Are OERs just Re-usable Learning Objects with an open license?

Is there any difference between an OER (Open Educational Resource) and a RLO (Reusable Learning Object) apart from the license? and what does the open release of resources have to do with Open Education anyway? In the run up to the second UKOER programme I’ve been reflecting on the context of the UKOER programme, and some of the issues that cropped up around how to talk about or define what we were doing. They emerged in the context of the diversity of the programme itself but were also informed by some specific posts and conversations that have encouraged, prodded, or kicked me. This post is an attempt to think through the differences between OERs and RLOs and subsequent one will look at OERs relation to Open Education. They’re intended to help pull together and reflect on some resources I’ve found helpful.


Rough archetypes

Many projects in the UKOER programme released RLOs so there are some obvious examples where RLO and OER happily concide but I’d argue that there are some critical distinctions between OERs and RLOs (that have to do with more than licensing) [The following distinctions address archetypes – there will be plenty of exceptions].

RLOs are intentionally designed for sharing, are intended to be context neutral, to have detailed metadata, and are often stored and managed in specific learning object repositories. Their creation tends to need specialist tools or skills and often involves various review processes. Although historically their creation has been associated with large projects, specialist centres, or institutional initiatives, tools such as GLO maker and Xerte have lowered the technical and ‘mechanical’ barriers to creating RLOs. Such RLOs are often media rich, interactive, designed for browser use, and may use Flash. They often are relatively granular focusing on one particular short topic or learning outcome. As noted some OER initiatives produce and/or release this type of material (and many other content sharing initiatives that aren’t ‘O’pen take this approach too (for example, initiatives to share content within a particular educational sector or subscription-based sharing initiatives).

OERs are much more diverse, to roughly borrow from how Creative Commons’ DiscoverEd approaches the topic – it’s a resource, with an open license, that someone has declared to be useful to be useful for educational purposes. Example resources might be images, animations, slides, curricula, lectures (audio or video), sample assessments. There is no dominant format/ mime type associated with OERs. Currently many OERs that are released are existing resources which need to have the rights over their content reviewed; although there are initiatives around promoting the use of open content to create educational materials from the outset. As outlined by Weller (2009) there have been significant differences between large institutional projects and individuals.

  • “Big OERs are institutionally generated ones that come through projects such as openlearn. Advantages = high reputation, good teaching quality, little reversioning required, easily located. Disadvantages = expensive, often not web native, reuse limited
  • Little OERs are the individually produced, low cost resources that those of us who mess about with blogs like to produce. Advantages = cheap, web (2) native, easily remixed and reused. Disadvantages = lowish production quality, reputation can be more difficult to ascertain, more difficult to locate.”

In UKOER and other initiatives we saw a wide variety of approaches  used and perhaps the emergence of “Middle OER” (see David Kernohan’s comment on Weller 2009).  More approaches were we saw institutions sharing with informal tools, institutions enabling their academics to share, as well as coordinated groups of individuals sharing corporately.


If I was trying to capture the difference between RLOs and OERs in a sentence I’d say something like: People sharing what they’re doing vs. people creating particular stuff to share

Why is this worth talking about?

I’m not sure in the wider elearning community if this distinction is understood – in the context of educational content with open licenses I’ve heard the words used interchangeably. I think many RLOs are great but they come with an approach and history that is not essential to OERs and we make a mistake if we accidentally equate them.

There are ongoing efforts to promote Open Educational Practices – one aspect of which is to strive to embed openness into how lecturers go about creating their materials, to use openly licensed content and reuse OERs, and try not to design materials in a way that relies on specific resources. This is in part to overcome the costs involved in clearing rights on existing content and is a critical necessary shift in developing sustainable practice. There is, however, a key difference between designing courses and materials that are more shareable and designing context neutral courses (in the RLO style) – most academics / teachers are paid to develop materials in a context and there’s a big difference between asking someone to share what they’re doing as an OER and asking someone to create a context neutral OER. From my perspective, the first is scalable but the second will be a niche or directly-funded activity.

I could be missing something as I know and respect some of the advocates of the context neutral approach as the way forward so comments are very welcome. Whether you agree with my categories and opinion or not of you’re thinking about OERs it’s worth watching the interview with Brian and and reading Martin’s posts.



  1. For me, an RLO is a packaged learning object designed specifically for use within a VLE, PLE or MLE, whereas an OER can be anything that is useful educationally and is licensed in such a way that it can be fully used educationally. So:

    RLO ? OER

    (I think).

    Great post, thank you!


  2. David, yes I think in terms of open assets you’re exactly right; what is a bit murkier for me is the influence of the surrounding practice/ patterns of thought and the possible legacy influence of the RLO approach on how institutions/ people approach sharing.


  3. Your question is posed well, yet I have to say I am not sure how the differences, if they are, matter. I see them similar in intent- a means to share content that was created for learning.

    II see the difference more in the context of the times the arose- RLOs being when the web was bubbling up as a resource of information, but most of the content creation was focused more on the desktop delivery. I was building some of these things at the time in tools like Macromedia Director and others were doing Java applets and early flash pieces. I was of a broader scope of what might be an RLO than your definition, it was 2000 when I worked on the Maricopa Learning eXchange which I see still lives and we included any item created for learning with the loose metaphor of a “package.”

    Over time we saw in places like MERLOT that the items shifted from things we might feel ok calling RLOs to broader things like a web site for teaching study skills, that today (if licensed) we’d more likely call OERs.

    The dreams in the RLO days that we’d have tools to scoop up sly the objects and process them out as a complete piece of content or activity made of disparate parts. That was partially achieved in places but not broadly. The difference is now I guess that it is left to us, the finders of OERs to assemble or link.

    To me, I care less about the differences and more about people sharing more bit of what they made and their ideas about it.


  4. I published a brief piece (two pages) on this issue last year which I would recommend if you’re interested in the topic of the LO / OER relationship:

    And at this year’s Latin American Conference on Learning Objects I argued strongly that “learning objects 2.0” is an appropriate way to think of OER for people who were familiar with the LO construct. See slide 109 in for a visual.


  5. Alan, David – thank you for your comments.

    Alan, I agree that for many people who’ve been involved in Learning Object initiatives OER is a logical next step, for many learning technologists and involved academics it is a natural extension or evolution of the desire to share which you note.

    On the tech side of the distinction
    I think the, admittedly minor, difference emerges more for those completely new to this area, who either through reading papers from the heyday of ‘learning objects’ or from getting advice from some groups make the assumption that releasing OERs requires a repository, LOM records, and IMS CP or SCORM packages. This is certainly one valid technical approach but not the only one.
    In the context of the first round of UKOER we had the inverse of the challenge that David addresses in his keynote, in that we were trying to point out to OER projects that it wasn’t compulsory to become Learning Object repositories in order to release OER.

    David – I’m intrigued by the presence of ‘Durable’ on that slide; though I’ll need to read through the rest of the slides to check I’ve understood your usage correctly, the debates around the preservation of learning materials tend to a fairly inconclusive case for durable (as much as I might like there to be one).


  6. Try telling OU OpenLearn that all their OER material is just a bunch of learning objects. Unless you define ‘learning object’ as ‘anything that exists to support learning’ (which some do, but which is meaningless), you can’t say that full-blown 30-credit course materials are ‘learning objects’. And I write this as someone who’s been developing RLOs for the last 7 years as part of a team that’s effectively RLOs ‘R’ Us (

    Still, the title’s a nice wind-up 😉


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