Counting the Cost of Free: An In-Depth View of OER

OERs are free, adaptable, and shareable pieces of content that are typically created and disseminated electronically. Digital content includes but is not limited to digital presentations, videos, informational websites, interactive learning objects, mobile apps, online assessments—even games and simulations. OERs have multiple origins such as educational institutions, governmental agencies, libraries and archives, commercial publishing organizations, school faculty and contributing individuals. OERs can have a Creative Commons license that gives users the right to do the 5Rs [see sidebar]. Some OERs are available in online repositories; platforms that enable individuals to create accounts and share their own resources, remixes and repurposed content with other users. Teachers use these resources to supplement curriculum. The digital format and online availability of content present a number of benefits: engaging multimodal learning experiences; anytime-anywhere access; supplementing and scaffolding of existing curriculum; timeliness of online information; ease of digital distribution, and a community of resource-sharing.

One of the main drawing points to district leaders is that OERs are free. Free is an appealing price tag for districts that already have tight budgets. To some school districts, free online resources may appear as an economically viable alternative to buying textbooks and other licensed curriculum from publishers. One example of the excitement surrounding free materials is described thus:

“Open resources are one way to address the rising costs of education, and they also have the potential to facilitate new styles of teaching and learning. Giving faculty the ability to pick and choose the individual resources they want to use—and to modify those resources and ‘assemble’ them in unique ways—promises greater diversity of learning environments.” (Educause, June 2010)

According to this description, the OER movement sounds like a prospective way to cut costs while building capacity for collaboration and creativity among educators. The central principle of the OER movement is that teachers collect, curate and create digital content, yet some districts are using OER, not only as a supplement but as a replacement for licensed core curriculum. Teachers tailor curriculum to meet classroom needs anyway, so why not have teachers use ‘free’ content as curriculum? Why not involve the teachers collecting OERs in a myriad of online repositories and have them assemble their own curriculum? While this idea seems promising in theory, the process has not been without challenges and frustrations.

What is an OER?

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are free materials that educators can use for teaching, learning, and research. OERs are generally multimedia resources that are accessible online through electronic devices.

OERs give users the right to the 5Rs:

  1. Retain: make, own, and control copies of the content (e.g., download, duplicate, store, and manage).
  2. Reuse: use the content in a wide range of ways (e.g., in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  3. Revise: adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language)
  4. Remix: combine the original or revised content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mashup)
  5. Redistribute: share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)


What are the real costs of building a curriculum based on free OER?

At first glance, the move to use free OERs in place of licensed curriculum might appear to enable schools to slash the book budget, yet free curriculum comes at a cost. Patrick Larkin (2016), Assistant Superintendent of Learning for Burlington Public Schools in Massachusetts, points to the true cost of using free OER content to create new curriculum when he writes,

“Gathering teachers together to develop a curriculum made entirely of OERs may seem like a cost-effective way to encourage creativity and collaboration while reducing textbook expenses. However, leaving the educator to build their own content and curate resources presents a daunting challenge that is time-consuming and, consequently, expensive.

School districts that organize OER workshops outside of school hours end up paying teachers for their time and attendance. Furthermore, curriculum development and instructional design require specific skill sets. Teachers may have learned how to create lesson plans based on textbook materials, but they may not have a background in instructional design and curriculum development—particularly in the area of creating digital content. Additional training and professional development may be needed in order to yield high-quality digital content; training that the school district must somehow fund.

Commercial publishers of educational materials have also weighed-in on the OER movement to ‘free’ curriculum. John Fallon, CEO of Pearson, one of the most recognizable brand names in the education market sector, told EdWeek Market Brief that

“If [the education community goes] that [open] route, it’s not a free route. They will have to find a way to fund and sustain that approach. They might be able to fund it over time with voluntary labor extended over time from the teaching profession. But there’s a consequence for that; there’s only so many hours in the day, in the system…If you talk about ‘free’ in any other sector, [the resources] may be free at the point of use, but they’re being funded and paid for somewhere else. So ultimately, quality has to be paid for somewhere else.”

(Fallon as quoted by Cavanaugh, 2016)

The cost of purchasing licensed curriculum is replaced with the cost of time to develop curriculum from ‘free’ resources, “and of course, time is an educator’s most precious resource” (Larkin, 2016).

Time spent searching through the haystack is one of the downsides of OER-based curriculum. According to TES Global, teachers are not always easily locating relevant, engaging OERs in online repositories (2016). Teachers take the time to properly search through multiple online repositories and then review open resources for quality and relevance. They may even modify resources so that the content aligns to standards, or build their own resources to make up for gaps and inconsistencies in the OERs gathered from various sources. Again, there are only so many hours in a day, so teachers may even have to pay for ‘free’ curriculum with voluntary labor.

Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway (2017) share one third grade teacher’s viewpoint in a Memo to OER Purveyors:

"In the absence of textbooks, individual teachers are forced to spend hours searching the internet for resources. The process is not only time-consuming, but much of the material online has little to no editorial oversight. With no textbooks, every teacher becomes an improvisational curriculum designer, which they try to do on-the­-fly while also teaching their classes every day. When this amount of effort is multiplied by all the teachers doing the same thing around the country, it is clear that we are reinventing the wheel, nightly, to the detriment of both the students and the teachers."

Assume that one academic year averages 180 days of instruction and that each hour is worth roughly $25 of the teacher’s time. If the teacher spends an average of one hour per school day, roughly 4-5 hours per week, sourcing OER materials, replacing outdated sources and creating new materials, the total cost of time would amount to over $4,500 over the course of the year. Now, multiply that number by the number teachers in a school or school district.

Curriculum vs. Content: Why not have teachers use ‘free’ content as curriculum?

Curriculum includes goals and objectives aligned to state and national standards, involves appropriate instructional strategies, and includes formative and summative assessments arranged in a logical and meaningful sequence. Teachers have used OERs to customize existing curriculum and to augment the learning experience with digital content. They have also created their own resources for students using Google apps or other digital programs to tailor lessons and to provide additional scaffolding.

However, OERs are not necessarily ‘curriculum:’ open resources are often pieces of content—units, lessons, videos, presentations— that need to be assembled into a learning progression which requires someone to, not only curate and develop the content but to design instruction so that the curriculum leads to desired learning outcomes. Curriculum is comprised of content, but content is not curriculum.

Taking the extreme approach by doing away with all textbook curriculum, or even licensed digital curriculum, obligates teachers to start from scratch. Licensed curriculum, purchased from publishers, consists of materials and resources that are arranged into a meaningful sequence to comprise a complete package. These packages provide teachers with a starting point for customization and a level of coherence.

OERs and Curricular Coherence

A coherent curriculum makes clear connections: coherent curriculum builds year upon year, concept upon concept, skill upon skill. Quality curriculum presents a methodical learning sequence that leads towards established outcomes.

Ideally, teachers are not working in isolation while coordinating grade-level curriculum. They are collaborating within their professional learning network at school and online to develop rigorous, standards-aligned lessons that form a coherent learning progression. Collaboration and communication among colleagues increase coherence, and a well-designed curriculum supports school and district goals. And this, of course, takes time.

A potential downside of combining open resources from a variety of sources into a curriculum, however, is that the collection or resources could easily develop into an assortment of activities. Moreover, content from various authors may not fit into a learning progression. Thus, the curriculum becomes disjointed. Matt Larson, President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics speaks of avoiding disjointed use of OERS when he tells Future of EdTech News that

“[I]n this era, when so much is available now online, that we must be cautious in how we select and use those tasks to ensure they fit within an overall coherent learning progression and that teachers, when they engage in the selection of these sorts of tasks, really need to work together and not in isolation to ensure that each and every student still has access to a high-quality curriculum.”

(Larson as quoted by Brown, 2016)


OERs and Quality Assurance

Another downside to dependence on open resources is that the quality may be questionable. Free resources shared in online repositories may lack the quality assurance that professional publishing organizations afford. Some online repositories post quality assurance guidelines for users to follow, and use peer feedback and review as a method to flag content that does not make the grade. Nevertheless, without the proper oversight, instructional content may contain inaccuracies, lack relevance or quality.

OERs and Sustainability

Educators that use OERs may also run into the issue of lack of sustainability. OER authors of free resources may not receive incentive to update content on a regular basis. Thus, the free resource may become irrelevant or cease to be made available online. Consequently, administrators and teachers must regularly update resources in their own collections so that they remain current, relevant and operational. A sudden removal of a digital asset from an online source may interrupt the learning process leaving the teacher to scramble at the last moment to find a suitable replacement.

Open Content and Copyright Issues

One of the advantages of digital content is that the materials are easy to distribute to a wide audience. Teachers can easily share their resources with their administrator, colleagues, and students. Sometimes, these resources are shared online in a manner that makes them accessible to the public. Open resources have a license that allows for repurposing and redistribution, yet the culture of content-sharing may inadvertently lead to intellectual property issues when licensed content is involved. Fair use exceptions apply to licensed content only if the content remains inside of the classroom environment. Distance learning environments is a restricted area that only instructors and students can access online. The public is not able to access a distance learning environment via the Web. If an educator shares a piece of licensed content in a manner in which the content becomes available to the public, such as a link on a school website or public setting in Google Drive, an intellectual property rights violation has occurred.

High Stakes, Big Gamble

Lisa Carmona, a senior vice president for McGraw-Hill Education, notes that "It takes a long time and a lot of effort to develop curriculum,” and that "the stakes are really high.” This point of view is also shared by those who have made a shift from commercial curriculum to open resources; school administrators such as David E. Hammond, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Bethel who characterized the transition from licensed curriculum to OER as "a big gamble” (Carmona and Hammond as quoted by Cavanagh, S. 2015).

What is at stake? What is the big gamble?

Districts that decide to make the leap from licensed curriculum to a DIY curriculum comprised of OERs, place a weighty responsibility on the administrators and teachers who are accountable for educational outcomes. For one, the possibility exists that OER-based curriculum could become a collection of mere activities rather than a methodically designed learning progression. Of greater consequence is the possibility that, when faculty “pick and choose the individual resources they want to use—and to modify those resources and ‘assemble’ them in unique ways,” the result is a disjointed, incoherent curriculum that leads to variance in student learning outcomes--which is a serious issue. Hence, “high stakes” and “big gamble.”

Conclusions on Curriculum Content

School districts can encourage innovation, creativity, and collaboration in the production of digital instructional content. Teachers have created valuable instructional resources to personalize the learning experience. Tailoring curriculum to meet student needs is a task that falls within the daily duties of the educator. Developing a cohesive, high-quality core curriculum from scratch from assorted content, created by various authors, housed in various repositories and then ensuring that curriculum is aligned to state and nationally adopted standards is an entirely different endeavor altogether.

Open Educational Resources provide a way to address the rising cost of education, but OER as ‘free’ curriculum may cost more than the price of textbooks. Retaining a curriculum from reliable providers serves as a backbone thus addressing issues such as quality assurance, sustainability, curricular coherence and the time needed to customize curriculum implementation to meet student needs.

Solutions to Creating a Custom Curriculum with Digital Resources:

  • Build a bridge to faster outcomes by providing teachers with a template and a set of materials to use as a starting point instead of requiring them to start from scratch.
  • Build a curriculum map and align content to the implementation plan.
  • Use an online resource provider that regularly reviews content for quality, relevance and accuracy and updates materials in the online repository.
  • Find an online resource provider that offers a platform that allows teachers easily search and select content that works best for their students and classroom.
  • Ensure quality, coherence and alignment to standards, district goals and objectives through proper vetting of teacher-selected and teacher-generated materials articulated across core subject matter and grade levels.
  • Enable collaboration and communication between administrators and educators so that individual teachers are not siloed in the process of coordinating academic plans aligned with curricular goals.
  • Incorporate online platforms that provide an analytics and reporting mechanic to track implementation.

Related: What is the cost of for developing your own Curriculum and Reporting Mechanic for CIPA/E-Rate Compliance?

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i-SAFE Digital Learning is the non-profit arm of i-SAFE Ventures; the leading provider of standards-based educational materials and digital resources designed to enable in-depth instruction on critical issues of digital citizenship and e-Safety that integrates with core subject matter and serves as a curricular foundation for school programming. To learn more about the i-SAFE Digital Learning platform and educational resources, visit



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