Making connections – Open learning Southern African style

On the second day of the Southern African Regional Universities
Association (SARUA) Open Access conference last week, the penny
suddenly dropped. From the start, the signs were good – the
conference, which followed on from the SARUA Vice-Chancellors'
triennial congress, was, after all, focused on open access. The Chair
of SARUA, Professor Njabulo Ndebele of the University
of Cape Town
, the Botswana Minister of Education, J D Nkate and
the CEO of SARUA, Piyushi Kotecha, opened the conference with strong
statements on the value of Open Access in their respective
constituencies. This is echoed on the SARUA
which, unusually for a university association site,
acknowledges the importance of dissemination
a core value and makes a clear statement of its commitment to Open
Access both as one
of its programme areas
and as a core principle, as well as its
policy for
its own communications
. The central statement is perhaps this:

Open Access for increased quality research, enhanced collaboration,
and the sharing and dissemination of knowledge, is a central
principle for SARUA’s work. The Association is already engaging
with groups and networks of expertise and good practice locally and
globally in order to support the development of Open Access benefits
for HE.


the conference, the comments of these opening speakers did not
therefore appear to be glib statements of openness as a worthy value,
but seemed firmly embedded in a recognition of the need to create
equity for the developing world in its contribution to global
knowledge. What emerged, particularly from Piyushi Kotecha, was a
vision which could move SARUA universities on from the current
post-colonial reliance on the North for standards for research
competence, to a situation in which they could promote their own
competence as knowledge producers. As
Alma Swan commented
later in the proceedings, she thought that, with hindsight, the Open
Access movement should perhaps have named itself Open Dissemination,
to get away from the implicit dependence on access to knowledge from
the North-West that can sometimes emerge in development-speak. And it
goes further than Open Access alone.
Universities in the
southern African region, Piyushi Kotecha went on to say, need to
explore open research and open science in order to become research
intensive in the next 10-20 years, making a contribution not only to
global scholarly communications, but also creating links between
research, teaching and learning, and ensuring the contribution of
universities to socio-economic development in the region.

is an enlightened view and if it does indeed underpin future policy
initiatives by universities and governments in the region, it could
well help move the SARUA constituency on from the contradictions and
blockages that currently undermine the effectiveness of South African
research dissemination policy,
to a more effective role in achieving research impact
. This
could go some way to giving the region a leadership role on the

was great, but something continued to nag at the back of my mind. In
the Minister's speech and in some of the questions and comments from
the Vice-Chancellors attending the conference, there seemed to be a
slippage between Open Access as I would understand it –
dissemination and publication systems that, as Alma Swan summed it
up, are 'freely available, publicly available and permanently online'
– and another vision that was only obliquely alluded to, of Open
Access as access to universities for students. This question
continued to hover as Amanda Barratt, of the UCT
Law Library
(which, incidentally, hosts Lawspace,
the UCT law department repository) talked illuminatingly on open
access and human rights and the failure of proprietary IP systems to
deliver necessary development goals, particularly in an African
context. Something began to crystallise as Andrew
, of the Shuttleworth Foundation spoke about Text,
Hypertext and Rent Seeking,
charting the differences between the
linear and contained world of printed text and the fluidity of the
read-write web, a clash, as he vividly put it, between 'the
fundamental concept of the web and copyright as a series of little

connections emerged as Johannes
, echoing what Amanda Barrett had said, spoke of the
importance of education as a human freedom, citing the unhappy
statistics of education and research on the continent. He charted the
difference between the old information world in which richness had to
be sacrificed for the sake of wide reach and the new digital
paradigms in which we can combine reach and richness. However, 80% of
the world lives, he said, where infrastructure is lacking for
unbundled,digital information and education is therefore dependent on
physical objects such as books. He brought this down to a moral issue
– the bread principle, as he called it. If we can make information
and distribute it for a very marginal cost, then we have a new
economic model that could serve those deprived of access to
education. This is a moral imperative, but IP gets in the way. What
also gets in the way is the excessively high cost of
telecommunications in countries like South Africa and many other
African countries. This means, he said, that the moral agenda becomes
a money agenda. The bottom line, he argued, is that access to
information is a basic human right and information infrastructure is
fundamental to making access work.

all came together just after Derek Keats, of the University
of the Western Cape
, had talked about the
ways in which web 3.0 could break out
of the narrower confines on
university walls and the covers of books, offering abundance rather
than the limitations of a physical environment. In addition, social
networking environments allow students to become producers as well as
consumers of knowledge. This, he said, is a 'rip-mix-burn'
environment that allows for the creation of cross-institutional or
even non-institutional learning environments. The Vice-Chancellor of
the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique responded to this with
considerable excitement. 'I was in a dark tunnel', he said 'and now I
can see a light.' He explained that his perception of the
scarcity/abundance arguement was that in Africa we have an abundance
of students and an abundance of thinly populated land. However there
is scarcity of lecturers and physical infrastructure. Having listened
to the earlier speeches and then bringing to bear what Derek had
said, he could now see the potential for ICTs and Open Access to help
a country like his. 'We should go where the students are living, take
the money that we would have used for infrastructure and reach them
where they are.' He could see, he said, how Open Access and social
networking tools can fundamentally change attitudes towards teaching
and learning.

linked back to some of the things that Christina
, of the Open
, had talked about. She described the steps that the OU
had had to take over the years to accommodate students who came to
university courses without formal entry requirements. This needs very
careful curriculum design, introductory courses front-loaded in terms
of support – and with continuing high levels of support to meet
student needs. Provision needs to be modular and very high levels of
assessment are built in. When it comes to technology gaps, she said
that she thought that Africa did not have to be held back by
infrastructure limitations as it had already leapfrogged in its use
of mobile technologies as
part of its blend. What she said about the curriculum also resonated
for Africa – that we need to maximise the potential of learning
online through the use of social networking as part of student

all suggests that in the context of higher education in southern
Africa, open access, combined with innovative use of mobile
technology and a recognition of the transfomative
of social networking, offers considerable potential
to move research and teaching away
from anachronistic hierarchical and locked-in models inherited from
the colonial era. Open access can therefore mean not only improved
research communications and a greater global contribution by African
research, but the use of open education and social networking might
offer great potential in under-resourced countries to provide access
for greater numbers of students to a well-supported, relevant and
effective higher education system.