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Fighting for Open Access and Data

This morning at the second day of the Open Education Conference here in Vancouver, British Columbia, John Willinsky, a Canadian educator and scholar who is currently a professor at Stanford University, argued for open access and open data in order to push forward scholarly discussion, allow knowledge to build within communities, and benefit the public at large.

Willinsky told the story of working with a major newspaper in Toronto to publish a series of articles about his research before discovering that he did not have the authority to share the complete articles with the journalists, only the abstracts. Since that incident over a decade ago, Willinsky and other advocates have worked to reshape the way academic research is published and shared, and have succeeded in making about 20 percent of published academic research freely available. It is becoming explicitly stated in some government grants (both in the U.S. and Canada) that research done using public funds must be shared freely with the public, also pointing to a shift in the way that research is shared, he said. This concept is what Willinsky refers to as "open access."

"We're seeing changes afoot in the way that knowledge is circulated," but there is still much to be done, he said. Colleges and universities are not adequately preparing students to understand the complexities of intellectual property, said Willinsky.

Next, Willinsky talked about the value of "open data," or sharing data freely for the betterment of society and education. "We have to raise expectations among ourselves and students and the public," he said, to demand that data and research be available for educational purposes.

Overall, many conference goers and presenters, including Willinsky, have expressed doubt and concern about the development of massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Willinsky said his concern boiled down to "insularity."

"The students do not pick up a text from anywhere else [outside of the course]," he said. "There aren't even windows to see the other world of knowledge outside the course." What needs to happen, he said, is a marrying of open education with a larger world of knowledge, where the data and research that is freely available to the public can be found, sorted, ranked, and connected with the broader open education movement. Efforts such as Google Scholar are a start, he said, but do not contain the functionality to fully realize the potential of such tools.

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