Looking at Open

Education is a material-rich endeavor. When I was a student, the materials with which I interacted were primarily print; although movies, filmstrips, records, and a few other media did enter my classrooms on occasion. When I began teaching, VHS tapes were available, and I used my home VCR to record programs to share with my science students. Today, of course, there is a wide range of digital and print media that enters our classrooms, and most often the media enters as bytes (of information) and sometimes converted into bits (of matter).

The one big difference between the media consumed during my time as a student (and early in my career) and the media that enters our schools today is the nature of the copyrights that creators have assigned to the work. For generations, copyright law prevented uses from making and distributing copies of media, this it was illegal to photocopy books and articles and to keep recordings of broadcast programs indefinitely. Of course, there were exceptions for Fair Use, but–in general–producing media meant you had the exclusive right to copy (and sell) it.

Today, educators are likely to encounter open educational resources as they search for materials to use in their classrooms. I commonly encounter educators who misunderstand what “open” means as it is applied to open educational resources or its equivalent open source software. While it is true that open resources can be used without cost, thus they are free, there is much more to “open” than simply free.

First, materials that can be used for free are not necessarily open. Consider the web site of a news outlet. An educator may be able to point students to the site, but he or she is not entitled to copy the information that is there (again, Fair Use is the exception, but beyond our purposes here). Once the producer removes the materials, then they are no longer available.

Second, there is an expectation that users of open resources (who have sufficient expertise) will continue to develop the materials and will contribute their work back to the community. Advocates for open resources use the “four R’s” (reuse, redistribute, revise, remix) to completely describe openness and when users revise and remix, they are creating derivative works that become open educational resources as well.

The easiest way to identify open educational resources is to look for the Creative Commons license which the creator of the materials applied to it when he or she created it. When visiting the Creative Commons web site, one can select one of six different licenses, each granting users different rights. For example, the least restrictive license is “Attribution” or “CC BY” which means anyone can use the materials for any purpose (including commercial purposes) and they only expectation is that the work will be attributed to the individual who created it. On the other hand, “Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs” or  “CC BY-NC-ND” gives users to right to copy and distribute, but not to change the work and not to use it commercially. There are some who argue CC BY-NC-ND is not really an open license because the works cannot be revised or remixed.

In a recent article, Baker (2017) suggested openness is a concept that is far more deeply embedded in education than the nature of our resources. He argues the current focus on open educational resources is grounded in the work of  educational thinkers such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Paulo Freire as well as philosopher Karl Popper. Baker concludes, “openness [is] a critical element to education that is strongly associated with some of its most core goals—creating citizens who can operate functionally in a democracy, establishing in students an authentic ability to think critically and problem solve” (2017, p. 138). He argues as well that openness is schools reflects the needs of society, but it appears contrary to many trends affecting education policy; “Openness is a powerful force in education, but the open approach doesn’t readily lend itself to methods that are easily measurable or scalable” (Baker, 2017, p. 138).

As the rich and varied curriculum that is essential to the educational experience becomes even richer and more varied (as human knowledge grows and becomes digital), the work of selecting and vetting materials for students becomes more challenging. Adopting open educational resources becomes a first step for reflecting emerging ideas in our classrooms while minimizing the cost to our communities. By fully participating in the work of refining the collection we engage our students in long-established principles of education and learning.   


Baker, F. W. (2017). An Alternative Approach: Openness in Education Over the Last 100 Years. TechTrends, 61(2), 130–140. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-016-0095-7