Open research – Professional Amateurs – Science in Action

I recently wrote a post that touched upon openness of and elitism in education. I just wanted to express a few more quick thoughts on this, though it is something I intend to return to with a more in-depth look at open education and resources.

I feel the elitism of universities doesn’t lie with who is allowed to become a students, it is more related to the fact that resources are securely tied up within universities making those resources inaccessible to the majority. Resources in this context could be books or journals (hard copies or online with paid for institutional subscriptions), the academic discourse, the talents of faculty, the research equipment and facilities, past Ph.D. theses, etc. In addition, it relates to the subjects and specific topics that are deemed to be worthy of teaching or researching, or what the funders deem so.

Universities deal in the currency of degrees, a passport in society. Why in times of recession, such as at present, should it be that otherwise capable individuals are denied their chance of a degree passport because the government puts a squeeze on the number of places available in order to balance the books? A further point is the question of assessment, and is it really a useful measure, or is the ongoing presentation of someone’s work, either within a university or indeed outside it (informal learning), a better reflection of their capabilities and abilities? Indeed, evidence is beginning to accumulate indicating that those who present their work using social media place themselves in a more advantageous position for employment. And shouldn’t publicly funded research be in the public domain anyway? I’ve previously written about Open Notebook Science.

I can envisage how much of this could be opened up to greater access, but I was having a problem with scientific equipment and facilities and how that might be liberated.

There have been some interesting examples where institution based science projects have reached out to the public for assistance. There was SETI were you signed up and your computer were utilized while it was on (and you weren’t using it) to process data to search for extra-terrestrial life. Then I recall a project were public volunteers were called for to look for new astronomical bodies in tens of thousands of photographs of space; these were provided online and after doing a test to see how accurately you could assess the images you could process the live data. It was discovered that humans were much better at seeing differences in the data than if the processing was done electronically with image recognition.

Therefore, in a rather detached way people were participating in scientific research.

However, I then heard the repeat of the Friday 25 September Science in Action programme* on BBC World Service at 4:32GMT on Sunday morning. (Sometimes I’m awake in the night or wake up early.) Listen to the programme. The significant part where this blog post is concerned is the DIYbio article. The article talked about people who are undertaking scientific research, bio-engineering in this case, in their own homes using inexpensive equipment, some bought secondhand on Ebay(R) for a fraction of its cost new to a research lab. They are able to design and create new biological parts, devices and systems. Integral to this approach is the support from online communities, DIYbio.org for example, sometimes with professionals voluntarily assisting these communities.

Clay Shirky has talked about the increase in mass amateurization, without being amateurish. This is the breaking down of the dichotomy between ‘experts’ and amateurs, with the creation of a new category – the Professional Amateurs or Pro-Ams. Charles Leadbeater in his book We-Think talks about how mass creativity has seen sites including Wikipedia and Youtube, and the Linux operating system rise in prominence and signal a shift in the way we and society can organise ourselves; participation becoming the key element.

All of this, for me raises the question, “Are universities, education systems and society more generally getting ready for the future of learning and research?”

* This particular programme doesn’t seem to be archived, though you can usually listen to the previous two recent episodes, so I guess you’ve probably got a couple of week to hear it before the link is broken.

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2 thoughts on “Open research – Professional Amateurs – Science in Action

  1. Pingback: Experiment and discussion | Squire Morley

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