Posted on August 21, 2013 · Posted in Siyavula

We are currently engaged in a collaboration with a group of Physical Sciences educators and the OERPub team to develop two books, Physics and Chemistry. The intention is that the books are focused on the Subject Assessment Guidelines (SAGs) for the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) Physical Sciences. That means that each book effectively covers Grade 11 and 12 in a single volume, but that the physics and chemistry parts have been split. The initial step in this collaboration is a workshop at St John’s College in Johannesburg, the school whose science department is driving the community effort.

This is particularly exciting for me for a number of reasons:

  • the community of educators initiated the process;
  • the books will be focused on meeting the requirements of the IEB SAGs, therefore the educators are remixing the Siyavula Everything Science books, their own notes and other Open Educational Resources (OERs), for example the OpenStax College Physics textbook;
  • we are testing (and intend to use) the OERPub editor and Github as a back-end; and
  • the books will be available on a website (minimally everythingscience.co.za) where mobile and MXit versions will exist in addition to ePub3 versions.

We have run many workshops over the last six years, in which we have advocated that educators form workgroups in which they share resources openly and remix what has already been made openly available. Our aim was to seed communities of practice (CoP) as well as increase the pool of open educational resources. This workshop is a milestone, as it represents a significant step on fronts to enabling the formation of CoP.

Workshop

The workshop came about because the HOD of Science at St John’s College, Colleen Henning, expressed a keen interest in developing an openly-licensed book for each of Physics and Chemistry, in collaboration with Siyavula and the community. Given that we have our version of all the content they need to cover (to act as safe seed material), the OERPub editor was ready and needed to be tested by real users, and a community was interested, we decided to jump in and have a go at kicking off the process with a workshop.

This is the first group of SA educators to attempt to remix existing content with the intention of producing openly-licensed textbooks, it is also the first real field test of the OERPub editor where actual authoring is taking place.

The workshop runs from Monday 19th August to Thursday 22nd August. As a starting point we set up a skeleton aligned with the SAGs and imported all of the relevant Everything Science content into the right format and then jumped straight in. The books that will be produced are not Siyavula books, so the first day included a lot of discussion about what exactly the books should look like and how they should approach the various topics. This discussion just reinforces for me that it will never be appropriate to have only one book for all educators/learners.

Then the groups jumped straight into banging content into shape.

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The chemistry team.

The educators that are working on chemistry are:

  • Ena Bosman
  • Nicci Glanville
  • Warwick Taylor

Siyavula’s chemistry content coordinator, Katherine Davies, is also participating in a support role.

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The physics team.

The educators that are working on physics are:

  • Colleen Henning
  • Rob Lodge
  • Nicky Stocks

In the past, we haven’t been as successful for a number of social and technical reasons, which are finally being overcome as demonstrated by this workshop.

Social challenges and solutions

On the social front, we have been dealing with educators’ lack of willingness to share, as well as all the concerns about copyright issues.

Sharing is scary (at first anyway), because it involves making something available for public scrutiny, something that is actually an investment of your time and energy, and people may be critical. People may also be very positive, but we tend to worry more about what might go wrong than right. The long-term benefit of sharing, in my opinion, is that even if people are constructively critical, the material improves and a community of practice with a shared knowledge base and best practise can emerge.

The other concern comes from a lack of certainty about copyright law. They don’t know what they can do and are generally nervous about getting on the wrong side of the legal departments of the publishers. We respect copyright law, but it is not the intention of the law to intimidate people, and I find it sad that educators are scared to share what they have created – not because they have done anything wrong – but because of a lack of understanding.

The solution: slowly build areas where sharing is common practice; a good culture of constructive feedback exists; and build on resources that are safe from the outset.
 
We have created material that is safe for educators to build on. It has taken a long time but we now have a large pool of curriculum-aligned resources, and if educators build on them they can rest assured they’re safe on the legal front. As they build on it and share back (I don’t believe in forcing people to share back but that’s another blog post for another day), the pool of safe (open!) resources increases and everyone benefits.

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The group of educators that assembled to begin their own open book writing journey.

Why push a process to get educators to share? Two main reasons: ensure appropriate content is available, and that content continuously improves in quality. We don’t feel that any single resource can be appropriate in all contexts and classrooms, and we believe that sharing openly will lead to higher quality, more innovate resources. Sharing reduces duplication, which frees up time for constructive feedback and more energy to create fewer resources of higher quality, as well as do more research and experiment more. This does require more than just an open copyright licence – it also requires collaboration amongst the community of educators. Open licences provide the legal infrastructure for safe sharing and CoPs provide the social infrastructure for safe sharing and continuous improvements.

Technical challenges and solutions

Kathi Fletcher formed the OER Pub collaboration to help address the hardest piece of the technical puzzle: a user-friendly tool to construct structured documents that caters for writing equations. It is very important for us that equations can be created easily as half our books are equation-heavy. There are a couple nice editors (my favourite non-OERPub editor/platform being Substance) available but mathematics is not available in any of them.

On the technical front we have really struggled with remixing a wide variety of document formats (specifically the lack of semantic structure and poor maths handling). We spent a lot of time trying get content into a semantic format like the XML used by Connexions but, even if we managed to convert it successfully, the authoring experience was too slow and complicated for most people. We know that we can produce books from XML as our existing titles (www.everythingscience.co.za, www.everythingmaths.co.za and www.thunderboltkids.co.za) are created this way, but even our team prefer to write the XML by hand rather than use any of the online editors that are available to us.

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The OERPub team and Siyavula technical team.

The technical team that assembled to support the process from OERPub:

  • Kathi Fletcher
  • Marvin Reimer
  • Tom Woodward

We also had Izak Burger and Phil Schatz working remotely. From Siyavula’s side we had Carl Scheffler and Ewald Zietsman.

We’ve had a number of technical challenges during the workshop, as the software is best described as being in alpha, but I think we’ve made the right decision in how to solve our technical problems. Content authoring is taking place, but still slower than everyone would like. When the editor is more stable things will go a lot faster.

What comes next

The workshop is just the beginning of the process and is not the entire process itself. The team will keep working away for the workshop, and then the OERPub team will spend a couple of weeks working on the editor before authoring resumes. When the authoring nears completion, we (Siyavula) will begin working to help produce the various formats fit for general consumption.

These books will then be continuously updated and enhanced by the community developing them. This is one of the main benefits of an open, community-driven process that is creating digital content, and is not tied to a specific textbook process with print as the primary medium. When the books reach a state of readiness a print-ready PDF will be created – these will then be updated periodically as the books evolve. The web- and ePub-versions will always be up to date.

While the process and tool is still in a formative phase, it represents a significant step for OERS in South Africa and, in my opinion, the world. This will also help get more science teachers involved in sharing, and help make the case to other subject communities, that producing OER content is possible in a collaborative fashion.

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.