While one in six humans lives in abject poverty, half the world’s people live in a state of knowledge deprivation, meaning that they cannot obtain
John Willinsky, author of The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (free to download here), argues that access to knowledge is a basic human right. Because information is recognized as the most powerful factor for innovation and development, Open Access should in theory create equal opportunities for all countries and for all people. However, in order for this scheme to work especially developing countries will need many more people capable of using the information. This is the reason that open education is a major factor for a successful implementation of Open Access and a corresponding transformation towards an ‘open knowledge society’.
In his book ‘Digitize this book: the politics of new media or why we need open access now’, Gary Hall argues that the increasing number of students, the decreasing budgets for institutes of higher education and the for profit publication business model form a lethal cocktail for higher education. He gives the example that ‘whereas previously the University of California would have bought a copy of a particular book for each of its eight campuses—UCLA, Berkeley, Irvine, etc.—in 2002 it made a decision to purchase only one copy to share across all of them’. While it is becoming increasingly difficult for universities to acquire books, the situation is even worse for students. For them printed books are often unaffordable and access to information is restricted . On top of that the transformation of universities into knowledge selling businesses puts students more and more in the role of customers looking for knowledge at the lowest price. As a consequence the quality of education will suffer and if this scenario continues the future will see a shortage of skilled people needed to take full advantage of the information available, especially in the developing countries.
Open Access to books, educational materials and online courses can prevent this disastrous flow of events. In 1999 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to provide free, searchable access to their courses for educators, students, and self-learners around the world “based on the conviction that the open dissemination of knowledge and information can open new doors to the powerful benefits of education for humanity around the world”. Other initiatives soon followed. In 2000 the Connexions project , a web-based environment designed to develop free available educational and research materials was started by Rice University and later continued as an international project in 2004. It grew from just two hundred modules in 2000 to nine hundred in 2002, from twenty-three hundred in 2004 to more than ﬁve thousand by January 2008. In early January 2009 Connexions contained 425 collections(including courses and books) and nearly 8,000 course modules. By October 2008 there were over 45 million user hits, two million page views, and over one million unique users representing more than two hundred different countries. Princeton University, Yale University and Harvard University now offer a large number of free and open courses. At present there are many more examples of universities and institutions offering open courseware. Links can be found on the site of the Open Knowledge Foundation who according to their website wants ‘‘knowledge which anyone is free to use, re-use and redistribute without legal,social or technological restriction’. The Open Education Database and the Open Culture website feature indexed lists of more than 400 free online courses from great universities. In combination with Open Access for educational books and scientific publications, these developments are promising steps towards an open knowledge society, where all people have access to, and can make use of, the combined human knowledge.
The urgency for a free sharing of knowledge is very well explained by Julian Cribb and Tjempaka Sari in their book ‘Open Science’. They note the ‘emergence of a disturbing trend: ‘the world is dividing into those with ready access to knowledge and its fruits, and those without. The people without access to knowledge are not merely deprived of its benefits, they may actually be outcast: playing the role of spectators in the human race rather than runners in it.’ And further on in the same book it says: ‘The knowledge-deprived of the 21st century find themselves at the margins of society: a place where even survival is doubtful for many. The 25 000 children who die daily from malnutrition-related diseases also die from a lack of knowledge. The knowledge to save almost all of them exists, but, for various reasons, it does not get through – at least in forms their communities can access, afford or use.’ The same applies in my view to the almost 3000 woman and children in Africa and Asia who are dying of malaria each day.
Open Education and Open Access to information are closely interlinked subjects and should therefore both be high on the Global Agenda, as access to knowledge and the skills to use that knowledge are key factors for development and prosperity in the world today. In the world of tomorrow each of us can have personally tailored access to the whole of human knowledge. And thanks to smart devices and web technology, each of us can be educated to make intelligent use of all available information. As scientists we should take our social and moral responsibility and bring it on. On the question of how we can do this there is a lot of discussion. You are all invited to participate in this discussion by posting your comments here.