Creating a community of practice to drive OER materials production and address the costs of learning materials in South Africa

Derek Moore and Dominique Wooldridge

Wits University

Globally, print based learning materials are expensive and are getting more costly. For example textbook prices have risen nearly four times the rate of inflation for all finished goods since 1994 . (Wiley and Green, 2012). In South Africa, academic books make up 10% of the local book market. Locally, the cost of these books is largely determined by small book runs and low sell-through rates, usually due to Illegal photocopying (Genesis Analytics 2007). Low sell through rates of up to 50% are the norm and these rates are promoted by “analogue” strategies in universities to address textbook affordability. While putting photocopied sections of textbooks in in library short loans, creating course packs or renting a textbook may make a textbook available in the short term, in the long term this strategy exacerbates the cost problem.
Education accessibility is a central feature of the 1955 Freedom Charter. This document proclaimed ‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened!’ We know that digitally authored and delivered teaching and learning materials can make expensive learning materials affordable and accessible. Other African universities have demonstrated that the combination of the distribution capacity of the world wide web, the availability of numerous digital publishing platforms that allow multiple users to easily add, remove, or edit content quickly, and a range of Open Education Resources (OER) , it is possible to authoring digital learning resources or a textbook equivalent in a digital form. Despite these imperatives to improve access and a host of international examples of OER providing substantial cost savings to the institution and students without compromising educational quality, using digital resources to make a wealth of materials accessible and available for students on most South African campuses is a rare exception from the norm.
At Wits University, digital initiatives to address textbook costs for students are rare and only a small minority of lecturers make use of digital medium, the tools and resources available to create their own resources. At departmental level and upwards there is little attempt to promote open textbooks, content and curricula. While the executive are aware of available learning materials and OER repositories where they can source quality learning materials from and adapt if necessary for use within their programmes, there has not been an obvious increased use of openly licensed digital learning materials amongst academics and adoption and experimentation with digital resources by academics is low.
A scan of the material available on Wits university’s LMS suggests that not only are text-based OERs underutilised in courses, but also that very few academics are using multimedia OERs. A recent initiative of the elearning unit aims promote the development of multimedia resources through the establishment of a Wits iTunes U site. The iTunes initiative is in some ways Wits’ first step into curating a university-wide open access site. The project has revealed the need for a range of policy and support mechanisms to be put in place within the institution. For example: Wits lacks clear policy on issues ranging from student privacy to licensing frameworks for course-related content. Institutional arrangements will need to developed for everything from selecting content to ensuring the quality of both content and production values.
As something of a ‘late starter’, Wits is in the enviable position of being able to draw on diverse international experiences when tackling these issues. However, there is a need to be sensitive to both the perceptions and realities surrounding technology-enhanced learning in the university, and in the wider South African context. Instead of focussing on individual academics who have identified the need and have means and ability to create affordable educational materials, eLSI the Wits elearning unit) has decided to adopt a collaborative approach to designing digital learning materials. We’ve assumed that that what hampers the adoption of OER’s is the lone ranger approach, typically found in early adopter behaviour. If educational resources are shared, reviewed, and developed because of policy imperatives and within a community of practice, then these OER’s are more likely to be of a higher quality than those developed solely by idealistic individuals working in isolation.
To promote a community of practice where the sharing and development of digital resources is encouraged (and thus address the affordability and access issues highlighted earlier), eLSI has proposed a participatory model to the production of digital resources. Funded by a Teaching and Learning grant, this model invites student to participate in resource production. Their expertise is leveraged in conjunction with academics who would like assistance with the production of OER’s. Identified students, enrolled in a particular course, are invited to collaborate with the willing academic to process and publish course material under an appropriate licence. Using a set of agreed processes, this distributed model would expect students (under necessary supervision) to edit & review the selected and vetted materials and publish them on an OER repository. Such a local OER materials development initiative, overseen by eLSI, is hoped to encourage staff at Wits to not only use, re-use and remix open education resources and incorporate these OER’s in their learning environments, but to also create their own OER’s. Such materials could contribute towards improving the quality of teaching materials nationally and contribute to issues of access and equity.

At Wits, some students do not know where their next meal is coming from let alone have the budget to afford purchasing the required textbooks. This inability to purchase latest textbook creates new learning inequalities between those that can and those who cannot come up with the cash required for these key course materials. Open online education resources should act as a substitute for commercial textbooks. The development of these materials for reuse is likely to enhance their quality, as well as develop the capacity of those who engage in the development of the material. However the uptake of digital strategies to address access to learning resources has been slow and there remains a vast proportion of courses that are not supported with freely available digital resources.
Internationally it’s accepted that Open Education resources can provide substantial cost savings to the institution and students without compromising educational quality. In Africa there are several OER initiatives focused on higher education, which seek to harness these possibilities and even projects with specific universities, such as University of Cape Town’s OpenContent (http://opencontent.uct.ac.za) directory. The quality of materials made available to students can be enhanced through adaptation and localisation of the available open source materials. The creation of a policy driven approach in conjunction with a participatory production model may address issues related to uptake of OER’s and this paper will explore the success of such an approach.


Genesis Analytics (2007). Factors influencing the cost of books in South Africa. (Commissioned and funded by the National Department of Arts & Culture, South Africa). http://www.sabookcouncil.co.za/sabookcouncil/pdf/PICC_Cost_of_books_studyFinal.pdf [Last accessed 10 November 2014].
Wiley, D., Green, C., & Soares, L. (2012). Dramatically Bringing down the Cost of Education with OER: How Open Education Resources Unlock the Door to Free Learning. Center for American Progress.