Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales and Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth are backing a scheme to make publicly funded education materials freely available on the internet.
The backers of the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, announced on Tuesday, said the initiative is designed to echo the disruptive effect that open source had on the proprietary software world by opening up the development and distribution of educational materials.
The scheme is the result of a meeting of 30 open-education leaders in Cape Town, organised by the Open Society Institute and the Shuttleworth Foundation — the philanthropic organisation set up by Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth.
"We have seen over the last 20 years how open-source software, which is produced collaboratively, has been used to solve individual problems but then shared to solve everyone's problems," said Shuttleworth. "Today, I hope we will launch a process that will build something similarly compelling but for the educational field. It will be extraordinary one day to have teachers in New Zealand collaborating with students in China to create documents that will be used by learners in South America."
According to the declaration, publishers and governments should make publicly funded educational materials freely available online. This will give students access to constantly updated course materials, just as Wikipedia has done in the world of reference materials, the organisers claimed.
"Open education allows every person on earth to access and contribute to the vast pool of knowledge on the web," said Wikipedia founder Wales, one of the authors of the declaration. "Everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn."
Despite its popularity, Wikipedia has not been without its critics. Some commentators will be sceptical of moves to expose educational materials to the introduction of inaccuracies, malicious or accidental, of the sort that have dogged Wikipedia in the past.
The declaration document details the vision of the backers to develop an open and collaborative approach to education but also identifies that there are numerous impediments to realising this goal.
"There are many barriers to realising this vision. Most educators remain unaware of the growing pool of open-educational resources. Many governments and educational institutions are either unaware or unconvinced of the benefits of open education. Differences among licensing schemes for open resources create confusion and incompatibility. And, of course, the majority of the world does not yet have access to the computers and networks that are integral to most current open-education efforts," the declaration states.
Other signatories of the declaration include Peter Gabriel, musician and founder of Real World Studios, and Lawrence Lessig, founder and chief executive of Creative Commons.