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.