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An imperfect step in the right direction: The UNESCO Recommendation on Open Educational Resources and its definition

19/03/2020
ag Magdalena Spaude
Teanga: EN
Document available also in: DE

Reading time approximately 4 minutes—read, like, comment! 

Original language: German


New UNESCO definition of OER

Open educational resources are the focus of growing levels of attention in the field of (adult) learning. The reason behind this is that there is plenty of material, particularly online, that could be used in education and learning contexts. However, much of this material is protected by copyrights. Without the creator’s consent, texts, images, videos, music and the like cannot simply be copied and used in the classroom. In fact, even if the creator explicitly wishes to share their material, they must label their work in a specific way. If they do not do that, any potential subsequent user must submit a permission request, which takes time and can require significant research. Clear and unambiguous licensing helps solve this issue. Some licences are classified as “open”. Materials assigned such a licence are called open educational resources (OER).

According to the definition in the recently released UNESCO Recommendation, OER “are teaching, learning or research materials in any format and medium that are in the public domain or under copyright that have been released under an open license that permit no-cost access, re-use, re-purpose, editing and distribution by others”. 

The UNESCO General Assembly passed this recommendation on OER on 25 November 2019. What makes it special is that it is the first internationally recognized OER-related document and acts as a recommended plan of action for the UNESCO member states. It proposes various measures, referring to the relevance of open educational resources for Sustainability Goal 4 of the Agenda 2030—specifically sustainable development, inclusive, fair and high quality education as well as opportunities for lifelong learning. Recommended actions therefore include improving the competencies of key education stakeholders when it comes to the use, re-use, and creation of OER. Additionally, the process of licensing publicly funded learning or research materials as OER should be accelerated. Furthermore, inclusive and fair OER accessible for people with disabilities should be supported and future-orientated models of OER should be developed as well as international cooperation in this regard should be initiated.

Criticism of the UNESCO definition

The OER definition included in the UNESCO document has faced some criticism—some of it scathing. The most outspoken critic is Dr. David Wiley, a well-known and enthusiastic supporter of OER. He put forth the famous “5R Freedoms” of OER, to which reference is frequently made. These 5Rs are the five elements that constitute OER and denote the actions which may be taken by a subsequent user of open educational material: reuse, retain, revise, remix, redistribute.


5V-Freiheiten für Offenheit (CC BY)

(1) Retain – the right to create, own, and control copies of the content;
(2) Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways;
(3) Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself;
(4) Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other material to create something new;
(5) Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, the revisions, or the remixes with others.


In a blog post, Wiley was particularly critical of the fact that the present definition does not include permission to “retain”, i.e. make and control a copy. Originally, this aspect was provided in the first draft of the recommendation. The document which was passed defines OER as materials which are accessible free of charge. However, without permission to create a copy (e.g. downloading a document), it is not technically possible to revise or redistribute the material. Streaming services such as Netflix or Spotify are examples of accessible content without the option of a personal copy.

According to Wiley, this gap in the definition could have negative consequences. For example, it is very much conceivable that a public sector entity might publish a tender in which they require the creation of OER according to the UNESCO definition. A contractor would then be able to produce “OER” and grant access, but explicitly prohibit making copies. This would allow educators to adopt the material, but any further use would be very difficult or even impossible, which would defeat the whole purpose of OER. The contractor might attempt to make a profit.

The explanation of those behind the recommendation as to why the definition has taken this form is that the creation of such a document is a long and arduous collaborative process. In this case, the process included more than 100 participants, requiring unanimous approval. They emphasised that the participants included lawyers competent in this area who submitted statements regarding potential interpretations of the definition. They argue that the danger of misuse is negated by the fact that the guaranteed rights to revise and redistribute directly imply the permission to retain copies. However, beyond the scope of any and all possible legal contortions, it is advised to use the already commonplace creative commons licences to license open educational materials. These include the explicit permission to “retain” in their contract text. The UNESCO recommendation is generally viewed as internationally trend-setting and thus as major progress. The goal, they say, is now to accelerate and push for implementation in the member states.

Do you want to learn more about OER?

Take a look at the OER dossier by wb-web [DE] or visit the OER information platform OERinfo [DE]. There, you can also find an event calendar with an OER workshop schedule allowing beginners as well as professionals to learn about both basic aspects and current developments. 


About the author: Dr Magdalena Spaude is a researcher at the Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung - Leibniz-Zentrum für Lebenslanges Lernen e.V. (DIE).


More on this topic:

Open educational resources in literacy and basic education

Informal learning spaces in adult learning institutions, or: Learning and working in the age of digital transformation

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