Open-Source Resources

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

Open-source software, digital learning objects, and courseware are some common types of open-source resources used in higher education. These types of resources are desirable because there are no up-front costs for the uses of most of these. Many educators create open-source contents for sharing with others in their same and peripheral domain fields. This module introduces open-source contents.


Learners will...

  • Review a brief history of the origins of “open-source,” “open content,” and “open courseware”
  • Describe the general steps to contributing to open-source repositories
  • List some of the popular open-source licenses used for open-source contents in higher education
  • Think about the pros and cons of using open-source materials in their online courses
  • Consider various repositories that contain open-source materials for learning. Identify potential open-source resources that they may use in their particular fields

Module Pretest

1. What is a brief history of “open-source,” “open content,” and “open courseware”?

2. What are the general steps taken to contribute to open-source repositories?

3. What are some of the popular open-source licenses used for open-source contents in higher education?

4. What are some of the pros and cons of using open-source materials in online courses?

5. What are some repositories that contain open-source materials for learning? What are some specific resources that may be used in your particular domain field for teaching and learning?

Main Contents

This module introduces open-source resources that are popularly used in higher education. The concept of open-source creation of resources is most popularly explained by E.S. Raymond, who created the analogy of the “cathedral” and the “bazaar.” The cathedral is a close system where “individual wizards or small bands of mages work in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time” (p. 3). The bazaar, by contrast, is open and typified by “a great babbling” (p. 3) of open developers who release new code often, and whose work is supposed by the masses. The quality control goes like this: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” (Raymond, 2003, p. 1).

B.D. Faber (2002) suggests a new model that resists the proprietary university. He describes this vision:

“As an alternative model, the paper suggests that an open source derived educational process would emphasize collaborative problem based learning, working through drafts, risk taking, mentoring, user testing, releasing early and often, developing in collaboration with users, and rewarding and building from failure” (p. 31).

This concept suggests a range of stakeholders (developers and end users, who are sometimes the same individuals) with shared endeavors to achieve shared interests. Some have called open-source somewhat anarchic because of the power that common users have over the product, outside the proprietary reach of some companies.

1. What is a brief history of “open-source,” “open content,” and “open courseware”?

Open-Source Software

Several social and technical trends have come together to enable open-source software. The social altruism around the WWW and Web 2.0 technologies combined with coding talent in the larger population have enabled open-source coding to work. Simultaneously, the creation of various licensures that released software for defined usages enabled this open-source phenomenon to progress.

So-called open-source projects have a variety of varying characteristics (Gacek & Arief, 2004). In general, the “open” refers to the fact that the source code is publicly available and transparent; it is not kept in an encapsulated and proprietary black box. The licensing of open-source software allows a broad range of uses and modifications, with strictures to share innovations with the larger user community. The developer community often elicits requirements from the users, who also have the additional role of conducting user testing and reporting software defects.

Open Content

Open digital learning objects are stand-alone simulations, videos, podcasts, games, journals, and artifacts in learning collections. They include “stories, publication, techniques, methods, processes, incentives, distribution” (“Open educational resources,” Dec. 28, 2010).

“Open educational resources” (OER) are “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use or re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge” (“Open educational resources,” Dec. 28, 2010).

Open content enables wider usage rights (released through liberal licensure) based on the “4Rs Framework”:

“Reuse - the right to reuse the content in its unaltered / verbatim form (e.g., make a backup copy of the content)

Revise - the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (e.g., translate the content into another language) Remix - the right to combine the original or revised content with other content to create something new (e.g., incorporate the content into a mash-up) Redistribute - the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (e.g., give a copy of the content to a friend)” (“OpenContent: Defining the ‘Open’ in Open Content”)

Open Courseware

Open courseware consist of full courses, learning modules, course materials, collections, and journals. J.S. Brown and R.P. Adler (2008) describe the origins of open courseware:

“Arguably, the most visible impact of the Internet on education to date has been the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, which has provided free access to a wide range of courses and other educational materials to anyone who wants to use them. The movement began in 2001 when the William and Flora Hewlett and the Andrew W. Mellon foundations jointly funded MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative, which today provides open access to undergraduate- and graduate-level materials and modules from more than 1,700 courses (covering virtually all of MIT’s curriculum). MIT’s initiative has inspired hundreds of other colleges and universities in the United States and abroad to join the movement and contribute their own open educational resources” (p. 2).

They argue eloquently that with so many of the world’s youth coming of college age, the world needs to provide more learning opportunities to a large mass (an estimated 100 million in the next decade) of people who cannot be supported in the current higher education infrastructure. For all the high-minded rhetoric and ideals, the sustainability of such free endeavors face serious challenges (Wiley, 2007).

Even enterprise companies have been adopting open source software at high rates (Morasca, Taibi, & Tosi, 2009). Open source contents offer strong competitive advantages (Faldetta, 2002). Some hybrid business models even have proprietary software makers engaging in some open-source projects because their goods (hardware and equipment, other software, and services) may be enhanced by the existence of particular open-source software; some of this mutually created software is known as “shared source” software with mixed ownership (both the public and the corporate entity), and some of these software systems involve differential access (with full access by the corporation).

Open-source software still has to compete with the larger publics to gain market share. The Technology Acceptance Model suggests that both the perceived usefulness and the perceived ease-of-use are critical factors for potential users (Davis, 1989). The usability and proper interface design are critical factors in enhancing usage.

2. What are the general steps taken to contribute to open-source repositories?

Different open-source work spaces have different

  • Entry requirements
  • Cultures
  • Standards for development
  • Rules and guidelines of engagement
  • Role definitions, and
  • Licensure requirements.

Most of these function on a meritocracy basis, based on both skill set and contributions to the larger community.

Several sources suggested the importance of acclimating socially (Ducheneaut, 2005) before actually trying to change the code or to create open-source contents. It’s important to know what already exists, so that there is not a redundancy of effort.

3. What are some of the popular open-source licenses used for open-source contents in higher education?

The Open Source Initiative maintains an exhaustive list of licenses by name.

Some of the better known licensures follow:

Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD)

Creative Commons “About Licenses”

GNU Public License

MIT License

4. What are some of the pros and cons of using open-source materials in online courses?

Beyond the pros and cons mentioned in this module, the unique circumstances of a particular higher education context should be considered before deciding whether or not to go with open-source.

Open-source usage does suggest that the college or university will contribute to the greater good with contents for which the institutions specialize. This system does not encourage free ridership (although it does encourage wide usage).

The “Possible Pitfalls” section below contains more in-depth considerations.

5. What are some repositories that contain open-source materials for learning? What are some specific resources that may be used in your particular domain field for teaching and learning?

A Google Search with the topic and a Creative Commons licensure request may work fine.

Starting off from the Creative Commons site and using their search may also surface some useful resources.

There are whole repositories of information that are open-source that may be accessed from the OER Commons.


This section consists of some general free software used in higher education (and elsewhere in K-12 and professional training).

Do read the fine print to understand the full “cost of ownership.” Most of these do not involve up-front costs, but the use of the resource may well involve cost.

Moodle Learning Management System (course management)

Mozilla Firefox (open-source Web browser)

MediaWiki (self-hosted wiki technology)

MIT D-Space (open-source digital repository technology)

OpenOffice (office software suite)

Libre Office (the newer version of OpenOffice)

Audacity (audio recording and editing software)

How To

Each of the different software resources has unique requirements in terms of technologies and setup and maintenance.

How digital learning objects and courseware packages are accessed and deployed will depend on the learning context and the extant technologies.

Possible Pitfalls

A few main concerns affect open-source contents. One central concern involves quality control and the peer vetting that often is used for evaluating these contents. Another concern involves provenance, or the lack of clarity of where the contents originated from.

More specifically, open-source software has been found to have less of a modularized architectural structure than proprietary and commercially created software; this means that the code operates in a less streamlined way and may have more dependencies (MacCormack, Rusnak, & Baldwin, 2006). They have less documentation of the coding, but such commenting practice is critical for source code quality (Arafat & Riehle, 2009). Software, whether created in open or closed ways, need to go through verification and validation processes (Aberdour, 2007). Software dependability relies on the following factors: “reliability, security, safety and availability” (Lawrie & Gacek, 2002, p. 24). Some researchers have observed the effect of size on the proneness to defects in open-source software (Koru, Zhang, & Liu, 2007). Koru and Tian (2004) highlight the importance of effective defect handling in medium and large open-source projects.

The individuals who contribute to the open-source software, in general, only participate for about three months on average, so there is high turnover ( ). They tend to work under severe time and skill constraints (Haefliger, von Krogh, & Spaeth, 2008, p. 192), bolstered often only by a sense of altruism and maybe some egotistic motivations. Some have said that the security of software may be compromised given that the source code is released to the wide public; others have said that the open-source nature of the source code ensures that the software functions in a transparent way and so is safer than “black box” software. Some users worry about the updatability of the software because that depends on how robust the volunteer developer community is and also on the strength of the virtual leadership—both transformational (for intrinsically motivated participants) and transactional (for extrinsically motivated participants) (Li, Tan, Teo, & Mattar, 2006). Oezbek and Prechelt (2007) address how to finesse the introduction of innovation into open source projects in a way that will succeed.

In addition to quality controls and provenance questions, digital learning objects may not be editable for customizing for different learning situations. Instructors who use these contents may have to create their own contents to bolster the learning effectiveness of the various open-source learning objects.

Courseware is often highly vetted through the universities that make the courseware available. The courseware is not often updated though. Some copyrighted images and contents will be missing in the courseware version. Many types of courseware are text and slideshow resources; they do not often include multimedia (at this point).

Lastly, open-source software will require server administrator support and access to university servers. Institutions of higher education will often have to develop their own local expertise in the software and in programming. Open-source software adoption does not come for free and does come with “all manner of risks and uncertainties” (Ciolkowski & Soto, 2008, p. 316). Digital learning objects and courseware will need to be hosted in learning / course management systems or other locales for use and delivery to students.

Ciolkowski and Soto (2008) suggest some basic questions:

  • “Does the component provide the required functionality?
  • Is it ‘good enough’ for the purposes at hand?
  • Will we be able to find support for it in five years from now?
  • Are the licensing conditions compatible with our intended business model?” (p. 317)

It would be helpful to document the origins of all such software, digital learning objects, and open courseware. It’s helpful to read the fine print for proper usage.

Note: Do not confuse “open-source” with “open-access” (which may still entail costs and almost always involve copyrighted contents).

Module Post-Test

1. What is a brief history of “open-source,” “open content,” and “open courseware”?

2. What are the general steps taken to contribute to open-source repositories?

3. What are some of the popular open-source licenses used for open-source contents in higher education?

4. What are some of the pros and cons of using open-source materials in online courses?

5. What are some repositories that contain open-source materials for learning? What are some specific resources that may be used in your particular domain field for teaching and learning?


Aberdour, M. (2007). Achieving quality in open source software. IEEE Software. 58 – 64.

Arafat, O. & Riehle, D. (2009). The commenting practice of open source. In the proceedings of The International Conference on Object Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages and Applications (OOPSLA 2009): Orlando, Florida, 857 - 863.

Brown, J.S. & Adler, R.P. (2008). Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail, and Learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review: 43(1), 1 – 19.

Ciolkowski, M. & Soto, M. (2008). Towards a comprehensive approach for assessing open source projects. R. Dumke, et al., Eds. International Workshop on Software Measurement / MetriKon / Mensura 2008, LNCS 5338. Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2008. 316 – 330.

Davis, F. D. (1989), "Perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use, and user acceptance of information technology", MIS Quarterly 13(3): 319-340

Ducheneaut, N. (2005). Socialization in an open source software community: A socio-technical analysis. Computer Supported Cooperative Work: 14: 323 – 368. DOI 10.1007/s10606-005-9000-1.

Faber, B.D. (2002). Educational models and open source: Resisting the proprietary university. In the proceedings of the ACM Special Interest Group on Design of Communication (SIGDOC 2002): Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 31 – 38.

Faldetta, G. (2002). The content of freedom in resources: The open source model. Journal of Business Ethics: 39(1/2), 179 – 188.

Gacek, C. & Arief, B. (2004). The many meanings of open source. IEEE Software: 34 – 40.

Haefliger, S., von Krogh, G. & Spaeth, S. (2008). Code reuse in open source software. Management Science: 54(1), 180 – 193.

Koru, A.G. & Tian, J. (2004). Defect handling in medium and large open source projects. IEEE Software. 54 – 61.

Koru, A.G., Zhang, D., & Liu, H. (2007). Modeling the effect of size on defect proneness for open-source software. In the proceedings of the Third International Workshop on Predictor Models in Software Engineering (PROMISE ’07). IEEE.

Lawrie, T. & Gacek, C. (2002). Issues of dependability in open source software development. ACM Sigsoft: Software Engineering Notes: 27(3), 34 – 37.

Li, Y., Tan, C.-H., Teo, H.-H., & Mattar, A. T. (2006). Motivating open source software developers: Influence of transformational and transactional leaderships. In the proceedings of the Special Interest Group on Management Information Systems - Computer Personnel Doctoral Consortium and Research (SIGMIS-CPR ’06): Claremont, California, 34 – 43.

MacCormack, A., Rusnak, J., & Baldwin, C.Y. (2006). Exploring the structure of complex software designs: An empirical study of open source and proprietary code. Management Science: 52(7, 1015 – 1031.

Morasca, S., Taibi, D., & Tosi, D. (2009). Towards certifying the testing process of open-source software: New challenges or old methodologies? In the proceedings of Free / Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS ’09) of the International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE ’09) Workshop: Vancouver, Canada. 25 – 30.

Oezbek, C. & Prechelt, L. (2007). On understanding how to introduce an innovation to an open source project. In the proceedings of the First International Workshop on Emerging Trends in FLOSS Research and Development. IEEE. 1 – 5.

OpenContent: Defining the ‘open’ in open content. (2010). Retrieved Dec. 28, 2010, from

Open-source software. (2010, Dec. 28). Wikipedia. Retrieved Dec. 28, 2010, from

Open educational resources. (2010, Dec. 28). Wikipedia. Retrieved Dec. 28, 2010, from

Raymond, E.S. (2003). The cathedral and the bazaar. First Monday. 1-45. Retrieved Dec. 28, 2010, from

Wiley, D. (2007). On the sustainability of open educational resource initiatives in higher education. OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI). 1 – 21.

Extra Resources

Open-Source Software Sites

Open Source Initiative

A central site for the development of free open-source software is SourceForge.

Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources Commons

Internet Archive

Open Courseware Sites

Open Courseware Consortium

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Open Courseware

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health