Posted on October 13, 2010 · Posted in FHSST

It came to pass recently that we (and by we I mean just short of 100 volunteers from all over the world!) edited the Free High Schools Science Texts (FHSST) textbooks in the space of 9 days. The situation arose suddenly and unexpectedly. FHSST had been completely idle since mid-2007 when version 0 was released. Our original intention was to ramp up activities during September 2010 to “leisurely” improve the books so that we could announce a much better, version 1, late this year or very early next year. I have included a few quotes from volunteers telling us why they got involved.

I got involved because you asked me ;) But in all seriousness, I love projects like this – I like what they stand for and I am always willing to give of my time and energy for a worthy cause. I can only reach so many children in the classroom, but to be able to reach more in this indirect way is very powerful.

How it came about

I am have a Fellowship from the Shuttleworth Foundation but was originally hired as a project manager to extend FHSST to all grades and subjects, a project we called Siyavula. As part of Siyavula we acquired a full set of workbooks (with teachers guides etc.) for all learning areas for Grades R-9 in English and Afrikaans (about 30 000 pages) which we released under an open copyright licence. We’ve had a DVD with it all on in Word format that we have been giving to people to try to drive uptake etc. and raise awareness of the benefits of open educational resources. We included a copy of the FHSST PDF files just because there was room on the DVD.

There are two reasons: Firstly I firmly believe that knowledge belongs to all human kind, and that everyone has the right to get the best education available. Secondly I learned about the project from the post of Tom Leinster on the n-category café, which is reason enough for me to take a closer look.

At some point we gave a copy to Beeld, hoping that it would be useful to them as a supplement for their Leer en Presteer section. To the best of our knowledge, they passed it on to someone at Die Burger who passed it on to someone at the Department of Basic Education (DBE). The end result being a series of phone calls to us, completely out of the blue, about the resources and specifically the FHSST books. The DBE representatives were thinking of distributing the material because of the strike but could we check it quickly.

Given that we’ve released it under an open licence and we can’t stop people distributing it, we felt compelled to do our best to improve what went out.

What we did

Figuratively speaking we were caught with our pants down! We were in the middle of reworking the FHSST website and hadn’t actually done any work on FHSST in ages. In fact, up until a few days before the call the book compilation hadn’t actually worked on the site. Despite this we set out to edit all of the FHSST textbooks in the space of 9 days.

I believe in people helping each other, sharing knowledge for the greater good.

Our goal was simple, have at least two people read every chapter looking for factual errors and small style and grammar corrections and then fix them. Large edits or the rewriting of entire sections would have to wait until we had more time.

At first we planned on running hackathons continuously at the Open Innovation Studio (OIS). This would mean getting as many volunteers into one space where people could edit paper copies of the FHSST books and then hand their edits in to a number of ‘LaTeX gatekeepers’ who would edit the book source. (This isn’t because we don’t trust people but rather that we have very few volunteers that are comfortable with LaTeX.)

We identified a list of possible editors and started sending out emails. We had many positive responses but many people couldn’t drop their day-to-day activities to come and sit with us at the OIS. We also received a number of expressions of interest from further afield.

Previously we had discussed amongst the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellows (see Steve Song’s blog on annotate-ipedia) as it could be a super tool for educational purposes. We’ve never had any time to explore that possibility fully.

The distributed enthusiasm and capacity needed to be harnessed to achieve our goal and we felt that would provide a platform to capture edits very effectively. We uploaded all the books onto and made a more general call for help. We called for help from scientists and mathematicians for editing capacity. We were fortunate enough to have the call echoed by Mark Shuttleworth himself. We did ask people to help out by coordinating their reading through us to make sure that every chapter got read twice by independent editors. would allow a complete free-for-all which we wouldn’t mind if not for our deadline.

I’m a supporter of open source software and interested in carrying this over into the academic sphere.


The response to the call was impressive and we were very excited about the amount of enthusiasm and the qualifications of those that stepped up to help. The breakdown of contributor qualifications, those that responded to our information request, is (counting PhD candidates as having an MS):

Degree Local International
BSc 1 1
BSc (Hons.) 13
MSc 16 17
PhD 8 17

Our average contributor is a PhD candidate in one of Physics, Mathematics or Chemistry. A number of Professors contributed which was also very exciting.

The ability to manage hundreds of potential contributors continuously using meant that, with a little coordination, we could hopefully edit everything. The process began at 14:00 on Wednesday 25th August. The editors posted comments at a phenomenal rate and we eventually had to turn some people away because everything had been read multiple times.

One of the biggest costs for schools is up-to-date and accurate textbooks. I believe that having open, freely available textbooks can help avoid these costs.

The total number of annotations in the books as a function of the day was:

Book Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri
Mathematics G10 27 259 131 127 45 94 144 103 0 0
Mathematics G11 15 17 35 80 16 168 143 156 137 0
Mathematics G12 9 20 36 154 4 95 171 169 242 0
Physical Science G10 11 95 128 13 24 85 189 210 63 0
Physical Science G11 7 124 160 10 106 154 378 201 342 0
Physical Science G12 0 86 95 138 0 209 184 347 14 0

This includes responses to comments from those capturing changes in the LaTeX. The huge number of responses would have been completely unmanageable on paper given the time that we had available to us.


Thanks to a phenomenal response we were able to email new versions (version 0.5) of the books to the DBE on the 3rd September. In writing this blog I realised that it was an incredibly stupid thing to even attempt and I’m still amazed that we were able to successfully complete the task, all due to the generosity of volunteers. These books have been featured prominently on the official DBE portal Thutong. This is quite a coup for us, not only did we improve the books significantly as well as capture a large number of suggestions about further improvements and the enthusiastic response from volunteers has raised our enthusiasm levels significantly.

I’ve benefitted a lot from open-source software and similar community-driven projects. I feel the FHSST project is an ideal way for me to make a contribution.

What comes next?

We’ve learnt that using provides a lot of flexibility and enables discussion around errata in the precise context in the book. The future method of capturing errata for the FHSST books will be to use

  • people can see if an errata has already been submitted – without trying to search a forum or database in some obscure way and worrying about using the right keywords etc.
  • people can highlight the error visually and add any comment
  • annotations accept replies – which is the only requirement for people to have a discussion

We know that the books are not perfect, even after such a massive editing effort but we’ve got a good few leads on areas where they can be improved. Apart from a more methodical review of the suggestions and comments submitted during the editing marathon we would like to improve the books significantly. There are a few ways we can do this:

  1. Add more worked examples where the books are light on them – we have received a lot of positive feedback regarding the inclusion of worked examples.
  2. Develop model solutions for all the non-worked example exercises included in the books.
  3. Develop teachers’ guides so that the books are more teacher- and curriculum-friendly.
  4. Integrate multi-media online OERs into the online versions of the books. A chapter/section might:
    1. begin with a Khan Academy conceptual explanation
    2. have a set of powerpoint slides developed into a slidecast by a South African teacher
    3. provide the PhET Simulation allowing learners to experiment and play with the concepts before embarking on the worked examples for a particular concept helping develop their intuition
    4. each exercise will include a shortened url to allow the learner to navigate to the full model solution on FullMarks where learners could find many more problems to practice on

The first step is to complete the model solutions for all the questions in the books. We have revived the hackathons at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and this is where volunteers have started. After ironing out the kinks with volunteers in the same room we’ve refined the process in such a way that hackathons and remote contributions to this proces can be accommodated. You can read about the first hackathon here and the second one here, or see more photos on our Facebook page.

Ideal Process:

  1. Access books on (links available on
      Mathematics Grade 10:

      Mathematics Grade 11:

      Mathematics Grade 12:

      Physical Science Grade 10:

      Physical Science Grade 11:

      Physical Science Grade 12:

  2. Select an exercise in any book that has no solution and no annotation about a solution on FullMarks
  3. Highlight the question and an annotation window pops up – annotate the question saying that you are working on a solution
  4. Create a question on FullMarks with the full step-by-step model solution and finalise it (see details a bit later for some guidance on this)
  5. View your finalised question and answer on FullMarks – copy the url
  6. Return to and add the url you copied to the annotation in the book that you created in step 3
  7. Log in to (this is at the very bottom of the FHSST page)
  8. Create a short url by going to selecting “Shorten url” option from the menu and pasting the full question url into the box and submitting
  9. Copy the resulting code from the short url (i.e. just copy XYZ when the short url is and add this to the annotation in the book as well
  10. Return to step 1. and repeat for another question

This will ensure that we have a short code to redirect learners to a full model solution for every question in the book. They will also then be able to see similar questions on FullMarks as well. We have adapted this slightly for the hackathons but always ensuring that the files on have the latest information regarding what has been and is being worked on.

Hackathon Process
Get a paper chapter assignment from the relevant Siyavula team member so they can manage what is being worked on – do this to help them even if you can follow ideal process.
Buddy up with someone to discuss any issues which might arise. Some questions may not be clear or the text may have an error or you may just want some input on the simplest way to approach the solution.
Access to the internet Computer but no access to the internet No computer
  • Follow ideal process
  • Develop the solutions in OpenOffice rather than on FullMarks
  • Transfer solutions file to a Siyavula team member who will:
    • update annotate
    • upload solution to FullMarks
    • generate the shorturl
  • Develop the solutions on paper
  • Hand it in to the Siyavula team member who will:
    • update annotate
    • upload solution to FullMarks
    • generate the shorturl

This will ensure that we have a short code to redirect learners to a full model solution for every question in the book. They will also then be able to see similar questions on FullMarks as well.

I’m very passionate about the problem of affordable textbooks (and academic publishing more generally), especially in maths. I came from an underprivileged background and I know there are many brilliant people out there who have no opportunity to flourish due to lack of materials. I also have a friend in a third-world country (PNG) who is a teacher, and I could imagine the benefit he would derive from a textbook scheme as you have organised in South Africa.

Once this is complete we will turn to suggestions and improvements related to the conceptual explanations incorporation, where appropriate, links to the Khan Academy videos and the PHET Simulations. From there we can develop the teachers’ guides and submit the books to the formal review process at the DBE for inclusion on the approved books list. Should they be included schools will be able to purchase FHSST textbooks as part of the official procurement process but at approximately 1/5 of the cost of publishers alternatives.

About the Author

Mark Horner is the CEO of Siyavula Education, a social enterprise working in the school sector in South Africa. While working as the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow for Open and Collaborative Resources, Mark was able to transform the Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project, which he co-founded, into Siyavula Education. In this process, openly-licensed, collaboratively authored textbooks have been printed and distributed nationally in South Africa. Working at the intersection of community, openness and technology; Mark intends to leverage this success to make Siyavula an innovative, technology provider in education that works effectively as part of the education community to ensure better learning opportunities for all. A recent notable event being the delivery of Siyavula's textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. Mark has a PhD in physics from the University of Cape Town and conducted his research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California on the results from the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. His work is carried out in the belief that the liberation of information and support of education in South Africa will lead to a peaceful and prosperous future for all South Africans.