Essays on Education: 3. Knowledge should be free


My journey from Nuclear Physics to producing free school textbooks with people all over the world.

It happened during my Masters at the University of Cape Town. I suddenly began to pay more attention to the school education sector and its needs.

Initially, I just enjoyed being a tutor in the Physics Department. This ultimately led to my joining the university’s delegation to the SASOL SciFest in 2002. I spent a week manning the Physics section of the stand. The theme was seeing the world through science, and I focused on certain basic properties of waves – content which happened to be very similar to the
school curriculum.

It was a big festival. Groups of learners were bussed in from rural schools and taken around the stalls with translators. One of these groups returned the day after their tour. They’d clubbed together to buy an A4 black notebook and a few pens.

“Please can you write down everything you explained yesterday?” they asked. They were in Grade 12 and didn’t have any textbooks. They said their teacher wasn’t going to cover this content, but it was examinable at the end of the year. They looked at me like I had a secret they simply had to share.

I tried, of course, but couldn’t really do the information justice in a few hours. One thing was immediately apparent: in the light of no resources, the knowledge I had was valuable and very useful. And it was knowledge that every Physics graduate student in the world should have.

An idea started kicking around. If we all collaborated, we’d be able to record that knowledge. We could release it freely under an open copyright license – one that allows freedoms like copying or adapting. Then anyone (local businesses, communities or corporates) could help distribute it by printing copies. The Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) project was born.

Past and present

The FHSST project was completed in 2007 with a set of Grade 10 to 12 Mathematics and Physical Science textbooks that were collaboratively authored online by a global network of volunteers. That’s when I was recruited for a new Shuttleworth Foundation (SF) project to create openly licensed resources for schools.
This project became Siyavula. It was spun out of SF as a social enterprise with an investment from PSG Financial Services, and also an interest from the Department of Basic Education (DBE) in distributing our Maths and Science resources.

Clearly the company is built on community, openness and technology, with the aim of making high-quality educational resources available to every learner and teacher in South Africa. This means it’s all about the right information and the right technology. A recent notable achievement is the delivery of Siyavula textbooks over Mxit, the most popular mobile chat solution in South Africa. We’re now embarking on an ambitious drive to ensure that the 50 core Mathematics and Science subjects in Grades 4 to 12 are available as part of an open catalogue.

How the idea became a real innovation

The trigger. My entry into this sector was completely idealistic. The trigger was not the realisation that learners didn’t have books, but rather the fact that they were seeking something better. Somehow, the act of struggling to overcome is more compelling than the knowledge that there are barriers to overcome in the first place.

The concept. The overarching premise is that there are many people who have and are willing to share school-required knowledge for free. The next step has been creating a framework
in which these contributions can be collated and integrated into a scaleable intervention. In our case, doing so within the education sector required a very clear framework and also significant stress (or luck) to spark the initial adoption of the resources.

The landscape. The school sector is large, weighty, complex and very slow to adapt. We’ve therefore had to find ways to drive large-scale impact without asking the system to change. These include 1) using open licenses and 2) leveraging technology, which is key.

The impact. We’ve used technology and openness to engage with the entire sector and radically increase our impact. For our Mathematics and Physical Science content on the web, we get around 500 000 unique visitors per month to each subject. The vast majority of that traffic is from South Africa and the dominant device is a mobile phone of some sort.

  • The use of open standards and formats for content development provides a good technical framework for sharing. It has also allowed us to build on work done by projects without complex financial arrangements.
  • Technology has encouraged participation. People can work online whenever and wherever suits them. This allows us to access a huge, willing community of people and their knowledge.
  • Providing content in a device-agnostic way increases access. It ensures that print-ready files are available, as well as a website, mobisite and Mxit version for online access.
  • By using web technologies we’re anticipating the increase in smart phones. Our Mxit traffic and the huge number of learners that read textbooks on low-end phones indicate the high prevalence of these devices, which will certainly change in time.

The challenges

A number of factors constrain scale and impact and so have to be addressed.

  • Willingness and ability to share is constrained by social capital. The solution is to work openly with the broadest possible community of educators, officials and sponsors to create an enabling environment for participation.
  • Willingness to share is hampered by fear of legal repercussions. That’s why content is developed under an open copyright license – a safe legal framework for sharing.
  • Large-scale access can be a large-scale problem. The fact that the DBE can use the open content fundamentally changes the nature of the engagement, especially as the legal simplicity is not bound up with any financial obligation.
  • Operating as a business is fundamentally different to operating as a non-profit. There is no learning fallback. We’re not a pilot or a test. But we’re committed to being a sustainable business. The balance between impact and sustainability is something we focus on a lot.

Essays on education

Three thinkers and educators share their ideas on teaching, learning, dreaming and textbooks.

  1. → Tana Paddock: The experience of school
  2. → Dr Nosakhere Griffin-EL: The gospel of dreaming
  3. → Mark Horner: Knowledge should be free


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