Posted on August 6, 2014 · Posted in Siyavula, South Africa

I’m generally a big fan of the Open Access movement. I really feel like we’re all just different manifestations of a global movement toward greater openness, transparency and community that is sweeping the world. The transformation is far from complete but there is a lot happening, some of my favourite initiatives (a tiny and extremely biased sample) being things like the work of the Open Knowledge Foundation with a project like Open Spending being generally awesome; Code for America; Public Library of Science (PLoS); Code 4 South Africa but there are many more.

Open Access

For the moment though, I’m worrying about Open Access like the work of PLoS. There are many very good, generalised arguments for why Open Access is extremely important, a nice simple place to start learning about it is here and then go and read everything Michael Nielsen has written about it but start here.

I REALLY BELIEVE that we need an open-access education journal in South Africa.

When talking to teachers I find, in general, that:

  • they don’t read journals and don’t have ready access to any research;
  • a few read some blogs of foreign educators, mostly in the USA;
  • the vast majority don’t write their own blogs; and
  • most aren’t part of a very active community of practice (or whatever the current name for this is, PLN etc.)

Blogging revisited (sort of)

I say sort of because I never actually finished my blog post about why I really think teachers should blog and I am still going to encourage as many as possible to start blogging. My motivations were simply that I had thought that by starting their own blogs they could:

  • reflect on their practice;
  • share it with others; and
  • benefit from feedback which will hopefully lead to a real community of practice.

This hasn’t, yet, been very successful. Firstly, everyone is a little nervous about having a go at a blog, it feels like you’re opening yourself up to a world of criticism and you really need to have something insightful to say. Those are actually minor issues, getting the world to read your blog is very difficult and your posts have to be useful to you not necessarily the entire world.

The primary issues I see for those that are keen to start is actually finding the time to start and produce enough articles regularly to build up a community of readers so that the feedback positively reinforces blogging. A bit of a catch-22 situation.

I’m mentioning blogging in this post because I see the benefit of blogging being to get educators to share what they’re learning, what they’re trying and what ideas they’ve got so that we can see more rapid innovation. To me this means articulating what you tried, whether or not you think it worked and what you’d do differently if you tried again. This is quite similar to education journal publications. The journal publications will have the benefit of more time to plan, test, reflect as well as control groups (I hope).

Back to the open access journal

There are many experiments published in education journals and they are extremely relevant to educators but I have only met one practising classroom teacher in South Africa that gets the odd opportunity to read some papers. To concretely illustrate the lost opportunity consider a specific article published earlier in 2014:

The Impact of Computer Simulations as Interactive Demonstration Tools on the
Performance of Grade 11 Learners in Electromagnetism
Jonas Kotoka and Jeanne Kriek
Institute for Science and Technology Education
University of South Africa
African Journal of Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology Education
Volume 18, Issue 1 2014, pages 100-110
DOI: 10.1080/10288457.2014.884263

Many of our educators are now charged with trying to figure out how to integrate technology into their teaching. The content of the article is very relevant to the teaching of Physical Sciences in Grade 11 using a simulation, something that is solidly part of an e-learning strategy, and should be used to inform any future e-learning material produced for Grade 11 Physical Sciences.

The problem is that to access the content of this article will cost $39, unless affiliated with a research institution that has purchased access to the journal, and so it is unlikely to be taken into account.

This argument is supported by the fact that the download count, at the time of writing, is only four. There are already many more than four teachers using simulations for teaching Electrodynamics in South Africa and they should all be able to access this research.

The ready accessibility of information of this type is more important than ever before because of the move to digital content and the rate at which technology is advancing. It will take time to establish a body of relevant research but the benefit is that the research can be utilised quickly and effectively as digital content can be updated rapidly at nominal cost.

A digitally-driven education sector will need to adapt more rapidly than a print-based sector to stay current and effective. The flow of information and learning needs to be as rapid and accessible as possible.

I propose:

  • the creation of an open-access educational journal (possibly as part of the Department of Basic Education’s portal)
  • that all government agencies funding research into the education sector insist that the papers generated through the research be published in the newly created journal
  • that the licence for the aforementioned journal be the Creative Commons By-Attribution licence to maximise reach and impact both locally and globally

This journal could quite quickly and easily be built on open source software and provide articles under and open copyright licence and data under an open data licence.

Implementation

Concretely regarding implementation, we would propose to adopt one of the following approaches:

  • Engage with the Public Library of Science (PLoS) regarding their platform as they have successfully created a set of sustainable, open access journals of high quality and developed the policies regarding the availability of the data to support the paper as well.
  • Engage with the eLife Sciences open access journal regarding their platform as they have the most innovative reading interface and a very transparent process. Policies can still be adapted from the PLoS but the eLife software and process might be used.

Benefits and implications for various stakeholders

Educators and school management

It would not be reasonable to demand all educators monitor the latest research and immediately update practice accordingly. In the current paradigm, educators have no direct access to the research. If we are to foster and enable a truly professional educator corps then they need to have access to the research that informs school management practice, device usage in schools, material design, and pedagogical approaches.

Access to the latest research would also support more informed decision making when schools need to engage with external parties such as service providers.

Curriculum specialists and advisors

Curriculum advisors would have access to the latest research and best practice which would further support them in their role of enabling educators to perform optimally in the classroom.

Publishers and service providers

In order to best support the provision of educational service, commercial providers should take the latest research into account. In the current paradigm the extent to which this takes place is not clear. In an open access paradigm publishers have ready access to the same research as all other stakeholders and can inform their own resource production and service provision. In a sense, they need to align with the standards dictated by the research. Hiring a teacher who has 30 years classroom experience (but not journal access) to write a book is not taking best practice into account.

Department of Basic Education (DBE) and Provincial Education Departments (PEDs)

The departments will operate in a sector where the latest research is available and can inform decision making. It will also enable holding publishers and other service providers accountable to the research in the review and vetting processes.

DBE should be in a position to foster and drive research into specific areas of strategic importance and know that the sector will take the research into account.

Challenges

Establishing a journal is a slow process and initially issues will be not be available monthly. The more funders that agree to this approach the better and some coordination will be required to enable the first issue. The cost of the journal site is nominal.

Establishing a healthy research sector will take funding which should be seen as a long-term investment in building a healthy, world-class education sector. It will also require coordination with other government departments that fund research and their agencies, for example DST, the Meraka Institute, National Research Foundation etc. Tax payer funds should ensure public access to research outputs (taking into account any ethical requirements involving minors etc.)

The review process will be important and should be modelled on the PLoS or eLife Sciences journals process and established in partnership with the education units at the various universities in South Africa.

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.