Helping Hands

November 18, 2012

Global borders are constantly in flux, shifting and opening. Technology links students from nearly all corners of the world and permeates boundaries. Learning initiatives such as Coursera and edX are open to all who are interested and this access to quality, free knowledge is especially helpful for those who cannot afford a top tier education. The catch is that taking these courses does not result in an official degree. For all the innovation surrounding education, obtaining a job in a university remains a rigid process. To succeed in academia still requires students to obtain a bachelor’s, master’s (most often), and then a doctorate. Many researchers in developing countries who want to pursue academia have no choice but to attend national or regional universities, often with limited resources, and work their way up. Wouldn’t it be great if this group could also benefit from free access to research materials as well as courses?

An increasing number of schools and publishers are moving towards making certain content open access. The New Media Consortium’s 2011 Horizon Report believes this is resulting from a sense of social responsibility for the haves to share content with the have nots (pg. 23). Sharing educational materials is no new thing. Book drives have long been held to collect unwanted textbooks and novels for donation to an area in need. But with today’s technology it is becoming easier to “donate” cutting edge, high quality materials for very little cost. In our course, we have have had some discussion about how amazing it is for a few simple materials to unlock mountains. My classmate Farah shared this TEDx video called The child-driven education by Sugata Mitra, conceptualizer of the Hole in the Wall initiative where computers are placed in an underprivileged city’s public space to allow residents to experiment and, hopefully, teach themselves how to use the machine. Over time his experiments grew more sophisticated. My favourite of his challenges is “Can Tamil speaking 12 year-old children in a South Indian village teach themselves biotechnology in English on their own?” He presented this challenge to 26 children but didn’t expect them to be able to do it. Two months later, he returned from Newcastle and the children sheepishly told him they looked at the computer everyday but did not understand anything. Except, one girl offered, “…the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecule causes genetic disease.” How amazing. This led me to think, perhaps if university level researchers were given access to a greater variety of quality materials they could greatly improve the quality of their research outputs? In my line of work, I often come across a number of ideas that aim to do just this. Described here are two up-and-coming initiatives:

Open Access
Open Access, commonly known as OA, aims to provide online access to quality, peer-reviewed academic journals and increasingly book chapter and monographs. There are currently two levels: green and gold. Green OA sees authors publishing via the usual journal selection process and then self-archiving the journal in their institution’s repository, a centralized repository, or in a designated OA site for free use. Gold OA sees authors publishing directly in OA journals where all articles are free-to-view upon publication. There is also a hybrid model where certain articles in a journal are made OA while others are accessible only with a subscription or through purchase. This movement remains in the early stages but an increasing number of journals are considering this model which means greater access to quality research for developing country researchers, students, and the general public.  The British government has taking a lead role in this with their announcement that all publicly-funded research is to be made OA by 2013. An announcement from the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills says, “Currently most formally published research is only available behind restricted pay walls. Reforms will see publications opened up to a greater audience, providing more opportunities for research and development across a range of sectors.” It will be exciting to follow this movement and see how it changes global consumption of scholarly resources.

For young professionals, having a good mentor can make an indelible impact. Author Aid seeks to link young researchers in developing countries with experienced researchers in their field of expertise who can provide pointers on how to get published. The “publish or perish” mentality remains true for many academics and advice – such as the appropriate journals to submit to and editorial standards – is often invaluable. There are 4 other tenets to the program: participation in a community space set aside for dialogue, access to materials and presentations on how to write and publish well, access to training workshops specific to scientific writing (including funding), and opportunities for networking. Conceptualized in the mid 2000s, AuthorAID is currently based at the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) based in Oxford and supported by the Swedish International Deveop Corporation Agency (SIDA), The Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation (NORAD), and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). I couldn’t find statistics on the exact number of current participants but reading over testimonials provides good insight into how young researchers are benefiting. Dr. Dickson Mubera Andala of Kenyatta University in Kenya shared “First I’m grateful to INASP-AuthorAID for the travel grant support to Philadelphia, USA to attend the ACS conference. Chemical scientists from all over the world converged in Philadephia to share cutting-edge research in all fields of chemistry. Through networking resulting from the conference, I intend to initiate linkages leading to collaborative research between my institution and colleagues at other universities and thus to enhance nanotechnology research in Kenya”. Rich research is emerging from the global south and I have no doubt greater access to quality resources, training, and mentorships will fuel this in the years to come.

Image Source: The Bold Academy


This post was written for a Master’s level course on computer mediated communication at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education, University of Toronto.

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