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Gaining an Appreciation of What Already Exists

Published: 2014-05-06

How you can access a huge resource of knowledge

Graham Haylor, IFS Director

Great minds will always pursue new understandings, but a precursor to systematic new discoveries through research has to be an appreciation of what already exists. The term polymath - a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas, emerged over 300 years ago, and was often used to describe the great thinkers of the Golden Age of Islam, such as Ibn Sina, or of the European Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci. A notion developed during that time was that humans are empowered and limitless in their capacity for development and that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capabilities as fully as possible. Read More....

Today the polymath might be described as an endangered species. Since the early 1960’s interdisciplinary scientists and others have spoken of the Information Explosion, the rapid increase in the amount of published information or data, and the effects of this abundance. One of the effects of which, is clearly to limit people’s capacity to ‘embrace all knowledge’. Thankfully, however, techniques to gather knowledge from an overabundance of increasingly electronic information have emerged.

Some people describe this as Digital Content Curation. Digital curation involves maintaining, preserving and adding value to digital research data throughout its lifecycle. The active management of research data reduces threats to their long-term research value and mitigates the risk of digital obsolescence. Meanwhile, curated data in trusted digital repositories may be shared among the wider interested community. Whilst it may seem futile today to aspire to polymath status, it is still possible for a research scientist to gain an appreciation of what already exists, with curation making contemporary understanding available for further high quality research.

The Information Explosion may have buried the elite polymath, but Digital Content Curation may have opened up a route to ascend a slope of enlightenment, and not just for a few, but for many. Indeed, perhaps the democratization of learning will come to characterize our age.

So where to go, to gain an appreciation of what already exists? One answer is Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). They began to emerge in 2012 and aim at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, some MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants. Another is repositories of such materials. One of the IFS Trustees Professor Atta-ur-Rahman is the Program Leader of a project in Pakistan to gather such materials. The links to each of these are posted below.

  •  ‘FutureLearn’ (https://www.futurelearn.com/) where you can choose a high quality free course from twenty nine leading UK and international universities from a range of topics; from Science and Technology to Arts and Humanities, from Body and Mind to Business and Management.
  • ‘Latif Ebrahim Jamal National Science Information Centre’ (http://www.lej4learning.com.pk) where you can choose from thousands of full courses, skill development modules, research-based lectures, and on-line mentoring sessions at school, college and university levels, free of charge from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Open courseware, Harvard University Udacity, Open Yale Courses, Khan Academy, Virtual University and others.
  • EdX (https://www.edx.org/) offers interactive online classes and MOOCs from the world’s best universities. Online courses from MITx, HarvardX, BerkeleyX, UTx and many other universities. Topics include biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more. EdX is a non-profit online initiative created by founding partners Harvard and MIT.

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