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


  1. Often, hording knowledge is beneficial to individuals or groups; but sharing knowledge is beneficial to the larger society. Thus there is always conflict between the two.

    Many things are like that. Theft is a bad thing inside of a group (one member stealing from another), but often an advantage when one group can successfully steal from another (actual war, or simply class war). Such it will always be.

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  3. Thanks for your comment, Joe. I like your philosophical approach to the question. I'd be interested in an example of how stealing within a class war context benefits anyone other than the thief. (Or perhaps you're not saying that it ever does benefit anyone other than the thief?)

  4. Brian Lamb had a lovely riff about this at UKOER10

    "It is almost criminally irresponsible to horde knowledge."

  5. @SP: Stealing, like hording knowledge, only benefits the thief or the hoarder. But if the group or individual getting stolen from, or not having the knowledge, is not the thief's group, no matter to the thief.

    Using this way of thinking, the battle between the sexes is inevitable. While both genders can benefit from either a promiscuous or a discriminate sex life, generally the male (not having the responsibility of carrying and raising the offspring) can benefit more from promiscuity, the female, much less so. The conflict is built in to us. Seeing things this way removes the conflict and the different sides from moral, unalterable judgements to better understanding...though to be sure, not necessarily to better resolution.

  6. KNOWLEDGE can and should be free absolutely in an "ideal" world. Unfortunately, in our real world, human qualities and particularly frailties tend to lock out sharing of certain categories of knowledge. I believe that the internet has certainly moved humanity closer to "ideal" sharing of knowledge, but until human emotion evolves closer to a universally "trusting" condition, we frail and distrusting humans will shelter knowledge to protect individual and group "possessions" -- materials, thoughts, emotions, . . .

    Hopefully, humankind can continue (if indeed we are doing so now) to move toward this "ideal."

    Best of "luck" in this endeavor!

  7. Thanks Joe, Dave, and Bill for your thoughts, and sorry for taking so long to say so (second half of July-early August went insanely busy for me).

    I write this on a day when we in the UK are all thinking about various issues of stealing and trusting, in a completely unexpectedly new context. Can the free sharing of knowledge be of any help to those who for whatever reasons think they must smash-and-grab? That's another blog post...