Six Social Publishing Challenges

Getting books into the hands of children is vital if kids are to learn to read. But there are many significant challenges facing those who wish to build a nation of story-readers and story-tellers. Five of these challenges are:

  1. Affordability – the average storybook in a book shop is expensive and many caregivers / parents find that children’s books are priced beyond their means.
  2. Diversity – storybooks often don’t reflect the multiple cultures, different family types and range of heritages.
  3. Home languages – when children learn to read, the should be doing so in their home languages but storybooks are not published in all the vernacular languages
  4. Distribution – making storybooks available, especially in remote areas, is a logistical challenge.
  5. Emerging writers – if we are to address some of the above challenges, then we also need to grow our own young authors..

Social Publishers are publishers who create reading materials for neglected audiences. Rather than operate on a profit basis, these publishers are driven by a mission. They see their books as a social goods, to be directed where they are most needed.

In South Africa, to make books affordable, accessible and available, social publishers like African Story Book, Bookdash, Fundza, Nal’i Bali and Vula Bula have adopted a range of innovative book production and distribution practices. Almost all have digital editions of their books available, formatted in PDF, ePub or as a webpage. Some of these storybooks are published under a Creative Commons licences. Sometimes they also have apps available for mobile devices are associated with these projects. Caregivers can freely install these apps, download the different books and store and read them from their mobile devices.

The above mentioned challenges are being addressed by social publishers in different ways. Below are a few specific examples of how certain projects are working with highlighted issues.

  • Fundza & the Author Challenge – Fundza are making it possible to become authors Their “Developing Young Writers” programme is intended to prompt young readers to become writers. Aspiring young voices can showcase their writing on the fundza.mobi site.
  • Bookdash & the Funding Challenge – Bookdash have a different book creation model. They generate publishable story books very rapidly. They facilitate an event and challenge multiple story production teams to create a storybook in 12 hours. Groups of four creative professionals (illustrators, authors, editors and designer) voluntarily combine their skills to create a complete creative commons storybook in one day.
  • Nalibali & the Distribution Challenge – Nal’ibali works to build a larger community of reading enablers across the country who are interested in storytelling, reading and writing with children. They distribute the message about reading by running high-visibility media campaigns (TV, Radio, Newspapers, Billboards), a network of reading clubs and also offer paprents and caregivers a library of multilingual stories and resources.
  • African Story Books & the Diversity Challenge – African Story Books have taken an open education resources approach to book production. This alternative model involves books licenced as creative commons materials that can be re-used and remixed. Their platform has a facility for users to alter, translate or create new stories and select different images. This has meant that their books have been translated into 111 languages
  • Vula Bula and the Language Challenge – Vula Bula is an African language graded reading series. Rather than translate books from English, they commission indigenous South African writers to write stories in their home language. These illustrated stories are contextualised to the young reader’s inner world and life experiences. The text within these books is based on the specific orthographical building blocks of each language.

The 6th Challenge – Obscurity

The one challenge that has not been mentioned is the inconspicuousness of these projects. Commercial publishing still holds most most of our attention, especially when it comes to storybooks. While these social publishing initiatives are as innovative as they are exciting, they need to also become sustainable. This is THE problem that requires immediate attention. If social publishing is to continue to offer new routes to entrench reading and writing habits in children’s daily lives, then broader uptake and ownership of such projects is necessary. Social publishing needs to become a mainstream player within the development of reading. Visible support, especially from those who access and use children’s books frequently, like librarians, teachers, social workers etc. Financial backing from the state, large multinational or corporates in required. Obscurity is their biggest challenge.

A 20 year celebration of Eiffelcorp

Welcome We toasted Eiffelcorp’s 20th birthday celebration at a function in Jo’burg a few weeks ago. I particularly enjoyed the “fire-side” chat with Andre and Gwen van der Merwe. Among ed techies like myself, Eiffelcorp is best known as the company behind Blackboard. I learned a bit more about the history of Eiffelcorp and its origins.

This “mom and pop” start-up was founded by two aspiring teachers. Gwen finished her teaching degree, Andre dropped out to start the business. He flew to Canada, connected with Murray Goldberg, an academic from the University of British Columbia who developed WebCT (Course Tools). They brought WebCT back to local universities like Wits, Pretoria and Free State. Later on Blackboard acquired WebCT. Eiffelcorp and Blackboard became synonymous, at least among ed techies.

By today’s standards, WebCT is clunky and unintuitive. Many LMS packages suffer from this malady. What Andre and Gwen “got” was that they were not only a software company, selling a platform. They recognized the need to create an ongoing partnership with their clients and provide a host of strategic and support services associated with the use of technology in an educational setting. Gwen did training and Andre support, many times over weekends and late at night. Their up-front sales and behind the scenes efforts added value and kept the business growing.

I prefer open systems to proprietary ones. I think that the costs associated with Blackboard are extremely high. The platform does have a tendency to wag the pedagogical dog. However, I also recognize that Andre & Gwen’s company (now with a staff of approximately 40), preceded “disruption” and the “future of learning” hype from Silicon Valley. They built up a loyal base of academic users who are typically very critical and often reluctant to expend effort in teaching,

This fact deserves celebration. Well done to Andre and Gwen. In the next decade, Eiffelcorp must contribute to the development of a community of African elearning practitioners. People, like Andre and Gwen, who were not only interested in sales but who are teachers, intent on the thoughtful and appropriate use of technologies in learning. In the next ten years, if Eiffelcorp can support a community of practice of “ed techies”, who want to enable learning via technology, then I’ll be very pleased to raise a 30 year celebratory toast.

[Disclosure: I am occasionally contracted by Eiffelcorp to assist with staff development and training.]

Predatory Conferences. Caveat Empor.

Is this a dodgy conference?

The “good deal” offered by a good conference is being sullied by predator conference companies. These conference companies have no recognised expertise in the field, have no mandate from an academic or professional body and have profit as their motivation. They are akin to scavengers , preying on inexperienced pups, not sure who to turn to, what questions to ask, or know how to frame the unknowns.

Within my field (education technology), I’ve developed a checklist that offers a spectrum of 10 questions, designed to help me determine whether the conference is a predatory event. I use it to evaluate the invitations I receive. The checklist does not make any blanket rules. Some legitimate events might even tick some of the boxes. They might be well-arranged, organised by respected people with an appropriate background. I am grateful to them for their hard work. The checklist is simply a range of red flags for me to use. You might find it helpful.

  1. Is there a conference chair? What connections do they have to academia, the ICT industry or education technology?
  2. Are the listed speakers reputable experts. Check their profile on Twitter and use Twitteraudit.com to see if their followers are fake or real
  3. Do the advertised speakers know about the programme? Contact a few and ask them whether they know about the event and if their attendance is confirmed.
  4. If this is the 3rd, 4th or 5th event, then use Google to locate the previous years conference brochure. Does the programme from the previous year have the same speakers talking about the same topics?
  5. Does the PDF attached to the invitation email have the initials or a name associated with the consultant who contacted you about the conference. For example, 3rd-international-jp. This name/initial is probably the sales representative, working on a commission basis.
  6. Check on LinkedIn. Does the LinkedIn profile of the person sending out the conference invite have any connections to the field they are promoting? Do the conference organizers have a reputable LinkedIn profile?
  7. Does the organisation associated with the conference have a website, does the website mention the conference? Follow up on links. Where do they take you?
  8. Is the layout and design of the programme a little patchy, amateur or contradictory. Google the first paragraph. Has the text been plagiarised? Read the programme. Are there obvious errors.
  9.  What indexing and storage service does the conference offer for the previous year’s presentations?
  10. Finally, are the terms and conditions associated with the conference fair?
    • Does the organiser reserve the right to change the venue?
    • Does the organiser reserve the right to change speaker/facilitator?
    • Does the organiser reserve the right to change programme content?
    • Does the organiser offer refunds, or do they offer a credit voucher?
    • Is the conference fee realistic? Do you believe that you will get value for your money?

This is my list. You are welcome to use it. For ed techies (and other professionals within this field), if you are going to participate in a conference, then  these events need to be arranged by people with a history. Speakers should have a critical/informed position on the subject, not just an impressive title. Presentations should be shared freely afterwards with those who were not able to make it.

Don’t get involved in predatory conferences,  they do not deliver the value they promise. These “dodgy” and opportunistic operators out there are bogus. They are sometimes difficult to spot. Don’t feed their growth. Check the quality and suitability of their “goods” before spending a lot of money on an inflated fee.  Let the conference attendee and speaker beware.

New mobile pathways to children’s stories

"Mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text"

“Mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to text”

In Sub Saharan Africa, progress has been made in pursuing the goal of universal Primary Education. However, the reading literacy levels of African children are far from adequate. A key obstacle to learning to read is the shortage of appropriate stories for early reading in languages familiar to the young African child.

UNESCO’s research has found that mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilized, pathway to literacy for children. Mobile devices offer new opportunities to access text for literacy development. Especially in Sub Saharan Africa, where millions of people do not have access to text, but do own a mobile phone

While young children do not own phones, their parents or caregivers have the opportunity to use mobile phones to read books and stories. Together with the Goethe Institut and local librarians, we are going to explore how librarians can assist their patrons to confidently harness the power of their own mobile phones and use their devices to read stories to children.

Split Happens. Goodbye

Game over

Game over. I blew the whistle.

Final whistle. Game over. Goodbye Wits. I’m a consultant now. Here’s my ‘split lit‘ tale.

I arrived in Johannesburg in 2010, just as the Soccer World Cup  was about to start. Jozi seemed golden and Wits, I thought, was ready for the change game. The Elearning, Support & Innovation Unit (eLSI) under the leadership of Prof Derek Keats, DVC of Knowledge and Information Management (KIM), had been formed. Chismaba was ready. A new “tech savvy” elearning strategy heralded a new set of tactics.

Fast forward five years, and playing field had changed. Johannesburg was parched, in the midst of a heatwave, water supplies were diminishing. Change was no longer a players game. #Feesmustfall students had taken the vice chancellor hostage and were marching their anger to the Union Buildings. Most of eLSI management (apart from me) dispatched, and merged  under the Centre for Learning Teaching and Development (CLTD) “directorate”, who had unceremoniously dropped “Support & Innovation” from the eLearning unit’s name.

Innovation, by its nature, involves both failure and success. As a team, eLSI had both. We launched Sakai, we saw growth in uptake and budding change. But were unable to sustain the momentum, mainly because of an ill advised re-deployment of the software development team. I blew the whistle but it didn’t stop the game. My departure from the field was as a result of a brutal tackle. I should have packed up my boots. Quit earlier. I’m a consultant now with many tales to share.

#Feesmustfall and differing digital capabilities

#FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilised to disrupt

#FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilised to disrupt

The past two weeks of #FeesMustFall protests have demonstrated how digital networks can be utilized to disrupt higher education here in South Africa. While it may be premature to compare this movement to the Arab Spring, it is quite clear that students, with their data and cell phones, are sufficiently capable to use digital media to mobilise other students, university management and government to pay attention to their demands.

#FeesMustFall has also exposed the different digital capabilities across the Higher Education spectrum. Student’s capacity to make use of digital media to amplify and enable their campaign stand in stark contrast with parliamentarians and higher education execs relative silence within the same medium. Over the last two weeks students, executives and politicians have repeatedly missed opportunities for communication and engagement via web 2.0 technologies and social media. Despite VCs and politicos having access to traditional and new media, communication units and infrastructure, they have not demonstrated that they are able to take advantage of these alternative modalities to connect and engage with students.

If ed techies are to learn and respond to this communication gap between students and executives, then we need recognize this as a digital capability issue, offer leadership and act. Here’s a golden opportunity to promote the use of learning technologies to address many of the any educational issues raised by students. But don’t ask Radio, TV or MOOCS to replicate one size-fits-all, undifferentiated and restricted 20th-century model of higher education in an electronic form. Ed techies need to be part of a conversation envisaging a future where ICT’s are able to offer a flexible and accessible education that can be tailored and customised for each individual.

James Hilton suggests that if we don’t want to miss the opportunity to redefine education for a world in which access to information, networks, and computation is ubiquitous, then we need to do the following (my paraphrase).

  • Embrace the duality of ICT. Digital is both a part of the infrastructure and a strategic asset. At present ICT is seen as a part of the infrastructure. This services delivered on this infrastructure are important, but administration and management is not its only function. ICT is also an innovation platform. The two are not competing with each other. They’re complementary roles.
  • Allow ICT to play an enabling role. We accept that universities are designed to foster innovation, to create an environment in which people research, share ideas and data and come up with something new. The role that communication technologies, computation, and networks play in enabling this innovation should be used to further the teaching and learning mission of a university.
  • Bring back the joy. There was a time when ICT was an enabling force on campus. This additional empowerment brought joy to many academic and student. It would be very easy to turn off the WiFi, restrict device usage and forget the joy associated with the network and become driven by fear. We need to retreat from the fear and reclaim the joy of learning and playing with ICT.

As our interactions between each other, what we are learning and what we are doing become more and more mediated by networks, we have the opportunity to build a global learning laboratory. Higher Education needs to take be invited to be part of this global learning laboratory and combine it with the scholarship of teaching and learning to begin looking for evidence-based practices about what works and what doesn’t work.

ICT can be used to enable an accessible and flexible education. Ed techies need to reclaim this audacious vision and promote a digitally capabilities right across campus, where all are encouraged and enabled to use ICT  to enhance and innovative and not only manage and control. If we are going to respond appropriately to #FeesMustFall, then we need to use this opportunity to rethink about our current use of ICT.

Facilitating Online

Facilitating Online image

Welcome to Facilitating Online

I’ve signed up for a five week Facilitating Online course run by Emerge Africa. Here’s why I’ve joined.

I’ve met some fabulous facilitators in a range of organisational settings. From young adults informally working alongside teens on an outdoor youth camps to expensive organisational development experts hired in by senior managers to in to assist run an important strategic planning event. These facilitators have been confident, wise, open, innovative, real and honest. They are inspiring people and I’ve enjoyed their company and admired their ability to work with others, and assist members of the various groups (whether they be youth or executives).

I also work online. I have a Masters in Computer Assisted Education and a 20 year track record in e-learning and I’ve worked with digital materials development (print, radio, multi-media, new media and electronic platforms, graphic design, HTML, audio, video, etc.) within a range of educational and developmental settings. I have hands-on expertise with learning design (lectures, courses, workshops and seminars), presentation and facilitation skills and significant project leadership.

So…I’m a fan of facilitation and a fairly seasoned online practitioner. But if I am entirely honest with myself, I am not yet able to integrate the two concepts – Facilitating and Online – and make them complement each other in a way that enhances the intended objectives. Regularly bridging this divide between facilitation and online is one of the reasons that I have an interest in the course – Facilitating Online.
During the course I expect to be introduced to

  • The guiding ideas behind online facilitation
  • Theories, methods and tools for the online facilitator
  • Exposed to how online facilitators steward and use the infrastructures available.

Ultimately, within any course, we are judged on the quality of our results. The problem comes with knowing when and how to measure quality. You don’t pull up a carrot to see how they are growing. Those facilitators that I mentioned earlier on that I admired, were capable of assisting a group articulate what they want and take steps towards those objectives. These are quantifiable results and I hope that with time and opportunity, I will also be able to claim such quantifiable results. Learning together as an organisation offers opportunities for a range of results that are not quantifiable to emerge. These results include innovativeness, openness, confidence, authenticity, care for the other. Those facilitators that I mentioned earlier on that I admired were also people that lived these qualities and these only became apparent only as we worked together. I hope that I and others on the course participate in the online facilitation experience, that the course will also offer opportunities for these non quantifiable qualities to emerge.

Facilitating Online image

Welcome to Facilitating Online

An edugroan about our eduroam

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KIMComms announces eduroam

Eduroam (education roaming), the secure world-wide roaming access service developed for the international research and education community, made my life in Boston such a breeze. Normally navigating appointments and offices on an unfamiliar campus is challenge but when on MIT & Harvard’s grounds, blanket wireless coverage allowed me, a South African visitor, to find my way around, check email and remain in touch with home, simply by opening my iPad and connecting once to their service.

In October 2013, I was very pleased when CNS announced that Wits had officially joined Eduroam. I’d noticed Eduroam occasionally appear as a wireless option and the October announcement confirmed that Eduroam was officially here. Occasionally eLSI hosts a guest on campus and usually they request Internet Access. Normally arranging guest access is a logistical mission that requires the user to almost sign their life way. With the availability of Eduroam, I thought we had passed into a new era of internet accessibility .

Sadly, as the year passed, I discovered that my optimism was misplaced. The Wits installation of this service was either not available or working, both for Wits staff and our academic guests. Every time I referred guests to Eduroam, the service did not work. Repeatedly I highlighted this problem to CNS when we had from visitors from the University of Groninen, UCT and Rhodes. Each time my query was ticketed, but assurance was given that the service was fine and the problem lay with the other universities authentication.

The ability to access WiFi seamlessly across multiple campus networks without a manual login is a massive plus

  • Wits does not have to manages or provision guest accounts
  • Visitors from participating institution only use their institutional credentials
  • Wits users can travel to other Eduroam institutions and gain seamless access to Guest WiFi

One of the first things I do when arriving on a campus is to join the internet, courtesy of freely available Wi-Fi. I’m not a unique in this behaviour. More than 42% of mobile-phone traffic, and over 90% of tablet traffic travels by Wi-Fi Sadly, we have not got this service right at Wits yet and we cannot offer a seamless internet access experience.

Putting the laptop / tablet debate before the horse

tablets vs laptops

tablets vs laptops

The debate between tablets (iPads and others) or laptops is a discussion that gets to the heart of the intention to use ICT. But before we re-launch the great laptop vs tablet debate, and cost out the budget required for equipping student with tablets or laptops, a department that wants portable computing devices for students should stop quibbling about the merits of each device and  start with clearly articulating how academics and students intend to use this device in their context. I’ve made an attempt to pen a few questions to assist a department ascertain what experience they envisage when their students and staff use devices.

In a teaching and learning context,  portable computing devices should be used for:

  1. Exercises and practise
  2. Informational dissemination and retrieval
  3. Class administration and management
  4. Collaborative work amongst students
  5. Data entry, storage and processing
  6. Initiate a range of engagement opportunities designed to support learning intentions
  7. Promote autonomous learning
  8. None of the above

Portable computing devices, in teaching and learning, positively impacts on:

  1. Student motivation
  2. Student achievement
  3. Students’ higher order thinking skills
  4. Student’s competence in 21st century skills
  5. None of the above

Students will be expected to access the following content on their own  portable computing device:

  1. Professionally marked up content
  2. Content that has been purchased from a commercial publisher
  3. Content supplied by the department
  4. Content that has been authored by peers
  5. Content that is licensed as an Open Educational Resource

Our department envisages academics leveraging these portable devices to:

  1. Offer their students access to course related information, readings & resources
  2. Offer opportunities to deliver multimedia
  3. Offer opportunities to use web 2.0 tools for learning activities (blogs, portfolios, OERs)
  4. Offer opportunities to practice blended learning

In the past two years, academics in our department have undertaken professional development in the following:

  1. Introductory courses on commonly used software or applications provided by general trainers
  2. Advanced courses on particular software or applications provided by specialists
  3. Courses that require use of multimedia
  4. Equipment-specific training
  5. Courses that focus on the pedagogical use of ICT in teaching and learning
  6. Subject-specific training on learning applications
  7. Participation in communities of practice about the use of ICT for learning and teaching
  8. Other professional development opportunities related to ICT

It’s not about the device in your hand — it’s about the experience that the technology can provide. The job of the department is to articulate the vision that goes along with the technology. I’m not talking about rephrasing the universities mission statement and describing how devices can fit this vision. A well-articulated statement needs to make the intention behind the purchase of the device clear and describes how technology can help achieve this objective. The focus should not be on the tablet or laptop but what the device does for a student. Stakeholders within departments need to construct a detailed story of their future success with the device and how this choice will define what their department will look like over the next few years.