The internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of sharing scholarly knowledge and cultural heritage. It is now possible for content to be made widely and easily available to all with internet access, at minimal or no cost, through a computer or any mobile device, including cellphones and tablets. Above all, the internet en-ables openness, which is critical for democratic access to education and knowledge.
“Open access” refers to a form of online publishing in which access to content is free for the user. “Open content” refers to both teaching and research resources and “open education resources” refer specifically to teaching resources. These are all enabled by open licensing, a form of copyright protection that allows the author to provide for different forms of access or reuse under varying conditions while ensuring attribution. This is important for authors: they want their work to be widely available, they want it to be read and they want to be acknowledged. Increasingly, people are arguing that openness is the way to go.
By signing declarations, several South African and numerous international universities, as well as other educational institutions, have expressed support for open access to knowledge. The Cape Town Declaration (capetowndeclaration.org) expresses a commitment to combining the established tradition of sharing good ideas with fellow educators with the collaborative, interactive culture of the internet.
Declarations are fine words, but now there are indications of action to increase free access to open content in South Africa, at least in terms of teaching and learning resources. The international growth in open content and enabling frameworks (technical, policy and in terms of intellectual property) are clearly acknowledged in the department of higher education and training’s recent green paper on post-school education and training, which notes the increasing access to wireless connectivity and mobile technology in the country.
The green paper says the department will consider the adoption of an appropriate open licensing framework and determine ways to support the development of high-quality learning resources to be made freely available as open content for use with appropriate adaptation.
What about other scholarly resources?
Unfortunately, the green paper does not yet make as strong an argument for the free availability of other scholarly resources, such as research articles, papers and reports, as is the case elsewhere.
Open-education issues are especially associated with public universities, because many argue that as much as possible of what is generated with public funds should be made available in the public domain. It is the path universities around the world are following — including many South African universities — in making their research and teaching resources freely available online.
This kind of sharing can have direct results and save lives. One example makes the point. Researchers in Australia have developed a scientifically robust and simple blood test for African trypanosomiasis, also known as African sleeping sickness — a potentially fatal and much neglected parasitic disease that is transmitted by the tsetse fly and is often left undiagnosed.
According to the World Health Organisation, African sleeping sickness affects between 50?000 and 70?000 people a year, yet there are relatively few articles published on the disease in the major commercial journals. And when articles do appear, many African researchers and health professionals cannot afford them. The databases in which they appear electronically are so notoriously expensive that even the most prestigious universities cannot afford them all. In this case, by publishing their findings under a Creative Commons licence in the open access Public Library of Science publication, Neglected Tropical Diseases, the developers of the test have made this life-saving know-ledge freely available to everybody who needs it.
For African universities, open access not only provides an opportunity to reach into the knowledge resources generated by universities in other parts of the world, it also allows them to contribute to the global knowledge pool with locally generated content. This is especially important given how little online content — estimated to be as low as 0.4% — is generated in Africa.
This deficit is changing. The past five years have seen a rapid increase in African open-access journals — from 40 listed in 2007 to 217 in 2011. In the past year alone countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia have appeared on the list or have substantially increased their presence. The directory of open-access journals (doaj.org) lists offerings such as the African Journal of Environmental Assessment and Management (Ghana), the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (Kenya) and the Bulletin of the Chemical Society of Ethiopia, just to mention a few.
This directory lists journals from all over the world that make their content freely available, whereas the directory of open-access repositories opendoar.org) lists repositories that make a variety of free academic content available. Of the 2?085 repositories listed, 51 are found in 15 African countries.
There has also been an increase in the availability of locally created teaching and learning resources through, for example, the African Virtual University (oer.avu.org), Open Education Resources Africa (oerafrica.org) and the University of Cape Town’s open-content directory (opencontent.uct.ac.za). Here, any member of the public can freely access more of the university’s teaching and learning materials and growing research content is becoming available too.
The green paper notes that the creation of open content has the potential to improve quality and reduce costs. That is only part of it. Openness in education is also about access to knowledge, visibility, influence and participation. That openness adds value to knowledge production and use at the societal, institutional and individual levels is indisputable. Through their open- content activities, the University of Cape Town and other South African universities are expressing their commitment to contributing fully to and ensuring full participation in the global knowledge society.
University of Cape Town associate Professor Laura Czerniewicz is director of the university’s OpenUCT Initiative. The UCT open content directory is found at opencontent.uct.ac.za. Opening Scholarship, Voices from the South (openingscholarship.uct.ac.za) is a website on which these issues are blogged about regularly.
Open Education Week invitation
The global OpenCourseWare Consortium, of which the University of Cape Town is a member, has declared March 5 to 10 “Open Education Week”.
The consortium says it “seeks to raise awareness about the benefits of free and open sharing in education, especially through the use of open educational resources”.
The University of Cape Town has issued an open invitation to participate in events it will hold, including a panel discussion on March 6 and several short workshops on open education.
For details, go to blogs.uct.ac.za/blog/oer-uct/2012/02/24/open-education-week-2012-events-at-uct.