As students around the world return to school, ccLearn blogs about the evolving education landscape, ongoing projects to improve educational resources, education technology, and the future of education. Browse the “Back to School” tag for more posts in this series.
In the United States, the turn from August into September means new pencils, books and backpacks as the nation’s students start a new school year. In other parts of the world, students are returning from semester breaks or going on with classes as usual. And in some cases, with almost no books, let alone new ones.
This is far too often the case in many African schools. Teachers face not only a lack of student materials, but also a lack of access to teaching resources. For years generous donors have attempted to address this problem by supplying schools copies of textbooks, desks and other equipment. Helpful in many ways, but merely giving supplies doesn’t alleviate some of the biggest problems. Take the text books for example.
In many countries, the required text books are outdated. Governments cannot afford newer books, so without a market, new books don’t get written. Sometimes newer books might exist, but only in one language. For a country attempting to teach primary school in several native languages, this presents a huge problem, especially when considering the copyright restrictions on translating a work. The same situations exist for teaching materials as well as text books.
Enter open educational resources, or OER.
OER are materials, tools, and media used for teaching and learning that are free from copyright restrictions or publicly licensed for anyone to use, adapt, and redistribute. And several organizations around the continent are using OER to address the specific challenges surrounding access to teaching materials:
In South Africa, a new project of the Shuttleworth Foundation is helping South African primary and secondary school teachers share their resources. The aim of Siyavula (pronounced see-ah-hoo-la) is to ensure that South Africa has a complete OER curriculum for all primary and secondary grades. The project was designed with the new South African school curriculum in mind, which requires teachers to develop more of their own content. Some teachers formed small groups to adapt to the new South African curriculum requirements, sharing their developments with their groups and offering each other support. Siyavula is building upon this model, helping new groups to form and offering workshops on developing, finding and sharing resources.
The Siyavula system includes a large repository of curriculum, currently complete from grades R (like the US’s kindergarten) through 9 in both English and Afrikaans. One great part of the Siyavula system is that as teachers develop and adapt materials, they submit them back into the Siyavula system where the materials are reviewed by curriculum advisers. This ensures the OER materials always meet the country’s education standards. Because OER are, well, open, there are no restrictions on translating works like there are on materials under full copyright. This has allowed Siyavula users to translate much of the material into Xhosa. Ideally other languages will follow.
While Siyavula is tackling primary and secondary education, another organization is focusing on higher education across Africa. OER Africa is currently active in several countries across the continent. Through partnerships with various universities in Africa and elsewhere, OER Africa helps facilitate the sharing of resources between universities and training schools. This program is particularly exciting because it has African universities sharing with each other, instead of just receiving materials from the United States or Europe. Additionally, in the instances where African universities and outside universities are partnered together, the relationship really is mutually beneficial.
One example of the mutual beneficial relationships in OER Africa was explained by Project Director Catherine Ngugi during the Open Education 2009 conference keynote address. Collaboration between the University of Michigan and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in the Health OER program has given students at KNUST access to materials that help them study common medical issues and has given students at Michigan resources about infectious diseases to which they otherwise would not have had access. (As someone who has had to worry about doctors in the US not knowing enough about tropical medicine, this exchange makes me really happy.) KNUST and Michigan also share and receive information with schools in Ghana and South Africa.
OER does more than just supply teachers with educational materials. It helps them customize their curriculum to their own needs, their own locations and their own students. Organizations like Siyavula and ORE Africa are helping to change the face of education on the continent, for the better. Creative Commons is proud that its licenses help make that possible.