Open access, open lectures, open minds…


A tussle has broken out amongst higher education teachers, and, however politely the arguments are framed, it is dividing the world of academics into those who ‘get’ the digital revolution and those who don’t.

For some, even the word ‘revolution’ is a red rag to a bull. It is almost as though they believe that the internet will somehow just fizzle out and fade away, transforming students into the passive receptors they once were. What these particular academics don’t realise is that for the first time in 40 years, young people are watching less television. They prefer to share their knowledge, play games virtually with others around the world, create websites and blogs, make objects and sell them online, make political comments and agitate in ways that were undreamed of even 10 years ago. And people who say that this is leading to a dumbing down of culture should remind themselves that 40 years ago we all sat on our sofas watching the Des O’Connor Show or the Black and White Minstrels.

What this means for education is that students expect a degree of co-creation and co-learning in their course materials and learning outcomes. This in turn entails radically re-thinking the way we deliver higher education courses; what defines an assessable outcome and how should we evaluate our students?

At some universities it is forbidden to post lectures online, arguing that they fear prosecution over copyright. Google publishes millions of images every second of every day, but do they fear prosecution? I think not. In a university copyright law allows for lectures to contain freely available materials – except from freeview TV sites and the Open University. What is not permitted is public publishing of this material. However, if you keep the lectures on the University server, accessible only by students with a password, this could be argued as being ‘fair use’ – as members of the public would not be able to view the lectures.

Imagine, though, a world where all academic lecture content was freely available by everyone. Google is currently digitising millions of books for free access in university libraries in the US. If lectures were also freely viewable, to add to this body of knowledge, what sort of experience would education become?

Lectures just might become obselete.

However, imaginations, creative juices and ideas would flow. Students would get an insight into what they want to study by virtually sitting in on courses they may never have thought they had the time and money to explore. Some lecturers would study the techniques of others and try to improve their performances. Some ideas would be stolen and passed off. Some lecturers would face derision for their incompetence. Others would gain admiration for their skill. In short, everything that already happens to the printed word would happen to online lectures.

And lectures might even fall out of use in physical classrooms, because lecturers could just direct students to their past recordings or those of others. To keep students interested in the classroom, lecturers would have to focus more on creating discussions, debates and workshops, or group projects and presentations; things that can’t be contained and rolled out in a lecture. This ‘flipping’ of the classroom is already happening across much of the US.

Such a radical change in the UK is unlikely in the short term. There’s just too much resistance. One thing is certain, though, and that is sooner or later students will start voting with their feet, by choosing universities that match their own open source, free access, co-creating ‘net native’ mentalities.

It’s not just lectures that are under scrutiny. Academic publishing is also coming under pressure to reinvent itself. The commodification of knowledge is a huge point of contention at the moment. In January 2012 a young activist, Aaron Schwartz, killed himself as he was facing prosecution, possible $1m fine and 50 years in prison for downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR for free distribution on the net. He wasn’t aiming to make a penny from his activities; just to open up knowledge for everyone.

Read this article by Martin Eve from the Guardian newspaper’s Higher Education Network, 25 March 2013, which gives an open-source academic’s viewpoint on publishing freely online…definitely food for thought.

2 thoughts on “Open access, open lectures, open minds…

  1. I’ve been virtually “attending” a biology class via . It is free and the prof is from MIT. This is a fantastic opportunity to learn cause I don’t have money to go to MIT, and my academic passion belongs to the Social Sciences, not bio. However, I’m interested in learning about biology from a personal enrichment perspective. I wholeheartedly agree with open access, open lectures, and open minds.

    • Thanks for your comments. I ‘attended’ a MOOC run by Stanford last year – a really excellent series of lectures and assignments on using new technologies in education. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world. Truly inspirational.

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