Skip to the Main Content

Note:These pages make extensive use of the latest XHTML and CSS Standards. They ought to look great in any standards-compliant modern browser. Unfortunately, they will probably look horrible in older browsers, like Netscape 4.x and IE 4.x. Moreover, many posts use MathML, which is, currently only supported in Mozilla. My best suggestion (and you will thank me when surfing an ever-increasing number of sites on the web which have been crafted to use the new standards) is to upgrade to the latest version of your browser. If that's not possible, consider moving to the Standards-compliant and open-source Mozilla browser.

August 25, 2010

Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

Posted by Tom Leinster

Over the years at the Café we’ve talked a lot about the exploitative practices of certain commercial publishers, and the virtues of free, openly-licensed texts. Here’s your chance to contribute to the open textbook movement.

Free High School Science Texts is

a project that aims to provide free science and mathematics textbooks for Grades 10 to 12 science learners in South Africa.

The texts are openly licensed, so can be adapted and used anywhere in the world.

It was started by physicist Mark Horner (then a grad student in Cape Town), who is supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation — Mark Shuttleworth being the South African entrepreneur who donated millions of dollars of his fortune to Ubuntu and other free software projects.

For reasons I don’t understand, Free High School Science Texts suddenly needs a lot of proof-reading done fast. I just received a copy of an email from Horner beginning

Hi guys

I’m in a completely crazy position—the textbooks will be distributed by national government next week if we can do another round of proof-reading of them all by Wednesday [1 September].

If you have a postgraduate degree in math, physics, chemistry, or a related field, they want your help. Here’s what to do:

  1. Have a look at Horner’s calls for help: yesterday and today.
  2. Send an email to the address mentioned in the second link, so that you can be assigned a section to read.

That’s it!

Posted at August 25, 2010 9:57 PM UTC

TrackBack URL for this Entry:

11 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

Just a thought: is there a way to post this on mathoverflow? That would reach a lot of people fast…

Posted by: Peter on August 25, 2010 10:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

It’s an idea, and I agree that it would reach a lot of people fast, but I think it would be an abuse of MathOverflow. I know Kevin Buzzard once had a question there requesting errata for the Cassels and Fröhlich book, but this seems a step too far.

They don’t actually need many people:

We have 1800 pages to read and we estimate that we need at least 6 people for each of Maths, Chemistry and Physics to complete the process.

I mailed them a couple of hours ago volunteering to do some. It would be nice to be involved; it’s such an excellent idea.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 25, 2010 11:12 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

Fair points. I hadn’t read the details as to how many people they needed.

Posted by: Peter on August 26, 2010 3:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Twitter Trackbacks
Tracked: August 25, 2010 11:22 PM

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

For anyone hesitating about doing this: it’s a breeze.

I mailed them last night and got a nice reply first thing in the morning giving me a chapter to proof-read. It was only 8 pages, so it didn’t take long. You submit your edits through a web tool. Easy.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 27, 2010 12:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

Do you get frequent updates/corrections out of the blue?

Posted by: jim stasheff on August 27, 2010 12:09 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

I didn’t know anything about this project until two days ago, when I posted this post. It’s as new to me as to everyone else here.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 27, 2010 12:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

Thanks for putting this up Tom. I got an email this morning about it (I hadn’t seen your post yet). I’ve also volunteered now and I sent an email to my colleagues.

As you say, we’re going through a tough public services strike at the moment. Education wise it only affects less than 20% of schools but they are the poorest schools, so it’s a problem.

I haven’t actually read the math and science textbooks yet! But they’d have to be pretty bad to be worse than the current crop of textbooks we have…so I’m all for the Shuttleworth Foundation free textbooks plan.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on August 27, 2010 10:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

I read about that strike. I hadn’t appreciated at first that part of the purpose of these books was to allow students to educate themselves even while the strike’s on. I guess that’s one reason for the hurry.

The chapter I proof-read was fine. Of course, the joy of open licensing is that if parts aren’t fine, people can just improve them.

When you say “the current crop of textbooks we have”, is there a nationally-determined set of school texts?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 27, 2010 10:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

When you say “the current crop of textbooks we have”, is there a nationally-determined set of school texts?

No, I think schools are free to select the textbooks they want (in line with the curriculum!). In maths I think Classroom mathematics is pretty popular. But I think for a number of reasons the teachers (and to an extent the textbooks themselves) have been more-and-more forced to promote a “this is the formula for solving a problem like this” approach. I guess it’s the same all over the world.

In SA, it’s been exacerbated by the fact that they did away with “Higher grade” and “Standard grade” maths in high school, and replaced it with “Mathematics” and “Mathematical literacy”. The trouble is that, while most people should actually be doing “Mathematical literacy” (which has a nicely designed curriculum - maths for everyday life after school), it is seen as a “lower-grade” subject and so the outcome has been that there has been a huge increase in the amount of people doing the “Mathematics” course (which replaced “higher grade” maths). I quote from a 2008 report from Umalusi, the official examinations watchdog:

Second, the original research questions were based on the assumption that learners participating in the two subjects are similar or comparable. This assumption was not necessarily true, as what were probably the majority of learners enrolled for Mathematical Literacy would not necessarily have taken up Mathematics at all. Historically, approximately 60% of Senior Certificate learners enrolled for Mathematics; approximately 9% of the Senior Certificate candidates registered for Mathematics Higher Grade and 51% at Standard Grade level. The remaining 40% of the Senior Certificate candidates did not register for Mathematics at any level (see Department of Education annual reports on the Senior Certificate exams, for example, Department of Education 2006 and 2007).

The NSC requires learners to enrol for either Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy as one of their seven subjects. Based on figures supplied by the Department of Education (Vinjevold, personal communication, September 2008), it was anticipated that approximately 53% of the 2008 NSC Candidates would be writing Mathematics, and 47%, Mathematical Literacy. Rather than learners who had historically registered for Mathematics Standard Grade subsequently registering for Mathematical Literacy, it appeared that the vast majority of these learners had registered for Mathematics. It was estimated that only roughly 14% of the learners registered for Mathematical Literacy would historically have attempted some form of Mathematics (Higher or Standard Grade) at all. In other words, over 85% of the current NSC Mathematical Literacy learners would historically probably not have attempted any form of Mathematics as part of their Senior Certificates.

So, the “Mathematics” course has to cater for a huge spectrum of learners, and I guess the only way to cope is to present the material in a formula-based way, and to extensively “coach” the learners for the tests and exams.

The other trouble is that for some strange reason, the government did away with teacher-training colleges a few years back (reasoning that it wanted people to go to university instead), with the upshot being that we have a big shortfall in training teachers (especially maths and science ones)! But there is hope, there have been some good noises coming out of the education department in recent times. All this is hot air of course; I’m an academic at a university and not actually involved in high school education (I do have quite a few teacher friends of course but no doubt I get things mixed up).

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on August 27, 2010 11:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

Thanks for putting this up Tom.

Dito, I had not heard about this project before, too, although it is exactly the kind of project I very much like to contribute to; I hope there is still some work left to do :-)

Posted by: Tim van Beek on August 30, 2010 8:43 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Free High School Science Texts Needs You!

I just got an email from these people again (I did some proof reading the first time round so they have my email address, and I said it was okay to contact me again). As it said:

If you know anyone else that may like to be involved and has a background in maths, please let me know!

I’m taking the liberty of posting the main bits of the email here.

It has been over a year since our last big edit of our free high school science texts, and once again we are calling on volunteers to assist us in reviewing our books!

We are in serious negotiations with the South African Department of Basic Education (DBE) to print our books for the entire country for the school year starting in January 2012, but before we can proceed we need to address all factual issues our books may have. We fixed all major issues that were found in our last review, but we are aware there may be more that went unnoticed. Unfortunately we are working to a very strict deadline once again, and we need to have this version of our Grade 10 Mathematics book reviewed by Friday 28 October ( latest Sunday 30 October!).

We are looking for factual accuracy and comments on style (we are also currently proofing for language and typo’s so we are aware there are some). We cannot reorder content as the current order is mandated by DBE.

I remember it being pretty straightforward last time, so I hope to be able to take a look at the chapter that they sent me. If anyone else has time this week to take a look, please email the coordinate Bridget Nash at

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on October 26, 2011 9:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Post a New Comment