button.

All these open educational services are available for free to MERLOT members (and it is free to become a member too). The MERLOT member community is also a valuable service for learning and teaching. Looking for experts in any field? MERLOT’s easy browsing and searching can help you find experts in a wide range of disciplines. MERLOT’s Virtual Speakers Bureau can be used to find “guest experts” with specialty skills, knowledge, and willingness to engage through technology tools. Looking to participate in online discussions? MERLOT Voices offers a platform for threaded discussions, sharing documents, posting images and video, instant messaging, and blogging.

MERLOT’s open educational services form the foundation of capabilities that can be leveraged to achieve institutional goals cost effectively. The California State University system employs MERLOT within its Affordable Learning Solutions initiative to save students money on their course materials, and this service has in turn been leveraged by a MERLOT partner, the University System of Georgia, for their own Affordable Learning Georgia initiative. The MERLOT Teaching Commons Services provide any partner a customized “portal” that blends MERLOT’s services into the institution’s initiatives (see Partner Communities). While MOOCs provide open enrollment of their services, MERLOT provides open educational services that enable registered MERLOT members to reuse, remix, publish, and share OER, and empowers them to teach and learn anytime and anywhere with Internet access.

* Reposted from the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT), Special Issue on MOOCs.

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