The tragic suicide of the 26-year old Aaron Swartz on 11 January has thrown the spotlight on access to online content.
Swartz was put behind bars in 2011 for downloading academic papers from an online database that in effect kept a lot of the best academic research in the world behind a wall. He surreptitiously plugged his laptop into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network to download some five million articles from JSTOR, an online database of academic work. These articles can be downloaded for free by anybody who has access to the computer network of an institution that subscribes to JSTOR; others have to pay hefty prices for access.
Swartz dedicated his life to making information freely available online. He was 14 when he helped create the RSS standard for feeds. He later worked on Reddit, a news aggregator. He was the chief architect of OpenLibrary.org, a free public catalogue of books. He was an early member of Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that enables the sharing and use of knowledge.
Swartz also led a successful campaign against two controversial laws in the US—SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act)—that proposed stringent provisions against intellectual property rights violations online. Along with some colleagues, he posted what was called the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which described free access to scholarly papers as a “moral imperative”.
Swartz fought his battles at a time when modern technology makes a vast global library that is open to all a distinct possibility. Also, the debate needs to move beyond whether academic research is available free or not. The Internet allows knowledge to be spread far beyond the traditional classroom. What have come to be known as massive open online courses (MOOCs) have the potential to create a world of open knowledge.
A few leading universities such as MIT and Harvard have realized the importance of open source learning. They opened the doors to online versions of their courses to people from around the world by launching in 2012, with a mission to provide affordable education to anybody who wants it.
Though various universities have been putting up their streamed videos and podcasts online, MOOCs aim to offer an interactive experience as well. For instance, lectures are accompanied by auto-graded quizzes, and enable students to interact with faculty and with each other. MIT, along with the other open courseware consortium members, now offers a certification of participation and college credit, after charging a nominal fee. Similarly, edx.com plans to offer certificates of mastery, a move that will help students improve their CVs while upgrading skills.
The Indian government will do well to follow the logic of new technology. The latest survey of the quality of our schooling by non-profit Pratham shows that enrolment is rising but students learn very little in school. Basic reading and mathematical skills are lacking. There are several issues here, but good online instruction could be part of the solution. A similar strategy can be tried in colleges as well.
The idea of open access to knowledge is not new. One of Mahatma Gandhi’s most influential books, Hind Swaraj, was originally published in Gujarati in 1909. It was translated in English the following year, with a copyright legend that read “No Rights Reserved”.
Aaron Swartz was merely trying to promote the same idea in our times.