Online resources to help pupils

29 June 2011

The recent shortage of textbooks in South African schools could soon be alleviated through the ongoing work on an online resource that offers textbooks and other learning tools under a Creative Commons licence.

Basic Education minister Angie Mothskga announced in April 2011 that her department would establish an agency to centralise the procurement of teaching materials. Siyavula came out as a supporter of her cause by offering free access to online textbooks and learning resources.

Siyavula, a project initiated by the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2008, is promoting the use of technology and its open-source philosophy to achieve a higher standard of education. The project’s name is an Nguni word, meaning “we are opening”.

Siyavula has submitted its openly licensed mathematics and physical science textbooks to the Department of Basic Education as part of the review process for the new national catalogue.

Siyavula the faster solution

For the past decade public schools in South Africa have struggled to provide an education due to late or non-delivery of textbooks.

To address the situation, the department has allocated R4.4-billion (US$638-million) for the development of textbooks, and has drawn up risk management plans that will ensure the process is seen through.

Mothskga even aims to provide textbooks to all learners and educators by next year.

But according to Siyavula’s director Mark Horner, who’s also the Shuttleworth Foundation’s Fellow for Open and Collaborative Research, the organisation will be able to achieve Mothskga’s objective before 2012.

Horner, one of the founders of South Africa’s Free High School Science Texts project, said Siyavula could “implement this tomorrow if necessary”, because the textbooks are released online and can be accessed immediately by pupils using their mobile phones.

He said the open copyright laws allow teachers to freely download the books from the Siyavula website and then copy, edit, print and distribute them without any legal implications.

The Shuttleworth Foundation teamed up with Connexions, an American-based organisation that develops the technology, to create the Siyavula website for South African learners. To date it has made educational material available for pupils from grades 0 right through to 12, in all subjects.

Teachers can edit to suit pupils’ needs

Horner said that Siyavula’s initiative adheres to the adage that one size does not fit all when it comes to education.

After teachers create their own free account, they are able to copy material from the website and edit the information according to their pupils’ needs. Adjustments made by teachers will not affect the original online information.

“Teachers can now figure out pupils’ individual passions and refine the material to their needs and resources,” said Horner.

Teachers can also create a so-called lens, which is a list of books they have approved. They can then direct their pupils to this lens for further reading.

Since the software supports the widely used PDF format and is compatible with ebook readers, Horner said teachers are not limited by the application and are able to bring their own resources to the classroom.

Striving for an educated society

Siyavula looks to sustainably solve challenges facing South Africa’s education system.

“Our long-term solution is to have an educated society that can make informed decisions. As a developing country, if we do not improve education aggressively, we will be left behind,” said Horner.

He remarked that the ever-present inertia in the textbook publishing industry means that schools should consider moving away from the traditional printed versions and the associated delays.

Printed textbooks can often be a physical burden for pupils who have to lug them around. “Books are heavy for many of the children, especially those from rural areas who have to walk long distances to get to school.”

The website will cater for pupils from all grades. “For now, schools that have IT labs and IT literate teachers are utilising the software,” said Horner.

He mentioned that teachers have been receptive to the idea, and are keen to receive training and share resources in spite of their general aversion to mobile phone usage in the classroom.

Horner admitted that teachers would have to find ways of instilling disciplined mobile practices.

Though mobiles and ereaders may be a distraction to pupils, there is an indication that the tool could be beneficial. Siyavula already has on record a number of pupils whose work has improved through the use of their online textbooks.

According to Horner, this is not merely a temporary solution.

“We are going to be in this for the long run. It will be available to all students. We have made a tool that can get information out to everybody,” he said.

First published by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com – get free high-resolution photos and professional feature articles from Brand South Africa’s media service.