How and Why to Evaluate Open Educational Resources (OERs)

Laptop with online library

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are teaching materials that typically have a Creative Commons license specifying permission and parameters for copying, distributing, attributing, or altering. Truly open OERs do not require registration or payment to access. The availability (open) and price (free) make OERs a great addition to an institution’s curriculum and an instructor’s cache of teaching material. I have completed online graduate courses and a professional certificate that used a combination of instructor-created content, freely-accessible websites and videos, and creative-commons-licensed OERs. I appreciated not having to purchase textbooks in addition to paying tuition and fees. The free material my instructors used in those courses was high quality, and I came away with a positive perception of OER use in higher education. As a result, I expected a good experience when I was asked to review an online course in the spring of 2022 that was comprised of OERs. Unfortunately, as I began reviewing the course the saying, “You get what you pay for” kept going through my mind. But fortunately, it was a good reminder of how to avoid potential pitfalls when using OERs.

1. Check links

One pitfall of using OERs is that links can often change or become invalid. When I was reviewing the online course, a majority of the links in the citations either sent me to websites where I searched in vain to find the specific material or gave me an error message because the material had been removed from or moved within the website. Checking to make sure the links are valid is something that should be done every time a course using OERs is made available to students. Just because the links worked the last time the course was offered does not mean they will continue to be valid.

Something else to take notice of when checking links is the URL. A link might lead to the expected content but at an unexpected location, and that could be a problem. In the summer of 2022, some educators happened to notice that although their OER links still worked and led to the content they wanted, the material was no longer hosted where it used to be and where they expected it to be. That realization prompted concern due to the nature of the website and created barriers because some institutions block access to that website. Therefore, it is important not only to test that links are still active, but also to regularly check that they lead where you want your students to go to access the OERs. Who the publisher is and where the OERs are published need to be taken into consideration.

2. Note the publisher

Another potential pitfall of using OERs has to do with quality. If an OER appears on a university or organization website, then it is possible it passed some sort of approval process. If it is a book released by a publisher, then it likely went through some editing. But if it is hosted on a personal website, then it probably had little, or no, outside vetting and proofreading. Such was the case with a majority of the material in the online course I was reviewing. Most of the material came from one person’s eportfolio of self-created and self-published resources. Users of that material had to trust the creator’s claimed credentials and were unaware of when the material was originally created, revised, or updated.

Additionally, if an OER appears on an organization’s website, it is important to research the procedures for getting material published on that website along with understanding the history and purpose of the host site. Some hosting websites, such as Merlot, allow anyone to add content, and the names of the creators and dates of creation and revision for the material are visible along with ratings by peers, users, or an editor. However, some OERs, such as Lumen’s community-created material, do not go through a vetting, review, or approval process by the host site. Of course, that does not mean that all self-published or community-created OERs are poor quality, but those types of resources should prompt a more thorough vetting before using or considering using them.

3. Review the material

In the summer of 2022, an organic chemistry textbook that used to cost around $100 became available as an OER. In an instance such as that instructors or designers probably do not need to read all of it in order to know it is high-quality because it has a well-known, good track record of widespread, beneficial use in academia. But if an ebook, website, video, or audio file where either the material or the creator/publisher is a bit more obscure, then it would be wise to take the time to thoroughly review the content. Of the OERs that I was able to access while reviewing an online course, I noticed some issues with grammar, punctuation, and citation in addition to questionable facts and claims. Had I not taken the time to thoroughly review the OERs, I might not have noticed those shortcomings.

All free things are not equal in quality, but free does not necessarily mean worthless. A local hardware store once gave me a free paint can opener that has been a useful tool for me ever since. However, some things are free for good reason, such as furniture I sometimes see sitting out by the curb in the rain. Likewise, some OERs can be high-quality, valuable resources, but others are worth only the price paid for them. Therefore, if OERs are being used or being considered for use when creating a course, teaching a course created by someone else, or designing a course that others will teach, it is important to thoroughly and regularly evaluate that material.

Brenda Thomas has worked in online higher education as an adjunct teaching courses created by others and as an instructional designer creating courses for others to teach.