Free and open source education materials for children and teens

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Doodles of the word open

I am a community moderator for as well as a mother, a librarian, and a former public school teacher. When I began writing for this site over two years ago, it was due to my son's education and how both private and public schools were largely neglecting digital technology, global citizenship, and digital literacy.

What I have discovered since exploring open source materials for children and teens is astonishing. The amount of open source materials is simply breathtaking. Every day more and more open source materials become available and accessible to all. 

Open source materials: where?

A. The first step is to explore open source materials for children and teens. How many resources are there? And where are these resources located and how to retrieve them?

Use the key search terms: teacher AND free AND resources

1. For-profit companies from Intel to Scholastic have created free teacher resources, lesson plans, and tools. Companies, such as Raytheon and Verizon, have created foundations and/or partnered with educational organizations to provide free materials.

2. Non-profit organizations from the television Discovery channel to Annenberg's Explore and Nobel Prize have free resources. Some, such as PBS, even have dedicated specialized free educational resources for STEM or certain subjects.

3. Libraries, archives, museums, and cultural institutions have created free educational materials too. Project Gutenberg and the British Museum are just two examples.

4. Governmental agencies, states, teaching organizations, and professional associations have also created free educational materials. There are national councils and standards for every subject and field in education. English, math, social studies, science, and so on have their own dedicated sites today.

5. Numerous universities and colleges have created open source materials for children and teens as well. MIT's Scratch and Radix Endeavor are two better known examples, but there are many others.

Expand your search outside your local area, state, province, or country and the amount of free and open educational materials only increases.

Note the line between what is considered open source and what is not is often gray for non open source purists.

B. Next, try playing around with key search terms: open source AND children or free AND resources. Most likely, you will retrieve many more educational resources or lists of them. Here are some examples (i.e. this is hardly an exhaustive list!):

For more open education resources, read my Guide to free and open education.

Open source materials: Now what?

C. If you take a brief glance, you will notice that there are numerous open educational materials for children from preschoolers through to high school and beyond. And numerous places where these free or open educational materials can be found. Books, videos, films, games, lesson plans, entire libraries or collections are online today. Many freely available and accessible 24/7. At this point, your head might explode with the amount of limitedless options and possibilities. It can be a little overwhelming, but here are some points to remember:

1. Every child is unique. Every child has their own interests, learning styles, attention spans, growth and developmental rates, and preferences. Digital technology presents a wealth of possibilities and options that are not otherwise possible in print or type. What works for one child, may not work for another. A child who learns best visually might have an easier time grasping concepts if the material is presented in video format.

2. Likewise, a reluctant reader may have an easier time with Professor Garfield and/or Blender than with a more traditional English assignment. A math phobe, by comparison, may find something on Good Sites for Kids or from the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives that makes learning math less daunting for them and enjoyable too.

3. Gifted, twice exceptional (gifted with special needs) and particular special needs often have sites dedicated to them. A diagnosis or symptoms can be helpful to give you some guidance and/or direction with your search. Hoagies' Gifted Education Page, for instance, is aimed at gifted and twice exceptional students and does have some open educational resources listed. 

D. Another way approach to open source is to use a creative model or a project-based learning approach. Find open source tools like Matterhorn or from a site like Web 2.0 Guru or Edjudo that would allow a child to demonstrate what they learn and let them engage more with a subject or topic. Project-based learning lets a child engage in a way emotionally and socially that is not possible with print or type. It can be an empowering way to learn.

E. Evaluate the chaff from the wheat. Use your research and basic library skills digitally. Some sites may be more appropriate than others. Some sites may be more educational or rigorous than others. Assess your needs and go from there. And don't forget to have fun learning too!

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Carolyn Fox is an educator, librarian, historian, and an un/homeschooling mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her UK husband and son.


Excellent article. No matter how much we learn about open source, it's always the tip of the iceberg. I used GNU/Linux and FLOSS applications in education for a decade and loved it. I loved the freedom: no limits on software on servers or PCs and on networks. I loved the performance: whatever we needed to do there was a way to do it with FLOSS. Many schools do neglect IT but it's mostly because they can't have enough to do a decent job. With GNU/Linux running a local server on the LAN, a lot of data from the web can be cached or kept locally and the load on Internet connections reduced. LTSP on terminal servers makes every application useful on any client PC made in the last decade and cheap thin clients can be bought new or salvaged from dumpsters. The whole world keeps discarding PCs with that other OS and often it's the software that died.

FLOSS is really strong in local search engines, databases, collaborative sites, and file-storage on the LAN. That way, the cumulative effort of the school staff and students becomes a very relevant resource. Install a local copy of Wikipedia that students can edit, or a searchable database of multimedia and annotations. It all works for education and for a minimal cost gives maximum return on investment.

Many thanks for the kind words and the points. I wish schools wouldn't neglect IT or librarians. I also wish schools would invest with FLOSS and GNU/Linux but that involves change and many people are reluctant to embrace change. I think you're idea about Wikipedia is superb.

There are also a number of teacher to teacher sites where teachers post materials for others to use.

Yes, there are numerous teacher sites. I did include professional teacher organizations and associations which offer free resources. But I wanted to write the article for other parents like me who do not have the luxury of school librarian. Many parents ask me where to find free or open resources and don't need where to start. That was my intention of the article. To say, look, here are a number of ways you can access free and open resources.


Nice post and great timing as the OpenEd 2013 Conference is going on this week ( Growth in both the use and creation of open educational resources (OER) has been dramatic. While the current interest (some might argue, "hype") has been fostered by the rise of the Massive Open Online Course, the use of freely available educational courses and learning objects has been around for decades (Indeed this is year 10 of the Open Ed Conference).

As growth and interests increase, I wonder what advise you might have for folks assessing open source materials in terms of modification and redistribution? While Creative Commons has a variety of popular licenses, these often only address use/reuse, but do not touch on community practice, for example, how do those who might be interested in participating (i.e. contributing new material, correcting error, providing enhancements vs. forking a new object) collaborate and influence the direction of the project/material?

I expect most folks to are just discovering open source materials are simply happy to have access to the content, and contributing to the project development might be beyond their current capacity. However as folks do invest more and more, as with any project, they will inevitably discover better methods, think of new ideas, and perhaps then want to make suggestions.

How might users become, "prosumers" (, and do you have any suggestions for what folks might look for within a community (practices, organization, governance), beyond the material itself?

Thanks again,

These are very good questions. 1) As far as I know, there aren't a whole heap of ways that parents, in particular, could contribute to project development or get their voices across. It's not easy, though it could be. Some parents have the confidence to contact people or sites directly, but I think many people don't bother. It's easier to continue to use a site and grumble rather than motivate yourself to actually do something.

2) Are people discovering open source materials? I've been wondering about this myself. I think many parents don't differentiate and that might simply be due to a time and effort factor to figure things out. You've got to be familiar with the concept of open source in order to differentiate from others. So that's an one issue, but there are many others. Bear in mind, about 90% of US children attend public schools and in school systems that don't differentiate between open source and non-open source. So how are these children going to figure these differences? Some will learn these differences on their own, but I strongly believe that's a small fraction of the population.

3) Prosumers. Thanks. That's an interesting term and concept. Yes, I think eventually we'll have a generation of children who will have or be familiar with a flipped classroom, a user generated education, and to a growth mindset mode of lifelong learning -- but the public schools are not there yet and thus the fixed mindset will continue. So I strongly believe that you've got to have people who embrace a growth mindset and are don't mind trying or fear failure. So part of it is finding people who are not risk averse. Less myopic thinking and more flexible and divergent thinking, agency, autonomy and empowerment are other qualities and aspects at play. It's really about realizing that folks have the ability to effect change and make a difference. The divergent thinkers will question why a company or organization isn't using open source. They can be those out-of-the-box, non-conformists who beat to a different drum.

Art schools are usually full of these types and ways of thinking -- because they're willing to experiment, try things out, and go against the grain. Money isn't usually the primary motivation for artists to make art. The desire and urge to make art (or music) usually goes deep.

With homeschooling, I come across a lot of the non-corporate producer/consumer since many homeschooling families are living on a budget, do not have much in terms of a disposable income, are highly educated, are skeptics of corporate America and the public schools, and have kids with allergies or ailments that prompted them to go on restrictive diets and question the status quo. Many of these families tend to move
away from formal leadership based on rank and title, and towards a more informal kind of followership, which is based on values, approaches and credibility.

Patrick Masson wrote, <em>"How might users become, "prosumers""</em>

With the constant plunge of prices for hardware and the treadmill of consumerism, it is very inexpensive to acquire one or more PCs. They can be networked with Ethernet for a few dollars per machine and a 24-port network switch is less than $100, so a network of PCs like a lab can be set up with no access needed to the Internet. Software and data can be imported by CD if no Internet access is available and one machine can be promoted to "server" simply by adding storage. One technique I have used is to take the hard drives from several PCs and install them on the server. Then every GNU/Linux machine that boots PXE over the network from the server can use that resource. The same can be done with RAM. If there are multiple RAM modules in each PC, some of them may be movable to the server. Then everyone runs applications on the server and views them from the other PCs as thin clients. It takes some knowledge but several distributions of Free Software include this "LTSP" (Linux Terminal Server Project) capability. Install on one PC and set all the others to boot PXE in the BIOS. The first time it might take all day to configure this but with practice, it can be done in an hour. e.g. see <a href="" target="_blank" >Part 4 Fun with Debian Creating an LTSP server and booting PXE clients</a>

Once a lab of clients and a GNU/Linux server is set up one can test many different applications on client and server and when ready, open up that server to the whole school/organization. To scale the solution, add more or more powerful servers, faster/larger storage and memory and gigabit/s networking. Surprisingly to newbies, this solution is <strong>faster</strong> that a regular new PC with a powerful CPU, lots of RAM per user and a local hard drive, because the data does not need to pass over the network, just the screen images, and the server needs only one copy of each file in use in RAM at one time, meaning the second and later users have access to applications and data in RAM rather than hard drives. Thus, the solution works even with fairly old/cheap equipment, solving many problems for schools.

As usual, the key to this is knowledge and the Internet is full of useful sites. For the Debian software, see <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.

Excellent article.
I am developing a FLOSS typeface family for early learning teaching of reading and writing. In my opinion, teaching tools should be free and freely available to everyone, and at present the only font families specifically designed to aid early learning reading & writing are strictly proprietary, so i hope this typeface family can change that :) It's work in progress at the moment, so any interest, feedback, etc is greatly appreciated.
Details are here ->
source & fonts here ->

Yes, I agree teaching tools should be free and freely available. I was reminded about some of the issues with type and fonts when I visited the Museum of Printing here in MA a couple of months ago. But, of course, the issues with the printing presses, movable type, and the fonts at the museum was connected to the printing presses and printed materials (ie. books, newspapers, magazines) aimed at adults -- and not at children. Gutenberg didn't have children in mind, but look at the phenomenal results of his inventions.

Open source is not often viewed in terms of early learning. However, I think the idea of an open source type for early learners has a lot of merit and is a worthwhile project. I'd be curious to see what happens. I would think the market might be bigger than early learning and might extend to certain special needs groups.

Let me, if I may, suggest another good free educational resource which is good for both - kids and adults. It is meant for people who want to learn to touch type. Hopefully it will be useful for you too.

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