04/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why I Love Open Educational Resources!

The concept of Open Educational Resources (OERs) isn't new: we pass on to our kids what we learned from our parents or favorite teachers. Today, we are in a new world when it comes to the Internet and the ease of sharing information to help people learn. I love OERs because they are going to become very important to humanity!

What is an Open Educational Resource? Simply put: it's educational content that can be freely shared. It can be a book, a lesson, a checklist, a video, a set of lecture notes and so on. The key thing is that the content is open; anyone can use, reuse and share it, rather than being proprietary. The creator of an OER has set it free to make it easy for everybody to use it.

The goal of the OER movement is to make all of human knowledge accessible to everybody on the planet. Google has already made a lot of human knowledge accessible toward a similar goal. But, very few textbooks are available for free on Google. And, what if you want to learn French? Resources on the Internet aren't really set up for that (yet!). Although many resources found through the Internet are free to read, that doesn't mean that they're open to be used in the ways I discuss below.

The OER movement is about providing access to educational materials that are freely distributable and adaptable. Whether you're learning to read or how a laser works, you should have access to that knowledge. And, people the world over are eager to share the knowledge they have: from professors to teachers to sports pros to artists to people just like you, whoever you are and whatever special knowledge you have. I believe most people are naturally generous with their expertise and want to share. The Internet makes this truly practical on a global scale.

The biggest thing I like about OERs is that they level the playing field for everyone. Don't have $50,000 for a year of MIT? The course materials are available online for free. Your rural high school can't afford to offer AP Statistics? The textbook and the curriculum are also free online. Don't have $125 for an Economics textbook? There are several downloadable versions for free as well.

Our country faces some big challenges in education. The cost of textbooks rivals the cost of tuition for many community college students. School districts can't afford to replace tattered, out-of-date textbooks. Learning is also changing. Gone are the days where the average person went to high school and then into a factory job. We need to keep learning for our entire lives.

The way we learn is also changing. I don't use the set of encyclopedias I bought years ago: I use Wikipedia (a great example of an OER). When we need or want to learn something, more and more of us go online for enlightenment. Success in tomorrow's society is going depend on the ability to acquire knowledge outside of traditional educational settings.

Before you go all worried on me, I want to assure you that MIT is not going to go out of business anytime soon. Or the big textbook publishers. But, for those people who can't afford these educational resources opportunities (or get into MIT, for that matter), these options create a new floor for what every person on this planet can have for free. For people or school districts who can (barely) afford educational materials today, OERs let them better use their limited resources. And for people who learn differently, there's the chance to see the same topic in a completely different way. Imagine the possibilities!

Just because this new world is open and free and wonderful doesn't mean we don't need quality control. You still need to know that the author of the educational content is both knowledgeable about the topic and good at teaching. But, we have many ways to encourage quality, from adoption by a school district or a college professor, to ratings by other users (ala eBay or SlashDot).

The OER movement has the kind of feeling that I associate with an infant industry or movement that is about to break into the big time. It's gaining momentum and hitting the big policy makers. I just read the recommendations of a blue chip panel headed by a senior IBMer, which suggested that openness in education was key for the future of American education. Not to mention that the Obama Administration is recommending we spend $500 million on developing OERs. It's a bold vision, but I think it's money that will go a long way.

So, what's the fuss about? What makes OERs so cool? Here are just a few of the reasons:
• Affordable. At the most basic level, it's free. And if you want a printed book, it's much cheaper.
• Adaptable. Someone needs that textbook or course in Spanish? You're encouraged to translate it: you just have to agree to make the result as free as the original was.
• Remixable. A teacher can decide to grab a piece of that textbook and mix in a dash of that textbook. One section out of date? You can find a different source for updated information. You can build completely new things with open resources that weren't possible before.
• Improvable. Find an error? Fix it. Don't like an explanation: fix it and use the fixed explanation with your class.
• Accessible. Often overlooked, but an issue I'm passionate about (I've worked in the disability field for twenty years). The freedom to adapt and improve extends to making materials more accessible to people with print disabilities like blindness. It makes it possible for kids with disabilities to get the same textbook at the same time with the same accessibility as every other kid.
• Flexible. Want it on your PC or Mac? No problem. Read it on your iPhone? Scroll away! Want to print it out and carry it around? Hit that print button. Want to turn it into an MP3 file and listen to it? Rip it, baby!

I'm sure I've left some advantages out. And these advantages don't just help Americans: the nature of OERs is that they are there for all of humanity!

My nonprofit, Benetech, is already using OERs and open content in most of our work. In each case, we had a project already going and as we became aware of the open content movement, it became clear that taking advantage of an open approach would help us do a better job of accomplishing our nonprofit mission. From getting blind students accessible textbooks, to helping adults learn to read, to spreading information about human rights violations, we've used open content and OERs to get the job done better and faster.

If one small nonprofit can find at least three cool uses of open content, just imagine what thousands of groups and millions of people could do!

So, that's why I love Open Educational Resources (OERs). It's an incredible movement, fueled by the natural generosity of human beings to share their knowledge. And, if OERs realize their full potential, we'll have a lot more educated, healthy and empowered people on this planet. Join me in the cheerleader section for OERs, and do whatever you can to promote them in making this kind of impact!