Open Content

Open Content in Education


This pathfinder is designed to assist educators in learning about open content, how to access open content, and how it may be used for educational purposes. Included in this resource are helpful definitions, search strategies, prominent figures in the open content movement and how to follow them, open content repositories and search tools, and links to websites, articles, books, and resources that cover the topic of open content.

 Essential Questions


  • What is open content?
  • What qualifies as open content?
  • Where does open content fit in the copyright spectrum?
  • What are the applications of open content in education?

What is Open Content?


The global non-profit organization Open Knowledge defines open content as the following:

Open data and content can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose.

This definition represents an abbreviated version of what is known as the Open Definition, which describes in detail the requirements for distribution and licensing in order for works (content or data) to qualify as open.

Other definitions of open content:

Freedom Defined: Used by Creative Commons in order to determine licenses suitable for “free cultural works,” its term for open content.

Open Content definition by David Wiley, head of the Open Content Project, which was later succeeded by Creative Commons.

Definition of Free Software: Used by the Free Software Foundation for the purposes of maintaining licenses for open software.

What Qualifies as Open Content?


We now have a better understanding of what open content is (content that may be used, modified, or shared at no cost), but how do educators determine if a given work is open?

Identifying the license applied to a given work is the easiest and most straightforward means of determining how “open” that work is, as the creator has already done the work for us.

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons: About the Licenses: Creative Commons (CC) licenses are by far the most popular “some rights reserved” types of copyright licenses, and two CC licenses qualify as open content licenses:


Read more about Creative Commons Licenses:

Other Licenses

Conformant LicensesPage detailing licenses that conform with the definition of open content as laid out by Open Knowledge.

Licenses & Standards: Page detailing licenses that conform with the definition of open source as laid out by the Open Source Initiative.

Public Domain

Works in the public domain are considered open content because traditional copyright laws do not apply, have expired, or have not been renewed by choice of the copyright owner.

Creative Commons provides the following No Rights Reserved/No Known Copyright license for works in the public domain:


Read more about the public domain:

Examples of Open Content



Astronaut Photography of EarthThis NASA collection contains images taken by astronauts of the Earth, ranging from 1961 to the present.

New York Public Library Public Domain Collections: These collections amount to over 180,000 photographs, maps, artwork, documents, and more.

Smithsonian Institution Public Domain Images: This collection of public domain images is hosted on Flickr and includes nearly 4,000 photographs, drawings, and even NASA imagery.


Getty Museum Open Content ProgramThe Getty Museum recently made over 99,000 images available at no cost. The open content images are searchable within the main collection.

Metropolitan Museum – Open Access for Scholarly ContentThe Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has made over 400,000 images in its digital collection freely downloadable. These images in the collection are marked with “OASC.”


LibriVox: Audiobook collection of public domain titles, with audio provided by volunteers. The audiobooks recorded by LibriVox are hosted by the Internet Archive.

Project Gutenberg: This eBook collection boasts over 50,000 titles, the majority of which have passed into the public domain after copyright expiration.


Flickr – Creative Commons: This page has been organized by Flickr in order to allow users to search images by Creative Commons license, including Public Domain Dedication and Public Domain Mark.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Image Gallery: This collection of high-resolution images of food, animals, and other agricultural topics is made freely available by the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

Audio This collection includes many different types of audio files, notably sound effects, that are free to download, remix, and reuse under Creative Commons licenses.

SoundBible – Royalty Free Sounds: This collection within the larger SoundBible site includes all audio that falls under Creative Commons licenses and the public domain.

Open Educational Resources


OER Commons define Open Educational Resources (OER) as teaching and learning materials that you may freely use and reuse at no cost. OER qualify as open content, but extend beyond single files to include textbooks, lesson plans, interactive websites, and more.

In October 2015, the U.S. Department of Education launched the GoOpen campaign to encourage states and districts to “go open” by adopting open educational resources, or as the Department of Education defines them, openly licensed educational resources.

Accessing Open Educational Resources

Learning RegistryThis interface is hosted by the U.S. Department of Education in conjunction with the GoOpen campaign, and while it is meant to serve developers and publishers of OER, you can also search for existing resources.

OER CommonsA searchable collection of over 50,000 resources. OER Commons also allows for the authoring of OER, including lesson plans, to be contributed to the collection.

Find OERThis guide by the Open Professionals Education Network includes recommendations for searching for OER, as well as an extensive annotated list of links to repositories and search engines related to OER.

Read more about OER:

  • OER and You: The Curation Mandate: In her School Library Journal blog, Joyce Valenza discusses the GoOpen campaign and touches upon other recent open education initiatives, including plans by Amazon, Edmodo, Follett, and Microsoft to launch platforms and resources.
  • Molnar, Michele. “Wave Of Open Content A Challenge.” Education Week 35.17 (2016): S8. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 June 2016.

Describes the Houston school district’s “PowerUp” initiative, which aims to move educational resources to entirely open content, both by acquisition and creation, and the challenges posed by vetting and curating this open content.


Searching for Open Content


Search Terms

While it is recommended that educators use the search engines and repositories already mentioned, these search terms and phrases may be used when searching for open content or performing research about open content:

  • “open content”
  • “open source”
  • “creative commons”
  • “public domain”
  • “OER” or “open educational resources”
  • “openly licensed educational resources”
  • “open ebooks”
  • “open textbooks”
  • “e-textbooks”

Prominent Voices


Tim Davies

“Co-director of Practical ParticipationWeb Science/Social Policy PhD student at the University of Southampton and affiliate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.”

Rufus Pollock

“Founder and President of Open Knowledge, an international non-profit using advocacy, technology and training to unlock information and turn it into insight and change.”

David Wiley

“Chief Academic Officer of Lumen Learning, an organization dedicated to increasing student success, reinvigorating pedagogy, and improving the affordability of education through the adoption of open educational resources by schools, community and state colleges, and universities.”