TREND: Rising impact of online education resources (including open access to scholarly research and massive open online courses) combined with the emergence of new media and information literacy skills offer flexible non-formal and informal skill accumulation pathways

Learning one set of skills at school, a vocational/technical college or at university is no longer sufficient preparation to equip people with the knowledge and expertise they will require for the duration of their working lives (2007 OECD Policy Briefing, page 1). The combined pressures of an increasingly globalised international economy, as well as a consistently iterative and rapidly changing technological environment means that individuals need to continually upgrade their skills and knowledge throughout their adult lives (page 2).

The rising importance of non-formal and informal learning fundamentally stems from the recognition that in reality “…people are constantly learning everywhere and at all times” (OECD – Recognition of Non-formal and Informal Learning). Indeed few people go through a single day of their lives which does not involve a step towards the acquisition of additional skills, experience, knowledge or competences. Furthermore, for those outside the formal education system (including disadvantaged groups as early school leavers, the unemployed, as well as adults not in formal education or training or the elderly) this form of learning is arguably far more important, relevant and significant than the kind of learning that occurs in formal settings (Ibid).

Indeed the reason why non-formal and informal learning has become increasingly visible on policy-making agendas is the acknowledgement that these flexible routes to learning represent a potentially rich source of human capital, harnessing resources which might otherwise lie dormant or underutilised. The growing popularity of proposals to increase government recognition of non-formal and informal learning pathways is based upon the realisation that such recognition makes this human capital more visible and more valuable to society at large (OECD, Pointers for Policy Development, 2012, page 1).

In light of the current challenges facing the EU in terms of rising levels of youth unemployment, skill shortages and an aging population it is perhaps unsurprising that policy-makers are progressively seeing non-formal and informal learning approaches as a means of unlocking the significant reserves of under-used human capital. In December 2012 the Council of the European Union issued a Recommendation (see page 398/4) which recognised the importance of non-formal and informal learning pathways in engaging with disadvantaged target groups including the young, the unemployed, and the low skilled – and called upon all EU Member States to make arrangements for the validation of non-formal and informal learning by 2018.

It is worth noting that this perspective is not unique to Europe. A 2010 study by Patrick Werquin, which surveyed non-formal and informal learning practices across 22 countries contended that demographic decline in particular have forced many countries around the world to reconsider their strategies for creating and identifying human capital (see page 5).

In conjunction with existing trends towards lifelong learning and the promotion of non-formal and informal learning opportunities, the increasing availability of online Open Education resources will continue to have a substantial impact on the information environment. In 2011 UNESCO report on Open Education Resources claimed that there has been an explosion in the availability of online educational material (see page 12) fuelled by collective sharing of knowledge as a consequence of growing numbers of connected people and the proliferation of web 2.0 technologies (see page 30). In particular, Appendix 5 (see page 65) provides a useful inventory of the Open Education resource repositories available in the sphere of higher education.

A 2012 report by JISC, “Learning in a Digital Age”, noted that e-portfolios, blogs, wikis, podcasting, social networking, web conferencing and online assessment tools are increasingly being employed alongside virtual learning environments to deliver “a richer, personalised curriculum to diverse learners” (see page 9). In recognition of these prevailing educational trends in August 2012 the European Commission launched a proposal (see page 1) for a European initiative on opening up education which recognised the exponential growth in online education resources and their future role in diminishing barriers to education and promoting more flexible and creative ways of learning.

In addition to the plethora of free educational courses available online, a further modulation in this trend can be observed in the arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In January 2012 Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor at Stanford University launched Udacity. By October this online education platform had raised $15 million from investors and boasted 475,000 users (Economist December 2012). In April 2012 two of Mr Thrun’s former colleagues launched Coursera with $16 million of venture capital. As of December 2012 Coursera had signed up over 2 million students in partnership with 33 universities worldwide (Ibid). In response to these developments, both Harvard and MIT announced their intention to devote $60 million towards developing their own equivalent online course repository called EdX (Harvard Magazine, July 2012). 

Finally, a further trend which has steadily built up considerable momentum is the practice of granting Open Access to the outputs of publically funded research, generally within the context of peer-reviewed journal articles and papers. Opening up this knowledge to free online access allows this research to reach wider audiences and gain greater public visibility, whilst agencies funding this research see an enhanced return on their investment (JISC).

This approach is increasingly being embraced by governments. In June 2012 the Working Group on Expanding Access to Public Research Findings, chaired by Dame Janet Finch launched its Report which claimed that the future lay with open access publishing and that the UK should embrace and recognise this change (Guardian, June 2012). In July the UK Government accepted the Finch Report recommendations and the Research Councils UK announced that all peer-reviewed research articles and conference proceedings must be made open access by April 1st 2013 (RCUK – Press Release). In November 2012, Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts announced £10 million of additional funding to aid research institutions’ transition and compliance with this new open access policy (BioMed Central).

Also in July 2012, the European Commission issued a proposal to support open access to publications and data arising from research funded by Horizon 2020 (the science/research component of the EU 2020 Growth Strategy).  In the United States the Department of Health mandates free public access to the published results of all research funded by the National Institutes of Health (see NIH Public Access Policy) and requires peer-reviewed journal manuscripts to be uploaded to the digital archive PubMed Central.  

A further indication of evolving attitudes in this area in 2012 was the launch of the Cost of Knowledge Petition which campaigned for a boycott of the journals published by Elsevier. The petition has been signed by over 3000 academics, including several award winning mathematicians, (Guardian, February 2012) and has amassed more than 13,000 signatures to date. Shortly after the boycott, Elsevier announced (Slate, February 2012) that they were withdrawing support  from draft US legislation (the Research Works Act) designed to repeal current open access policies and block similar policies being adopted by other US agencies (Harvard Cyber Law) which subsequently failed to be enacted during the 112th Congress (see GovTrack).

It would seem that such attempts to lock publically funded research away behind electronic commercial pay walls has led to something of a backlash against the academic publishing industry. In January 2012, writing in the Guardian in response to the industry-supported Research Works Act, Mike Taylor said that “academic publishers have become the enemies of science” and that this was the moment where they gave up all pretence of being on the side of scientists. The suicide in January 2013 of Internet activist Aaron Schwartz in his New York appartment after facing a prison sentence of 35 years and a $1 million fine for allegedly extracting and sharing 4.8 million documents from JSTOR (a fee-based repository of scholarly journals) is likely to remain in the public consciousness for some time (Economist, January 2013).  Later in January, the hacker-activist group Anonymous hijacked the website of the US Sentencing Commission, and also launched a further attack on Massachusetts Institute of Technology websites in protest at their treatment of Mr Schwartz.

The trend towards open access publishing will also have significant implications for the developing world. In his 2012 Washington College of Law Research Paper (see pages 43-44), “Open Access Scientific Publishing and the Developing World”, Jorge Contrenas argues that in a context the current number of peer-reviewed scientific journals yield between 1.2 and 1.6 million articles per year, sharing is critical to the advance of science and that improvements to health, infrastructure, and industry also flow from the capacity of scientists to share and build up each other’s discoveries.