Realizing a dream


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.

A journey

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Just over two years ago I went to a talk by Mark Horner from Siyavula. He was talking about creating the EverythingScience and EverythingMaths books that Siyavula successfully launched and had printed for millions of learners in South Africa. Sitting at the talk, I was very excited by the concept of OERs and remixing of content. It was the first time I became aware of OERs and what Creative Commons licensing could mean for me. Mark’s statement that no one owns Newton’s laws  resonated with me.

After the talk, I went to chat to Mark. The science department at St John’s College have a set of notes, questions and other materials that we have developed and used successfully over many years. We had for a long time wanted to write them up into a book for our boys. Siyavula’s way of writing and constructing a book really appealed to me, so Mark and some of his team from Siyavula came to meet with us at St John’s College the next day. Mark offered to come back with his team a few weeks later, to help us take our content and upload it to Connexions and to help us start our book. An exciting prospect.

Unfortunately, it was a disaster. All our notes were written over many years in different versions of Word and we were meet with many obstacles in our attempt to upload our material. The biggest problems were getting equations to behave and working with diagrams. We were stuck. We did as much as we could, and the Siyavula team went home at the end of our scheduled two day workshop to see if they could find a solution. We could have learnt LaTeX or XML and written all our content like that, but teachers have full time jobs and most don’t know LaTeX, XML html5 and such. It became apparent that there was nothing out there that we could use and that we desperately needed an editor that would allow teachers to focus on writing content and not be bogged down in technical details and software.

Soon after our disastrous workshop, Mark Horner who was then a Shuttleworth fellow organised to come back to St Johns, but to bring Kathi Fletcher, also a Shuttleworth fellow so that I could share the problems that we had encountered trying to upload content to Connexions. Daniel Williamson from Connexions at Rice University also came along. We spent a day together going over the challenges we faced and what the solution could look like.

I was very excited by the possibilities, and ideas of what our book could look like were inspiring. I was imagining a book that could be alive with links to videos, animations and web pages. I wanted a book that could be printed or viewed on tablets and laptops. I realized that we could make a book that was what we really wanted and needed for our school and our teachers and students.

Mark and Kathi were both supportive and encouraging and I had hope that eventually we would succeed.

I don’t know too much about the developments over the next few months, but I know that Kathi set up an OERPub team to create an editor that would be easy for people without a background in computer science to use. In February 2012, we went to the Connexions conference and then spent a couple of days workshopping possibilities.

Over the next year, Mark showed me how the editor was progressing, how it could handle equations and how a lot of what we had tried to achieve was now looking possible.

In the meantime, the idea of the book had grown to become two books – one for Physics for grade 11 and grade 12 and one for Chemistry for grade 11 and grade 12. We had also decided that the book should be written to the Independent Examination Board (IEB) Subject Assessment Guidelines (SAGs) and that we should share our book with the community and get the community to be involved in its creation.

Kathi and Mark suggested that the editor was getting near a point were we could try it out and use it to write our books.

We set about organising a sprint for 4 days in August 2103. We were going to bring together teachers to wite the content, the OERPub team to support and develop the editor and the Siyavula team to help with content and technical requirements so that ultimately, they could print our books using their pipeline.