A General Guide For Creating Open Content

In our experience working with people and communities around open content, one of the misconceptions we see regularly is that the process of creating open content differs from creating content that is not openly licensed. Fortunately, content is content; and if you have ever created a resource for use in your class, a piece of documentation, a video, a podcast, a blog post, shared a picture online, etc, then you have done the same type of work you will need to do to release openly licensed content.

A primary difference between openly licensed content and content that is encumbered under restrictive copyright is how we view the potential of that content over time. Content that is encumbered under a restrictive license is essentially fixed in time, where openly licensed content can evolve over time through use and reuse. The longer life of open content can shape how we release open content (for example, a polished video could be released with a link to the unedited source videos), but this is an issue that does not need to be directly related to how we create the initial resource. As we discussed earlier, we generally recommend a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license for openly licensed content.

Devils Tower

In this post, we will define a general process that we have used when creating resources. We need to emphasize at the outset that there are a lot of ways to do this right. It's also worth noting at the outset that creating open content does not need to be complex (feel free to skip to the end and grab the tl;dr version). Different people have different creative processes, and people should use the means that have worked best for them in the past. The only real way to do it wrong is to eschew planning altogether. Creating quality material doesn't happen by accident, and a coherent process helps separate writing from editing from planning. In our experience, a clear separation of the different stages of the creative process has been helpful to bring increased focus to each stage.

Another facet that we will include in our planning docs includes some tools/accomodations for a team of people in different geographic areas working remotely. There are some parts of the work that require different types of collaboration, and we will highlight what has worked for us in the different stages.

Define the scope

Before we get started writing anything, we need to get a sense of what we want or need to write. This initial scope should be looked at as a starting point that will evolve over time, but without some initial focus, the work to follow will be too diffused to be efficient. In general terms, at this stage we start to define the boundaries we want to cover with this resource, and what is out of scope.

A good goal to mark the completion of this stage is a working outline; this is a living document that can be revised as the project takes shape.

For a team of people working together using a Google Doc or a Wiki to author the outline works well. Planning can be done via tools like conference calls, Skype, or Google Hangouts. With that said, I also wouldn't underestimate the usefulness of plain old-fashioned phone calls. Many cell phones and home phone plans support three way calls, and for many situations that's both perfect and convenient.

Collect resources

Once we have a sense of what we want to write or create, we can start to gather related resources. Ideally, this research will uncover a pre-existing, openly licensed resource that meets our needs perfectly, which we can use with little to no additional modifications.

Realistically, though, this research will uncover a range of information of varying quality, accessible under a range of licenses. We will cover licensing later in this post; at this stage we focus on the usefulness of the resources we uncover. As we collect resources, we can evaluate their potential usefulness through a series of questions:

Of the existing content uncovered via our research, how much can be used as is? How much needs to be revised prior to use? How much provides a useful structure? How much provides a cautionary tale (aka, this is NOT what we want)?

With some research completed, what still needs to be written?

As we collect resources, we should cross-reference these resources against our working outline. This will help determine how much of the resource can be curated, and how much needs to be written. Over time, it also helps us split our resources into three general groups:

  • Resources that are quoted, or otherwise incorporated into our work; aka, the list of sources and/or works cited;
  • Resources that are relevant, and helped refine the scope and direction of the project, but were not quoted or otherwise incorporated; aka, the list of works consulted;
  • Resources that are not relevant.

As with any type of work, citation and attribution are essential.

As we collect resources, we need to ensure that we store them in a place that is centrally accessible. If we are working within a distributed team, that place should probably be online. As you store resources, adding annotations/notes will make your life - and the lives of any collaborators - easier over time.

At the very least, use a tool like a Wiki or a Google Doc to save your citations. Zotero is also an excellent choice, as is something like Diigo. Again, the tool we use is less important than actually using one. If we are creating these resources as part of a group effort, then having the list of resources should be available to group members online.

Check licenses

If, over the course of our research, we uncover a resource/resources that we might want to incorporate or remix into our work, we need to check how the material is licensed. If the licensing isn't clear, or if the resource is encumbered with a restrictive license, we have a couple options.

  • First, if we want to use an existing resource in its entirety and it is not openly licensed, contact the author and ask permission. Many times, authors are happy to grant permission to incorporate their work.
  • Second, if we only want to use an excerpt, quoting a small portion of the resource and citing it is within the bounds of fair use.
  • A third option would be to provide a description of a resource, and then link to it so people can access it in its entirety. Obviously, the link approach is only viable for web-accessible material. In the case of material that is not available online, providing an offline reading list is a viable approach.

As licenses are checked, the list of resources should be updated with the new information.

Finalize the working outline

Once we have our resources collected, we can finalize the working outline. This requires that we clearly identify any information/materials that need to be created from scratch, and any sources that will be helpful for the writing/creation process.

If any specific types of media (video, audio, images, infographics, charts, etc) will help to enhance our resource, now is the time to dig into what will work best. It's also worth noting that media can be added later in the process, and that nailing the organization and the structure is a pre-requisite for a sophisticated use of media.

At the end of this stage, the working outline for the project will be translateable into a to-do list. Each component of the outline will have either a list of resources that can be curated to flesh out the section, or a person responsible for writing the material for that section. If you are working as part of a team, you will all have specific components to complete.

During this stage, sorting out the responsibilities of who is doing what can be managed via a blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication. Ideally, the outline we created in the first step (when we defined the scope of this project) will have evolved into this more complete working outline.

This is also a good time to emphasize that even a "finalized" working outline can be revised. Remember - we are creating open content - the idea that this work will be edited, reworked, and improved is implicit in the process. Make it good, and be comfortable with the reality that someone, somewhere will have thoughts and ideas on how to make it better.

Also, if you are working within a group of people, this stage - along with writing, assembling, and editing - can really benefit from face to face interactions, with as many people as possible working in the same place. If it's not possible for everyone to get together face to face, use phone calls, skype, chat, Google hangouts, etc, to support real time communication.

Write and/or Curate

Once the working outline has reached something that resembles final form, any new material can be written. Curated resources can often require transitional passages to stitch them together. As with any act of creation, don't worry about making this perfect on the first pass.

This part of the work is largely a solitary endeavor - hunker down, stow your self-critical tendencies, and get an initial draft out. It doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to be editable.

Assemble the work

Using the working outline as a guide, the various components of the resource can now be sequenced and pulled together. At this stage, the work should be reasonably complete, and the various sections should be ready for editing.

For a lot of us, this is where the process of creating open content ends. A lot of us have fairly complete but rough resources littering our office space, our hard drives, our blogs, our wikis, etc, and when asked why we don't release them out under an open license, we say something like: "It's not ready."

And really, we all need to get over it. Share it out under an open license, so someone else can discover it, and start with the next step:


This stage is where additional polish gets applied to a resource, and where something can be transformed from useful in a single context to generally useful.

This stage can and should include adding new content and removing existing content, even if the new content had been written from scratch. Revising the working outline is also a possibility.

If you are crunched for time, working solo, trying to catch up on sleep, trying not be a workaholic, you have permission to skip this step - as we have said before, editing can be done by anyone who wants to provided you release the material under an open license. The only way to ensure that no one will ever edit the resource is to not share it out.


In this context, the act of publishing a resource means that a resource is made available online under an open license, and ideally in a reusable format. And of those two details, the open license is the more important detail. Data in a proprietary format can be edited into a more usable format if it's openly licensed.

Where the resource gets published is up to you. Start a blog at wordpress.com. Create a Tumblr, join Posterous, and attach files to your posts as needed. Share information in Google docs. Put videos on YouTube. There are myriad ways to put data on the web. Pick one, use an open license, and let it rip.

All this is, really

Despite the copious verbage of this post, the process of creating open content does not need to be complex.

  • Plan what you want to write;
  • Research the topic;
  • Curate what you can, and write what you have to; and then
  • Publish your work under an open license.

There are really only two differences about creating openly licensed content and how most of us prepare and use resources, and they are more philosophical shifts than things that take time: first, open content needs to be released under a license that allows reuse, and second, when we create open content we need to view our work as simultaneously ours, and as a potential starting point for someone else.

Open Content Is Only Partially About Content

In this post, we have focused on the process of creating open content.

But really, creating open content is only partially about content. Traditionally, when we think about open content, we draw a line between open content and a textbook, and open content gets relegated to another version of a textbook, but licensed differently. And, seen through a narrow perspective, open content can be that. Open content can be used as a replacement for textbooks.

But it doesn't need to end there. If a teacher has the opportunity to work with a community of other educators to create the material they will use in the classroom, how will that affect their subject matter expertise? If working within a learning community to create openly licensed materials became a regular part of ongoing professional development, we could start to have professional development that is consistently meaningful. Peer mentoring looks a lot like working within a team to create openly licensed content. If teachers are working on open content with other educators (or even non-educators) outside their building, they are learning about different ways of doing things, different sources, different materials that are relevant to their work.

What implicit message would it give to our kids if they were able to see their teacher as an expert who, as part of their daily work, created the tools they used to work? What would it say to our kids if they were able to have a role in creating or revising the content for the next year's class? Because really, for some classes, having the outgoing students highlight give guidance, and edits, on what worked and what didn't would be a great final assessment, and would provide an interesting way of seeing what people learned. We talk a lot about the need for students to be creators, but we tend not to model the creation as much as we should.

With open content, the content becomes a catalyst for an ongoing process of creation, community engagement, learning, and reflection. For people looking for a practical use for a learning network, look no further. Open content can provide the resources that we use to run our learning environments, but it can also provide the starting point for ongoing professional growth within communities of practice.

Image Credit: "Devil's Tower" taken by Holly Hayes, published under an Attribution NonCommercial license.


Hey! I just tweeted about this post to #ocwnews and #openeducation week, and I was wondering whether you'd like to submit a version of it for the "Basic Resources" section of the Open Education Week website (http://www.openeducationweek.org/category/blog/about-open-education/resources/). The proposal deadline is January 18th, so this is short notice, but for now you could just submit the URL for this post.


I find this whole process of creating open content rather complex. Greetings Sarah from Extensa -

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