Kirtas book scanner; the company, initially a part of Xerox says revenues have tripled in the past year, partly thanks to large-scale projects in association with Microsoft, Google and American Universities such as Yale

At the end of last year Cambridge University’s Digital Library project was announced with the release of Isaac Newton’s papers; a selection of the physicist’s personal notebooks and annotated texts, digitised for online access. It was a symbolic act, neatly calculated to take advantage of Cambridge’s best-selling brands, whilst raising awareness for a laudable and generous project – the digitisation of the University’s unique collection of manuscripts.

However, it also highlighted the problems facing exponents of digital scholarship and education. The manuscripts are cultural artifacts of great significance, but for the majority of the public they are just intellectual curios – even within academia, they’re only of use to a minority. Grant Young, the Digital Library’s project manager, acknowledges the difficulty of balancing a desire to “encompass a very broad range of material” against “copyright and resource constraints”. With these restrictions the Digital Library has specifically academic aims. Young states that the goal is building a collection with “breadth and depth”; creating resources that take advantage of collaborative tools to link “digitisation activity in closely with research and teaching”.

The Digital Library project stands at the forefront of digital education: it takes advantage of already established academic communities, it’s free to use, and has a universal appeal – from manuscript dilettantes to grim-faced researchers. However, it also shows just how far we have to go before we will fully realise the potential of the internet for education. Copyright restrictions necessarily prevent free access to all of Cambridge’s resources, but surely there’s a better way?

Razing the digital Libraries of Alexandria

At this moment in time, the only other option is piracy. In February of this year library.nu (previously known as Gigapedia) was shut down by a coalition of publishing companies (including Cambridge University Press) for copyright infringement. The site hosted more than 400,000 e-books for free, but the content focused on scholarly texts, not best-sellers. Library.nu’s catalogue was the world’s most extensive free collection of online academic works – encompassing everything from agricultural manuals to the latest philosophical monographs.

The closure of library.nu was met with dismay in online communities, drawing heart-felt comparisons with the burning of the Libraries of Alexandria; scholarly lawbreakers consoled each other with promises of terabytes of books, downloaded and whisked away to personal hard-drives before the site closed forever. A review of Twitter mentions for library. nu reveals an international user base; tech-savvy would-be scholars of all ages, who might have pursued academia had economic expediency not forced them into other careers.

The problem is the publishing industry’s business model and prices. Academics and institutions need to make money to continue their research, no-one denies this – but this system restricts scholarly research to an academic elite. The global middle class – not the European or American middle class who comprise the economic 1%; but residents of Latin and South America, Africa and India - simply cannot afford access to materials.

Their academic input may come to nothing but who cares? They represent the values that all academic institutions preach: read and learn; expand your mind; better yourself and improve your community. The problem of providing the educational material through fair means is an intractable one – I’m certain that all academics would gladly provide access to their work, free of charge, to those who simply cannot afford to pay; but how could we ever build an efficient, economically viable system for distribution?

A culture of education

The heart of the problem might lie with the 21st century’s appreciation of education. A cursory glance over university league tables reveals what we value in our academic institutions. Although it’s true that some statistics are selected for ease of measurement, there is a constant emphasis on career prospects: universities are good if they get you a job. If we are feeling particularly flouncy and cynical wemight argue this shows the corporatisation of British education: that we no longer value education for its own sake, but only as a process making us profitable citizens.

This is partly true, but it shouldn’t really matter; it doesn’t stop universities from promoting self-education as an attainable goal for anyone, regardless of whether they can afford to go to university or not. As the publication of the Newton papers – and the press it received – shows, Cambridge has a unique position in the world’s consciousness as a home for learning. Yet compared to other institutions the university fails to live up to its reputation.

In comparison Oxford boasts an extensive online collection of podcasts – both video and audio – that offer lectures and seminars from various courses; they cover all sorts of topics, from the latest research in genetic medicine to A ‘Romp through Ethics for Complete Beginners.’ Cambridge has its own collection but it’s a single, sparse webpage with limited content – unappealing to everyone who isn’t already a dedicated autodidact.

Open All Hours; both Cambridge and Oxford are yet to fulfill their online potential. Oxford's podcast collection is extensive and growing though.

Some might argue that putting lectures online would discourage people from attending university and devalue the work of the lecturers; but if you really want to attend University then online resources will never be a replacement. They’re supplementary for the keen and an fulfilling pastime for anyone else. Both Cambridge and Oxford could do so much more to fulfill their potential online – and in an era when more and more individuals are being priced out of education, why are these institutions not reaching out to those that want to learn?

Hmm, time to read some Plato–ohmygod, that cat is AMAZING.

Experts maintain that distractions during learning are healthy and profitable for cognition

Other online educational resources – and I use such a broad category intentionally - have not been so lax in exploiting digital tools. One frontrunner is TED; a non-profit organisation that holds global conferences promoting individuals with “ideas worth spreading”. The talks range from heady philosophical diatribes to companies showing off their latest flashy robots. As far as academic rigour is concerned, it’s true that TED talks are often lacking, but this isn’t their aim; they want to stimulate thinking and spread ideas, not to engulf individuals in mountains of footnoted essays.

TED’s importance lies in its viral quality, its popularity. An interesting video can get bounced around the internet in hours (the recent campaign by Invisible Children has proven this), and TED talks – with their catchy branding and slick presentation – piggy-back this social popularity in order to spread, educate and encourage thought. Other online resources like the Khan Academy have less viral flair but instead offer in-depth and rigorous video courses in the sciences; everything from detailed explanations of polynomials to step-by-step instructions on how to calculate stellar distance using parallax.

The invention of reading

But despite the grand potential of the internet, would people really bother to teach themselves? Implicit in this article has been the existence of some archetypal, impossibly well-motivated kid who just needs to learn goddammit. We know this isn’t how the internet works. Digital naysayers are quick to deride utopian internet-dreaming. “Look at all this potential for global communication and learning” – they say – “wasted on pornography and YouTube idiocies!” they continue. Or “why should I bother looking up anything online; anyone can post anything they want, how do I know what’s true?”

These are not new problems. In fact, they’re barely even problems. The same complaints appear after every evolution in the creation and consumption of media. It was said that the invention of the print press would lead to a proliferation of second-rate intellectualism; that it would create chaos and confusion in

European intellectual circles. And it did. But it also led to the destruction of the Church’s stranglehold on academic life; it paved the way for newspapers, novels, and journals; it allowed for the speedy exchange and advancements of scientific ideas: it made Europe. With the internet the scope is global.

For those that argue that the internet is a qualitatively different medium from the book; that learning through computer-screens is unnatural, we should remember that reading itself is not a natural activity. We create literate cultures only through societal change and through the investment of massive amounts of time and money. Public libraries did not start mushrooming in the streets the week after the printing press was invented – society takes time to adapt to and take advantage of new technologies. The same will happen with the internet.

It’s true that we shouldn’t get carried away by the potentials of new technology, but neither should we be downhearted. Although pushing educational resources online won’t lead to everyone suddenly teaching themselves Latin in their spare time, we shouldn’t forget the cumulative effect of our new global network. Wikipedia became the most important body of English reference material in less than ten years through the aggregation of volunteers worldwide, collectively contributing over 100 million hours of work. Wikipedia shows the potential of a global community: if institutions like Cambridge were to embrace the potentials of digital education, they wouldn’t just be teaching that one archetypal child, they would be teaching the world.

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