Tag Archives: Open Access

OER in the mainstream – South Africa takes a leap into OER policy

2012 looks as if it might be the year that OER and open access reach the mainstream, globally and in South Africa. In the last few months in South Africa, the national department responsible for schools had announced the take-up of a major OER science and maths resource and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has included in a new Green Paper a recommendation for the widespread use of open educational resources.

Open science

A notable shift in the mainstreaming of OER has been a decision in late 2011by the Department of Basic Education (which is responsible for schools) to adopt open science and maths books for countrywide distribution to all schools. This means the distribution of millions of print books and the availability an online version of the text plus additional resources under open licences.  Mark Horner, Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow and the brain behind Siyavula and Free High School Science Textbooks blogged in late 2011 in a state of justified excitement:

‘Openly-licensed, Siyavula textbooks are being printed and distributed by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) for all learners taking Physical Science and/or Mathematics in Grades 10-12 in the whole country for 2012! I don’t know of any country doing anything like this before.’

The Minister of Basic Education has now formally alluded to this venture in a major speech announcing the school-leaving examination results, as Arthur Attwell has reported.  Arthur hailed this move as a game-changer and a potential turning point in the provision of school textbooks in South Africa. He points out that publishers, who have known about this venture for a while, are very concerned that the provision of these books might undermine the sales of officially selected textbooks, although the Department says that they are intended as supplementary material. It would seem from the Minister’s speech that she sees this move as a model for potential private/public partnerships between the State and a range of non-profit and commercial partners.

The angry reaction of the publishing industry, on the other hand, seems to rest on the perception that the regulated process for the accreditation and distribution of textbooks – to which, to do them justice, they have contributed considerable sweat and tears – has been bypassed.

Although this is not the first time that pupils have been provided with supplementary materials by the national department, my impression has been that in the past these have been workbooks, not necessarily in competition with textbooks. The books being provided through FHSST, on the other hand, are building on a long and careful collaborative textbook development programme at the Shuttleworth Foundation. I do not see this as a matter of state publishing: the FHSST programme was developed independently and was picked up by the Department of Basic Education after its completion.

Horner describes the extensive consultation that took place with the Department in to agree on the necessary revisions and the hard work that followed in delivering to the departmental brief. The books are now freely available on the web, as Everything Science and Everything Maths. The licence (CC-BY-ND) governing the use of the materials is accompanied by a clearly articulated statement of what is allowed:

 You are allowed and encouraged to freely copy this book. You can photocopy, print and distribute it as often as you like. You can download it onto your mobile phone, iPad, PC or flash drive. You can burn it to CD, e-mail it around or upload it to your website. The only restriction is that you have to keep this book, its cover and short-codes unchanged.

One benefit of this open licence is that the online versions of the textbooks are now available beyond the borders of South Africa, and could be of great value to pupils and teachers in other African countries. It will be very interesting to see how widely they are taken up and what further ventures arise from that potential.

The books provide a rich resource, with the conventional PDF/print text supplemented by video materials, for students and teachers, links to support services and to a wide range of open resources, with further enrichment and support material due in March. This should provide a level of interactivity absent from conventional textbooks and potentially a higher level of support in an educational system badly in need of upliftment. The open model should allow for this potential to be leveraged as widely as possible.

Arthur is right about the disruptive potential of this venture. One level on which the disruption plays out is that this venture is being undertaken at national level, allowing for the printing and distribution of millions of books for countrywide distribution.  The normal textbook provisioning and distribution model for books purchased from publishers, although based on a national catalogue, is a painfully fragmented provincial process, full of grief for publishers and booksellers, as the latest issue of the bookselling industry magazine, Bookmark, spells out.

Another disruptive aspect of this venture resides in the availability of digital enrichment materials and additional online resources. It would be interesting to compare the Siyavula digital material with the teacher resource materials provided by the publishers. My guess would be that the Siyavula material is likely to be richer, taking into account the interactivity and social networking potential of the Web. Another telling comparison would be with the resources available in in the higher education system, in open source online learning systems such as Vula at the University of Cape Town (a member of the Sakai consortium), underpinned as they are by high levels of pedagogical and research skills.

The latter comparison becomes even more relevant in the light of another bold move in the SA educational system. No sooner had we got on top of the implication of OER in school education, than the DHET Minister announced the launch of a consultation period for a new Green Paper on Post-school Education and Training. In this document, an argument is made for national support for the development of OER resources as a capacity-building exercise, drawing on the existing digital learning environments already available in many universities and citing mainstream national initiatives by UNESCO, the Commonwealth of Learning, and the initiatives by the governments of Brazil, New Zealand, and the US as role models.

 [T]he DHET will support efforts that invest a larger proportion of total expenditure in the design and development of high quality learning resources, as a strategy for increasing and assuring the quality of provision across the entire post schooling system. These resources should be made freely available as Open Educational Resources (OER) for use with appropriate adaptation. This would be in line with a growing international movement, supported heavily by organizations such as UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning (CoL) that advocate the development of OER (p. 59).

Key motivations for OER, the document argues, lie in ‘the potential improvements in quality and reductions in cost’. What is proposed is that DHET will:

  • Determine ways to provide support for the production and sharing of learning materials as OER at institutions in the post schooling sector. In the first instance all material developed by the promised South African Institute for Vocational and Continuing Education and Training will be made available as OER.
  • Consider the adoption or adaptation, in accordance with national needs, of an appropriate Open Licensing Framework for use by all education stakeholders, within an overarching policy framework on intellectual property rights and copyright in higher education.

This is heady stuff and we are certainly in for a turbulent year. The question going forward will be how to make the potential of open educational resources and open textbooks work alongside the commercial provisioning model, which represents a considerable investment in materials development in South Africa, particularly in the schools system. As the publishers point out, the country needs to preserve the variety and choice that is provided by a successful industry, in the interests of quality education.  But how ready are commercial publishers to break out of their conventional space to take risks with new models?

Then, to complicate things, yesterday provided another wild card:  announcement by Apple of their new textbook venture – the topic of the next blog.

2012 certainly looks like a year of radical change in educational publishing

Beyond the repository? The CERN Innovation in Scholarly Publishing Workshop (OAI7). June 22-24 2011

I was in a very expensive and sultry Geneva in late June to attend the CERN workshop on innovations in scholarly publishing, among a record attendance of over 260 delegates. Perhaps this level of attendance is a sign that Open Access is maturing and becoming mainstream as it moves on from an emphasis on access alone to the exploration of how openness enhances the effectiveness of science and increases the impact of the contribution that it can make. The programme also reflected a level of maturity in the system, a second-generation approach that took it for granted that we were talking about a well-established system with repositories already set up and functioning and open access journals well established (and growing fast). The focus was less the setting up and management of scholarly repositories or the creation of digital publications than the semantics of an integrated research communication system. In fact a key perception at the conference was William Nixon’s suggestion that the ‘repository’ will disappear into the wider workflow of research communication (an ironic statement from someone who is the Service Development Manager of the University of Glasgow repository).

The overall focus was therefore on how to get extra mileage from repositories, interlinking data, publishing effectively and garnering government support for Open Access and Open Science. Cameron Neylon, Senior Scientist in Bio-molecular Sciences at the ISIS Neutron Scattering Facility at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), argued in his talk on the Technical, Cultural and Legal Infrastructure to Support Open Scientific  Communication that repositories are a ‘temporary scaffolding’ awaiting the time that we have ‘reasserted the traditional values of research and built the pillars and foundations that will make openness an embedded part of what we do’. Neylon’s core argument was that, while we can resolve the technological issues to build a viable architecture for data analysis, reuse and discovery and have the legal infrastructure needed, what is not there yet is the cultural infrastructure – the commitment, the communities, the assumptions and the practices that could make open science work. The ‘real values’ that he articulated were those of reproducibility, making a difference to the community, getting process, data and narrative to relate to one another and ensuring accuracy and validity.

Related to these perceptions, there was a very useful session on advocacy. Monica Hammes from the University of Pretoria spoke on the Open Access Conversation, a cogent and detailed account of the mind-changing process that is needed and the partnerships that need to be developed to get a university to adopt and mandate open access, arguing that one has to anticipate the emotional responses of the people one is trying to persuade, recognising where their interests lie. Heather Joseph of SPARC in Washington, speaking on advocacy at the national and international level, demonstrated how the wording and the logic of arguments have to be distilled and clarified in order to reach government.  Given the powerful lobbying capacity of the big publishing companies in their push for enclosure, she argued that any advocacy initiatives have to be well argued, supported by persuasive data, be very strategic and need to be built on alliances and communities. Continue reading

The state of the nation 2011 – government policy and open access in South Africa

The working year is just waking up in summer South Africa and I am to moderate the opening session on the topic of ‘A national perspective on A2K in South Africa’ at the Yale A2K Global Academy. This takes place at the UCT Graduate School of Business on 18 and 19 January and the session that I am moderating needs me to step back and and try to get a perspective on what this national perspective actually looks like.

When it comes to government policy and legislation, the trouble is that South Africa, as usual, does not present a coherent or unified picture, but rather embodies a number of contradictions. Perhaps I could borrow a wonderfully vivid description of the situation in the Caribbean in an Intellectual Property Watch article by Abiole Inniss on Fair Usage in the Caribbean, something that could well apply to South Africa:

A panoramic view of the IP situation in the Caribbean would present to the observer a carnival of Olympic size replete with politicians, diplomats, rights advocates, consumer groups, law enforcement, and impotent jurists, all gyrating discordantly to the WIPO band while Caribbean citizens look on, or are pulled or shoved in.

2010 has been dominated, from my perspective, by a negative force, the pending implementation, during 2011, of the IPR Act for Publicly Funded Research of 2008. While I would argue that the default position these days on publicly funded research is that it should, as far as possible, be publicly and freely available, this piece of legislation, a kind of Bayh-Dole Act on steroids, appears to regard the default as IP protection, with commercialisation through patenting as the most desired outcome. This legislation and its implementing Regulations do appear to recognise the need for research contributions that lead to social and non-commercial development. However, the default position of the implementation clauses in the Regulations is that permission has to be obtained from a national agency before any research that is capable of commercialisation and patenting can adopt open innovation or open source approaches. Continue reading

Excellence or quality – metrics and values in scholarly communications

In June 2009, in the process of scoping a project to research ways of building capacity in African scholarly publishing, a workshop was held with a group of experts from a variety of perspectives and a variety of approaches to the question of scholarly communications. Supported by the IDRC and the Shuttleworth Foundation, this workshop turned out a very lively event and – we believe – provided seminal insights into the questions that need to be addressed in order to build African research communications capacity.
This workshop has now been captured on a website that hosts videos of the keynote speeches (ten minute presentations, so they work well this way). It also contains commentary on the speeches and discussions as well as the key findings that emerged from this discussion. The website was funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation and provides a discussion form for these ideas to be carried forward. One lesson learned, perhaps, was the value of discussion in a a small and focused group of experts from a variety of contexts and a variety of specialisations.
In yesterday’s blog I took to task the Thomson Reuters analysis of African research developments, arguing that, by focusing only on the production of journal articles and on citations in an international journal index, they were taking too narrow a view of what constituted research development. So here, from the Scholarly Communications, is the keynote address by Jean-Claude Guédon, of the University of Montreal, who gave the opening address of the workshop.

Jean-Claude Guédon – Scholarly Communication in Africa: Project Scoping Workshop from Creative R&D on Vimeo.

Guédon starts by introducing vocabulary issues that need to be clarified on order to understand the research communications environment. In particular, the difficulty in discerning the difference between ‘quality’ and ‘excellence.’ According to Jean-Claude, quality is a matter of the minimum thresholds that are needed for functionality, a matter of what skills or levels of professionalism are needed to deliver a particular function. The concept of excellence, on the other hand, is a matter of competition, with specifically defined parameters creating the rules of the game in which this competition is played out.
He continues to the topic of scholarly publishing, which has artificially constructed competition as its basis, so that it has become all about creating excellence. Jean-Claude’s advice is to disengage from this situation, by reviewing the notion of what constitutes excellence. He also says we need to look at the whole value chain of scientific communications, as well as the data that underpins research and ensure that it is preserved and made available. He also speaks about the benefits of a collaborative knowledge environment, as well as the need to reposition knowledge and society.
The message is that we need to unpack the language of excellence and competitiveness before we subscribe too blindly to the race that that involves. Developing countries cannot ignore this side of scholarly performance and it is important that they prove their ability to achieve the accepted standards of performance in what has become, for better or for worse, a dominant measure. However, this should not be expanded to be the only, or the dominant measure of performance. Rather, there should be a balanced approach, with great emphasis placed on the need to build capacity by developing the quality standards that could ensure truly professional performance.

‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’ Thomson Reuters’ myopic vision of African research capacity

T S Eliot’s damning metaphor for the narrowness of social conventions came to mind when I read Thomson Reuters’ Global Research Report Africa, ostensibly a report on the state of African research, but in fact a very limited analysis based solely on the performance of African countries in the Thomson Reuters ISI journal indexes. I was alerted to this report by University World News, which has now published two totally uncritical articles on Thomson Reuters’ ‘global’ analysis of African research.
This is insidious stuff. The Global Research Report Africa is indeed measuring out the lives of African researchers in coffee spoons, basing itself on an unproblematized assumption that the number of journal articles published and citation analysis of these articles can be an adequate measure (let alone the only measure) of the state of national research systems in Africa. It uses scientific-sounding language to equate these ‘outputs’ – ISI-listed journal articles – with research capacity and then in turn equate this measure with the potential for improved global economic performance for African countries.
The intent of this this report is pretty clear. The report starts off with an explicit statement: it is designed ‘to inform policymakers and others about the landscape and dynamics of the global research base’. Although its concluding remarks have a modest disclaimer, that ‘it would be inappropriate to suggest that the preliminary analysis in this report can provide a clear direction’, nevertheless the intent is again made clear – to ‘help provide a further context to that set by the OECD’s economic reports, while also furnishing background against which to view the pertinent regional dispatches in the UNESCO Science report 2010…’ We should not forget either that the criteria and analysis for the Times Higher Education university rankings are now to be managed by Thomson Reuters. Is the company positioning itself even more strongly as the sole arbiter of scholarly excellence and the sole source of data for the measurement of research development? Continue reading