The rising costs of education and the chronic shortage of time felt by most teachers are beginning to open the door to a broader acceptance of open content. Open content for education includes any freely available course materials — everything from worksheets to lectures to study aids to entire courses — offered online for teachers or learners to access, download, use, and in many cases, modify. There is a growing trend of community support around open content that is creating interesting opportunities for learning both inside and outside traditional environments; peer teaching, volunteer tutors, and community forums add a richness to the available materials that contributes to the formation of communities of learners from across the globe.


Open content is a name used to describe a wide range of materials for teaching and learning; the unifying feature is that these materials are licensed in such a way that they may be freely used in support of educational activities. These materials include specific learning content (e.g., textbooks, chapters, lectures and lecture notes, slides, online tutorials, videos, etc.), the scaffolding needed to support such content (teacher and student guides, research questions, source material, syllabi, and so on), teacher training materials, tools for managing learning that range from the complex (content management systems) to the simple (grade books), and many other sorts of materials and resources.

From quite specific materials on a particular concept or topic to full lectures, discussions, and even entire courses, the notion of open content includes materials of any size and depth. A commonly cited benefit of using open content is that it can reduce the growing costs of education by allowing educators to develop, select, distribute, and reuse materials quickly and easily, with less dependence on traditional publishers. Traditional content is envisioned as a commodity of sorts, well-established in the marketplace of ideas. As such, it does not need to be reinvented and should be broadly available via the Internet. The idea is that by using these already prepared materials, educators can then focus on pedagogy, context, and teaching. A key feature of open content is that it is meant to be easy to update as the body of knowledge in a given field advances; changes are entered by the community and are immediately available, analogous to the way Wikipedia is kept current.

Paralleling the growing interest in open content itself, there is also an increased emphasis on supporting the activities that surround the use of open content. Community and collaboration are seen as key components that enhance collections of open resources for education. The most robust and successful open educational offerings also incorporate support for the community of teachers and learners who make use of the content, such as profile directories, discussion support, peer mentoring, or other means of connecting people with one another.

The increased interest in open content reflects a changing perception of what constitutes a learning environment, and the kinds of experiences and supporting materials that are present in such an environment. As the demand for personalised learning experiences grows, educators are increasingly turning to open content to find ways of engaging their students that extend or even replace traditional course materials. Fuelling interest is the widely held perception that open content resources are more cost effective than textbooks or packaged online courses.

Broad use of open content is seen as two to three years away, partly because there is not yet a sufficient critical mass of content creators to tip the balance toward mainstream use. Further, where content is available, it is not always easy to find; open content does not currently include well-defined features that would enhance findability, so locating resources is often rather hit or miss. The growing social networks are seen as a potential way to fill this gap by creating a sort of virtual word of mouth around good materials.

Credibility and quality are concerns that potential users have around open content. Producers of open content are often worried about how making resources modifiable will impact their own reputations and what might be done with their intellectual property. A related concern is how to honour copyrights of others and how to ensure an investment of good scholarship will persist once the materials have become “open.”

Relevance for Teaching, learning, and Creative Enquiry

In a time when teachers and educators are increasingly attuned to student engagement, many see open content as a way to share learning materials in forms other than text. A great deal of rich media content, for example, is available in audio or video form through iTunes U, YouTube, and other media sharing sites. Increasingly, institutions are creating special content expressly to be shared on such sites.

Open content offers the additional promise of reach- ing people that are not formally enrolled in a program of study — independent, informal, just-in-time, and life-long learners, for example — and these learners often congregate around sites that include social net- working components like the ability to comment or annotate materials, or add responses. Educational communities organised around open content offer great potential to connect these individuals learning with and supporting each other. Groups such as the Open CourseWare Consortium ( expressly support the community as- pect of open content and model effective practices.

Despite the potential drawbacks, a growing number of institutions are encouraging departments to make course content openly available online, with an eye to reducing repeated effort and to potentially reducing costs for students. Sharable materials offer the promise of reducing teacher workloads, as they do not need to be recreated from scratch for every use. When such materials are properly licensed, faculty are free to create custom teaching packages without the challenges that accompany the creation or use of traditionally published materials.

A clear and positive response to concerns over in- tellectual property and copyrights are the flexible li- censing options, such as those offered by Creative Commons (, that content creators employ to indicate how their re- sources can be used. By specifying certain options — such as requiring attribution or requiring that any derivative works be distributed under the same kind of license as the original — creators can maintain ties to their work while still allowing it to be shared and adopted freely.

A sampling of applications of open content across disciplines includes the following:

  • Chemistry. OpenChemistry is a United Kingdom-based online collection of chemistry resources, all of which are licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license. Materials may be freely used and modified.
  • Education. At Brigham Young University, students in Professor David Wiley’s Introduction to Open Education course learn about open education while practising problem-based learning methods in a semester-long role-playing game where their own actions shape the class itself.
  • Physics. Senior lecturer Dr. Adam Micolich at the University of New South Wales not only uses clips from YouTube to show rare demonstrations — such as super fluid helium — to his students, he also records and posts his own video tutorials on physics topics.

Open Content in Practice

The following links provide examples of open content in educational settings.

Connectivism and Connective Knowledge
George Siemens and Stephen Downes run a yearly Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) which is open to anyone in the world; over 2000 people participated in 2008.

Flat World Knowledge
Flat World Knowledge offers free online textbooks that teachers can modify for their own courses. Students can access the texts online or order inexpensive print copies. The community can contribute to textbooks or discuss the content.

OER Commons
OER Commons is a clearinghouse of open educational resources. Each resource is clearly described, indicating its source and the licensing requirements for use (if any).

Open Research Online
Open Research Online houses research publications from faculty and staff at the Open University, a UK institution dedicated to distance learning. The repository is freely available to the public.

Otago Polytechnic
Otago Polytechnic in Dunedin, New Zealand shifted their model for the use of educational resources from traditional views of ownership and intellectual property to one in which materials are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Wiki Educator
Wiki Educator aims to provide open educational resources for teachers around the world, covering all areas of the curriculum.

For Further Reading

The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about open content.

Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?
(Lisa Spiro, Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 1 September 2008.) Once considered not intellectually rigorous enough for citation in scholarly publications, Wikipedia’s open nature often results in articles undergoing more professional scrutiny than some academic journals.

Mobile Devices and the Future of Free Education 2009
(Rory McGreal, Athabasca University, 2009.) This paper describes M-learning, or the delivery of open educational content via mobile devices, and suggests its potential for providing free, universal access to education.

Open Education News
(Gurell, et al.) Open Education News is a blog devoted to reporting current events and news related to open education and resource sharing around the world.

Science in the Open
(Cameron Neylon.) This blog discusses the academic and social issues around open science — the practice of publishing scientific research openly and freely, while it is happening.

Uni Computer Lecturer Makes YouTube his Classroom
(Asher Moses, The Age, 4 March 2009.) At the University of New South Wales, senior lecturer Richard Buckland offers his course free of charge to high school students. The students watch the lectures on YouTube and attend a tutorial once a week.

Universities Opt for iTunes
(University World News, 8 June 2008.) This article describes how a number of universities in Australia and New Zealand are offering free, online lectures to distant students through iTunes U.

Delicious: Open Content
(Australia–New Zealand Horizon Advisory Board and Friends, 2009.) Follow this link to find resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report, including the ones listed here. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hz09au” and “opened” when you save them to Delicious.

Posted by NMC on September 23, 2009
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