What *is* “Open”?

A Wikiversity Logo for Open Educational Resour...

Image via Wikipedia

by David Lippman, instructor at Pierce College

At the department meeting Friday, there was some confusion about what being an “open textbook” means. The words “open source”, “open books”, “open educational resources, and “open courseware” are tossed around a lot nowadays, so I thought I’d make some effort to clear up what these terms mean.

The notion of “open” began with software. Traditional software does not allow you see how the internals of the software works.  Open source software changes that and allows the user to inspect and even change the source code that makes the software run.  Additionally, open source software gives users the permission to then share their modified versions of the software with others.

This idea of giving people additional rights eventually made its way to other creative works, including educational work. Traditional copyright is “all rights reserved”, meaning only the owner is allowed to make changes to or distribute the work. This is too restrictive sometimes, so groups like Creative Commons came up with “some rights reserved” licenses, which are generally referred to as open licenses. These licenses typically give the reader or user of the work extra rights, typically including:

  • Reuse – the right to reuse the content (make copies)
  • Revise – the right to adapt or modify the content
  • Remix – the right to combine the content with other materials to create a mashup
  • Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original or modified content

It is easiest to exercise these rights in digital formats, so it is very common to see open materials provided online. However, as part of the right to redistribute, it is totally acceptable to produce printed versions of the work and redistribute them (in some cases, a “for noncommercial use only” restriction applies).

So, coming back to educational stuff, here’s what some of the major terms mean:

An open textbook is a textbook that the author has put an open license on. This means that the users can make modifications (corrections, take out chapters, add a topic, change wording, add local examples, etc.) without having to ask the author’s or publisher’s permission. It also means the book can be distributed freely to students online, and at cost to students in paper format, typically < $30.

Open educational resources refers to any educational content that is put under an open license.  These are often things like projects, worksheets, problem sets, etc. The license again allows you to modify and use the materials without having to worry about copyright infringement.

Open Courseware (OCW) is a term that typically refers to a full set of course materials that have been made available online under an open license. MIT’s OCW is an excellent example. The materials typically include syllabi, reading assignments, handouts, homework sets, quizzes, and tests. They sometimes include lecture videos.  Many of MIT’s OCW classes have reading assignments that refer to commercial textbooks, so OCW doesn’t necessarily mean that an open textbook is used.

The Open Course Library project is a project funded by the WA state legislature with matching funds from the Gates Foundation. Its goal is to create open courseware for 81 of the top-enrolled community college courses, with an added restriction that course materials should be <= $30.


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