Promoting open in an open textbook

Since I have been involved in the open movement, I have come to realise the crucial role of creating awareness of open education in an easily understandable way, contextual way. Most people do not know what we mean by the term “open”, and often only associate the word “free” with the content. But, there are many more benefits to being open, than something just being free. And, it’s up to us to promote this.

At Siyavula, we engage with the community through our work, whether it is when we are collaboratively producing our open textbooks with volunteers, running workshops with teachers, holding evening events, or through our online communication and social media. This direct contact presents lots of opportunities to discuss open education and open licenses.

But, what about those who we do not have direct contact with? Our textbooks have been printed by the Department of Basic Education for the whole country. So far, they have printed and distributed about 10 million books. Our content is also available online, on mobile and on a very popular chat room service called Mxit. This mass distribution and access to the content, enabled by the open license, also presents a unique opportunity to actually start to create awareness about open education.

In producing the Gr 7-9 Natural Sciences textbooks in 2013, I was keenly aware of this. I wanted to try and integrate the messaging around open education and open licenses into the content so that educators and learners actually saw it as they were going through the textbooks. We do include information in the front of the textbooks about the open license. The image below shows an excerpt from the front of the Teacher’s Guide where I have started to explain what an open license is.

Explaining open licenses in the front of the Teacher’s Guide.

But, most people do not even notice this, or take the time to read it. I feel that if you show people how they can benefit from OER within the context of actually using it, it will have a bigger impact.

My solution was to take advantage of a feature of the textbooks that was already present, which are the “margin notes”. These appear in the margins of the content and  contain notes and links which are related to, but peripheral to the core content that learners are covering in class. These generally include interesting facts, websites to visit, tips, videos to watch or simulations to interact with.

An example of content with margin notes.
An example of content with margin notes.

The margin notes appear in both the Teacher’s Guides and the learner books. So, I decided to start interspersing the content related notes with some about open education and open licenses. Some examples of the types of margin notes that appear in the Teachers Guide are shown below, including links to videos to watch, but also explaining about the open nature of the content, for example the images.

Titbits of information dotted through the Teacher’s Guide to create awareness of open education and open licenses.

Most of the photographs that I source are all CC-BY from Flickr or Wikimedia Commons and teachers can therefore also use these (legally) in their own notes or tests. I have since also uploaded all of the illustrations that I had drawn for the content to Flickr so that teachers can easily access them for re-use. You can read more about “OER make up and then break up” which discusses a related topic on why I think we need to “disaggregate” open content once it has been packaged to enable greater reuse and repurposing.

Other open “titbits” in the Teacher’s Guides include links to additional OER that they could use, such as videos or simulations, for example PhET, or else linking to open source software that they can use in class, for example Stellarium

Then, I feel that if we do not start creating awareness among kids about open education and open access, then we are missing out on a huge opportunity, especially as sharing, downloading and accessing content online is part of their every day lives now. Below are some examples of the bits of information about open included in the learner books.

Exposing learners to the idea of open within the context of what they are learning and doing in class.
Exposing students to the idea of open within the context of what they are learning and doing in class.

Another really exciting way to get kids involved, not only in real science research, but also engaging with the ideas around open access, is through citizen science. These projects give kids, and the general public, the opportunity to make a real contribution to research. At the same time, I feel it is planting the seed in our future scientists about the benefits of data that is openly accessible and results that are published openly so that anyone can view them. Where ever I could, I included links to citizen science projects, both international and also local South African projects, that relate to the content they are covering in class. My hope is that kids start to engage with these projects in their own time or else an inspired teacher uses the platforms for a school project or experiment with a difference.

Local and international citizen science projects.
Local and international citizen science projects.

I think that if we start to do this, then those that continue to study after school will know that a closed copy right license does not have to be a barrier to education. We will then start to see a bottom up pressure on academics, from their students, to look for an alternative to the traditional, expensive textbook they have always been using.

My take home point is that we need to start at school, with both educators and learners, and empower them so that we start to see the benefits of open education put into practice.


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