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:

  • OpeningScholarship, 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
  • A2K Southern Africa,
    another IDRC project, is investigating research publication and open
    access in universities in the Southern African Regional Universities
  • 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 OpeningScholarship 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
OpeningScholarship 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


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.