It goes to illustrate just how much smaller the world has become that legislation currently going through US Congress can impact on learners in the UK – and wherever people can connect to the Internet. And love it or loathe it, the user-generated online encyclopaedia Wikipedia - which is now regularly used by millions as a first-stop-shop for information - has today decided to close access to all of its English-language pages for 24 hours. This is as part of the debate happening across the world about copyright and access to materials, which has major implications for adult learners now that so much information and learning activities are accessed online.
Wikipedia’s protest is against the proposed legislation in the US which aims to stop illegal downloading and streaming of movies and TV shows, which many believe could also result in altering the Internet’s ability to provide a platform for free speech.
Rights-holders are reported to have been stunned at the way that their material has been so easily copied and freely used across the Internet and are mobilising to protect their interests. In the meantime the culture of online sharing for free has grown to the point that its advocates have made a political stand, and across Europe Pirate parties have gained modest but noticeable electoral success.
Of course those who make their living through the creation of content – be it text, music, video or audio – need to be paid for their work in the same way as farmers are paid for carrots and potatoes. The lines seem to get easily blurred, however, as professionally-created material increasingly sits alongside the growing body of user-generated content, which is created and, mostly, shared for free.
What does all this mean for adult learning though? Three things.
1. There is rarely a good reason why publicly-funded electronic learning materials should not be shared freely with learners elsewhere. Happily, the Open Educational Resource movement is gaining traction and increasingly materials are being shared using Creative Commons or Open Government licensing.
2. Rights holders should be protected, but not at the cost of easy access. Where there are legitimate reasons to charge for access to content, pricing needs to be affordable and payment methods simple and clear.
3. The tools and online spaces where some of the contested content sits – for example YouTube - have additional value for learners. They provide the medium for learners to post their own content as part of their learning and to share it with others. We really can’t afford to jeopardise the viability of these sharing spaces.
Communication tools and the ways that we access information are changing rapidly, including the ways that we learn. Having good access to information as well as to the spaces to share and discuss are important issues for adult learners and NIACE is engaged in the debate, which we are taking forward this Friday at our seminar called Open Educational Practice - making best use of free resources.