27 Open Educational Resources: Supporting Diverse Learners

Sarah Ann Stokes


Open educational resources (OER) are resources for teaching and learning in the public domain or are openly licensed, permitting free and perpetual access and permission to use, edit, and share them (Creative Commons, n.d.). OER are generally digital but can also include non-digital resources. Proposed initially to provide learners in developing countries with free and accessible educational resources, the OER movement has grown in popularity in many countries worldwide. It affords benefits to support underrepresented learners in the post-secondary system. OER and their integration into curriculum, participatory technology, reflective practice, and collaborative learning form the basis of open educational practices (Hegarty, 2015). Open education and OER can support learners in a variety of contexts, supporting social presence (engaging with participants), cognitive presence (engaging with content) and discourse, as outlined in the Community of Inquiry model (Garrison, 2011).

Accessing Learning Resources

Visiting the university bookstore is a common outing for post-secondary students when classes begin. And while the prospect of buying a stack of glossy books new in their wrappings is exciting, students may not be prepared for the financial costs associated with purchasing these resources, which, on average, can amount to between USD$450 and $635 per semester (Hanson, 2021). The costs of university and college textbooks increased by over 1000% between 1977 and 2015. Each new textbook edition rises an average of 12% over the previous edition (DiGangi, 2015). Even in the age where many resources can be found online, students still shoulder much of the cost for textbooks, online homework systems, and other digital resources they need to support their studies.

While the professor often determines what learning resources are necessary for a course, it is almost always the student who pays for them (Allen & Seaman, 2014). As many as 57% of surveyed students at the University of Guelph declined to purchase textbooks because of their cost (University of Guelph, 2016), while at the University of Florida, 45% reported avoiding registering for a course, and 27% reported dropping a course because of high textbook fees (Donaldson et al., 2012). Students used to turn to the library to find textbooks to borrow. The digital model has disrupted this practice, making digital copies of books available online for a subscription fee. Digital copies of textbooks can cost libraries up to seven times the cost of a single print resource and come with user access limits and annual renewal fees (McColgan, 2020), putting pressure on continually underfunded library systems. Textbooks are increasingly available in a digital format, with no print copy available. The University of Guelph indicated that up to 85% of required course textbooks are available only in a limited-access digital-only version (University of Guelph, 2020). This access-controlled digital model prevents students and institutions from sharing resources, selling used copies, or even allowing them to maintain perpetual access to resources for future use.

The rising costs of teaching and learning resources do not only affect post-secondary institutions – K-12 markets are also experiencing a substantial increase in resource costs. There is a seemingly limited marketplace, with a somewhat limited group of K-12 publishers delivering content to a small number of customers (provincial ministries of education or local school boards). Taxpayer dollars are used to purchase textbooks, typically aligned with provincial curricula (Blomgren, 2018). However, the high initial costs, combined with the pilot and revision cycle of publishing, means schools would typically use textbooks past the time when the content becomes dated (Blomgren, 2018).

Open Educational Resources

Open educational resources (OER) were initially created to provide high-quality, low-or-no-cost learning resources for developing nations. Since their inception, OER are also used in K-12 and post-secondary education in developed countries, finding a niche in education by providing intentional and relevant textbooks and other media, collaborative content creation, and additional opportunities for contribution to the elevation of the teaching profession (Blomgren, 2018).

OER Licensing

Unlike traditional copyright practices, open licensing permits far greater flexibility in how students view, save, edit, and share resources. The common phrase, all rights reserved, on a piece of copyrighted material means that the usage rights for the material are reserved for the author or the rights holder, often the publisher. These rights include the ability to share, copy, or use portions of the work for other purposes. Instructors might wish to post a particular diagram from a textbook to share in a set of slides or include a digital copy of a textbook for download on a website; open licenses afford these uses, but not by copyright restrictions.
Open licenses include open-source licenses for software (Mozilla Public License, Apache License 2.0, etc.), GNU General Public License, and more. Often, organizations may have their own version of an open license (e.g., IBM Public License or Microsoft Public License). Creative Commons licenses (CC licenses) are some of the most commonly used open licenses and feature a standardized series of license codes combined to customize permissions to use the work.

CC licenses include:

  • CC: Creative Commons license applies to the work
  • BY (Attribution): attribution must be given to the original author of the work
  • SA (Share-alike): users must apply the same type of license to any versions of the work they create based on the original work
  • ND ( No derivatives): users may not modify the work
  • NC (Non-commercial): the work may not be sold or used for commercial gain.

The licenses give authors the freedom to release the work while indicating what users may do with the particular material (Creative Commons, n.d.).

OER Rights of Use

When a resource is labelled with a CC or other open license, there are various ways educators may use the resource in the classroom. Any material with a license other than ND (no derivative works) may be used in some or all of the following ways (Wiley, n.d.):

  • Retain, keep and maintain copies for own use;
  • Reuse, reuse multiple times, for any purpose, in perpetuity;
  • Revise, adapt, change, or add to the work;
  • Remix, combine multiple OER to create custom works; and
  • Redistribute, share works with others.

OER Usage

Current OER resources and use patterns typically lean toward the professional and post-secondary level because the K-12 sector typically purchases textbooks directly from the publisher (often with oversight from the board on the students’ behalf). However, there is a place for open education within the K-12 sector. Indeed, OER can be used in a supplemental fashion and for inquiry-based pedagogy. An OER can be used to supplement an existing textbook that examines a topic or discipline from a particular perspective, such as a Canadian Edition OER supplementing a U.S.-based textbook. They can also be used as primary resources, whether for traditional studying or to support student engagement and the collaborative creation of resources (see Activities in this chapter). OER provides instructors and students ways to engage with learning resources in a much more flexible and free (minus the cost of personal computers) manner than traditionally experienced, for a significantly reduced cost. Recognizing this need and further research could perpetuate open education in a cross-sector fashion, allowing for a more inclusive use of open pedagogy.

Supporting Diverse Students

The population of learners in Canadian higher education has changed significantly over several decades (Michalski et al., 2017). In the past, students were more homogenous and came from predominantly White, affluent backgrounds (Kirby, 2008; Michalski, 2017). Post-secondary institutions welcome students from diverse backgrounds, identities, socioeconomic statuses, abilities, and orientations. While student demographics have changed, post-secondary institutions have struggled to keep students long enough to award them a degree or diploma, as diverse student populations can experience additional barriers to equitable access to higher education compared with their peers (Michalski, 2017). Some of these student groups in Canada include Indigenous, those with disabilities, first-generation, and international. These barriers include access to education, participation in educational activities and class learning outcomes.

Openly licensed materials are still becoming established in the K-12 sector. However, the continual rising costs associated with education and the emphasis on digital materials make OER an increasingly attractive choice for educators and K-12 administration (Blomgren, 2018). Using OER in the K-12 classroom provides a cost-free way for teachers to address students of different backgrounds without waiting for the typical publishing cycle to offer updated editions of textbooks. In addition to cost savings, OER can allow local and community engagement and context to be added to typically unavailable resources, particularly for small or remote communities.

Access to Education

One of the most oft-cited reasons for using OER is to alleviate financial barriers to higher education. Students have reported avoiding buying textbooks or even registering for specific courses due to the additional costs of textbooks or other resources, such as online homework or quizzing subscriptions (University of Guelph, 2016). Students from diverse backgrounds can be disproportionately affected by the high price of resources. Because OER are accessible free of cost, they hold the potential to provide some level of financial relief for students who may come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

OER can achieve equitable access to education by reducing access restrictions, specifically time and location. OER can bring global educational contexts to diverse groups of students while at the same time affording a localization of content to link students’ experiences to learning (Willems & Bossu, 2012). Students can access material written by global subject matter experts, but at a level and a language with which they are familiar. This accessibility is accomplished, in part, through the primarily digital nature of OER.

Participation in Educational Activities

Depending on the licensing of OER, resources may permit sharing/saving, editing, translation, and more (Creative Commons, n.d.). This unique feature can allow faculty members to customize resources to suit their courses and student populations, considering their individual needs, backgrounds, and desired outcomes. OER enable faculty members to align their resources with current global, social and political trends (Ossiannilsson, 2019). Current events, which impact the lives of students and their families, can be included for discussion and analysis, giving validation to their lived experience. Culturally responsive materials can be created and inserted into the freely available OER to improve participatory access to learning (Kalir, 2018).

Achievement of Learning Outcomes

Instructors have been skeptical about whether OER can make a noticeable difference in educational achievement. They often cite concerns over the quality and accuracy of OER compared to traditional resources. A notable review study by Hilton (2016) examined nine studies analyzing student learning outcomes in courses that use OER versus conventional textbooks in a post-secondary setting. While results could not be generalized to conclude that OER improved student learning outcomes, students who used OER fared no worse than those who used traditional textbooks. Providing the information that OER does not reduce the quality of learning compared to conventional textbooks (Colvard et al., 2018) is essential for giving instructors more choice in selecting appropriate and impactful resources for their courses.

Potential Challenges

Often, many of the challenges related to the adoption of OER surround educator perceptions, including:

  • Funding & sustainability. OER requires educators and support staff to play a more active role in sustaining the tools (Carson, 2020; Delgado et al., 2019). However, the process can afford increased content adaptability to support the desired learning outcomes.
  • Quality. Educators adopting OER independently have an increased onus to vet materials and contributor qualifications before implementation. Yet, resources found through consortiums or hubs listed in this chapter’s General Resources section will likely have undergone review before release. Further, often the hubs have areas for peer-review from other adopters.
  • Time-restriction. Educators may believe that integrating OER into pre-existing courses will be too time-intensive. Indeed, there might be time demands associated with learning a new process or technology, but the process is often equal to or less than that of traditional materials (Tipton, 2020).

General Guidelines

Usage of OER in courses can be as varied as the courses themselves. Implementing OER as a supplemental or primary resource for your course can be as simple as finding a resource online that you like or as complex as building a resource from scratch with your students.

Identify your Resource Needs

Consider what kind of resources you require. Think about:

  • Availability of print or digital access.
  • A primary resource or one to supplement other resources you already use.

Consider the content of the resource:

  • Should the text be a general overview or highly specific to a particular topic or discipline?
  • What level should the resource be? Is it intended for new, intermediate, or experienced learners?

Consider your students. It is essential to think about:

  • Your students have specific accessibility needs (for instance, closed captioning support).
  • Students’ reading levels, including if English is an additional language for all or some.
  • Their technological abilities. Do students know how to access online resources? Do they have devices and stable Internet or data connections?
  • Any other barriers to educational access or participation.

Perform a curriculum analysis. To do so:

  • Analyze your course for learning outcomes and topics covered in the course.
  • Compare your learning outcomes to the existing resources you use. Are there any gaps between the two? How are these gaps addressed?
  • Recruit peer or institutional support (e.g., an experienced co-worker, IT, or a Teaching & Learning Centre) to help address gaps beyond your scope.

Find OER That Can Address Your Needs

Once you have a firm understanding of the resources your students require and the content they must cover, you can use this information to select the appropriate OER.

Use one of the many OER repositories to search for suitable resources.

  • Some online resources include the Ontario Open Library Portal, BC Open Textbook Collection, MERLOT, and MIT OpenCourseWare, to name a few.
  • You may wish to enlist a teaching partner, educational developer, or librarian to assist you.
  • Examine the ability of the OER to address your identified needs. Are there areas of weakness that need to be adjusted or replaced? Can you fill those areas yourself, or is there another OER that can be used in those areas?

Remix OER cover curriculum or material gaps

Use OER to fill in gaps, either as supplementary or primary resources.

  • You may choose one or more OER to use, depending on your students’ needs and those of your course.
  • OER can fill in gaps not filled by traditional resources. Some OER can also fill in gaps not filled by other OER. You can remix OER in one document or flip between them throughout the course, as needed.

Build OER for Greater Flexibility

If your discipline is highly specialized or you can’t find a resource you like, consider building an OER from scratch.

  • Use existing OER or your material as sources.
  • Work collaboratively with other instructors or graduate students to lighten the workload.
  • Consider asking for student input, such as reviews or focus groups, or have students create material, like study questions or chapter summaries.


Activity 1: Adapt the Cultural Content of a Resource


Invite students to lend their own cultural or experiential content to a resource to increase its meaning and value while asking students to create their connections with the material.


It can be challenging to find textbooks that address students’ points of view from varied cultural backgrounds. Often when cultural perspectives are addressed, they are done only from a superficial perspective. Inviting students to add their own cultural and experiential perspectives to existing OER drives student engagement with the content (cognitive presence) and encourages learning about others in the class (social presence).

Ask students to identify examples in an existing work that highlight a particular culture, or need an additional cultural perspective. These examples can be highly personal, so approach the selections from a guidance-oriented point of view. Then, have students rework the examples, bringing in their own cultural or experiential background. For instance, in a mathematics example requiring calculating the ratio for milk to flour to eggs for a pancake recipe, students may change it to calculating the ratio of water to rice to tomatoes for a traditional rice dish. Ensure students also include the answer or solution to any questions or problems they create. Students may wish to have a cultural summary or a personal biography to increase personalization.

Possible Challenges

Students may find it challenging to determine areas that require additional changes from a cultural perspective. It may be worthwhile to compile a list of suggested areas to support students through personal or even class reflection activities.

If attempting this type of change is too lengthy or too large in scale for your context, a smaller scale project can be attempted by focussing on a single online module, chapter, or learning object.


Activity 2: Remix OER with student inputs


Encourage students to delve deeper into a topic by incorporating OER authoring into a course assignment.


Incorporating peer review and community openness is a way to engage students in higher-order thinking. Studies have shown that students put more effort into their work and look beyond a superficial understanding of a topic when their peers view their work (Liu et al., 2001). As a course assignment, ask students to create, revise, or edit introductions, summaries, or other features of an existing OER. Build time into the assignment deadlines to facilitate a structured peer review session and allow time for revision. Then, incorporate student work into the OER, and use it for the next iteration of the course. This process encourages students to engage cognitively with the material and promotes social presence in a way that consumption of material alone cannot provide.

Possible Challenges

Students may require scaffolded support in the peer-review process to achieve beyond-superficial comments. This support might come from prompts provided or specific training in giving feedback. Students should be permitted to withdraw their work from the OER at any time. A consent form can be delivered to students, outlining the use of their work, the type of license applied and allowing them to withdraw their material at any time.


General Resources



Allen, I. & Seaman, J. (2014). Opening the curriculum: Open educational resources in U.S. higher education, 2014. Babson Survey Research Group. http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/openingthecurriculum2014.pdf

Blomgren, C. (2018). OER Awareness and Use: The Affinity Between Higher Education and K-12. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v19i2.3431

Carson, B. (2020). Breaking barriers: Understanding and removing barriers to OER use [Doctoral dissertation, Royal Roads University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2469824799?pq-origsite=gscholar&fromopenview=true

Colvard, N. B., Watson, C. E., & Park, H. (2018). The impact of open educational resources on various student success metrics. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 30(2), 262-276. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1184998

Creative Commons. (n.d.). About the licenses. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/

Delgado, H., Delgado, M., & Hilton III, J. (2019). On the efficacy of open educational resources: Parametric and nonparametric analyses of a university calculus class. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v20i1.3892

DiGangi, C. (2015, August). College textbooks cost 1041% more than in 1977. Money. http://time.com/money/3983624/college-textbook-prices/

Donaldson, R., Nelson, D., & Thomas, E. (2012). 2012 Florida student textbook survey [Report]. Florida Distance Learning Consortium. https://www.oerknowledgecloud.org/record2629

Garrison, D. R. (2016). E-learning in the 21st century: A community of inquiry framework for research and practice (3rd ed.). Taylor & Francis.

Hanson, M. (2021). Average cost of college textbooks. Education Data Initiative. https://educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college-textbooks

Hegarty, B. (2015). Attributes of Open Pedagogy: A Model for Using Open Educational Resources. Educational Technology, 55(4), 3–13. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44430383

Hilton, J. (2016). Open educational resources and college textbook choices: A review of research on efficacy and perceptions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64(4), 573–590. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-016-9434-9

Kalir, J. H. (2018). Equity-oriented design in open education. The International Journal of Information and Learning Technology, 35(5), 357–367. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJILT-06-2018-0070

Kirby, D. (2008, May). Higher education in Canada: New millennium, new students, new directions. In, 5th Global Conference on the Idea of Education, Budapest, Hungary.

Liu, E., Lin, S., Chiu, C.-H., & Yuan, S.-M. (2001). Web-Based peer review: The learner as both adapter and reviewer. IEEE Transactions on Education, 4(3), 246–251. https://doi.org/10.1109/13.940995

McColgan, A. K. (2020, November 12). Equitable, affordable access to digital course materials for university students: Issues and solutions. Canadian Association of Research Libraries. https://www.carl-abrc.ca/news/equitable-affordable-access-to-digital-course-materials-for-university-students-issues-and-solutions/

Michalski, J. H., Cunningham, T., & Henry, J. (2017). The Diversity Challenge for Higher Education in Canada: The Prospects and Challenges of Increased Access and Student Success. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 39, 66–89. https://digitalcommons.humboldt.edu/hjsr/vol1/iss39/11/

Ossiannilsson, E. (2019). OER and OEP for access, equity, equality, quality, inclusiveness, and empowering lifelong learning. International Journal of Open Educational Resources, 1(2), 131-154. https://doi.org/10.18278/ijoer.1.2.8

Tipton, J. (2020). Faculty use of open educational resources: Attitudes, norms, and self-efficacy as behavioral predictors [Doctoral dissertation, The University of Mississippi]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. https://www.proquest.com/openview/56992bfbefb94b06b442538d262f2e84/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=44156

University of Guelph. (2016). University of Guelph student textbook survey. https://www.lib.uoguelph.ca/sites/default/files/uofg_student_textbooksurvey_report.pdf

University of Guelph. (2020). Commercial textbooks present challenges in a virtual environment. https://www.lib.uoguelph.ca/news/commercial-textbooks-present-challenges-virtual-environment

Wiley, D. (n.d.). Defining the “open” in open content and open educational resources. OpenContent. https://opencontent.org/definition/

Willems, J., & Bossu, C. (2012). Equity considerations for open educational resources in the glocalization of education. Distance Education, 33(2), 185–199. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2012.692051

About the author

Sarah is a graduate of the Faculty of Science at Ontario Tech and holds Bachelor of Education (Ontario Tech) and Master of Education Technology (UBC) degrees. An Advanced Google Certified Educator, Sarah enthusiastically promotes innovative teaching techniques and technology for science education in her role at Ontario Tech University as an educational developer. With a background in educational publishing and e-learning, she supports the university’s open education movement and Open Education (OE) Lab. She is currently pursuing a Doctor of Education degree at the University of North Dakota, investigating the sustainability of OER development systems.


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Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators Copyright © 2022 by Sarah Ann Stokes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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