The state of the nation 2008 – belatedly

Looking back, I see that the last time I posted a blog was in November 2007. It is now April 2008. This should not be read as a sign that things here have ground to a halt. On the contrary, a hectic round of overwork has overtaken our lives, a treadmill of projects, meetings, workshops, and conferences. I hope that this means that South Africa is moving forward in opening scholarly communications. However, South Africa is never straightforward, so in reviewing what has been happening while I have had my head down all these months, I do not expect to report unremitting sunshine – there have been some showers, although overall the signs are good.

This overview of the projects that are in progress right now is the first instalment of a review of the way the year is looking – with quite a few items that I will need to pick up in more detail in upcoming blogs.

Collaborative Projects

In November 2006, in Bangalore, some of us – funders and consultants – got together to propose some collaboration in trying to map across one another to create greater coherence achieving our mutual goals of more open and effective research communications in Africa. This was discussed again in a meeting at iCommons in Dubrovnik in June 2006 and we are now beginning to see the results. One major benefit that has emerged is that the projects that are now being implemented, because they are built on open access principles, can share each others’ research findings and resources, reducing duplication and increasing impact. The projects also recognise that achieving policy change is a multi-pronged process, working at all levels of the university system, from individual lecturers (often young and lively innovators at the junior end of the hierarchy) to senior administrators and government policy-makers. Leveraging the impact of several projects to achieve this makes a lot of sense.

The projects I am now involved in, that are part of this collaboration, include:

  • Opening Scholarship, a UCT-based project, funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation, is using a case study approach to explore the potential of ICT use and social networking to transform scholarly communication between scholars, lecturers and students, and the university and the community.
  • PALM Africa (Publishing and Alternative Licensing in Africa), funded by the IDRC, is exploring what the the application of flexible licensing regimes – including the newly-introduced CC+ and ACAP – can do to facilitate increased access to
    knowledge in South Africa and Uganda through the use of new business models combining open access and sustainable commercial models.
  • A2K Southern Africa, another IDRC project, is investigating research publication and open access in universities in the Southern African Regional Universities Association.
  • The Shuttleworth Foundation and the OSI are supporting the Publishing Matrix project which is using an innovative, wiki-based approach to map the South African publishing industry along the whole value chain in such a way as to identify where open access publishing models could have most impact.

Some interesting results are already emerging. The sharing of resources is speeding up the process of getting projects off the ground. Researchers are given instant access to background reports, bibliographies and readings and can review each others’ tagged readings in del-icio-us. The advantages become obvious as I head off this evening for a planning workshop for the researchers carrying out the A2KSA investigations with a range of briefing materials and readings instantly to hand.

Even more interestingly, having Frances Pinter of the PALM project explain to South African publishers and NGOs that flexible licensing models had the potential to defuse the stand-off between open access advocates and commercial publishers, and members of the Opening Scholarship team at the same meeting explaining how the use of new learning environments was changing the way teaching and learning was happening, led to some unexpected enthusiasm for the potential of new business models. Then Juta, the largest of the South African academic textbook publishers, asked for a day-long workshop at UCT with the Opening Scholarship and PALM teams to study these issues. I have little doubt that listening to some of the innovative approaches that are being taken by young lecturers at UCT opened the publishers’ minds to the need to push further their forward thinking about the ways in which their businesses might change in the near future. A similar discussion is to be held with OUP South Africa in the next week.

Open Source and Open Access connect

We have found useful spaces in Vula – the UCT version of the Sakai learning management environment – to maintain project
communications and track progress in our projects, using its social networking tools (something we perhaps learned from students who identified this potential for student societies).  Funders and guests from other projects can eavesdrop, creating greater coherence within and across project teams and giving donors a real sense of participation in the projects

they are funding. Vula, by the way has been hugely successful at UCT and there has been a steady and very substantial growth in the number of courses online – reaching over 800 already this year (from under 200 in 2006) – and enthusiastic endorsement by students of the usefulness of the learning environment. I have little doubt that the flexibility of an open source system leads in turn to the potential for more openness in the use of teaching materials – but more of that in a separate blog.

Open Education celebration

Right now, to celebrate UCT’s commitment to Open Education, we are heading down the hill to the Senate Room, where there is to be an official signing of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, making UCT, I think, one of the first major universities to sign as an institution. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Martin Hall will sign for the university and around 50 guests, from senior academics and administrators to students will, we hope, sign individually, before raising a glass of good South African wine to the potential for opening the gates of learning.

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