Open Educational Resources: One solution to a more literate Africa?

By: Masennya Dikotla

Open Educational Resources: One solution to a more literate Africa?
Masennya Dikotla

A shift to remote learning and teaching in 2020 wasn’t easy for South Africa. One of the main roadblocks was connectivity: many students lacked affordable access to the internet to participate in virtual classrooms. In response, educational institutions started offering data packages and even zero-rating online resources – meaning students could access them without needing or using any data.

Zero-rating is a great solution. But teachers soon discovered another problem. Not all books and learning content can be legally shared online. Where it can, it often carries stringent copyright and licencing terms, making it difficult for teachers to access in full, or adapt for their own teaching purposes. As a result, teachers and students are left with a limited pool of resources.

The rise of Open Educational Resources

Remote learning in schools is unlikely to catch on as much as remote working has. Physical classrooms will remain much as before the COVID-19 pandemic. But this doesn’t negate the need for or growth of online resources. Digital materials enhance learning and make more content available in areas where learners can’t afford or access printed textbooks – only 21% of schools in South Africa have a functional library.

To make more resources freely available online, Open Educational Resources (OERs) are on the rise. These are teaching, learning and research resources that are available in the public domain, which can be used for free and repurposed by others, in any setting. OERs can include anything from full courses to textbooks, videos and tests.

OERs in South Africa

The benefits of OERs are particularly relevant for a country like South Africa. As Laura Czerniewicz, Michelle Willmers and Cheryl Hodgkinswon-Williams so aptly argue: “In addition to providing a means through which to address issues related to cost and the lack of access to materials, the democratised authorship approach entailed in many forms of OER production is conducive to collaboration and peer-to-peer knowledge production.”

Access and affordability aside, OERs can be adapted, modified, revised and translated by anyone with access. This opens the gateway to the creation of more culturally sensitive and relevant learning material. High quality learning materials can be adapted under local context and translated into local languages, enhancing their accessibility in more ways than one.

The importance of mother tongue learning

Time and time again, research has shown that children learn better in a language they understand better. While our Constitution and policies advocate for mother tongue learning until Grade 3, coupled with development of English as a first additional language, implementation in schools isn’t following suit.

Too many African children still have English as a medium of instruction first, and mother tongue to the exclusion of mother tongue – not even as a subject. The result is a comprehension crisis. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) found that 78% of Grade 4 pupils fell below the lowest level on the scale. Our country ranked last in the 50 countries surveyed. Children are struggling to understand what they read. While there are many contributing factors to this, a lack of comprehension is no doubt influenced by learning in an unfamiliar language.

Before more teaching can take place in mother tongue, however, teachers and students need greater access to high quality, meaningful local language resources. There simply aren’t enough – and it’s here where OERs can play a role.

The Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy, as an example, has created Vula Bula – a series of books, early graded readers, vocabulary posters and resources for teachers. Each resource is available in all 11 official South African languages and can be downloaded for free on a zero-rated website.

On board with OERs, but more collaboration needed

The government of South Africa has shown support for the concept of OERs, predominantly at university level. In 2017, the Department of Higher Education and Training strongly recommended OER as a means of sharing quality learning materials.

More can and should be done, however, including at the Foundation Phase. Studies show that mother tongue learning is most impactful until Grade 4, with new recommendations to extend to Grade 6. To support this, we need to encourage more content creation, sharing and collaboration, so that the volume of locally produced resources available online can grow.

About Masennya Dikotla

Masennya is the CEO for The Molteno Institute of Language and Literacy – a non-profit organisation that exists to help African children develop literacy, through local language content and the training of teachers. Masennya took on the role in 2004, after working as the Deputy Education Director for RTI International.

Under Masennya’s leadership, Molteno has grown from strength to strength, transitioning into a service provider of choice for government departments and key donors. Between 2008 and 2013, during a particularly challenging time, he diversified and expanded revenue by 10%. He also enhanced Molteno’s position on the global stage, building relationships with the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, UNISA, Rhodes University, the University of Pretoria and more. In 2011, Molteno was invited to join the Minister of Basic Education on an educational trip to Washington, D.C, and again to an All Children’s Reading Conference in Rwanda in 2012. The same year, Masennya led Molteno to sign the Oxford Literacy Declaration – a document that worked to break down barriers and promote greater literacy worldwide. And in 2014 and 2020, he led Molteno to win UNESCO’s Confucius Literacy Award and Al-Sumait Prize for Literacy respectively.

Most recently, Masennya guided the organisation through the 2020/21 COVID-19 pandemic, transforming Molteno into a dynamic organisation that shifted from face-to-face training to remote coaching compliant with lockdown conditions.

Masennya’s heart has always been in education. He began his career as a teacher, quickly moving through the education ranks from the classroom, to the provincial office, to the high office in a province. Across his various roles, he has engaged with education both at micro (classroom) and macro (policy making) levels, working with senior managers of public and private sector companies. As an Executive Director and CEO, he leads fundraising initiatives and manages relationships with various funders, education departments and schools.
He’s driven by a desire to improve the literacy levels of South African children, since nothing brings him more joy than seeing a little child able to read.