Science … for free

According to a report recently released by the Ministry of Education, lack of textbooks is the single biggest problem plaguing South African education. This became clear to Mark Horner when he attended the National Science Festival in Grahamstown in 2001.

Horner – who has studied collisions of clouds of gold atoms in particle accelerators – was roped in to man the University of Cape Town’s physics stall at the festival, where he demonstrated wave phenomena using an oscilloscope and tuning forks. The kids loved the “cool” patterns that formed, and some of them returned, brandishing a pen and a single notebook.

They told Horner that their teacher hadn’t explained the experiment quite as well as he had, and asked if he could write it down. “So I palmed my stall off on somebody else for the rest of the day and I went somewhere and started writing this stuff down. And at some point you realise that you can’t just write down a few points, you really have to explain things thoroughly,” says Horner.

A few months later, with the incident brewing away in his subconscious, Horner circulated an email among his friends asking if they would be interested in collaborating on a high school science textbook, in the spirit of altruism and information sharing.

The response was good. In 2002, Horner, Sam Halliday, Rory Adams, Sarah Blyth and Spencer Wheaton put the project into practice, and the series Free High School Science Texts (FHSST) was born. In 2006, the team was bolstered by Jaynie Padayachee and Joanne Boule from Durban.

“The idea was to write a good book that any school could use,” says Horner. “This is not the poor kids’ version of physics. It just has no royalties so it’s easier to print.” He goes on to expound in great detail the bureaucratic and intellectual maelstrom that is copyright and licensing law before concluding with: “There is no problem with writing down Newton’s laws because it is common usage, but if massive numbers of paragraphs end up being the same [as another source], then you’ve got a problem. So that’s why we insist on everything being written from scratch.”

The texts themselves are targeted specifically at South Africa’s new outcomes-based curricula and syllabi. The writing for the free textbooks is done by volunteers from both an academic and an applied background. It is then reviewed by a panel of editors before going into its final draft. There are more than 100 volunteers signed up on the FHSST website (www. fhsst.org). Of these, around 20 are active at any one given time. Horner and his colleagues are currently in the editing phase.

“There’s an idea here that the individual can make a difference,” says Horner. “Random individuals can write sections of our books…We have an iterative editorial review process. We realise that our volunteers will not necessarily be teachers, that some of them are scientists that work at the CSIR, for example, or other large companies and diverse industries. So they are very qualified in their respective fields, but they might pitch it at an inappropriate level.

“Things went slowly in the beginning. We’ve learnt a lot of lessons. We’ve changed the technology that we use for collaborative writing. And we still have a long list of improvements to be made. But we think we’re getting better at this. Our next book, Life Sciences, which we’re hoping to launch at the Grahamstown Festival, will hopefully benefit from our accumulated experiences to date.

“In terms of our current books – chemistry and physics and mathematics – we will have completed all of the basic content by the end of April, in addition to having completed some classroom trials of that content.

“There will be workshops with the teachers afterwards to get their feedback. We will release physical science and maths by the end of the year.”

An initiative of the Shuttleworth Foundation, tuXlabs, has facilitated the creation of computer labs in schools. tuXlabs gets corporate sponsors to donate computers, and finds volunteers to go to schools and set up the labs. For the sake of sustainability, part of the money would come from the Shuttleworth Foundation and part would come from the school itself. The project went well, hitting the 100-school mark in the Western Cape last year.

In 2005, Karien Bezuidenhout of the Shuttleworth Foundation approached FHSST. What tuXlabs needed now was content. At first tuXlabs hoped they could get the educational content they needed from the internet. But in light of copyright laws and the new South African curriculum, it wasn’t quite that easy. When Bezuidenhout heard what FHSST were up to, it was a perfect fit.

“It was a great meeting,” says Horner. “We spoke the same language in terms of open source, licensing and educational material. Ironically, we need a licence to protect the freedom. You have to have a licence which says: this is free. If you don’t have a copyright, you can be vulnerable in other ways. You just have to copyright it in the right way. We use the Gnu Free Documentation Licence. And we also release all our content to the Shuttleworth Foundation under another licence.

“But we’re not really interested in copyright law or in making a lot of money or in any of the politics. Ultimately I think that education can solve most of the problems in South Africa at the moment. If you get a newspaper today and have a look at most of the problems in there, how many of them could be solved if everybody out there got a better education? Education is really the foundation for any sustainable peace, future development, etcetera. You need to start at the grassroots. FHSST is a non-financial, apolitical way to help education without having to meddle too much with the system. This is just an aid to the system.

“The one principle we hope to get across is that everyone can help make a difference to education. Even small organisations or individuals can really help.”

FHSST are about to publish Guide to Learning, which was inspired by the success of mentoring projects in Khayelitsha.

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Ami Kapilevich
Guest Author

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