Thursday, 7 July 2011

Does Knowledge Need to be Free?

Today I took part in Alec Couros' keynote being live-streamed from the Education in a Changing Environment Conference. I was not at the conference, but I followed its Twitter stream #ece11. Alec's keynote was excellent, and clearly gave the participants much to discuss. I was particularly impressed that Alec tweeted during his own keynote, in order to reference links. What a great idea -- tweet out references which participants may be able to immediately investigate.

Photo courtesy of s i n h a on Flickr

But one thing Alec said made me stop and consider: "knowledge should be free." There was context to his statement which I was not present to fully appreciate, but it was during his description of open education. I am familiar with the idea that content which is taught is not an easily monetised commodity. When student decide to enroll in university, it is not just knowledge-content they are after; they want the experience, a connection with instructors and other students, and accreditation. Often, especially in a year one undergraduate module, the content being lectured on is freely attainable from a variety of sources, including Wikipedia. So against this backdrop, I can almost agree when someone says, "knowledge should be free."

But should knowledge always be free? What about knowledge which was gained at a very high cost, such as research data requiring days, months, even years in a laboratory? What about knowledge carefully compiled and written in the hope of it being published as a book?

I cannot think of an exception to the 'rule' that knowledge gained at a high cost should be freely and widely available, even if it must be paid for at some point. Woodward and Bernstein invested much time and effort trying to get information about Watergate. When they finally got it, they knew they were duty-bound to publicise it as widely as possible. Of course, they got paid for their journalistic work, so the knowledge was freely available but one had to buy the newspaper.

I am working within the Open Educational Resources movement with the SPIDER project, because I believe there is much knowledge which can be given away without detriment to the giver, even to the benefit of both giver and recipient. However, I can see exceptions, and I will have to hammer these issues out as I progress. I'd be very interested in your thoughts on this!

Terese Bird,
Learning Technologist, University of Leicester, and SCORE Fellow, Open University