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Time-to-Adoption Horizon: Two to Three Years
The movement toward open content reflects a growing shift in the way academics in many parts of the world are conceptualizing education to a view that is more about the process of learning than the information conveyed in their courses. Information is everywhere; the challenge is to make effective use of it. Open content embraces not only the sharing of information, but the sharing of instructional practice and experiences as well. Part of the appeal of open content is that it is also a response to both the rising costs of traditionally published resources and the lack of educational resources in some regions, and a cost-effective alternative to textbooks and other materials. As customizable educational content — and insights about how to teach and learn with it — is increasingly made available for free over the Internet, students are learning not only the material, but also skills related to finding, evaluating, interpreting, and repurposing the resources they are studying in partnership with their teachers. 

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Highlighted in the mid-term horizon last year, open content continues to be of considerable interest to many educators. Its focus on collective knowledge and on the sharing and reuse of learning and scholarly materials is particularly apt given the increasing adoption of electronic books and digital content. Open content has now come to the point that it is rapidly driving change in both the materials we use and the process of education. At its core, the notion of open content is to take advantage of the Internet as a global dissemination platform for collective knowledge and wisdom, and to design learning experiences that maximize the use of it.

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Open content, as described here, has its roots in a number of seminal efforts, including the Open Content Project, MIT’s Open Courseware Initiative (OCW), the Open Knowledge Foundation, and work by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and others. Many of these projects focused on creating collections of sharable resources and on devising licenses and metadata schemata. The groundswell of interest in open content described here is differentiated from early work by its primary focus on the use of open content and its place in the curriculum. The role of open content producers has evolved as well, away from the idea of authoritative repositories of content and towards the broader notion of content being both free and ubiquitous. Building on the trailblazing models of institutions like MIT, schools like Tufts University (and many others) now consider making their course materials available to the public a social responsibility.

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This philosophy of open content and open education acknowledges that information is not the only useful and distributable commodity among educators. Understanding, insight, and experience can also be collected and shared. An outgrowth of that perspective is the emergence of open-content textbooks that can be “remixed” — that is, customized, modified, or combined with other materials — and the resulting new combinations can be shared in turn. A number of publishers are finding ways to support authors and consumers of such materials. The publishing company Flat World Knowledge is one that provides access to textbooks authored for open use, making it very easy for faculty to individually tailor a text for use in their own class and then share that custom text with the larger community. Flat World Knowledge operates as any publisher does, reviewing book submissions and using a traditional editing process before release; however, electronic copies of the textbooks are free. Students only pay for print copies if desired, and authors receive royalties for these purchases whether the book has been customized or not.

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At the centre of many discussions of open content are the challenges of sharing, repurposing, and reusing scholarly works; related to those discussions are concerns about intellectual property, copyright, and student-to-student collaboration. Solid work in this area has been done by groups such as Creative Commons and Creative Commons Australia, the Academic Commons, Science Commons, and others to address many of the concerns commonly voiced. Many believe that reward structures that support the sharing of work in progress, ongoing research, highly collaborative projects, and a broad view of what constitutes scholarly publication are key challenges that institutions need to solve. Also to be addressed are reputation systems, peer review processes, and models for citation of the new forms of content that are likely outgrowths of open content initiatives.

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While a number of highly structured projects exist to provide access to open content, in general, the open content community is diffuse and distributed. Learning to find useful resources within a given discipline, assess the quality of content available, and repurpose them in support of a learning or research objective are valuable skills for any emerging scholar, and many adherents of open content list that aspect among the reasons they support the use of shareable materials. Nonetheless, broad use of open learning materials remains at least two years away, and the larger promise of open content — in which teaching and learning experiences and insights are shared as easily as information — will take even longer to realize. For the present, the creation of learning materials is still more a process of design driven by individual tastes and opinions than a collaborative process involving the contributions and views of many.

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Relevance for Teaching, Learning, and Creative Enquiry

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Open content shifts the learning equation in a number of interesting ways; the most important is that its use promotes a set of skills that are critical in maintaining currency in any discipline — the ability to find, evaluate, and put new information to use. Almost as important is that the same set of materials, once placed online and made sharable via the appropriate licensing, can inform a wide variety of learning modalities, not the least of which is learning for the sheer joy of discovery. A broader view of open content that includes learning activities, assessment methods, and teaching strategies hints at more far-reaching effects; beyond enabling self-directed study and custom course materials, open content has the potential to empower students and teachers to create individualized learning experiences drawn from a host of resources.

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As more faculty and administrators become aware of and experience open content, its comparative benefits and challenges vis-à-vis traditional learning resources become better understood. Open resources are generally, though not always, electronic. They are easier to update than print materials. Because they are digital in nature, open learning materials can incorporate activities to support multiple modes of study — reading, listening, interacting — though they can be challenging to create as a result. As new courses are developed, faculty have a responsibility to carefully consider the best supporting materials and activities to offer to students, and a thorough understanding of what is available through open channels will assist with this.

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Open content will influence course development and planning on several levels, although we will not see widespread evidence of this for several more years. Few teachers will reuse material as-is; most will wish to customize the open content they find to suit their local context. In many cases, the benefits of adapting open materials obviously outweigh the cost of creating new ones, but this is not the only factor under consideration; there is a strong impulse to design from scratch and rely on familiar resources. The process of course development, too, does not always lend itself to the use of open content. Often, courses are developed collaboratively, and workflow patterns may not easily accommodate the time and energy needed to adequately search for and review available open content. Selecting and adapting open resources are skills that must be cultivated, just as designing a new course is cultivated, and both should contribute to a complete picture of teaching proficiency.

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A key issue in Australia is the impact of the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) on practices and policies applying to open content. While institutions and academics are empowered to use commercial material for teaching purposes, they may do so only if access is restricted to enrolled students, and only for the duration of the enrolled term. As a result, such material can never be incorporated into open access offerings. This restriction has been in place for sufficiently long a time that it is likely that most courses contain proprietary content, prohibiting broad access to already-developed materials.

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Going forward, course developers must take care to locate sharable resources to replace those that are governed under the CAL licensing structure. Open content tends to be distributed in nature and can be difficult to locate, though this is changing as the interest in open access grows. Many sources of open content can easily be found in Creative Commons, Teachers Without Borders, and other online communities, while portals like Folksemantic offer a single point of entry to many open content offerings. Learning communities associated with services like Diigo or Twine (now part of evri) can point educators in the right direction via the social networking equivalent of “word of mouth.”

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Communities of practice and learning communities provide another avenue for continuing education and support to both practitioners and independent learners. OpenLearn, a project of the Open University in the U.K., offers anyone the opportunity to join a study group while working through their open course content. OpenLearn practices a method known as “supported open learning,” in which students work through content at their own pace with help and guidance from a tutor.

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

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  • Curriculum Development. WikiEducator is a community resource supported by the Open Education Resource Foundation, an independent non-profit for the development of free educational content based at Otago Polytechnic. As well as open content, WikiEducator provides resources for teachers wishing to develop courses using the content.
  • Information Sciences. Koha is an open-content library management system originating in New Zealand. Today, it is used by hundreds of libraries worldwide and sustained by over forty active developers.
  • Literature. Looking for Whitman is an open-access, multi-institutional experiment, dedicated to the study of the life and works of Walt Whitman.
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Open Content in Practice

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

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CK-12 Flexbooks
CK-12 provides open content textbooks for K-12. The not-for-profit organization aims to lower the costs of textbooks by providing electronic versions through their website and the iBookstore.

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Remixing ÇatalhöyükÇatalhöyük
Developed using data and interpretations from recent archaeological research at a 9,000-year-old settlement in central Turkey, this open resource includes tools to make it easy for teachers and students to use and remix content about the settlement.

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Thinkfinity is a free source of lesson plans and educational resources for K-12. Sponsored by Verizon and developed with a number of content providers, Thinkfinity includes a community of practice, resources for home learning, and a professional development program.

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The UTSeScholarship program at the University of Technology Sydney is an integrated open content program consisting of UTSePress, UTSiResearch and UTSeData. UTSePress is a major publisher of open access scholarly journals in Australia and New Zealand.

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Wikipublisher is an open source project originating in New Zealand that allows wikis and web content to be easily formatted for print publication.

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For Further Reading

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

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Around the World, Varied Approaches to Open Online Learning
(Simmi Aujla and Ben Terris, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 October 2009.) Many countries are using open educational resources to reach students who would otherwise be unable to attend university.
Creative Commons Launches Public Domain Mark
(Diane Peters, Creative Commons, 11 October 2010.) In October 2010, Creative Commons established the Public Domain Mark, a way to brand open source content so there is no question as to whether it can be reused or remixed.

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Open Societies Need Open Systems
(Bill Thompson, BBC News, 2 February 2010.) Bill Thompson argues the need for open systems in this editorial piece for BBC News.

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The Open University’s Patrick McAndrew: Open Education and Policy
(Timothy Vollmer, Creative Commons, 27 September 2010.) Creative Commons interviews Patrick McAndrew of The Open University, who discusses his thoughts on the value of open content and how it can used in higher education.

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Students Find Free Online Lectures Better Than What Theyre Paying For
(Jeffery R. Young, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 October 2009.) Not only traditional students, but learners whose primary language is not native, advanced high-school students, and working professionals all take advantage of free educational resources.

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Delicious: Open Content
Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hz10anz” and “opencontent” when you save them to Delicious.