FOSS Education/Open Content

The success of the Open Source phenomenon has prompted efforts to apply similar principles in the publication of content. The idea behind publishing Open Content is that anyone can use the content, distribute it freely, modify it and redistribute it. In this way, the content can be improved upon and knowledge is made freely available for the common good. The term "Open Content" was coined by Dr. David Wiley who launched the OpenContent project in 1998 and provided the Open Content License. The Open Content License is now superseded by the Creative Commons licenses.

Creative Commons ( ), which is based at the Stanford Law School, provides various options for licensing Open Content. It should be noted that publishing content using one of these licenses does not mean that the author is giving up copyright to the work. Rather, some rights are offered to users of the work under certain conditions. The various Creative Commons options are summarized below:

Gives permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it but only if credit is given.
Gives permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work and derivative works based upon it but for noncommercial purposes only.
No Derivative Works
Gives permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform only verbatim copies of the work but not derivative works based upon it.
Share Alike
Gives permission to distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs the original work.

Open Content is particularly important to education and there are a number of initiatives to provide Open Content for educational use, the most notable of which is the OpenCourseWare initiative by MIT.

MIT OpenCourseWare

Figure 6: One of the courses offered by the MIT OpenCourseWare

In April 2001, MIT announced the OpenCourseWare (OCW) project through which it will make available course material used in 2,000 courses taught at MIT. These will be available online and educators, students and self-learners from anywhere in the world can access the material without any restrictions. By May 2004,material for 700 courses from virtually all academic disciplines were published on the OCW website ( ).

Educators from all over the world can use the course material as a basis for curriculum development in their own institutions. Students can use it for self-study or as supplementary material for their courses. The availability of such a repository of educational materials can stimulate innovations in teaching and can lead to other collaborative efforts.

OCW is not about providing an MIT education. Neither is it a distance education initiative. According to Phillip Long, "OpenCourseWare is not an online teaching environment; it is the opportunity to have faculty at MIT present their view of good teaching material, the sequencing of teaching material, good problem sets, and appropriate types of activities. It is a representation of content and sequencing and thoughtful selection and juxtaposition of materials. It is an exposure to a public audience of the decisions and processes that faculty members go through to come to the point of having a collection of resources and materials to use when teaching a particular course."[1]

OpenCourseWare materials (Figure 6) are licensed under a Creative Commons License with attribution, noncommercial and share alike options mentioned earlier.



Wikipedia ( ) is a free Web-based encyclopedia that is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License (until 2009 the project used the GNU Free Documentation License). The encyclopedia's contents are written collaboratively by readers and are not subjected to any formal peer review. Readers can also edit the articles written by someone else.

Wikipedia was founded by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger who initially started another free Web-based encyclopedia called Nupedia where the articles were peer reviewed. Progress for Nupedia was slow and the number of articles available is limited. With Wikipedia, contributors make edits and create new articles rapidly. In December 2003, it had 185,785 articles listed,covering a wide range of subjects. It is also multilingual, with articles in various other languages. The founders of Wikipedia believe that the continuous process of editing articles will improve the content until a stable state with high quality content is reached.

Public Library of Science

Figure 7: PLoS Biology, an open access journal

The Public Library of Science ( PloS - ) is a non-profit organization founded in October 2000 with the aim of making the world's scientific and medical literature a freely available public resource. Over 30,000 scientists from over 180 countries, including 13 Nobel Laureates, endorsed the setting up of PloS, which is based in San Francisco. The rationale for PLoS is that unrestricted and open access to scientific ideas, methods, results and conclusions will speed up the progress of science and medicine.

With the help of grants from the Gordon Betty Moore Foundation and the Irving A.Hansen Foundation, PLoS launched, in October 2003, the first open access journal, called PLoS Biology (Figure 7). The journal is available online and full-text articles can be freely accessed, downloaded, printed and distributed. Although it is an open access journal, PLoS Biology still follows a process of rigorous peer review and selection similar to the current practice for conventional journals. The Public Library of Science plans to launch a medical journal, PLoS Medicine, in 2004 using the same open access model.


  1. Long, P. D., "OpenCourseWare: Simple Idea, Profound Implications", Syllabus Magazine, Jan 2002; available from .