On Monday 19 August three teams of people came together as a first step in creating a Physics book and a Chemistry book written to the assessment curriculum specified by the Independent Examinations Board (IEB).
The teacher team consisted of teachers who have worked together and marked the IEB exams for a number of years. I am grateful to Warwick Taylor, Nicky Stocks, Ena Bosman, Nicci Glanville and Rob Lodge for taking up the invitation and volunteering for the project and also for giving up four days of their holiday. There was great interest in the project from many people in schools that were not on holiday and so couldn’t be part of the initial workshop. I am sure that more teachers in the community will become involved as we proceed.
The OERPub team consisted of Kathi Fletcher, Tom Woodward and Marvin Reimer. There were also other team members working remotely from other parts of the world. This workshop was the first public outing of their editor. As teachers, we desperately need the editor to enable us to focus on writing content easily and not to spend time authoring in XML.
The Siyavula team consisted of Mark Horner, Carl Scheffler, Kate Davies and Ewald Zietsman. Mark and Kate were helpful in pointing us to material in the Siyavula books that we could remix, creating diagrams, helping the authors to find other material licensed under CC-BY and being a technical support. Carl and Ewald concentrated on technical issues. Bridget Nash, the community coordinator from Siyavula was in Cape Town, but was instrumental in ensuring there was food, snacks and coffee to keep everyone going – thank you.
Before we started on day one, I was rather nervous. As teachers from St John’s College, we had previously attempted to take our content and create an OER Science book, but due to technical difficulties and not being able to edit easily we hadn’t made much progress. I was very aware that these dedicated teachers were giving up their holiday time and I really needed the workshop to be a success. I also knew that Kathi and her OERPub team had come a long way geographically as well in their journey of creating an editor. In fact, I couldn’t believe that Kathi and Mark and their teams had committed so much time, energy and resources to helping us achieve our dreams. Creating these two books had been a goal for a number of years and I could hardly believe that it was all coming together.
After Mark and Kathi gave an introduction, we started by deciding on writing guidelines and discussing how we were going to break up the content into meaningful chapters. The first addition to the plan was a third book for practicals. Without the OERPub editor and the Siyavula pipeline, we wouldn’t have given a second thought to another book before we had written the first two. With the editor, we knew that we had the power to write all the content seamlessly together and then extract the practicals at the end.
We then dived into using the editor and writing content. Immediately, we saw the power of using the editor. The editor had been carefully created with the author in mind. It was so easy to create a section, insert a definition and insert an exercise with its solution. All we had to do was drag the box matching what we wanted and drop it into place in our document. This meant that everything was marked up properly behind the scenes and would have a consistent appearance throughout the books. It also means that if we decide at the end to have a glossary of all the definitions, this can be achieved. Our book will have worked examples with the solutions displayed and exercises with the solutions separate. In fact it is possible to have a full solution as well as just an answer that can be handled differently. Later we will probably decide to print the answers in the back of the book, but leave the full solutions to be accessed on a website. The beauty is that the question and the solution are written together and so if we want to change the question, all the editing is done at the same time in the same place. Up until now we have had different files with the questions and the solutions and it is a really painful process to work in different places and to keep numbering consistent. In the OERPub editor, we don’t even have to number questions, it is all done automatically. This means we can just drag a new question in anywhere and everything is taken care of. The editor has a powerful hierarchy which allows us to write logically and easily. My hope is that eventually we will be able to use the editor to set tests and exams in our schools as it will be so easy to share and remix questions. At the moment we have almost three hundred teachers that do share exams and memos in our community via a mailing list, but it is really a hassle as even though we use Word, the formatting always causes issues when copying and pasting. It is even more of a problem to match the question with the memo. With the OERPub editor, sharing could be seamless and hassle free.
Another great thing about the editor is how easy the OERPub team has made it to write equations. This area was always a problem, but now it is easy to drag an equation box where we want it and write the equation in LaTeX and see it the way it will render immediately. This is brilliant as there is no compiling, waiting, finding the error, recompiling etc. Teachers that had never used LaTeX were confidently writing equations immediately. For me, this was amazing.
It was also incredible to work in the same room and the developers of the editor. At one point, we needed a multipart question with a leader that set a context and then a number of sub-questions. As authors, we were able to sit with the developers and design what we needed. The developers then created what we has discussed and a few hours later, we were able to drag a multipart box into the book. It was brilliant. In fact the more the editor could do, we realised the possibilities were endless.
During the workshop, I realised just how powerful the editor could be. I invited the head of Afrikaans and the IC T integrator to visit and see what we were doing. They were really excited and so I am hoping that other departments and subjects will use the editor to curate their content as well.
By the end of the workshop, after four days of hard work and much success, the OERPub team are going home to work on what was learnt, the authors are going to work on content and in about two weeks we will use the next iteration of the editor to continue writing.
For me, this is the start of a dream becoming a reality. It was an amazing experience to work with such a mixture of professionals. The possibilities are endless.