Open textbooks to the rescue

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

Mark Horner is a Fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation. The model of the Foundation is unusual: we identify interesting change agents, like Mark, who are articulating powerful ideas that seem like the offer a hint of the future, and we fund them to work on those for a year. We also offer them an investment multiplier: if they put their personal money into a project, we multiply that by 10x or more, up to a maximum amount. In short, find good people, back them when they put skin in the game.

Mark’s specialty is open content for education: figuring out how to produce textbooks collaboratively. He’s done amazing work in the past, independently, leading an initiative to produce free high school science textbooks, and has lead the acquisition of a full set of textbooks in SA and their publication under an open content licence by the Foundation. Today, he’s been presented with a really awesome opportunity: provide open content to all of SA, with full backing from the department of education.

That’s a huge step forward, putting open content much more at the center of mainstream thinking. In part, this is precipitated by a crisis, the strike action that is affecting many public services like education in South Africa. But it’s nevertheless a valuable opportunity to show how open content can change the dynamic of the rigid world of education.

He needs help, though, to make sure the current drafts of the Maths and Science textbooks are free of typos:

I really need some extremely urgent help, I’ve been approached by national government to try to help make free educational resources available to support education during the current crisis! We have an opportunity to distribute free educational resources to all schools that cover:

  • Grade R – 9 for ALL learning areas in English and Afrikaans
  • Grade 10 – 12 Mathematics
  • Grade 10 – 12 Physical Science

All that is required is another edit of the Free High School Science Texts before they will release them to all the schools in South Africa. We have ONE WEEK to complete this process and desperately need volunteers who have post-graduate degrees in Maths, Physics, Chemistry or related fields that can help out.

So, if you’re inclined, he has details on how to help. For the moment, looks like participation requires being present in Cape Town, but perhaps he has a solution for that too.


  1. Daniel Rodrigues says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    “Mark Horner is a Fellow…” Is the capital F intended? :)
    Great to learn about the Shuttleworth working model. It remembers me in some ways of the Muhammad Yunus, Nobel of Peace in 2006 because of his great work with the Grameen Bank (The Bank of the Poors). He created the concept of microfinancing in Bangladesh: trough tiny loans to groups of, at max, 5 farmers with innovative ideas but way too por to apply for a loan in a “traditional” bank, he encouraged the social and economical development of the region (most of the projects were so successful that some months after most of the monrey from the loans was returned).

    So congratulations about that and also to Mark Horner’s initiative. As I’m a few thousands km away from Cape Town and I’m years away from having a PhD in anything, I’m unable to help, but I really hope for the best to his project ;)

  2. Glubbdrubb says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    This is exciting stuff! Now all we need are “open” educators ;-)

  3. Brett says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Reminds me of Scott G. McNealy of Sun Microsystems fame and how he has started an open textbook initiative.

    Hey, didn’t Jimmy Whales of Wikipedia fame join another initiative too?

    I think this is a fantastic idea because, as Scott says, “Ten plus 10 has been 20 for a long time.”

    Best of luck I say.

  4. Tshepang Lekhonkhobe says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 2:32 pm

    Thanks for the foundation Mark. You are heroic.

    I was thinking of helping out on Horner’s initiative until I noticed I don’t even have a degree :(

  5. Ted Gould says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    I’m a huge fan of Open Textbooks. I think one of the interesting problems that comes up when I talk to professors about it is the lack of credit for creating online resources. You don’t get your tenure or full professor reviews without getting stuff through a “real publisher.”
    The other interesting issue that comes up is actually one of the same problems we’ve had in Open Source. Finding designers to do the graphics. You can’t have a good science textbook without good graphics, but the designers really aren’t engaged.
    Sounds like problems that the Shuttleworth Foundation is helping to solve in SA through direct funding. I’m not sure how we solve it without such funding, but that doesn’t seem enough for a sustainable system. It seems like we need a key change in how administrations approach both profeessor’s employment along with having “on staff” designers to help out.

  6. Martin Owens says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Fascinating, we need more Ubuntu text books too. Some kind of SABDFL would be helpful of course. What are they using for their technical specifications for these textbooks? maybe we can borrow the structure and development model.

  7. Alex Wilber says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    I and, I’m sure, many others would love to help if some way could be found of helping remotely. What an exceptionally good use to put our knowledge to! I can’t get to Cape Town though.

    (I have a PhD in physical chemistry)

  8. Ward Muylaert says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    “Calling scientists and mathematicians!”
    Us mathematicians aren’t scientists any more? ;D

    That is a wonderful project though, hope the deadline will be met. I’ll see if I can help :)

  9. mandy sauls says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Admin skills to volunteer do let me know how

  10. Jaco says: (permalink)
    August 25th, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    I’ve recently learned about/become involved in a number of efforts along similar lines:
    * (a *bit* O/T, but still relevant)

    May garner some more qualified help, or at least reduce work-load to be done

    Re Martin: see

  11. Yawar says: (permalink)
    August 26th, 2010 at 12:08 am

    Readers will probably want to look at the LaTeX sources for the free textbooks: (actually, it would be even cooler if the books were developed out in the open on, say, Launchpad). And it looks like Mark Horner is trying to make it really easy for anyone (including the layperson) to contribute, just by commenting on the books:

    Very cool project, kind of like except that Flat World Knowledge doesn’t offer raw sources for their free textbooks (at least not that I can see).

  12. Linux Rants » Blog Archive » Interesting Linux News for the Day – August 26, 2010 says: (permalink)
    August 26th, 2010 at 1:34 am

    [...] Open textbooks to the rescue [...]

  13. mandy sauls says: (permalink)
    August 26th, 2010 at 7:16 am

    wot must i do?

  14. Andre Jacobs says: (permalink)
    August 26th, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Related to “open” education, check out the Khan Academy
    This guy has made over 1800 videos on a variety of subjects, from basic maths to linear algebra, calculus, chemistry, history, physics, business and the list keeps growing.

    Some people started distributing it off line in countries like Kenya etc.

    Would be really nice if One Laptop Per Child started giving out more laptops in South Africa (seriously giving canada over 100,000 and SA only about 5000 is just wrong).

  15. Barbie says: (permalink)
    August 26th, 2010 at 11:44 am

    GR8 Crises Management again in South Africa!! Where is the Governments long term plan for education?

  16. Alexander says: (permalink)
    August 26th, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Wonderlik om te hoor dat daar sal ook skoolboeke in die lewende taal wees…

    Count me in. I’ll do my bit!

  17. Dinda says: (permalink)
    August 27th, 2010 at 1:13 am

    I believe someone from the group, Adam Hyde or Edward Cherlin, already contacted this group. But I wanted to add information about and now and the Book Sprint model that does exactly this kind of work. Adam has run several successful one week and even weekend book sprint events and now the Booki project is an open source collaborative platform for hosting these type of events and creating books. Furthermore participants can be both local and remote. The OLPC group, Inkscape and lots of other groups developed some great resources using this model.

    It’s a valid model that deserves attention and support.

  18. Volunteers Needed: Open Textbooks to Aid in South Africa | t-square says: (permalink)
    August 27th, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    [...] a complete redesign and reorganization of t-square. On top of this, Mark Shuttleworth has posted an urgent request on his blog, asking for scientists and mathematicians to volunteer for editing of open-content science and [...]

  19. Parag Shah says: (permalink)
    August 29th, 2010 at 9:44 am

    This is a wonderful initiative. Recently I started an experiment where I am trying to do a masters in Computer Science, using open courseware and social learning. It will be wonderful if this can be complemented with open text books as well.

  20. elizabeth says: (permalink)
    August 30th, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I am interested to help with the English text books but not sure how to proceed…

  21. jas says: (permalink)
    August 31st, 2010 at 1:55 am

    Theoretically, something similar in the US …
    “Former Sun chief Scott McNealy’s better idea for school textbooks”
    The real problems in the US are not so much technical (i.e., technical implementation) but entrenched special interests — the textbook publishers — who draw on the same playbook as Big Pharma to make sure prices in the US are 3-4X what they are elsewhere. Unfortunately, politicians and “educators” (euphemism for teachers union) are all too willing co-conspirators and are rewarded as such. Hopefully systemic corruption is not the main problem SA faces.