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South Africa's Free High School Science Texts
Alex Steffen, 20 Feb 07
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Five years ago, Mark Horner had just finished giving a talk on wave phenomena at a South African science fair when a group of young scholars from a poor rural high school came up to him, asking him to proof the notes they'd taken by hand in a notebook. Mark was stunned by the comprehensive diligence reflected in the notes, and asked why the students were so attentive. They explained that they had no science texts in their school and that this notebook would be the textbook for the rest of their schoolmates. In an era of nearly free information and collaborative content creation, such a knowledge gap seemed obscene, Mark told me, and he resolved to do something about it.

The result? Free High School Science Texts, a project the South African physicist founded that "aims to provide free science and mathematics textbooks for Grades 10 to 12 science learners in South Africa." The textbooks offered are free knowledge, in the sense of both openly sharable and affordable:

The twist is that the UCT students and their helpers would expect and receive no royalties of any kind from the sale of the books. The only cost schools would have to cover, in effect, would be printing. The students hope to hurdle, in part, even that obstacle by raising funds to print an initial stack of books. (The project has already made ground in that direction, and will be showcased to potential investors at an innovation bazaar to be hosted by the Shuttleworth Foundation, founded by UCT graduate Mark Shuttleworth.)

In other words, FHSST is actually working: kids will actually be getting sharply-edited textbooks, created with the involvement of some of the best minds around, at prices their schools can afford.

Access to science and knowledge is vital to the lives of many of the world's least advantaged people. From fighting epidemic diseases to preparing people for climate change, science will play a critical role in their lives and fortunes. And educating a generation of scientifically-literate school kids is vitally important to the spread of science in the Global South. South-south science can't succeed if young scientists aren't taking up the work and young people who understand science aren't applying it.

But there's more at stake here. We've covered open source textbooks, educational tools and curricula before (and even put them in the context of the wider movement to create a free intellectual commons), but FHSST is both interesting in its own right and as it connects to some of the larger Brasilia Consensus-style intellectual property politics issues involved.

South Africa, which (I'm told) due to its economic might and cultural influence is something of a trendsetter for sub-Saharan Africa in general (at very least the South Africans I've been talking with seem awfully enthusiastic about playing that role) has officially gone open source. But, just as in Brazil, China and India, there seems to be an awareness here that economically successful Southern nations have little to lose and much to gain from participation in a system of free/open intellectual property regimes, even if such regimes may benefit their lesser-developed neighbors even more. Indeed, talk is in the air of creating and protecting a wider African Commons. And with the greater availability of tools from children's laptops to mobile phones, those ideas will increasingly become part of our mental worlds no matter where we live.

Of course, it is only in the minds of those who Charlie Stross calls "zero-sum cannibals" that such a development would be anything but a boon for the world as a whole. We face an astonishing array of planetary problems; we need more solutions, and we need more of those solutions to come from a diversity of cultural, political and environmental contexts. The distribution of educational tools and resources is itself a step towards raising a new generation of problem-solvers; doing it through the use of an open source process makes the process of creating these tools part of the education the project offers (when making an axe handle with an axe, the model is close at hand). Students who learn in this way will not only be better educated, they'll be better prepared to participate in the open creativity that will drive their futures (like the Open Architecture Network). More problem-solvers, enabled to work more collaboratively, equals more problems solved.

It is in that light that FHSST shines even more brightly: as an example of the amazing works from which we'll all benefit if Africa gains the ability to share its gifts freely. Go FHSST!


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Too bad that the OLPC project was not directed to these students. With the wireless and browser capabilities, the distribution of information (instead of physical books) could have spurred an amazing reneissance.

Posted by: Xavier on 20 Feb 07

There has been a generous grant given to Mass. Inst. of Technology to provide all the information from courses there FREE to anyone in the world. No diplomas would be issued, but only the knowledge...

Posted by: Sunnie Ford on 24 Feb 07

Its is a wonderful iniative and it takes one with human feelings to think of educating people. I am of the opinion that your oganisation is esuring sustable development, by providing knowledge.
what are the modalities to receive this charity. In other words, How can a civil society organisation out of South Africa, be part of this charity? We weork in rural areas whereby it may interest you to know that, pupils go through primary to secondary education, without a single text book.Thanks and kind regards.

Posted by: Sustainable Environment For Development (SED)Cameroon. on 24 Feb 07

This story is giving the wrong impression of South Africa. As an educator in SA and a textbook writer, readers should know that our government spends millions each year making sure that all school kids get books. Also, all textbook writers adhere to the national curriculum and spend a huge amount of time and effort writing the best possible textbooks. Royalities for this are very low and most textbook publishers also make very little money, as the market, compared to the USA, for example, very small. So all these UCT students and company are doing is helping to destroy what is already a small job market for textbook writers in SA. With no work in SA, what options do they have but to look for work overseas, which will contribute to SA's brain drain. This article itself is also promoting a false image of the SA government, that is that the government does not supply books, which is not true. Lastly, these UCT students are NOT qualified (as teachers) to write the books, so heaven only knows what is in them. By his own admission, Mark Horner is not even a qualified person yet, so should he be writing textbooks for children? I think not.

Posted by: Tracey on 26 Feb 07

i am intreeged in how much africa is in need of these suplies.we should keep in mind all people should be treated the same

Posted by: keesha on 7 Mar 07



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