Open education: an opportunity for South Africa’s science education

As a country nearing 20 years of democracy, South Africa is still redressing massive historical inequity. This is glaringly obvious in its education system. With the right to a basic education for all enshrined in the country’s constitution, the limited supply of resources and infrastructure afforded to many schools and even some universities is not keeping pace with the high demand.

The country needs to vastly improve education in these areas, if it is to realise its vision looking towards science, technology and innovation to improve the lives of all South Africans and grow a knowledge-based economy. Schools, for example, are sometimes unable to access basic textbooks from the Department of Basic Education (DBE). And there is a lack of educational resources in the students’ home languages. This has a knock-on effect on the many students who are ill-prepared for or fail to reach higher education institutions, overseen by the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Change is happening, however.

Open educational (OE) resources have begun to transform basic education. For instance, Siyavula, an initiative based in Cape Town set up with funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation, produces crowd-sourced, curriculum-aligned textbooks for maths and science for grades 10 – 12 (children in these grades are typically 16 – 18).

This material is available under a creative commons attribution license. The textbooks can be accessed online for free by the students or printed at the low cost of about 35 Rand (~€2.60) by the DBE for distribution in schools. The nature of the license makes it possible to update these textbooks and to build on their content as the curriculum changes.

This also means that they have the potential to be translated into any of the country’s eleven official languages. Currently, however, they are only available in English, with some materials available in Afrikaans.

South Africa’s higher education system could learn much from this school model. It could effectively provide open access to educational materials to the growing numbers of undergraduate students. Encouraging the production and use of such materials, openly licensed and available online, would allow the country’s universities to provide high-quality, accessible and adaptable educational resources to students at a much lower cost than it currently does.

Incidentally, this trend is starting to happen at several of the country’s universities. OE resources produced by academics are available on sites such as the University of the Western Cape’s Free Courseware site and the University of Cape Town’s OpenContent site. Sharing these materials is a small step towards promoting an environment of local creation and use of locally produced materials. It contrasts with the current situation with Massively Open Online Course (MOOCs) where there is not a single provider from within Africa.

The advantages of building on this approach are two-fold. The availability of OE resources would help to lower the cost of accessing education and educational resources. What is more, having re-usable and adaptable teaching materials online would facilitate the production of multi-language materials and distance education.

Combining this new opportunity with mobile phone access to these resources would enable a much greater proportion of the country’s citizens to access education. A mobile phone would thus open the door to a range of learning opportunities from whole courses down to stand alone OE resources items dealing with a specific topic of interest. This has the potential to spark interest and increase the uptake of students into maths and science-related subjects, at the school level and beyond. It also assists students in environments where good science and maths teachers are few and far between.

With South Africa’s education much in need of serious improvements, especially in terms of maths and science education, OE resources would help pave the way to a brighter future. In my vision for science education in South Africa, open is a necessary and integral part of the way forward. It will help bridge the educational gaps and provide an accessible and inclusive education for all.

Sarah Goodier

Scholarly communication officer, the OpenUCT Initiative, University of Cape Town, South Africa. She writes here in her personal capacity.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Libby Levi

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