A framework for classifying types of digital learning materials

This blog post is a co-production of Ben Janssen (OpenEd Consult) and me. Nederlandse versie.

Many have attempted to provide a conclusive definition of digital learning resources. In the study by ResearchNed (Janssen & Van Casteren, 2020), the following pragmatic description of digital learning resources was used (p. 9):

“Learning resources are a subset of educational tools. Educational tools include anything used by instructors and/or students (including computers, electronic learning environments and smart boards) in and for the purpose of teaching or learning. The term learning resources refers only to learning content in a particular form (textual, visual, auditory, or a mix of these forms).

‘Digital learning resources’ means any digital resource that is used as teaching or learning content by instructors and/or students in the course of a teaching or learning process. A digital resource is a resource that exists in binary numerical form, such as digital audio or digital images (this also includes the ‘book behind glass’, pdf).

Educational tools such as digital whiteboards, VR glasses, but also digital assessment tools, platforms or online discussion forums, do not fall under our description of learning resources. E.g., YouTube as a platform is not included, but the videos that are placed on YouTube and used as learning resources are.”

The following non-exhaustive list of digital learning resources is provided for illustrative purposes

digital study- and handbooks, among which (open) textbooksanimations
digital (scientific) publicationswiki’s
(PowerPoint)presentations/sheets/slideshowsYouTube video’s
digital syllabi, summaries, manuals of lectures and practicadigital images, including 3D visualisations
weblectures and slidecastsdigital newspaper articles/news sources/archivestv-uitzendingen
digital assessmentspodcasts
digital internship and assignment reportsblogs
videos, including knowledge clips, tutorials, instructional videos, vodcasts, animations and documentariesopen content and data on websites, such as reports from the Parliament and reports from policymakers and research committees
AR- en VR-applicationsdata from databases such as Skybray, BBC Monitoring, Factiva
MOOCs, SPOCs, Open Educational Resourcesessays in digital form
infographicsnovels in digital form

We are interested in digital open learning resources, not so much in what they are but more in what you can and cannot do with them. Using a dichotomy of open versus closed is insufficient for that purpose. Concepts like semi-open resources and commercial resources are also useful for the activities in the Acceleration Plan. But how do these two concepts relate to one another and to OER?

We propose a differentiated categorisation of digital learning resources that gives guidance for institutional policy development. This framework is an extension from what David Wiley has presented (source, p. 26).

Digital learning resources can be categorized using two dimensions:

  1. Access
    • no restrictions (open access), for everyone
    • non-financial restrictions, for everyone
    • non-financial restrictions, not for everyone (walled garden)
    • financial restrictions
  2. Adaptation rights
    • Adaptable (users have permission to adapt)
    • Non-adaptable (users have no permission to adapt)

Learning resources with access without financial restrictions are called free learning resources. The following figure is a graphical representation of our framework.

Click on the image to enlarge

Some background information to this framework:

  • For the free learning resources (without restrictions or with non-financial restrictions), adaptation rights are ordered from most (100%) to no rights to adapt. Licenses provide the conditions for adaptation. In the figure we have adopted the commonly used Creative Commons licenses. These licenses are about the rights creators give to others to retain, use, adapt and distribute their works and the conditions to be met when exercising those rights. The licences do not cover restrictions on access to the works.
  • The figure also shows that two Creative Commons licences do not grant rights of adaptation due to the ND (Non Derivative) condition.
  • Preference for a combination of rights of adaptation and access are context dependent. E.g. a lecturer can prefer adaptable learning materials, but will be indifferent on access. A learner will in many cases only be interested in free access and not in adaptability. But the same learner can, when pedagogy makes it necessary, also be interested in adaptability. Think e.g. about practices of open pedagogy (for examples, see the Open Pedagogy Notebook)
  • The most common non-financial restriction when access for everyone is available is the obligation to create a free account to get access.
  • The most common situation for non-financial restrictions, access not for everyone is membership of a group (institution, community of practice).
  • We have chosen for a pragmatic view on openness to widen adoption of sharing and reusing. Issues like technical openness (only open source tools and platforms are allowed to access the learning material) or content requirements (e.g. inclusive, accessible to people with disabilities) have not been considered.
  • The size of each area does not reflect a relative importance or a personal preference of that area, compared to the other areas

This framework allows us to position the different types of learning resources mentioned in the Acceleration Plan as “open”, “semi-open”, “closed”, “commercial” in relation to each other.

As far as we know, there seems to be a generally accepted definition only for the category “Open Educational Resources”. Here we use this definition in the formulation of Creative Commons.

Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research materials that are either (a) in the public domain or (b) licensed in a manner that provides everyone with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities:

  • Retain – make, own, and control a copy of the resource
  • Reuse – use your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource publicly
  • Revise – edit, adapt, and modify your copy of the resource
  • Remix – combine your original or revised copy of the resource with other existing material to create something new
  • Redistribute – share copies of your original, revised, or remixed copy of the resource with others”

This definition is a.o. adopted by the Hewlett Foundation.

In terms of the framework, we define the terms used in the Acceleration Plan as follows:

  • Semi-open resources are teaching, learning, and research resources that are available to a limited group of persons and eventually licensed in a manner that provides everyone in this group with free and perpetual permission to engage in the 5R activities, be it with the restriction that redistribution happens only within the limited group.
  • Commercial resources are teaching, learning, and research resources that are only available under financial restrictions.
  • Closed resources are teaching, learning, and research resources that are unavailable for a person or a group of persons. This definition is dependent on the perspective of the stakeholder. E.g. semi-open learning resources, available for a group, appear to be closed for persons outside of that group.

In the next figure we have positioned the sets of OER, semi-open learning resources and commercial learning resources in the framework.

Click on the image to enlarge

To illustrate the framework, we have added some examples.

Click on the image to enlarge

In the next blog we will focus on ecosystems for (semi-)open learning resources and issues we encounter.


Janssen, B. & Van Casteren, W. (2020): Digitale leermaterialen in het hoger onderwijs. Onderzoek in opdracht van het Koersteam Versnellingsplan Onderwijsinnovatie met ICT. Utrecht: Versnellingsplan Onderwijsinnovatie met ICT.

This blog is contribution 2 in a series entitled A principled, pragmatic view of institutional OER policy. Previous contribution:


To be published:

  • What is the playing field on OER? A systems approach
  • Why are OER important? The value of OER from various perspectives
  • The need for a vision and policy regarding OER at both institutional and community of practice level


Posted in Open Educational Resources and tagged , , , .

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