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Open Source Content in Education:
Part 2 - Developing, sharing, expanding resources

George Siemens

March 10 , 2003

This is the second article (Part 1: Free and Open Source Movements explores the history and philosophy of the openness and sharing of resources in software development) on the role of open source in education. The foundation of the article was shaped by a several week email dialogue with Stephen Downes. The essential concept presented: we need open access and sharing of educational materials to provide an alternative to increasing pressures of proprietary content providers.


The impact of technology is still rippling through society: changes in how we acquire/use digital resources, new modes of communication, rapid dissemination of information (via blogs and RSS), collaboration and dialogue with peers from around the world (often via communities of practice (CoPs)), and free flow of ideas and information.

While the societal/social impact of technology is still in its infancy, the greatest challenge facing the role of technology may well be in the creation and distribution of knowledge and information. As such, opposition to new processes and tools for sharing can be expected from organizations holding an industrial view of information (information is scarce, controlling it is power). Traditional publishers of content (video, books, music) have been reluctant to embrace the "Internet model" for distribution of information. Instead, they have attempted to apply existing philosophies of content distribution to this medium. Instead of transforming their products and processes to utilize the unique characteristics of the Internet, they have decided (either consciously in an effort to control, or unconsciously due to lack of understanding) to transfer the model. They have discovered that the Internet and its users are resisting this. Instead, users are creating infrastructure and tools to share and use resources in keeping with the characteristics of the medium (fast, open, distributed, access, user-owned, user-created, defying control, etc.).

Two concerns exist:

  1. Open model becoming closed (taking open content (like software) and recreating the development model to generate revenue)
  2. Ineffective transitioning to the Internet (music, video)

The field of education is now facing pressures on both levels. Publishers of educational content are creating an environment similar to the software industry in the late '70's, early '80's (see The Transition: Open to Commercial) - closing doors, content as individual property, proprietary offerings, and a for-profit focus. The public education system (funded by the public for (theoretically) building and developing the knowledge and skill of a society to allow for personal growth and societal benefit) has long been a (somewhat) open forum for idea and research exchange. Preservation of openness and sharing (at an educational level) is critical for the creation of a culture that values innovation, progress, experimentation, and development.

Background: What's Happening in Education and Society

The climate in education and society is changing - some changes are positive, others are negative. All, however, are impacting the function and role of public education.

  • Proprietary
    • content is seen as a possession (individual or corporate)
    • For-profit education offers - largely due to the inability (or unwillingness) of traditional education to transform itself to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving societ
    • Copyright/patent revenue is seen as a revenue model by larger corporations
  • Our need for knowledge is different.
    • We no longer need to take entire courses - we need learning that is focused and concise - based on what we know and don't know.
    • Personalization of everything. Out-of-the-can education, music, websites, don't meet the needs of people who want tailored resources.
  • Learning objects.
    • Knowledge and information has a nebulous trait - it resists quantification/definition. However, the development of learning/information objects allows segments of information to be defined, tagged, and shared.
  • Globalization
    • Education providers are no longer geographically limited. Much like globalization forced transformation in business, it is now exerting pressures on education. Insular, narrow-sighted institutions that do not recognize this fundamental shift risk obsolescence
  • Industrial to knowledge transition
    • In an industrial model, if I possess an item (say a car) and I give it away - someone has gained, but I've lost something. In a knowledge economy, this model of scarcity is not relevant. Giving away knowledge or freeing educational content does not cause loss to the original "owner"
    • The power is in the pipe - the Internet has changed how people communicate, share, disseminate information, and interact with others. The development of this infrastructure means that someone will always be attempting to create "doors of access" in order to generate profit.
  • Communities
    • The complexity of technology requires sharing. Communities of specialists allows for a global perspective, without the need to be thoroughly knowledgeable in every area.
    • Individual voices - i.e. blogs
    • Open source movement
    • Grassroots activities

Thoughts on intellectual property and copyright (Lawrence Lessig):

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

...and thoughts on the Internet:

"All we need to do is pay attention to what the Internet really is. It's not hard. The Net isn't rocket science. It isn't even 6th grade science fair, when you get right down to it. We can end the tragedy of Repetitive Mistake Syndrome in our lifetimes — and save a few trillion dollars’ worth of dumb decisions — if we can just remember one simple fact: the Net is a world of ends. You're at one end, and everybody and everything else are at the other ends...And the Internet’s value is founded in its technical architecture." Doc Searls and David Weinberger

Within the context of changes in society, concerns of IP and copyright, and the nature of the Internet, the problem facing public education can be defined as:

  1. Things are changing
  2. Public education is not responding quickly
  3. For-profit education is meeting the emerging market's needs
  4. For-profit education is treating content as a product and is limiting access and closing doors
  5. Public education needs to respond by evaluating changing circumstances and providing appropriate response
  6. The response: learning object based, individualized education based on the needs of the marketplace it serves
  7. The response is not possible for any individual institution. Collaboration and sharing are required
  8. Open source content development is the model to ensure public education meets needs of its market in an affordable way


The current publishing model has five elements (Crisis and transition: the economics of scholarly communication):

  1. Publishers (commercial, institutional, professional publications
  2. Supply Network (content creators)
  3. Distribution Network (wholesalers, retailers, etc.)
  4. Collective Support Infrastructure (research funding agencies)
  5. Regulatory Framework (IP regulation, professional quality standards, codes of conduct)

In this model, publishers have the ability to create proprietary content (while expensive, it is an important option in an open society so it needs to exist), but the damaging aspect of this model comes in the publishers' ability to "close" the doors to content and resources not deemed to be economically viable to support (but may play critical roles in future innovation as a building block). The result limits the choices of content creators. The following two options exist (and with the creation of open source content models, a third is added):

  1. Purchase content and learning objects from publishers (i.e. follow the classic publishing model)
  2. Instructors write and create their own course content
  3. Instructors and institutions collaborate to create and share quality learning objects. Anyone can submit resources.

This model still requires all of the five elements in a publishing model, but the roles are aggregated. For example, the creation, production and distribution of learning objects can be handled by a community of educators committed to sharing and building on each other's work.

DOSC - The Concept

A forum is needed to ensure content is available to learners and educators. Developing Open Source Content (DOSC) is being formed as a means to foster required changes in education. The DOSC concept is captured by two statements of learning objects/content: open access, continual improvement.

DOSC has four primary purposes:

  1. Forum for collaborative creation of open source content.
    Academic fields are not isolated. Work, resources, and research are the foundations for continual innovation. To capitalize on this concept, forums are needed that have sufficient openness to allow educators to build on the work of others. Very few ideas are perfect at first presentation. Most ideas (and education resources) are refined through dialogue with colleagues and other professionals in an industry. DOSC objective of creating a collaborative forum for creating content requires a commitment to open source views of information (i.e. information is shared and used to build new information).
  2. Forum for releasing already created content.
    Educators have a wealth of existing content. Not all of it is in learning object format, but it is complete enough to be shared with others (after appropriate metatagging). Not all content following the DOSC model will be collaboratively developed. Much of it will be existing content shared by educators.
  3. Community to build communities.
    Building communities has two components: the architecture (technology resources and tools), and the environment (maintenance, nurturing, fostering). By using DOSC as a touchpoint for community fostering and creation, communities of interest (e.g. biology, chemistry, English, K-12...) can focus on creating the environment for knowledge sharing. DOSC, in this sense, becomes a meta-community to assist other communities
  4. To provide resources/guidelines for interested universities, colleges, education providers, and educators. Educators are experts in their own field. Currently, in order for them to share their knowledge digitally (move courses online), they need to learn an entire new language and skill set - HTML, XML, information/instructional design, course management systems, etc. While this process may be of interest to educators with a technical slant, the complexity of the process is excluding many from moving online. Communities are comprised of people with diverse skill sets - no one is an expert in everything. Instead, they are specialists in their own field, and community comes from relying on each other's skills.

If educators had access to wide variety of learning objects, a community that had skill sets to repurpose their content in a variety ways (this is where DOSC templates, models, guidelines become important), it is conceivable that the adoption and use of elearning would be greatly enhanced (as well as the growth of the field (e.g. biology, chemistry, accounting) itself).

The Vision:

  1. Central listing of Open Source Content (OSC) initiatives
    A central listing allows interested educators to connect with others in established content creation communities, or to form their own.
  2. Assist individuals and organizations in adopting the OSC model for content release
    By providing models and experience, DOSC can provide an important service to individuals/organizations that are eager to adopt the OSC model. Through the provision of guides, models, and best practices, the process of "opening content" will be greatly improved for organizations.
  3. Assist individuals and organizations in adopting the OSC model for content use
    In addition to providing resources for moving to the OSC model, DOSC can also offer guidelines on how to incorporate and use open content. Again, guides, models, and best practices can accelerate the process.
  4. Promote/advocate the viability/value of OSC
    Beyond simply fostering forums of content sharing and development, DOSC will also seek to advocate the value of open source content. In many ways, the freeing of content helps the public education system to meet the needs and intent of education. Advocating for open source content is simply an advocation for preservation of public education.
  5. Create the structure for OSC to ensure maximum potential for sharing and use
    This final component of the DOSC vision requires significant input and feedback from the larger community. Sharing education resources and fostering communities requires some structure (very simple, user focused) to ensure maximum potential for use.

The concept of DOSC is directly connected to three significant models: blogs, open source, and the Internet itself.

  • Blogs - everyone has a voice
  • Open source - collaboration yields greater results and allows for individual specialization to create a more complete whole
  • Internet - everything is connected, linked, transparent, decentralized...simple standards

The requirements:

In order for DOSC to work, many of the errors that cause slow adoption of technology need to be avoided. In this regard, DOSC commits to three main requirements for success:

  1. End-user focus - who will use this? Why would they want to? The commitment needs to be to the educators who create and use learning objects.
  2. Simple in and simple out. Creating learning objects via DOSC model, and loading metadata into the DLORN model needs to be simple. Complexity at this level is a hindrance.
  3. Simple start - start with a simple concept, and grow the idea based on interest. Rather than creating an entire concept, start small and let the interests and needs of other participants shape and direct activity

The Process

Creating a community according to the DOSC model would evolve as follows:

  • Initiation: A community is initiated (by an individual or organization)
  • Formation: At this stage, the group organizes and involves required institutions and individuals
  • Registration: With DOSC - in order to create a centralized, searchable listing
  • Adoption: of DOSC model for content creation and sharing via CoPs/open source model
  • Roles - a CoP is largely self-organizing. Roles are filled based on the skills and abilities of a group. The process can loosely follow guidelines made available by DOSC

What happens with learning objects and content?

Resources (metadata) are housed/listed in DLORN. DLORN is a decentralized repository with centralized metadata. Additional functionality involves the inclusion of rating systems (peer review and quality of learning object evaluation), process for payment, and RSS feeds for learning objects. As DOSC communities create and complete learning objects and resources, the metadata for the resources will be housed in DLORN. The content itself would be housed in the community in which it was created.

The DLORN project is nearing completion. Great potential exists for DLORN and DOSC to form and develop together. Information of DLORN will be provided via OLDaily and DOSC Yahoo! Group.

The content/learning objects will be licensed under Creative Commons license. Four main categories exist:

  • Attribution: "You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your copyrighted work — and derivative works based upon it — but only if they give you credit."
  • Noncommercial: "You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform your work — and derivative works based upon it — but for noncommercial purposes only."
  • No Derivative Works: "You let others copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of your work, not derivative works based upon it." (This license type may be difficult in open source development, but to an individual content creator/contributor, it may have value)
  • Share Alike: "You allow others to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs your work."

Steps for Forming DOSC

This is the founding document for DOSC. It is a starting point for discussion. Any effective initiative requires discourse and the inclusion of diverse opinions. The following process is offered as the next steps:

  1. Define DOSC (largely done in this document)
  2. Establish communications - listserv, website
  3. Release founding documents:
  4. Create "steering committee" based on interest and roles required
  5. Pilot project - create a small sample CoP to develop and review content (learning object)
  6. Promotion - promote the value of DOSC to education institutions and instructors.

As a beginning point, I would like to suggest May 30, 2003 as the date for "releasing" the DOSC concept. The next two months would then be spent validating the vision, involving interested stakeholders, and refining the concept. To this end, I invite interested parties to begin by joining an interim mailing list: Developing Open Source Content (until more permanent processes have been established).


The need for an alternative model for education development and sharing is evident. Open source content is not a competitor to proprietary content - it is an alternative. Currently, the proprietary content model is the only option facing many people in education. The very nature of public education requires open idea sharing, collaboration, and the ability to build on the work of others.

A loosely-planned, group evolving concept like DOSC is needed to respond to rapidly changing needs of educators. The corner stones of open source, communities of practice, user-focused simplicity, and connection to the DLORN repository may present a viable, long term model to allow public eduation to transform itself to continue to meet the needs of a digital society.

DISCUSS this article

Resources/Additional Reading

Free Culture - Lawrence Lessig Keynote from OSCON 2002

By Stephen Downes:

Handbook for Standardization - .pdf and .doc files available in English. Excellent model of the use of CoPs in technical standards creation.

Collaborative Development of Open Content - "However, there is currently no published operational model to guide institutions or individuals in creating collaborative open content projects. This paper examines lessons learned from open source software development and uses these lessons to build the foundations of a process model for the collaborative development of open content."

Open Archive Initiative - "The Open Archives Initiative develops and promotes interoperability standards that aim to facilitate the efficient dissemination of content. The Open Archives Initiative has its roots in an effort to enhance access to e-print archives as a means of increasing the availability of scholarly communication."

Free Online Scholarship by Peter Suber - excellent resource on the role of the Internet in the research and publication

World of Ends - lists 10 key attributes of the Internet...and how these are often ignored.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License