One of the few good news stories of the pandemic has been the way research and development teams have shared their findings about Covid-19.
The peer scrutiny of emerging data has been accelerated through open and pre-publication releases. Normally pay-walled journals have made Covid-related content open access, and scores of open knowledge projects have launched Covid initiatives. The Open Covid Pledge – launched by Creative Commons in the early weeks of the pandemic – has seen thousands of relevant patents and data sets released into the public domain.
There may never be a better time for universities to lean into their role as producers of public knowledge. But with critical decisions being taken about the new academic year, we also need to check our own oxygen supply: how much do we know and what are we finding out about education in a time of pandemic?
A joined-up response
The same challenges face educators around the world. How best to teach and to learn online, when online isn’t a specialist choice any more but a universal necessity? How to blend on- and off-campus learning to keep everyone safe – and not just safe but supported, connected and able to progress? How to limit the impact of new arrangements on already disadvantaged learners and sectors of education? Because disadvantage costs lives too. And in the longer view, what kinds of university education will be needed – and can survive – in a post-pandemic society, as we face economic downturn and political upheaval?
In the UK, the Wonkhe/Pearson report is one of several to investigate how students are coping. Richard Watermeyer and his team have surveyed academic teaching staff, and many universities have organised staff/student panels or consultations to understand the impact on learning and working lives. There are longer-term efforts too. The UKRI has a scheme for existing grant holders to switch their focus to the pandemic response, and the ESRC is looking for new projects to “provide practical evidence that could be of use in responding to or mitigating the pandemic and its impacts”. Including, of course, in education.
Much of the know-how we have about online learning is already openly available, from the Open Education Research hub at the Open University to the flowering of blogs, how-to videos, short courses and webinars to support educators suddenly (and under great stress) thrust into teaching online. There has been a rush to produce open education resources (OERs) too, and they are being taken up around the world to support learners and education systems in crisis.
Sharing as the “new normal”
But it’s not a given, as online becomes the new normal, that open and public will become the new normal as well. As options narrow, organisations may hang on more tightly to know-how and resources they believe can help them stay ahead. That is particularly true of the data produced in virtual platforms, which have become even more deeply baked into the core business of HE in the last six months. With consequential decisions demanded every day, the temptation is strong to build another dashboard rather than parse research findings or work with other organisations to develop a broader view.
UNESCO’s recent report, Education in a post-Covid world, compares public education explicitly with public health in that: “we are safe when everybody is safe; we flourish when everybody flourishes”. Decisions taken by practitioners and policy-makers in education have society-wide effects: they need to be based on shared evidence too.
A pledge for education
A group of open educators and open knowledge champions, with the support of Creative Commons, has drafted an Open Covid Pledge specifically for education. Hosted by the UK’s Association for Learning Technologies, it’s an international statement of commitment to release research findings, data and other evidence that can support the Covid-19 response in education, and the rebuilding of a more sustainable, fairer education system beyond. Anyone with access to knowledge resources can sign.
Much of the hard work of building open practice has already been done: the work of building mainstream alliances and collaborations is ahead. But a shared statement stakes out some common ground, for example about the kinds of evidence and resource worth sharing, about how it might be scrutinised and made available to all. The pledge includes resources to ensure any data about private individuals is shared securely and ethically, and provides a safe space for sharing negative outcomes as well as opportunities and successes.
Universities are entering a time of financial and psychological crisis. With a lethal virus in our system, the risks of making a wrong decision don’t need to be spelled out. But we can share the risks if we agree to learn from each other. And we can support learners and teachers more effectively if we are contributing to and drawing from the deepest possible funds of common knowledge.