Evaluating and using Open Education Resources

September 19, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

Evaluating and using Open Education Resources

Open Education Resources (OER), often published under a Creative Commons license, are free or low-cost resources that range from instructional modules (cases studies, rubrics, activity handouts that can supplement existing textbooks) through complete textbooks. OERs have garnered considerable interest because instructors who adopt OERs help reduce the overall cost of higher education by reducing the amount of money students must spend on textbooks. Students on tight budgets report that they do not always purchase the assigned textbook. Students on financial aid often delay textbook purchases until after financial aid is disbursed (weeks into an academic term). Thus, adopting an OER as a textbook might improve student learning because students will more likely acquire (and read) assigned textbooks at the beginning of the term.

Faculty questions and concerns about OERs

As with any textbook adoption, when considering an Open Education Resource, faculty should consider the following three criteria: quality, supplementary materials, and ADA compliance.

What is the quality of the work as an instructional tool?

  • Is the content accurate?
  • Does the content support the learning goals for the course?
  • Does the author address all relevant content and discuss it with sufficient breadth and depth to support the role of the course in the curriculum as an introductory, advanced undergraduate, or graduate course?
  • Does the author write in language that is clear and engaging?
  • Does the author provide explanations, examples, and applications that clarify theoretical concepts?

Does the OER meet an instructor’s needs for course design? When selecting materials for a course, instructors should consider all aspects of managing the course, including developing appropriate assessments of student learning.

  • One attraction of publisher textbooks is the assortment of supplemental materials (test banks, student study guides and problem sets). Although publisher-prepared test banks pose problems (e.g., poorly written questions that emphasize fact retrieval over conceptual understanding or application), instructors can save much time by editing and rewriting test bank questions instead of writing all test questions themselves.
  • Does the OER provide supplemental instructor resources (many do)? Does the OER provide student study guides or similar learning tools?
  • Access to graphics for use in classroom PowerPoint presentations is a plus, although faculty might be able to extract graphics from the OER under Creative Commons licensing and re-use OER graphics in instructor-created PowerPoint slides. Instructors who over-rely on publisher PowerPoint slides struggle with the excess detail in these slides, which encourages lectures that students perceive as the instructor “reading the book” to them in class.

Are the materials ADA compliant? This question applies equally to OER and materials from commercial publishers. Print (or electronic texts) should be accessible to text readers. Videos and online simulations should be accessible (e.g., include closed captions for videos and narrated PowerPoints). Consult the staff of the Student Disabilities Resource Center if you have questions about ADA compliance.

Where can faculty find Open Education Resources?

Several archives contain OERs that have undergone a peer review process, which helps establish the quality of the material. Still, instructors must determine if the material is suitable for course goals and the student population the course serves.


Hosted by Rice University, OpenStax contains a collection of textbooks in Mathematics, Science, Social Science, and Humanities, plus texts used for AP courses, which might be suitable for courses in General Education and introductory courses in disciplines. Textbooks are published under a Creative Commons license (CC BY), which permits copying and redistribution of the material in any medium or format and permits an instructor to remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose (with attribution).

OpenStax textbooks undergo peer review to ensure they meet expectations for breadth and quality of material. The site includes an errata section, which enables ongoing identification and correction of content in textbooks. Corrections are incorporated into the OER textbook quickly, following editorial review and approval.

OpenStax also hosts Instructor Resources and Student Resources for textbooks. Students can order a print copy through OpenStax at a low price. Some courses also have resources in the OpenStax tutorial system, an archive of supplemental materials such as online practice problems, computer simulations, instructional videos, and exercises that give students immediate feedback.


SUNY OER Textbooks

The Open SUNY Textbook project archives textbooks and teaching and learning materials that faculty at any institution can use for free or at low cost. Materials are peer reviewed and edited (the site welcomes applications from individuals interested in serving as a reviewer or editor). Individual licenses (either Creative Commons or GNU) specify how a faculty member may use, adapt, remix, revise, or redistribute the material. Some materials are in the public domain.



MERLOT emerged from a project funded by the National Science Foundation, “Authoring Tools and An Educational Object Economy (EOE),” in 1997. MERLOT II is managed by California State University (CSU), which oversees the peer review process, editing, and management of materials on the site. Peer review includes an evaluation of content quality, potential effectiveness as a teaching tool, and ease of use. Exemplary materials are recognized on the site through an awards program (MERLOT Classics and Editor’s Choice awards).

MERLOT is a free and open access resource, although faculty must apply for membership in the MERLOT community to access all materials. Materials are published under a Creative Commons license, although membership in MERLOT entails some restrictions on the redistribution of MERLOT materials.

The MERLOT collection includes instructional materials for the full range of academic disciplines.


Specialized OER Archives

Some OER archives have specialized disciplinary audiences or host specific types of materials.

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS)

Hosted by the University at Buffalo, this site was developed through funding from the National Science Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. In addition to case studies for traditional STEM and medical disciplines, NCCSTS includes case studies for topics in anthropology, business/management science, economics, forensic science, journalism, linguistics, paleontology, psychology, science education, sociology, sports science, teacher education, and wildlife management.

Each case study has undergone peer review. Case materials include instructor guidelines and teaching notes (e.g., the narrative for the case, learning outcomes, information about the intended student audience, details about how the case might be taught, references, and additional resources) and answer keys for evaluating student work. Some cases include instructional videos that introduce the case or present simulations that illustrate specific mechanisms, process, or models relevant to developing a solution for the case. At present, anyone can search the archive for topics of case studies within a discipline, but full access to materials (instructor notes and answer keys) is limited to subscribers, who must be teachers. A subscription currently costs $25 per year.



Noba specializes in textbooks and educational materials on topics in psychology. However, many Noba textbooks and module topics overlap with disciplines related to psychology. For example, the Noba site hosts materials on topics that might be included in courses in neuroscience, physiology, statistics and research methods, language, philosophy (theories of mind), economics (judgment and decision making), intelligence, aging, and disciplines that discuss culture or group dynamics. All textbooks and materials are licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license. This archive was created through funding from the Diener Educational Fund.


Need help locating OERs in your discipline?

The UWF Library hosts a libguide on Open Educational Resources. This guide curates a list of OER Textbook Collections and Open CourseWare resources. The guide also provides instructions for searching for and using open access images on the web for use as instructional materials.


You can also contact the subject area specialist for your discipline for assistance. Don’t know the name of the librarian for your discipline? The list of subject area specialists is posted on the library website.