Archive for the 'education' Category

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.

Is it possible to have training materials that are developed in partnership with the community, available under a CC license, AND make those same materials available through formal training providers? We’re trying to find out at Canonical with our Ubuntu Desktop Course.

Billy Cina @Canonical has been making steady progress towards the goal of having a full portfolio of training options available for commercial users of Ubuntu. Companies that want to ensure that their staff are rigorously trained, and individuals who want to present their Ubuntu credentials in a formal setting, need to have a certified and trusted framework for skills assurance.

Most of the work we are doing in this line is following the traditional model, where content is funded as a private investment, and the content is then licensed to authorized training providers who sell courses to their local markets. These courses are usually sold to companies that have adopted a platform or tool and want to ensure a consistent level of skills across the organization. Many companies are moving to Ubuntu for both desktop and server, so demand is hotting up for this capability. We have a system builder course, and a system administrator course are now available from authorized training providers.

But we wanted also to try a different approach, that might be more accessible to the Ubuntu community and might also result in even higher quality materials. We think the key ingredients are:

  • Use of an open format (Docbook)
  • Content source available in a public Bazaar repository (here)
  • Licensing under open terms (CC-BY-NC-SA)
  • Working with the Ubuntu doc-team, who have a wealth of experience

The license is copyleft and non-commercial, so that it is usable by any person for their own education and edification with the requirement that commercial use will involve some contribution back to the core project.

It’s already a 400 page book which gives a great overview of the Ubuntu desktop experience, a very valuable resource for folks who are new to Linux and Ubuntu.

We are getting to the point where we can publish a “daily PDF” which will have the very latest version (“trunk”) compiled overnight. So anyone has free access to the very latest version, and of course anyone can bzr branch the content to make changes that suit them.

If you want to have a look at the latest content, try this:


bzr launchpad-login <your-lp-username
bzr branch lp:ubuntu-desktop-course

The source is huge (712MB, lots of images in a large book), so grab a cup of tea, and when you get back you will have the latest version of the content, hot and well-brewed :-) This is a great set of materials if you are offering informal training. Corrections and additions would be most welcome, just push your branch up to Launchpad and request a merge of your changes.

Writing a book collaboratively?

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

Someone joked about giving Jane the title of “Chief Wiki Officer”. We have about 7 wiki’s internally and there’s no end in sight! I think we could consolidate them and use access controls to keep various communities distinct but – for those of us who have to roam across them – integrated. This got me thinking about the limits of current wiki technology. Is there any comprehensive list of wiki platforms?

At the same time at the Foundation in Cape Town we are busy gearing up to commit about R30m (about $4.5m in today’s terms) to create a complete set of school books for all subjects in the South African curriculum in wiki format. I got to wondering which format we should use. There’s a lot of action around MediaWiki (used by Wikipedia) but one of our goals is to be able to print low cost books – real books with tables of contents etc on real paper – for those schools which don’t have bandwidth or PC’s. Can MediaWiki produce DocBook output? Or should we be using a different collaborative platform altogether? I remember hearing about a DocBook wiki system, but can’t find any references to that now.

So here’s the question – if you wanted to write a book collaboratively, with rigorous access control and revision control but also with chapters and sections, and an index and tables of contents etc – what platform would you use (free software greatly preferred, and open format’s required, of course :-)).

I’m all fired up after two days of the most amazing work bringing together some very remarkable people to talk about a TSF strategy to ensure that we can give the next generation excellent analytical skills despite the global collapse in the supply of maths teaching capacity.

The headliners were:

Alan Kay of the Squeak project and Squeakland educational software platform,
Guido van Rossum of Python fame,
James Dalziel of the LAMS project, IMO the “next big thing” in the e-education space,
Zelda Holtzman, CEO of the Shuttleworth Foundation

There were about 15 of us, covering several programming environments (scheme, smalltalk/squeak, python, logo) and a variety of educational frameworks (UK, South Africa, participants from France, Switzerland, Netherlands, USA…). The idea was to bring together people who potentially have the ability to shape up a framework that can take off like wildfire. The risk was that, with so many strong opinions from different backgrounds, we would not be able to make progress.

Suffice it to say that after two days in the bunker, I think we did brilliantly! I saw real bridges being built between Alan and Guido, two great men who’s collaboration might give us the tools to teach logic from the earliest days of education (think of 5 year-olds writing code visually) through to high level instruction (we all know how effective Python is for university type problems, right?). Instead of fighting over turf or syntax, I sensed a genuine willingness to synthesize the best work from both camps into something that could have both Python’s pop-culture widespread appeal, and pedagogical foundations that build on years of Alan’s experience in the Squeak world. The mouse might yet become the snake’s strongest ally.

We also heard from people who help to shape educatonal policy in the UK, South Africa and elsewhere, and I was even more convinced that the problems we want to solve through this initiative are universal, even though the crisis is most evident in countries like South Africa. So I hope we can mobilise a global response, and if you have access to global agencies interested in education then please put them in touch with Helen King, who coordinates the international work of TSF.

What’s this all about? The big picture is that I believe we should be building an analytical skills curriculum that is post-mathematical. Mathematics is a beautiful but abstract art, that has traditionall been the vehicle for the development of analytical capacity in young minds, but has equally traditionally been seen as dry and difficult. We need to teach mathematics NOT because people should become mathematicians (I could not pass my first year maths exam tomorrow though I did reasonably well at the time) but rather people we want society in general to have the ability to apply known tools and patterns to solve the problems it encounters. That’s what learning maths gives us during our formative years.

So what could replace traditional mathematics instruction? Why, software engineering – but not the way it is taught today. We don’t want to produce a society of software engineers any more than we used to want to produce a society of mathematicians. We want to produce a society that knows how to:

  1. Learn a set of tools quickly and efficiently. In life, the set of tools we apply to the problems we face changes every few years. So it’s not the specific SET of tools you learn, its the ability to grok a new toolset, figure out when to use, and do so efficiently that counts.
  2. Break problems into simpler pieces, solve them using familiar tools. The whole process of analysis is about taking a big hairy problem that is new and unfamiliar, and teasing it into pieces that look solvable based on tools that you already know.
  3. Put those simpler answers back together to make an answer to the big problem. This is the synthesis part – taking the results of your analysis and making them meaningful in the real world.

Anyway, the traditional way to teach these life skills has been to drill kids in mathematics. That was always quite a tough sell. Nowadays, its a tough sell in the face of even tougher competition for learner mental bandwidth from cell phones, MTV, instant messaging and the myriad other bling-bling commercials desperate to get your attention when you are 12 and about to get your first credit card. So we need something that is sexy, exciting, challenging, and interesting. I’m pretty convinced that basic technology is becoming pervasive, so by the time our R&D here bears fruit it’s reasonable to expect that most kids even in developing countries have access to technology, whether that looks like a $100 laptop or a TuxLab (another awesome TSF project). And kids LOVE technology. They love the games, they love the puzzles, they love figuring out how to make those darn machines do what they want. This initiative, then, is about figuring out how to build a curriculum that will produce generations that can do the 1, 2, 3 above NOT because they learned mathematics, but because they explored the world of technology.

You can read more about this specific project on the TSF wiki.


Saturday, April 15th, 2006

James Dalziel, of the LAMS Foundation, is leading a project that I think is the “next big thing” in e-classroom technology. Basically, LAMS is a tool that describes not content, or people, or processes, but the interactions between all of them that make up the learning experience. Unlike a traditional content management system like Moodle, or a collaboration system or chat system or school information system like SchoolTool, the LAMS goal is to construct the “workflows” that make up a learning module.

So with LAMS, you design a “digital classroom experience” to convey a certain skill or knowledge. You find and link to content (that could come from Moodle, or the web generally, or just be embedded in the LAMS object). You figure out whether you want the learners to read, or discuss, or write essays, or vote, or have forums-style discussions, etc. And you sequence all of that and set it up that you can track the work done by each participant in each stage of the process.

Best of all, these LAMS objects are content in their own right, can be published under open content licences, and shared and improved with open-source style processes so that over time we can create a body of learning experiences that is interlinked and ever-improving. I think these general principles will serve us very well in this first stage of the TSF analytical skills development initiative.

So I just want to say a big thank you to James and the LAMS team for helping to invent something entirely new and very special. I’m sure there will be other, similar frameworks, but it takes a remarkable bunch of people to envision and build something different. Well done.