Siyavula vs. Publishers - NOT!

Normally when I tell someone about my personal project, Free High School Science Texts (FHSST), or my day job, Siyavula, the average response includes the following elements:

  • helping education is a great idea
  • current textbooks are expensive
  • what about publishers / are you trying to put publishers out of business

The only concern they have is about the poor publishers and so I thought it best to start jotting down some of my thoughts about the "poor publishers". I will keep to the situation in South Africa but much of this applies elsewhere - counterexample-based criticism if the examples are South African or applicable to SA will be considered ;)

Firstly, let me state categorically that none of the projects I am involved in are trying to put publishers out of business! It would be a massive problem if they did go out of business. They form an integral part of the education ecosystem.

These open projects leave the door open for publishers to build-on and adapt the material they develop. This will ultimately lead to higher-quality materials which can be constructed faster and more cost-effectively than is currently possible. We expect the formation of a symbiotic relationship between publishers and projects producing openly-licensed materials to the benefit of all. These ideas are very clearly laid out in the Cape Town Open Education Declaration and the FAQ page answers many interesting questions about how openly-licensed resources might be used.

This is all relatively new and I think that the people running these open projects spend more time thinking about possible relationships with the publishers than the publishers do. Given some of my interactions with members of the publishing industry it would seem they are almost completely ignorant about these projects or are just dismissive.

I think that this may be partly due to the fact that the textbook publishers have got it relatively easy (and they are not poor). They have a guaranteed client with really deep pockets, the Department of Education, who purchases a book for every learner for every subject and when those books don't make it to the targeted learners, which is too frequent, they don't lose out. It might not be their fault but find me another industry where you would survive if your product did not make it to the consumers - for whatever reason!

They also can't claim that they had no idea that an open movement was afoot, projects/people working on free materials have been around for a while, these are my favourite examples but there are many more:

The thing that FHSST and Siyavula bring to the table that the current projects don't is a focus on South African curriculum-aligned material.

So the bottom-line in SA is that education is in crisis and many learners do NOT have the textbooks (which are paid for) they are supposed to, openly-licensed resources are here to stay and the publishers need to start engaging in a real dialogue about how they are going to adapt and benefit. A dialogue which all open projects welcome.

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