This quote is from an article by Steve Wheeler, The future is not here …. yet from his blog Learning with ‘e’s. As I started my career as a librarian, the subject of knowledge management and information sharing, particularly in relation to open learning has always been a topic that interested me. Steve Wheeler goes on in article to say “Why should we charge people for information that they really need to survive?” a very good question that really set me thinking about learning in the 21st Century.
As a Librarian in a large English County Council in 2002 I was responsible for the introduction of electronic reference resources to library users. Online versions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Who’s Who, online newspapers such as The Times and access to Ancestry.com were all made freely available to library members at no extra charge. This was a milestone in information provision, as it made knowledge more accessible to the public at large, but it still came at a cost to the service provider, i.e. the library service.
Less than a decade later we are now looking at a new era of knowledge management, with the likes of Wikipedia and the use of social media at the forefront of information sharing, a genuine example of open learning that is free to the user. So are the days of the large corporations who are charging for access to information numbered? If the information someone requires can be found by searching the web for free, will there still be a marketplace for charged for information?
Whilst I agree with Steve that we shouldn’t charge people to access information – it is more difficult to quantify exactly what is meant by “information that they really need to survive” Surely all information is important? Furthermore there is still a market for good quality accurate information because as we all know, not all content on the internet is either accurate or up to date. There has I believe been a shift away from providing paid for content and towards enablement, helping people develop the skills, or “Literacies” as Steve calls them, to enable them to take advantage of the opportunities of open learning. “Transliteracy” is one he highlights in his article, “the ability to present yourself and your ideas across multiple platforms and switch quickly between them without losing quality of content”.
We also need to break down the corporate barriers that learners face, such as firewalls and blocked content that prevent users from accessing social media content such as facebook for example. Informal learning is now the norm for everyone and not just the arena of digital natives (see my earlier blog post on this subject here) and until we can all accept this, then I don’t believe all information will be truly free.
The present government has spoken a lot about the concept of “Big Society” and I believe that sharing information amongst ourselves at no cost is fundamental to this idea, especially amongst the third or voluntary sector, where often the information that people need is vital for them to survive in the modern world, and this is the part of our society that often needs the information the most but can afford to pay the least.
So what will the future look like? in my future I would like to see greater collaboration, increased content provision that is shared amongst communities, greater emphasis on helping people develop key skills or “literacies” and alot more informal learning taking place at a local level within the community. Where should this be taking place? Our libraries. Libraries have a pivotal role to play in fostering such a future, so it is horrifying to see the current austerity measures that seem to be tearing the heart out of our library services across the country. If “Big Society” is to become a reality, one of the first community spaces we should be looking towards for support are our libraries…. one place that knowledge is given away on a regular basis and everyone gets to keep it!