New online library aims to ‘equalise’ science education

The World Library of Science, launched by UNESCO and two partners on 10 November, will give students and teachers around the world access to the latest science information and the opportunity to create a “global community for science education”, the developers say.

The library – WLoS – ‘contains’ more than 300 articles, 25 eBooks and some 70 videos, as well as a digital platform that “provides a community hub” for learning, according to UNESCO, which created the site jointly with the international Nature Education publishing group and the Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche.

The United Nations agency says it will “dedicate special attention to training teachers and students in least developed countries” in how to use the WLoS, so as to “equalise” and “accelerate” science education.

Africa the priority

“Africa has been the priority from the beginning,” said Osman Benchikh, chief of section in Innovation and Capacity Building in Science and Engineering at UNESCO.

“There is an enormous need at universities in Africa for this kind of initiative that offers training and up-to-date content,” he told University World News.

“For people who can’t afford to travel and attend conferences, it also provides a means to connect with their peers and exchange information. The professors can create a network among themselves, and this is very important for countries of the South.”

African universities that have participated in pilot projects related to the library include Kenyatta University in Kenya, and the Malawi University of Science and Technology, or MUST.

Representatives from both these institutions and Russia’s Saint Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation gave ‘testimonials’ at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France, last Monday, the UN’s World Science Day for Peace and Development.

Of the 500 users signed up in the pilot stage, 70% are in Africa.

In a video conference that was ironically marred by technical problems, students from MUST said they especially appreciated the communication aspects of the WLoS which enables them to build groups, share information and knowledge and hold group discussions.

Martin Thawani, chief of MUST’s library department, said the WLoS was “a good opportunity to supplement” the university’s books, which are expensive to import.

The library

The library will be accessible to internet users everywhere in the world, at no cost. The majority of the content is for university-level students, giving them resources to “complement their learning”.

For educators, meanwhile, it will provide support and concrete ideas on how to “present complex scientific concepts”, the creators say. It also offers a searchable database of content that is peer reviewed.

A preview of the site shows a homepage with information about Dengue Fever, the mosquito-borne disease, and tips on how to communicate science information in a public presentation.

A ‘Working in Science’ topic room gives relevant resources, while one can download eBooks on basic genetics and other subjects.

Another section provides in-depth information on alternative energy, with clear definitions and descriptions. But the segment on ‘energy provider efforts’ – with links to corporations’ pages – might make users wonder why this is included.

“It’s not in any way our intention to promote companies or their products,” said Dr Ilona Miko, managing editor at Nature Education. “But we thought it was important to offer different perspectives. The intention is to provide a broad overview.”

Miko told University World News that the WLoS is different from similar projects because of the “active social element”, where users can create classrooms and their own specific groups, or utilise customized learning tools “embedded” in the platform.

“This is why I think it’s unique,” she said. “It’s really about social engagement and making science education open to all.”

Project will grow

The project is expected to grow, and new partners may be sought, said Maciej Nalecz, director of the science policy and capacity-building division in the Natural Sciences sector at UNESCO.

Current funding comes from Roche, which has contributed US$1 million for the development and launch of the library, but if the contents are to be translated into other languages and expanded, a new group of donors will be necessary, Nalecz said at a press briefing.

For UNESCO, this is one means of highlighting its science and education mandate, in comparison to its more noted profile in the culture sector. For the other partners, the library brings attention to their sector and activities, even as it enlightens users.

“The world needs more science and more scientists to face today’s global challenges,” said UNESCO’s Director General Irina Bokova. “Achieving this requires better and more accessible science education.”

She added that the WLoS project highlights science education to “address global and local problems”.

* The WLoS can be accessed on either the UNESCO website or the Nature Education website.