Topic 2: Who would be against knowledge as a common good?

Do you agree with the claim that knowledge should be considered a common good and be accessible as openly as possible?

This is one of the questions that were given as inspiration for topic 2 of this course that focused on sharing and openness. I quite liked one of the students’ comments shared in the initial interactive padlet (with the informative and inspirational video introduction to this topic by Kiruthika Ragupathi and Alistair Creelman): “There’s a slightly evangelical feel to the rhetoric of openness”.

I do feel inspired to give a somewhat evangelical answer to the reflective question above: Yes, I agree with this claim! Knowledge (Latin scientia) is the light of light and cannot, like Nature, be considered to be anything but a common good for all mankind. Knowledge and a good education should be a human right for every child and every adult in the world – as stated in the universal declaration of human rights by the UN:

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit (Article 26).

It seems to be easy enough to be for – and who could be against really? – knowledge as a common good, accessible to everyone. There seem to be only winners and no losers. In our group (during topic 3) we brought up the example of scientists working together all over the world in order to find a vaccine and successful methods to cope with the Covid 19 virus. The thought that any country, any scientist or any science group would protect their findings and keep them secret, seems slightly absurd, at least when it comes to concrete, useful measures.

So of course, knowledge belongs to all members of the planet and should be open and shared. See more inspiration in the TED talk by David Wiley on Openness in education or the final chapter in the book The Battle for Open. How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory by Martin Weller (2014) and you feel ready to conquer the world.

So what is the evangelical feeling about this and why do I keep suspecting that I smell a rat somewhere? It is like when a colleague tries to convince me that if I would only switch to Mac instead of a PC, all the educational and technical problems in the world would disappear and there would be nothing more to wish for. Your sound experience tells you such an optimistic view must be wishful thinking, at least to some extent (not intended to be used against Mac-lovers, by the way). New technology always seems to bring exaggerated fears as well as exaggerated hopes, as far as human behaviour is concerned.

Perhaps the dilemma is that it is easy to be positive and optimistic and idealistic as long as we take a flying perspective and don’t go into practical  contexts – when we get closer to the ground, we perceive more and more details and realize that the landscape is more complex and challenging that it looked from above, so to speak.

On the ground we stumble upon irritating practical questions (also discussed in our PBL group in a very inspiring way) about the safety of scientific results and the question of solid knowledge “marked” by traditional academic traditions, keeping knowledge trustworthy, keeping materials intact and minimizing the risk of distortion of “your” knowledge being used in potential negative ways, and so on. In another context in my own department we recently discussed the risks and advantages of more openness in peer review reports (most researchers predicted better reports with more openness).

But what do we do when the boundaries get blurred and anyone can produce and study MOOC:s of varying quality – and who can estimate their quality? Who says this is a course based on scientific knowledge? Do I mind if anyone takes “my” course and sells it somewhere else? Who is the expert now? Why do we exist, as universities, if knowledge can be produced and shared by everyone, everywhere, for free? What happens to our identity as knowledge providers, having gone the hard way to socialize into a context promoting a small, ivory-tower contained, specialized, expert-focused world?

I don’t really have any answer to any of those questions, but rather feel that the wish for a better world through openness is not always easy to reconcile with the university system the way I know it.  But universities have changed and developed through history, and through this course I begin to learn that even though technology in itself isn’t the answer to all humanitarian problems, our society as a whole, including our available digital resources, is set in a process of technical and educational transformation that I need to understand and analyze in order to cope with.

I was quite inspired by a blog post on topic 2 from a member in my PBL group who wrote about different aspects of trust (see Jukka Välimäki: Leap of trust into the Openness): One of the main issues related to the questions of knowledge as an open good and the issue of open educational resources is indeed trust. If I share my educational resources, I must be able to trust that other colleagues will respect and share the materials in a trustworthy manner. I must be able to trust that many people strive towards the goal above, that knowledge is a common good that should be shared in order to create something good. So perhaps this is where I need to start, working with trust, identifying mis-trust and taking small steps, as Jukka suggests in his blog. In our course, we actually practise trust on a concrete level, solving tasks together and sharing resources for the common good. It feels good not to be alone on this boat and I am looking forward to talking more about this during the rest of the course.