This article was written by Alex Steffen in January 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
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!
South Africa's Free High School Science Texts is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
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