Free vs Open

“If all that was meant by open was free, we wouldn’t need a new word. We’d just call it free.”
– David Wiley[1]


Free materials serve a meaningful purpose in education by providing tools to support teaching and learning, but free resources are not necessarily open resources. “Free” means that there is no required cost to access materials. It does not mean that users may also reuse, modify, or share the materials. When a resource is open, users know they can reuse and share the resource widely, so long as they abide by the terms of its creator. Open materials also allow users to revise and remix them with other open resources or self-generated content to produce new material. These terms and permissions are typically established in the open license applied to the work.

You will learn how to identify and apply open licenses in the Open Licensing module.


Resources that are free but not open:

  • Web-based resources that are fully copyright-protected: All available resources on the Web that you may have access to, but that are not in the public domain or do not carry an open license, may be free but they are not OER.
  • Subscription-based library collections: A library’s subscription-based resources (journals, e-books, videos, and other materials), while accessible to students and faculty at no cost, are not OER. Their use for education and research is limited by license agreement with vendors.

Activity: Free or Open

Assess your ability to differentiate between “free” and “open” with the follow scenarios.

  1. Cited from University of Buffalo Center for Educational Innovation. “High Impact Practices for Integrating Open Educational Resources (OER) into University Courses,” 2016.


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