The Sixth “R” of Open Educational Resources

The 5 R’s

I’ve seen the five R’s used many times in reference to the OER space (Open Educational Resources). They include the ability to allow others to: Retain, Reuse, Revise, Remix and/or Redistribute content with the appropriate use of licenses. These are all some incredibly powerful building blocks, but I feel like one particularly important building block is missing–that of the ability to allow easy accretion of knowledge over time.

Version Control

Some in the educational community may not be aware of some of the more technical communities that use the idea of version control for their daily work. The concept of version control is relatively simple and there are a multitude of platforms and software to effectuate it including Git, GitHub, GitLab, BitBucket, SVN, etc. In the old days of file and document maintenance one might save different versions of the same general file with increasingly different and complex names to their computer hard drive: Syllabus.doc, Syllabus_revised.doc, Syllabus_revisedagain.doc, Syllabus_Final.doc, Syllabus_Final_Final.doc, etc. and by using either the names or date and timestamps on the file one might try to puzzle out which one was the correct version of the file that they were working on.

For the better part of a decade now there is what is known as version control software to allow people to more easily maintain a single version of their particular document but with a timestamped list of changes kept internally to allow users to create new updates or roll back to older versions of work they’ve done. While the programs themselves are internally complicated, the user interfaces are typically relatively easy to use and in less than a day one can master most of their functionality. Most importantly, these version control systems allow many people to work on the same file or resource at a time! This means that 10 or more people can be working on a textbook, for example, at the same. They create a fork  or clone of the particular project to their personal work space where they work on it and periodically save their changes. Then they can push their changes back to the original or master where they can be merged back in to make a better overall project. If there are conflicts between changes, these can be relatively easily settled without much loss of time. (For those looking for additional details, I’ve previously written Git and Version Control for Novelists, Screenwriters, Academics, and the General Public, which contains a variety of detail and resources.) Version control should be a basic tool of every educators’ digital literacy toolbox.

For the OER community, version control can add an additional level of power and capability to their particular resources. While some resources may be highly customized or single use resources, many of them, including documents like textbooks can benefit from the work of many hands in an accretive manner. If these resources are maintained in version controllable repositories then individuals can use the original 5 R’s to create their particular content.

But what if a teacher were to add several new and useful chapters to an open textbook? While it may be directly useful to their specific class, perhaps it’s also incredibly useful to the broader range of teachers and students who might use the original source in the future? If the teacher who forks the original source has a means of pushing their similarly licensed content back to the original in an easy manner, then not only will their specific class benefit from the change(s), but all future classes that might use the original source will have the benefit as well!

If you’re not sold on the value of version control, I’ll mention briefly that Microsoft spent $7.5 Billion over the summer to acquire GitHub, which is one of the most popular version control and collaboration tools on the market. Given Microsofts’ push into the open space over the past several years, this certainly bodes well for both open as well as version control for years to come.


A Math Text

As a simple example, lets say that one professor writes the bulk of a mathematics text, but twenty colleagues all contribute handfuls of particular examples or exercises over time. Instead of individually hosting those exercises on their own sites or within their individual LMSes where they’re unlikely to be easy to find for other adopters of the text, why not submit the changes back to the original to allow more options and flexibility to future teachers? Massive banks of problems will allow more flexibility for both teachers and students. Even if the additional problems aren’t maintained in the original text source, they’ll be easily accessible as adjunct materials for future adopters.


One of the most powerful examples of the value of accretion in this manner is Wikipedia. While it’s somewhat different in form than some of the version control systems mentioned above, Wikipedia (and most wikis for that matter) have built in history views that allow users to see and track the trail of updates and changes over time. The Wikipedia in use today is vastly larger and more valuable today than it was on its first birthday because it allows ongoing edits to be not only improved over time, but those improvements are logged and view-able in a version controlled manner.

Google Documents

This is another example of an extensible OER platform that allows simple accretion. With the correct settings on a document, one can host an original and allow it to be available to others who can save it to their own Google Drive or other spaces. Leaving the ability for guests to suggest changes or to edit a document allows it to potentially become better over time without decreasing the value of the original 5 Rs.

Webmentions for Update Notifications

As many open educational resources are hosted online for easy retention, reuse, revision, remixing, and/or redistribution, keeping them updated with potential changes can potentially be a difficult proposition. It may not always be the case that resources are maintained on a single platform like GitHub or that users of these resources will necessarily know how to use these platforms or their functionality. As a potential “fix” I can easily see a means of leveraging the W3C recommended specification for Webmention as a means of keeping a tally of changes to resources online.

Let’s say Robin keeps a copy of her OER textbook on her WordPress website where students and other educators can easily download and utilize it. More often than not, those using it are quite likely to host changed versions of it online as well. If their CMS supports the Webmention spec like WordPress does via a simple plugin, then by providing a simple URL link as a means of crediting the original source, which they’re very likely to do as required by the Creative Commons license anyway, their site will send a notification of the copy’s existence to the original. The original can then display the webmentions as traditional comments and thus provide links to the chain of branches of copies which both the original creator as well as future users can follow to find individual changes. If nothing else, the use of Webmention will provide some direct feedback to the original author(s) to indicate their materials are being used. Commonly used education facing platforms like WordPress, Drupal, WithKnown, Grav, and many others either support the Webmention spec natively or do so with very simple plugins.

Editorial Oversight

One of the issues some may see with pushing updates back to an original surrounds potential resource bloat or lack of editorial oversight. This is a common question or issue on open source version control repositories already, so there is a long and broad history of for how these things are maintained or managed in cases where there is community disagreement, an original source’s maintainer dies, disappears, loses interest, or simply no longer maintains the original. In the end, as a community of educators we owe it to ourselves and future colleagues to make an attempt at better maintaining, archiving, and allowing our work to accrete value over time.

The 6th R: Request Update

In summation, I’d like to request that we all start talking about the 6 R’s which include the current 5 along with the addition of a Request update (or maybe pull Request, Recompile, or Report to keep it in the R family?) ability as well. OER is an incredibly powerful concept already, but could be even more so with the ability to push new updates or at least notifications of them back to the original. Having the ability to do this will make it far easier to spread and grow the value of the OER concept as well as to disrupt the education spaces OER was evolved to improve.

Featured photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

Published by

Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

39 thoughts on “The Sixth “R” of Open Educational Resources”

  1. Great post, Chris… and a very thoughtful read after our conversation in the margins/comments of my Google doc ‘OER/OEP guide’ ( I’ve often thought about this issue of version control — and how new versions can be archived as well as referenced ‘up and down’ the chain of use. Mike Caulfield did some very interesting work on this in the Federated Wiki project — you are likely aware of that work also. I like the idea of a 6th R… could be a great way to encourage more thinking about this aspect of open. Thanks again — and glad to find your blog 🙂

  2. While I am 💯 a fan improving and broadening the use of version control for OER, I’m not sure that a 6th R is needed. The 5 Rs represent what you are allowing others to do with content, and this seems like a requirement of the creator to push updates. Or am I misinterpreting?

    1. I suppose that the 5 Rs are really a description of what is enabled simply by adding an appropriate license, so in this sense my proposed 6th R is really something entirely different if you like. It’s the layering of an entirely new idea on top of the original five that can help to dramatically accelerate the use and growth of the entire area by further disrupting the grasp of the professional publishing industry on the educational resources space. My idea was a bit of a trial balloon, but one which could certainly stand to be unpacked a bit.

      Version control isn’t a requirement for the creator or even for those reusing the content. But, this being said, there is a massive value in being able to Re-aggregate (and maybe this is an even better and more concrete 6th R) all of the related content flowing off of each piece. This is how we move more easily from a few small paragraphs to full chapters and later entire books and from thence into full packages of available course ware. Version control allows the logging of the historical growth of a thing while still allowing the easy forking or branching (and even archiving) of that thing at the same time.

      While the 5 Rs provide a solid base for potential future use, I think that using version control on top of the whole adds an order of magnitude of value in comparison to the modest amount of additional work. The engineer and mathematician in me sees the original 5 Rs as useful linear value creation tools while the version control part is an exponential value creation tool. Version control also adds an additional layer of potential cross-collaboration that we traditionally haven’t seen in the space before. While some version control tools can seem disorienting and un-intuitive, I think that those barriers to entry will be slowly coming down and will be much simpler to use in the near future. I also think that this is the value that Microsoft sees in GitHub, as they’ll most likely extend the functionality and accessibility of the tool to a much larger general market than the programmers which have typically used that product.

      Obviously it would be nice if the creator(s) could be responsible for some of the aggregation, but certainly there’s no reason (and the open licenses certainly allow for it) that others couldn’t help out with doing the aggregation. Most of my point in proposing a sixth R is to help make sure the broader community is aware of the general idea, the available tools, and the potential value and possibilities in using them as we create the content. Awareness of the concept should be part of our collective electracy in any case.

      Already there are some clearing house sites which broadly compile OER resources, but these will be even more valuable if we allow the aggregate changes to things to go back to the original in some way so that those using them in the future are more easily and readily aware of them. While the efforts in the area can and probably should be decentralized in nature, having some mechanism for centralizing the distributed work as well as knowing the history and provenance of materials can be tremendously valuable and useful.

      Perhaps we look at it from a broader process perspective of Creation, Compilation, Curation, and Consumption? We’re already individually creating pieces and individually compiling them. Most of the heavy lifting for educators has been in the areas of compilation and curation and much of this expensive process has been picked up by the textbook publishing markets which then turns around and re-sells these pieces back to us at a massive markup. With open tools and capabilities made available to us via the internet, we can carefully disrupt the bigger space to fragment the work (many hands make light work) to make the entire process simpler and less expensive. Then teachers and students can have many more options available to them. If you were teaching a course and had easier access to a panoply of materials, then as a teacher you can pick and choose from a broader array of (less expensive) materials to best suit the needs of your students for consumption.

      As a small example, what do you do with an exceptional student who is beyond some of the material when you start a course? Do you let them squander their time and energy by tying them to a text that will hold them back or do you suggest an alternate that will take their current skills and allow them to grow even more? What about the students that need more remedial help? Should they be tied to a standard text that has been targeted to the median of the market? With more options on the table, you can help them with more available remedial material or additional extra exercises to bring them up to speed with the rest of the group. To accomplish this as educators we need better workflows for the compilation and curation pieces of the puzzle.

      Another thing to think about and be careful of is to look for the next surface that the for-profit sector is likely to shift into to retain their position as owners and/or gatekeepers of potential materials. I suspect that supporting version control will help push those eventualities even further down the road while simultaneously aggregating additional value exponentially more quickly to the open materials themselves.

      I don’t think that those who are individually writing shorter pieces and licensing them as creative commons will necessarily pick up the mantle of version control. It’s more likely to be done at a broader departmental or institutional levels, or even more so from the level of departments at multiple institutions collaborating to make broadly accessible materials at the level of entire courses or even full curricula which pick up the smaller licensed pieces from individuals. And likely before this happens, it’s most likely to be individual creators working at the level of collaboratively creating books like that of Robin DeRosa’s recent effort in which a professor is creating material in conjunction with students. The top and bottom of the creation chains will meet in the middle, but it will require the broader coordination and collaboration that is made far simpler by the tools currently offered by the larger revision control systems.

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  3. It seems more like a feature than a tenet. It’d be great to have – but I can see it being misconstrued as a requirement for creators, rather than part of a holistic OER ecosystem. I think OERs can have this feature, version tracking can be great, but not all authors will want it.

  4. To move OER forward, I wonder if we might not be better served by shifting our focus away from the permissions or licenses that makes something an open educational resource and shifting it toward capabilities that open resources ought to possess. What I mean is that we might be better off focusing on the capacity OER have for future sharing, updating, and integrating into teaching and learning operations, rather than what OER really are.
    Understanding the 5 R permissions remains a necessary framework to describe what typically distinguishes an OER from a traditionally copyrighted instructional resource. But I don’t think that further refining, expanding, or updating those permissions will be sufficient to move OER forward. Instead, I propose we focus on how we might design OER and OER-supporting technologies in order for those resources to have the greatest impact. To facilitate thinking about OER from this perspective, I suggest that we think in terms of capabilities. That is, I suggest we think in terms of what we want the OER to do and how we can create the conditions that encourage OERs to do those sorts of things. In order to do that, I’ll start by identifying two ways I think we go wrong when we focus on permissions and licenses.
    First, I often see people try to be more restrictive in their interpretation of what counts as an OER, for instance, by insisting on compliance with all of the 5 R permissions or adding qualifications to the list. One example would be the idea that we ought to rule out “No Derivatives” works from OER. While it is true that “Revision” and “Remixing” are two of the 5 Rs, it seems misguided to insist that every OER ought to be revisable and remixable. There may be very good reasons for different types of creative works (poetry, literature, photography, film, painting, etc.) to bear a “No Derivatives” license. These reasons are grounded in what are called the moral rights of authors. Moral rights are those rights of authors to control the ways their work will be represented in the future. They include the right of attribution and the right of integrity. Any creative writer can appreciate the desire to have their creations properly attributed to them and not reproduced ways that changes their meaning or undermine the intention and context of the original expression. Historically, copyright disputes have included a substantial number of – sometimes perfectly reasonable, sometimes unreasonable – requests by authors for their work not to be appropriated in ways that run contrary to their artistic intention. Such concerns are worth considering. And if some content that is openly available for teaching and learning has restrictions on how it can be modified in the future, it doesn’t seem like it ought to be considered “not really OER.”
    Another way people argue for more a more restrictive understanding of OER is by adding “permissions” to the 5 Rs. Some OER proponents insist on only Non-Commercial future uses of their copyrighted content (this isn’t really a permission, but an impermission). It is true that having a large repository of non-commercial, publicly available resources increases the knowledge commons and public domain. But if we insist that all OER remain non-commercial throughout their life-cycle, then we may miss out on the potential capacity of for-profit and non-profit commercial enterprises to support and augment open resources in ways that make them more user-friendly or even more effective for teachers and learners. It seems to me it would be short-sighted to prohibit such support completely.
    A similar sort of move was recently defended in a thoughtful article by Chris Aldrich, “A Sixth ‘R’ of Open Educational Resources.” To be clear, the basic proposition defended in this article is awesome and I wholeheartedly support it. Aldrich argues that we ought to develop some version control software for OER. In effect, the software would provide a mechanism for easily sharing updated versions and archiving older versions of a particular resource. These versions could be publicly accessible and thus provide a rich catalogue of possible content for specific instructors’ needs. Finally, he proposes that users should be able to request an update (the sixth “R”) to an OER through this software. The request for revision could kick back to authors and the community in such a way that it prompts them to undertake a revision. This is a wonderful idea and articulates exactly the sort of design that would enable OER to have the capacity for regular revision and update, a capacity that is essential to the long-term sustainability of OER. But this is not a permission; it’s a feature. And it would probably be excessively restrictive to insist that any resource that lacked this software feature fails to be a genuine OER.
    There is an understandable tendency to want to build all of our important concepts and ideas back into definitions. This seems conceptually grounded, solid, and firm. But it can be misguided. By crafting a more and more delimited definition of OER, we may actually choke off and restrict the lifeblood that will ultimately enable OER to thrive. Additionally, we risk retreating into more and more exclusive sects of open education practitioners based on disagreements over definition, a move that may inhibit the sort of growth we all want and need in order for the movement to survive.
    A second sort of error comes from shifting responsibility for the flourishing capabilities of OER from the designer to the user. Instead of proposing that OER designers, authors, or creators ought to build in properties that expand the power of OER – features like interoperability with learning tools (like the LMS), common protocols for platforms, user-friendly interfaces for revising and remixing content, and version control software – instead of seeing these capabilities as the responsibility of designers, some advocates have shifted responsibility to the users. Here, I’m primarily thinking about the CARE Framework. Like the positions discussed above, this framework articulates a number of very important values for the OER community and for the ultimate sustainability of OER. But it does so by seemingly (I say seemingly, because I think the framework is vague on this point and I have not yet received clarification from an earlier request) requiring every OER user to be an active participant in sustaining OER by contributing, empowering, attributing, and releasing content. This vision takes some important actions that are necessary for the sustainability of OER and (I think) demands that every user ought to be responsible for putting them into practice.
    I think this view (if that’s the view) is misguided, first, because it is pragmatically unnecessary and, second, because it raises barriers to OER adoption. The view is pragmatically unnecessary because not every user needs to be engaged in contributing, attributing, empowering, or releasing content in order for OER to be regularly updated, sustained, and widely shared. The four practices of good stewardship are certainly excellent practices that I hope OER designers, authors, and advocates will put into practice (I know I’m trying). But it’s not practically necessary for the average teacher – or student – to be fully engaged in stewardship in the same way. To illustrate, consider the success of open source software. The mainstream success of open source software is actually predicated on the fact that the vast majority of users are unaware of how one contributes, attributes, or releases versions of the software. Many millions of people and organizations use Firefox browsers and Linux-based enterprise IT systems because they like the products. The vast majority of them are not participating in stewardship practices around these products. They are just users. I would like to hear an argument for why we should expect OER to be any different. In fact, I think it would be a great achievement if millions of teachers and students used OER without having much awareness of the underlying copyright or the mechanisms for attribution, contribution, and release of those resources. Of course, it would remain possible for anyone to participate in these stewardship activities; sustainability would remain a community effort. But there is no pragmatic reason why we should insist that every user has a responsibility to be a good steward as long as there is a sufficiently active core community of authors, designers, and engineers that are.
    Not only is the notion that OER-sustainability is the responsibility of the end-user pragmatically unnecessary, it also places barriers to adoption that will inhibit rather than encourage future use. By insisting that every user become a good steward of the OER they use, we risk placing demands on users that they will perceive as a cost of adoption. One of the continuing barriers to OER adoption right now is the perceived difficulty in locating and adapting resources for use in the classroom. Faculty members – sometimes rightly – feel that adopting an OER will increase their workload without compensation; adopting OER looks to them like a cost. While they may be motivated out of altruistic concerns for their students, we shouldn’t rely on such motivations to sustain the growth of adoptions. Instead, we should do what the most successful OER producers (like OpenStax, Pressbooks, Lumen Learning, Top Hat, Pan Open, and others) have already done – that is, make OER look and feel as polished as traditionally copyrighted, publisher-provided resources. When OER look and feel comparable to publisher-based resources, faculty adopt in large numbers. If we insist that faculty or student adopters bear additional responsibilities to ensure the sustainability of the resources they use, I am confident that we will lose adopters. Such a proposal increases the cost of adoption, which will depress demand.
    I don’t want to sound overly critical of the efforts of others to move OER forward, so I will end on a positive note. The good news is that we can have our cake and eat it, too. If we just shift the conversation away from the objects (OER), their definition, and the normative demands on users to a conversation about how we can design capabilities right into the OER we are building and using, then we can work together to make better OER that will be used more and will be easier to support, adapt, update, modify, and distribute. (Also, everything I’ve mentioned here is something that people are currently doing. I’m just trying to provide some language to talk about it in a different way.)

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    1. Tony, I like your approach to the practical, which is where all of this actually becomes useful. Your example of Jupyter notebooks reminds me of another very concrete example of this type of reuse, particularly from a source code perspective. In my math research I use a lot of LaTeX code, which can often be gummy, time-consuming, and difficult to master. I remember a lot of my early use of it, and in particular creating nice looking charts, graphs, diagrams, and tables was painful until I came across copies (which happened to be creative commons) of Jim Hefferon’s Linear Algebra text which included source code to the actual text along will many of his diagrams. Though I didn’t borrow anything directly from it, having the source code as a learning example was truly invaluable. I suspect that math professors have “borrowed” code snippets from this text’s examples and homework problems just for the ease-of-use over the years.

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      1. Tony Hirst says:

        Hi Chris
        LaTex examples are some of the examples I give in my Getting Started notebooks. For example:

        It becomes more interesting the higher the levels of abstraction you have access to. eg the bloques LaTeX package for control diagrams. On my to do list is trying to provide some higher level blocks for mechanics / trolley drawing etc.

        Generating diagrams from other languages is also attractive. For example, this electronics notebook shows how you can define a circuit then render a circuit diagram and analyse the circuit from the model that is created.

        Plugging various tools that work at different levels of abstraction in chemistry topics is also interesting too, I think: and for example.


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