Five characteristics to identify whether learning resources are open

Read which conditions a resource that qualifies itself as 'open' must meet and how to check for these

Pim Bellinga

by Pim Bellinga
Co-Founder of Grasple

Because of its positive image, OER became a buzzword in the educational field and as a result many resources call themselves 'open' while lacking fundamental characteristics. Sometimes one might even speak of “Open-washing”. So what really is open? In this blog, we provide the benefits of OER and five criteria that can determine how ‘open’ online learning resources actually are.

Many benefits of Open Educational Resources over copyrighted materials

Why does it matter whether resources are open or not? Well, true Open Educational Resources (OER) present important benefits over copyrighted resources, for both learners and educational institutions. The fundamental right of having access to education is essential in open education. Major global organizations like UNESCO are supporting the implementation of OER for this reason. The accessibility of OER ensures that students anywhere can obtain learning material at any time. This helps to improve study results and share knowledge among peers [1]. On top of that, OER are more adaptive which makes it much easier to suit content to certain needs [2]. Other advantages are that over time and if well-shared OER are more cost-effective, versatile and transparent [3].

Avoid Vendor Lock-in and Walled Gardens

A final incredibly strong advantage of OER over copyrighted materials is that it prevents walled gardens and vendor lock-in. In a “Walled Garden”, everything works well and is wonderful inside the garden, which is open to you as long as you pay. But there is no value outside the garden: the materials cannot be exported, so they only work in that particular environment. Often entrance to the environment starts relatively cheap. Over time, institutions will start to rely heavily on that environment and vendor. Then the commercial company decides to push hefty increases in price. You are angry and frustrated, but you cannot switch: you are “locked-in”. “Vendor lock-in” is a situation where an educational institution wants to switch to other providers or sources of learning materials, but cannot practically do so because the costs of switching involved would be too high. With OER, education institutions regain control over their educational materials, which are essential to providing their educational offering.

Support for OER is growing

Because of these benefits, OER have received much more attention in the past years. That has not gone unnoticed. In addition to organizations that have promoted OER for many decades, more and more traditional copyright publishers are also experimenting with new models and inclusive access. The more organizations that host and promote OER, the better! But at the same time, the different forms of pursuing OER pose challenges to distinguish what’s truly open.


The challenge is when companies market themselves one way, while acting in a different way. In the OER context, this is sometimes referred to as “Open-washing.” This term is derived from a similar term in the climate and sustainability sector - Greenwashing - when some companies market themselves as being green and good, while acting unchanged, continuing their regular practices. Open-washing damages the reputation and trust relation, so it’s vital that we establish clear guidelines on what we call open and what should not be called open.

That raises the question: when exactly is something open? Unfortunately, there is a lot of gray area.

Here are some real-life examples:

  • A website hosts resources that can be accessed for free (without paying), but the resources do not contain an open license, so they’re still copyrighted, yet the website markets them as Open Resources. Is this open?
  • A publisher offers resources that are adjustable and shareable, but only with other users that pay for access. Is this open?
  • Another website hosts resources that are published under an open license, but can only be accessed by paying. Is this open?

Requirements for Open: Open Licenses and Rights

The essential requirement for OER, is that they are licensed in such a way that others can use the materials and know what they are allowed to do with the materials without having to contact its creators. A well known framework that adds clarify was created by David Wiley and is called “the 5Rs” [4]: five rights that creators can provide to third parties:

  1. Reuse: Content that can be reused in its original shape
  2. Retain: Content that can be copied to be used at a later stage
  3. Revise: Content that can be adjusted for specific purposes
  4. Remix: Content that can be mixed up with other resources to create a new resource
  5. Redistribute: Content that can be shared with anyone in its original or adjusted shape

Open License: Creative Commons

One can choose to provide one or more of these five rights to the public. In order to make it practically easy to do, the Creative Commons organization offers several licenses that combine a number of these rights. This leads to 6 + 1 Creative Commons (CC) licenses (the seventh is CC0) which have become the defacto standard for licensing Open Educational Resources. Most of the educational sector agrees: if you state that your learning materials are open, they need to be properly CC licensed.

We are not there yet though

Educational materials that are published under open licenses such as Creative Commons, providing users with clear rights for reuse, retaining, revising, remixing and redistribution are definitely further on the spectrum from closed to open. But even then, ambiguities remain. For example, CC provides an NC license to indicate that the material can be used and republished, as long as the nature of the activity is not commercial. But Creative Commons clearly states that this is about the activity, not the user. So commercial companies (with a fair and Open Business Model [5]) can use and host non-commercial resources. This is tricky territory. Commercial publishers and vendors may misuse this option to call materials open, while still continuing a model that leads to lock-in and a loss of accessibility and inclusion, in particular for underprivileged learners.

Truly Open: 5 characteristics

Based on numerous discussions on this topic over the past years (building on even more experience from the wonderful and passionate Open Education community) we have formulated five characteristics to assess whether resources are truly open:

  1. Open licensing through an open (Creative Commons) license
    This one might be obvious, but to be clear: if one calls a resource open, it should contain an open license such as a Creative Commons license.

  2. Free and publicly accessible
    Non-profit organizations and For- profit Vendors alike should be able to offer and host resources under a non-commercial license. But then it should be very clear that no money is earned directly or indirectly through this offering. To make that clear, access to the resources should be free and as unrestricted as possible (preferably without needing to log in).

  3. Interoperable by providing a file export under an open standard
    Free access without login will go a long way, but when resources can only be accessed and used on one specific platform, you are still locked-in. That is why offering a file export, preferably following an open standard, is essential. (Note that this may pose difficulties as open standards for interactive exercises do not yet exist for all types. That is why we are working on drafting one for online interactive STEM exercises).

  4. Editable and (preferably) modular
    If you cannot edit materials, you are still dependent on the original publisher. Ideally materials are created and published in a way that you can easily reorder, remix and adapt them, so they truly match your educational vision and what your students need to learn best.

  5. Shareable and findable via open metadata
    Open Education thrives when people can easily find existing materials and quickly fit them into their educational offering. When resources cannot be found, this doesn’t happen. By publishing resources with open metadata, specialized search engines can find them to ensure we can build on top of each other’s work.

Putting the characteristics into practice

Here’s our self-evaluation on how open Grasple is:

  1. Open Resources on Grasple contain a clear CC license, that creators can choose, that conforms to the CC standards (attribution etc).
  2. Resources on Grasple can be accessed for free, without needing to log in.
  3. We are working on an open standard for STEM exercises, so all resources can be downloaded and exported.
  4. Everything is editable, and we stimulate the creation of modular resources.
  5. We do not yet publish open metadata, so we’ve got more work to do on this point. We do have plans to publish metadata conforming to the NL-LOM standard, so hopefully we can soon check off this characteristic too.

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