Early in August, a letter arrived in President Barack Obama's digital inbox calling on him to commit to policies that support the development of open educational resources, known more commonly as OERs. The letter was first developed and signed by multiple organizations from the education, library, technology, public interest and legal communities.

The heart of this letter can be summed up by a key paragraph that appeared on Page 2 of the letter:

Your Administration recognized the impact and value of Open Educational Resources in the open government initiatives announced in September 2014 as part of the Second Open Government National Action Plan. In this announcement, the U.S. formally expressed its commitment to Open Education and launched an initiative entitled “Promote Open Education to Increase Awareness and Engagement” stating that “there is a growing body of evidence that the use of open education resources improves the quality of teaching and learning, including by accelerating student comprehension and by fostering more opportunities for affordable cross-border and cross-cultural educational experiences.” As barriers between formal classroom learning, online learning, and skills and certification-based learning are broken down, a wide range of educational materials, from training materials to public engagement and education materials can be adapted and reused for teaching and learning purposes.

So what exactly are OERs? The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation defines them as "teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software and any other tools, materials or techniques used to support access to knowledge."

On their website, you can read about the work they have done dating back to 2002 toward "establishing a self-sustaining and adaptive global OER ecosystem and demonstrating its potential to improve teaching and learning."

Commenting on this letter, journalist Nichole Dobo of the The Hechinger Report asked this question: Should educational materials be set free for all to use?

She went on to describe OERs as having the ability to be "far more powerful in reshaping our schools than the banal acronym implies." Dobo went on to discuss one of the simplest forms of an OER, Wikipedia. While this site doesn't always get the best reviews from educators because of how quickly content can be added and altered, it is "a free, online encyclopedia that can be repurposed and rewritten by anyone, anywhere, without fear of violating copyright laws," as Dobo explain.

Dobo went on to give another example of an OER that has systems in place to ensure that content has been validated by others in the educational community. CK12 has developed a library of free resources for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that can be accessed by both teachers and students for classroom instruction, enrichment, intervention or reteaching.

How can teachers get started with OERs in their classrooms? It's simple. You can begin with a resource site such as the Open Professionals Education Network. From there, you can browse an extensive list of OER websites big and small.

Need a good website to start with? Try visiting OER Commons. This site allows users to search for content by subject, grade level and/or by Common Core standard. From there, users are able to filter and search through hundreds (and in many cases thousands) of lessons, assessments and performance tasks that have been loaded to the site by other educators. Users can rate the resources and provide comments for others.

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see how the rise of OERs impacts the traditional textbook market. In many ways, it may be like when we all watched Netflix take on its biggest competitor of the last decade, Blockbuster Video. Of course, we all know how that story ended.