This past weekend was incredibly exciting for Siyavula and South African education! With a group of 23 volunteer educators and post-grad students, we produced the first draft of a free and open Grade 10 life sciences textbook, aligned to CAPS for 2012! This first draft is a 300+ page document, which although will need revision before it can be made public, is an amazing achievement overall.
In the lead up to the life sciences weekend, much planning and preparation was undertaken by the Siyavula team, namely Mark Horner, Neels van der Westhuizen, Carine Grobbelaar, Bridget Nash, Natalia Kavalenia, Carl Scheffler, Heather Williams, Megan Beckett and Helene Smit our facilitator. Megan, who is a Masters student at UCT in molecular and cellular biology, joined our team and has played a huge role in preparing for the life sciences textbook undertaking. Megan gave a lot of time to preparing the curriculum framework from the latest life sciences CAPS document, where she pulled in rich-media to align the proposed textbook with Siyavula’s current maths and physical science WebBooks. She also produced a style-guideline which laid out how each chapter could be constructed and what should be considered as necessary content.
In addition to meetings with Helene who facilitated the weekend, we had numerous team discussions and planning meetings. This was to ensure that all bases were covered and as much preparation for the weekend was done beforehand, in order to make the weekend as successful and stress free and possible. We hosted three evening events at our office in Cape Town, which served as information sessions for interested people to attend, and find out more about Siyavula and how we were planning to produce a textbook in one weekend. We also produced a Q and A blog about the collaboration process, as well as a process diagram which we hoped would really reflect how the textbook would be produced, and answer any questions that people may have had about the weekend.
We also produced paper prototypes of the book. What this means is that we produced a paper version of the outline of the book, a framework if you will, of what each unit of each chapter would look like. Following the curriculum statement, our book would end up with four chapters made up of ten units in total. These units made up the basis of the book, and each of these units needed to be paper prototyped. We assigned one large piece of cardboard to each unit, and then following the curriculum we mapped out the sub-headings and the kind of content that was either compulsory for inclusion, was optional, and then what could be included (the range of options included pictures, diagrams, indigenous knowledge systems, worksheets, exercises, class discussions, rich-media and so on). These would be used once we had the whole group together, and the educators that were present would be able to indicate what content they had that could be used where.
Numerous emails about the life sciences weekend were sent out to the life sciences educators in our database from across the country, to draw as many educators as possible into the project. We made announcements on our social networking pages such as Facebook and Twitter, and encouraged everyone to spread the word on our behalf. We made a life sciences Dropbox account, and encouraged everyone that had content that they wanted to contribute to add it in so that we could sort it in advance, in order to have content available to be used for the weekend (this was also a way for those that couldn’t attend the weekend to still be involved in the project). We also made a Google Doc available for people to sign up to a particular unit in advance, so that if they wanted to come more prepared they could. However, we could not guaranteed each person their unit to work on, as we wanted to see how the group dynamics would play out before assigning people to their smaller groups.
We felt it was very important to have educators from outside of Cape Town present and involved in the textbook collaboration, and so we invited educators from across the country to join us in Cape Town for the weekend. After consultation with Mindset Learn who we are in collaboration with, they made funds available to sponsor the flights and accommodation of one Johannesburg life sciences educator. In addition to this, Mark was able to secure funding to sponsor two more educators to join us – one more from Johannesburg, and one from Durban. This was excellent for our collaboration, as it meant that the project was not restricted to involvement by those in the Western Cape, and which we hope will mean that educators from across the country will more readily accept this as a resource in their own classrooms, knowing that it was an effort of South African educators, and not just those from Cape Town.
Helene invited two guests to join us for the weekend – Dominique le Roux, a publisher who could provide layout guidance as well as knowledge on copyright; and Thapelo Mahlangu who is a management development consultant who helped with indigenous knowledge.
After much anticipation and planning, Friday afternoon finally arrived! Carine had a busy morning fetching our educators from the airport, and having them check in at their BnB. The rest of us were busy at the office involved in the final preparations – Helene, Mark and Megan had a final check in for the process for the afternoon, while the rest of the team moved furniture around, finished off name tags, set up the kitchen for tea and so on. Before we knew it the office door bell was ringing, and our volunteers were arriving!
We kicked off the afternoon with an introduction by Helene, where everyone was given a chance to introduce themselves to the group and why they volunteered to be involved in this project. Helene then went on to clarify the weekend activities and what would take place in order to produce the book. She briefly laid out how we would work together, how we would identify gaps in the content, how content would be found and collated; and how everything would be uploaded, reviewed and feedback given. It was also important to make everyone aware of what still needed to be decided on, such as use of language and general styling.
Helene then went on to discuss the psychology behind group work. This was very important and why we felt it necessary to have a facilitator on board: with a group of 23 people from different backgrounds with different levels and areas of expertise, there is bound to be conflict on some level during the weekend. It is necessary to address possible issues upfront, and make everyone aware and respectful of what each member of the group is bringing to the table, as well as issues of rank. By making the group aware of how they address each other – the tone that is used, not to be condescending towards each other as each person is an expert in their own right; that everyone has an “edge” – their own personal limit, the end of their comfort zone – one hopes that everyone will be more tolerant and patient towards each other, and be mindful of these points.
Following a tea break, where everyone had their first taste of our amazing caterer’s food, the style guidelines were discussed and agreed upon. Megan’s document was used here, with added suggestions from the group. These were points such as the importance of using simple language but using technical terminology where necessary; avoiding idiomatic expressions; writing in the second person; to points on structure – each chapter should have a brief introduction and summary; use point form and numbered lists for sequences; put keywords in bold; to points on content – include the learning objectives; find simple alternatives for experiments so that they relate to everyday things; caption pictures at the bottom, while graphs and tables are captioned at the top.
We then stuck our paper prototypes of the book on the wall, which gave a really great overview of the proposed book in its entirety. Everyone was asked to give input and ideas for content that could be included, as well as volunteer content of their own to the relevant sections. Everyone was then assigned to a unit, and each group found a space in the office to begin the task of defining the roles in their group and sourcing materials for their section.
After a very busy afternoon it was finally time for dinner. With some wine on offer, we all gathered together to serve dinner and relax around the table and enjoy the meal. There was much chatting amongst everyone – a sure sign of a successful first day!
Breakfast was served at 09h00 at the OIS, followed by a regrouping by Helene. Mark then took to the floor to give an overview of copyright licences, and the kind of content that could be included in the book. Siyavula operates under a Creative Commons By Attribution licence (CC-BY), which is the most open of all the licences. But, despite this fact, it can still be challenging to find content that can we can pull directly into our books. This was one of the biggest challenges for our volunteers: knowing which content they legally could and could not use in their work. We directed them to websites where they would be able to find openly licensed content (either under CC-BY or a variation thereof), such as Connexions, OER Commons, and CK12 Flexbooks, but as is the case with so much content on the internet, it is made for the American curriculum so needs reworking before it can be applied to the South African context.
The day was spent sourcing material for each unit, sifting through rich-media, and creating new content for various sections. Some groups were lucky in that educators had shared material for a particular section, which meant they already had a head start on content for their unit, while others had very little if nothing at all for their section, and had to source material from scratch. The whole process is time and energy consuming, but with the team always on hand and Dominique and Thapelo providing invaluable assistance, the day went relatively smoothly.
It was agreed that at 18h00 everyone would stop what they were doing and upload their content to Connexions. This caused anxiety for some, as they felt their work was not ready to be seen by anyone else, never mind put online! We assured everyone that their work would remain private to the group for now, but it that it was necessary to get it onto Connexions in order for us to pull it together into a collection, and show it as the first draft of the book. We stress-tested Carl’s new tool for importing Word documents into Connexions, which worked really well! We did run into a few issues with Connexions however, where the website fell over and nothing further could be imported! It was at this stage that we called it a day, and brought everyone together for a final check-in before dinner.
Overall, Saturday was very productive, with most teams either having completed their unit or being very close to completion. Despite many people feeling tired after a long and busy day of creating content (we worked out that each person in the room was effectively creating 6 hours of teaching content to cover the entire syllabus for the year!), the atmosphere at dinner time was jovial, with much laughter and conversation filling the room.
Breakfast was served again at 09h00, with a brief opening by Helene. Everyone was given time to finish up their content and upload it to Connexions. Unfortunately we had technical issues with Connexions again, so everyone’s documents were sent to Megan, who compiled everything into one large document – the first draft of the book.
Following this we had a debriefing session with Helene, where we looked at the next steps in the process to finishing the book. Below is the process that was agreed upon:
Thursday 20 October
- Everyone can work on their documents, but then all documents must be added to Dropbox on or before Thursday noon
Monday 24 October
- We will compile everyone’s documents to form the most up to date version of the book
- This will be put on Annotate for our life sciences group to review and comment on
- It will stay up for two weeks
Monday 7 November
- The book will close for comments, but you will still be able to consult the comments and proposed changes
- There will be an opportunity for everyone that is willing to make the necessary changes to do so, and produce a new version of the book
Monday 21 November
- The new version of the book will go onto Annotate again and will be available to a wider pool of experts to comment on and review
In our debriefing we discussed suggestions for how to improve the process for next time. The following points were raised:
- The second day was too long – some felt it would have been better to end at 17h00 on Saturday, and go on later than 12h00 on Sunday.
- The unit assignments should have been finalised before the weekend, in order for people to come better prepared (this was made possible but was not enforced).
- We need to prepare documentation about copyright, so that everyone can consult a handbook on what is and is not allowed when taking content from the internet.
- The paper prototyping exercise where suggestions of additional content were given, should rather come later, in order for everyone to get to work sooner, and have more solid content before adding in the extras.
- The tagging issues (using red tags for Connexions uploading) need to be clarified / resolved.
- The formatting of documents needed to be explained at the beginning.
- Role defining needed to take place as soon as the groups were established. It was suggested that one person search online for photos, one search for rich-media / content, and one put it all together. What was happening was that each person worked on a section of a unit, and so covered all 3 roles, instead of each person having one role and going from there.
- Having a volunteer present in each group who has technical knowledge (Connexions knowledge, understands copyright etc) would be very helpful.
- It would be helpful to establish all the technology resources upfront – i.e. which browser is best to use, where to search for content.
- Try and source more content from educators before the weekend, so that we have a wide base of resources to draw from for each chapter.
The way forward
- There will always be an annotateable version of the book available online, and we will endeavour to have the book properly maintained and updated. On the 1 December we will start neatening up the book, and depending on the scope, size and detail of the comments, in the first week of January it should be ready to be made widely available!
- We will sort out the authors’ list depending on everyone’s discussed specifications.
- We will be sourcing the requested pictures, and will include these in the book.
- We will create a mailing list to keep everyone in the loop.
The Siyavula team would like to say a huge thank you to everyone that was involved in any way in making this weekend a possibility! To everyone that gave up their weekend, to those that contributed content, to Helene for her expertise and patience – thank you!