The University of Manchester launched a postgraduate certificate in Higher Education in 2014, aimed at its academic and professional staff. This qualification seeks to encourage staff to think more deeply about their sector, and by doing so to increase their understanding of their roles and progress professionally. The course ran very successfully in 2014-15 and is now into its second intake.
This year, the University Library is very pleased to be leading an elective module: Open Knowledge in Higher Education, which examines the context, contribution and constraints of the relationship between open knowledge and higher education. The course represents an opportunity to bring people together to discuss the issues at a level of detail that is usually impossible to achieve. Instead of focusing on the operational priorities and policy compliance requirements which we tackle in university committees, we can instead engage in a more intellectual debate about why we are on a trajectory towards ‘open as default’, whether that’s a good thing, what the implications are for professional and academic careers, and whether tensions between openness and other drivers can be overcome.
As I prepare my notes to launch the module on 10 February, it strikes me that this is a fascinating time to be thinking about these issues, given that we are witnessing simultaneously the rapid rise of the openness agenda, new attempts to introduce censorship, and efforts to access data that many people would prefer remained personal. The image that accompanies this post epitomises for me the opposite sides of the argument: on the one hand, Assange, Manning and Snowden are regarded as criminals, recklessly putting lives at risk by breaching necessary security laws. On the other, they are perceived as heroes of free speech, to the extent that these sculptures of them now exist, alongside an empty chair which invites the viewer to join them and use the artwork as a platform for his or her own free speech.
Openness in higher education
But can we argue that, safe in our ivory towers, we are in a very different environment? The majority view now holds that published scholarly research ought to be freely available if it has been funded from the public purse, and open education resources (known widely as MOOCs) serve to bring learning to new audiences, and, we hope, drive new students through our doors. On the surface, at least, these seem to be sensible and entirely beneficial developments. But we should not analyse the Open Access (OA) and MOOC movements in a vacuum, somehow shielded from wider social debates about privacy, sharing, security and censorship. We might think that the distribution of academic research is very different from the release of the Wikileaks documents, or Snowden’s publishing of classified National Security Agency materials. But it would be a mistake to hold this view: the case of Aaron Swartz, facing 35 years in prison for sharing JSTOR documents when he committed suicide in 2013, is surely evidence enough that it is time to bring very careful thought to the issues raised by the growth of networked digital information and the existence of an environment in which anyone can be a publisher. It is difficult not to regard the heavy-handed response to Swartz’s case as being driven by anxiety about loss of control following the Wikileaks affair and it is a strong, if tragic, example of the need to understand the bigger picture.
We now live in an HE environment which, certainly in the UK, broadly encourages openness. Many of our research funders require it, and universities are putting policies, services and standards in place to achieve it. But we are part of a wider political, commercial and legal society which is a long way from making this as easy and free of risk as advocates of Open (and I count myself among them) think it needs to be. Commercial publishers still seek to protect business models which depend on paywalls, and initiatives like Open Access Button and the Elsevier boycott try to challenge them. Copyright legislation still lags behind digital and networked technologies, and so we witness illegal filesharing, and we see publishers fighting to prevent it. Meanwhile, university researchers are caught in the middle. While there are a number of encouraging stories about independent researchers making breakthroughs as a result of accessing open research, some university researchers face harsh penalties as a result of illegal, if arguably not immoral, sharing practices.
In the first half of 2016, the Dutch Presidency of the European Union has committed to push the Open agenda very hard, having been through a fierce national struggle about the costs and availability of the research it funds. In the UK, HEFCE will introduce a policy that links OA to research assessment. Openness extends beyond publishing to encompass data, and the open data movement is gaining momentum. There are also signs that the world of online learning is growing faster than ever, but at the expense of the original concept, that it would be available for free. Now is an excellent time for staff at Manchester to be thinking about these issues. Indeed, this opportunity is not restricted to Manchester; it would be very hypocritical of us if we did not open our course up to others! To that end, we are making all of our materials available on Medium, and hope to see widespread interest beyond the course participants. We are working with excellent colleagues, and our academic lead, Professor Martin Weller, is a highly-regarded thinker and teacher in this space. I have taken the liberty of using the title of his book as my blog post heading. We will also see contributions from a major funder, a leading publisher, other academic experts and senior academic administrators, as well as what I know will be some insightful contributions from a strong group of students. So join us, contribute to the debate, and form your own views! Hashtag #OKHE