Posted on June 27, 2011 · Posted in SF Fellow

It has been quite a year so far for Siyavula. My rate of blogging is inversely correlated with real work (queue DDoS attack by blogging world) so the lack of activity should have told you that something was afoot. The focus this Fellowship year is to make Siyavula sustainable by taking Open Educational Resources (OERs) mainstream in South Africa.


For a long time we’ve had a huge number of OERs available in South Africa but their impact has been limited. In fact, there are a huge number of OERs available globally which have had little impact. Considering the awesome benefits of OERs articulated, much more effectively than I ever will, in the Cape Town Open Education Declaration it is worth considering why this is the case.

Within the South African context (and this applies to the rest of this blog post), we find that there are few major factors at play that are not well addressed by the OER movement in South Africa.

Access Challenges: Very few educators have internet access (just over 10% of the population are internet users). This means that the digital, on-line nature of the vast majority of OERs excludes them from use by the majority of educators.

Official Credibility: Most schools are under-resourced and struggling, many considered dysfunctional. Schools that are struggling will have limited access to resources and when they are able to acquire resources, given that they typically serve poor areas, will only be able to purchase resources from the national catalogue of approved textbooks using their allocated textbook budget. There are no OER textbooks on the national catalogue so the resources that the majority of schools could get would not be open and so they would not benefit from the advantages of open resources.

Search: At this point we’re down to a very small set of educators from well resources schools that have internet access and some flexibility in what resources they might use. Do these educators use OERs? At this point I can’t point you at research but we’ll be posting a number of video interviews in the coming months to back up what I’m about to say. Most of the educators that do go online to search for resources:

  • are not familiar with copyright licences at all so don’t know what they are actually allowed to use;
  • are overwhelmed by the huge number of search results and don’t have the time to sift through them all;
  • do not have the time to convert/adapt it to align with their curriculum; and
  • give up because finding something you can use and adapting it to your class just takes too much effort!

Re-use and Remix: If they happen to push through to finding a resource they are confident they can use and they want to align it with their curriculum or integrate it into a lesson plan they find that the proprietary formats they encounter often mean they don’t have and can’t afford the tools to do this.

So the extremely small sample of educators that persevere all the way to the end often tell us that is just isn’t worth looking for resources on-line. For them it is faster and simpler to make their own resources from scratch!

We have found some educators all over South Africa using two sets of OERs:

  1. The Free High School Science Texts (queue sigh of relief!) and
  2. The PhET Simulations.

Fellowship Work

My Fellowship work in focused on Siyavula for 2011. There are some things that I do that are of a more general nature on the advocacy front but for the most part Siyavula is my Fellowship. I want to ensure that OERs become mainstream and that, that is done in a way that makes Siyavula sustainable.

A lot has been done on Siyavula this year:

  • A mobile front-end was released for the Connexions platform. NOT an iPhone, Blackberry or Android application, but something relevant to the South African context. We used a theming proxy-server to give mobile users in South Africa the ability to consume all of the content on Connexions. All of the Siyavula content and FHSST textbooks are on Connexions so this is immediately available to any South African with access to a WAP-enabled phone – approximately 100% of South Africans.. There are multiple instances:
    1. a generic one hosted on Connexions hardware can be found at for the rest of the world; and
    2. a Siyavula specific one hosted in Cape Town can be found at for the local market.

    One nice bonus to the mobile front-end is that it is actually used as a backend to the Connexions Android application.

  • We ran a successful series of hackathons at the University of Cape Town (UCT). These allowed us to ensure that all exercises in our Grade 10 FHSST textbooks had model solutions on our open assessment bank, FullMarks.
  • We ran three sets of evening events building on our success from last year. We ran events in:
    1. Durbanville for schools in the Northern suburbs of Cape Town;
    2. Pietermaritzburg and Durban; and
    3. Johannesburg.

    These events are subject-focused and cover tools/resources: for improved collaboration amongst educators; improved classroom engagement and extra-curricular engagement and learning. This is in addition to an introduction to openness in education and Siyavula as an organisation. We cover 5 subject areas in our series: Languages, Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Information Technology/Computer Applications Technology (two subjects strictly speaking).

  • We have used all our trips to run a number of FullMarks workshops for individual schools, groups of educators and computer centres all over South Africa. We are seeing a steady increase in the number of users of FullMarks and the number of assessment items. However, we are still far from the critical mass we require.
  • We use each trip to engage with organisations that may be interested in our work or even partnering with Siyavula. We have had good meetings that have had meaningful follow-up discussions or activities with:
    • AdvTech who own the Crawford Schools and Abbotts Colleges in South Africa. We have been talking to their science coordinator specifically about extensions of our evening events into courses.
    • Mindset who are another OER producer in South Africa and have over 500 hours of video content. We have been discussing the remixing of their video content into our books, collaboration around FullMarks and the writing of further textbooks.
    • Tshikululu linked Mathematics educators from the 105 schools they support about strengthening their community of educators and the availability of resources.
    • OLE Rwanda about their use of FullMarks for supporting assessment. They have already remixed the Grade 4-6 English and Mathematics workbooks we’ve made available to be aligned with their curriculum.
  • We have established a partnership with St Johns College in Johannesburg. Their Physical Science department has bought into the idea of openness and we have an uploading sprint scheduled for the 18th and 19th July during which we aim to help them put up a full set of Grade 10-12 Physical Science resources on Connexions. This is the first school that has bought into OERs at this level and it is a high-profile school with a very strong science department making this even more significant for the OER movement.
  • We held an incredibly successful translation sprint at the Electrical Engineering Department at Stellenbosch University. The summary video of this event is in production right now and I will update this post as soon as it is available. We translated approximately 80% of Grade 10 Mathematics and 50% of Grade 10 Physical Science into Afrikaans. A follow-up sprint is scheduled for the 30th of July.
  • Siyavula is a registered member of the Publishers’ Association of South Africa and our paperwork to set up the Siyavula legal entity has been submitted and we are awaiting approval.
  • We were able to submit Grade 10 Mathematics, Grade 10 Physical Science and, thanks to the incredible translation efforts of a number of volunteers, Graad 10 Wiskunde books for review for inclusion on the national catalogue of approved textbooks. This happened on the 21st of June. Note that only Grade 1, 2, 3 and 10 were open for submissions at this time. The current submission date for Grade 11 and 12 is the 28th February 2012.
  • Not only did we submit books, we enriched them with OERs from a number of projects. In the process eating our own dogfood completely by developing them on Connexions, the platform we advocate teachers use. Our submitted books are a tour-guide to the highlights of world of online rich-media OERs, highlights in a very subjective, curriculum-aligned sense.
  • We have also reworked the Siyavula brand and the new logo can be seen, as of today, on Our old logo made people think that we were more of a childrens’ literacy project than a technology-focused OER project. We’ve gone from:


Our Response to Challenges

Access Challenges: With our mobile front-end any educator or organisation can share resources on Connexions and ultimately make them available to 100% of South Africans. Our resources, developed on Connexions, are by default available to all. The print versions being on the approved list will also ensure that many more schools can actually acquire hard-copy OER textbooks that their educators can enhance on-line.

Official Credibility: Regardless of mobile accessibility, rich-media or open licensing, our books need to pass all the tests that publishers textbooks pass and so we have submitted them for approval. The ability to adapt them online, use them to point to rich-media and access them from almost anywhere in the country will make them the best option for educators once they are on the approved lists.

Search: Our textbooks and our evening events point to resources and tools that we have spent the time selecting from the multitude of options. This gives educators a simple, curriculum-aligned entry into the vast world of OERs.

Re-use and Remix: Our resources are available on Connexions, an open platform where educators can remix at will. In addition, we are working to get even more resources, like those from St Johns College, onto the platform to help educators nationally (and internationally).

Siyavula and Sustainability

We are in the process of setting Siyavula up as an OER “publisher”. We will add value to the work of our volunteers by providing the structure to ensure that their contributions add up to a coherent whole and by dealing with all the bureaucracy that needs to be navigated to ensure that their contributions have the maximum possible impact. Orders for books via the approved list would then carry a mark-up which would go to Siyavula’s running expenses but would still pass on the massive savings to the schools.

Each of our evening events is being developed into a course. All the resources and tools are freely available and we present them in the evening events but many educators have asked for a detailed course in which we help them use the tools. For these courses we will charge. Everything we use will be freely available but having us take the time to do the training will be a paid service.

Our books will always be available freely and openly on-line (web and mobile) and you will always be able to get a PDF file from Connexions but should you want us to deliver a printed copy or printed copies then we can do so and for that we will charge a mark-up. We will happily aggregate orders so that everyone benefits but Siyavula will take a percentage to cover our running expenses.

Conferences and Presentations

I also presented at the annual Connexions Conference and was invited to present on the OER panel at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative’s Education Think Tank earlier this year.

I was also included in the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans for the education work we have been doing.

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.