Understanding the difference between Open Access (OA) and Open Educational Resource (OER)

April 3, 2017

As I was conducting some research for a project I am working on, I became puzzled by the differences between Open Access (OA) materials and Open Educational Resources (OER). I did some digging and here is what I discovered:

Open Educational Resources (OER) and Open Access (OA) are closely related. The basic difference between them is the purpose for which they were created.

The Creative Commons Wiki offers a variety of definitions of OER from credible sources such as the OECD, UNESCO, and the OER commons, among others (https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/What_is_OER%3F)

One of the more popular definitions says OER “are teaching and learning resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use…” (The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation website). The purpose of OERs is mainly for teaching and learning. They can include pedagogical materials, activities, lesson plans, and so on. The OER Commons (https://www.oercommons.org/) offers a multitude of resources for educators through a freely available open digital library.

Suber (2012) offers this definition of OA: “Open access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions” (p. 4). OA can often refer to research materials or other literature.

The lines between what counts as OER or OA can be blurred. Some textbooks are considered OA, even though their primary purpose is for teaching and learning. It seems that some OER can be considered OA, but not all OA fall under the umbrella of OER. Open Access (OA) seems to be a broader, more inclusive term, but OER has gained popularity in recent years, due in a large part to the support of President Obama for Open Education initiatives and resources.

The key is not to get hung up on whether material is better categorized as OER or OA, but to focus on the important underlying intention of the work as being openly and freely available. For both OER and OA, the key common denominator is “open”.

Sarah Elaine Eaton, University of Calgary


Creative Commons Wiki, k. (n.d.). What is OER.   Retrieved from https://wiki.creativecommons.org/wiki/What_is_OER%3F

Obama White House Archives. (n.d.). ConnectED Initiative.   Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/issues/education/k-12/connected

Obama White House Archives. (2014). The open government partnership.   Retrieved from https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/new_nap_commitments_report_092314.pdf

Red Deer College Library. (n.d.). Open Educational Resources (OER). Retrieved from http://rdc.libguides.com/c.php?g=481874&p=3295253

Suber, P. (2012). Open Access. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from https://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262517638_Open_Access_PDF_Version.pdf

Suber, P. (n.d.). Open Access Overview. Retrieved from http://legacy.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (n.d.). Open Educational Resources. Retrieved from http://www.hewlett.org/strategy/open-educational-resources/


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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