Opening up access to knowledge

26 October 2018 | Story Kim Cloete. Photo Robyn Walker. Read time 7 min.
The seminar co-hosted by CILT, UCT Libraries, Disability Services and Postgraduate Studies to mark Open Access Week drew a full house of attendees.
The seminar co-hosted by CILT, UCT Libraries, Disability Services and Postgraduate Studies to mark Open Access Week drew a full house of attendees.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) joined institutions around the world in celebrating Open Access Week, which focuses on promoting open knowledge sharing, from 22 to 28 October. The event theme this year was “Designing equitable foundations for open knowledge”.

The aim was to encourage stakeholders to be intentional about designing open systems to ensure availability of inclusive, equitable and collaborative platforms that truly serve the needs of a diverse global community in accessing open knowledge.

“What open access enables is a freer exchange of how learning and teaching materials are developed and shared,” said Dr Glenda Cox, of UCT’s Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT).

She was speaking at a seminar co-hosted by CILT, UCT Libraries, Disability Services and Postgraduate Studies, titled “Designing open access foundations for social justice”, on 24 October.

Participants discussed a future in which students and academics are not bound by full copyright and can adapt content to make it more culturally relevant to South Africans and Africans.

The seminar also focused on making content more accessible to differently abled students, such as students who are blind or deaf, or those who have learning disabilities.

Students are often faced with having to buy very expensive printed textbooks, with content that is not geared towards the global south. But some exciting projects at UCT on free and accessible online content reflect a small but significant shift towards a more equitable future.


“What open access enables is a freer exchange of how learning and teaching materials are developed and shared.”

Open textbooks and relevant content

Cox described her research on “Digital Open Textbooks for Development” which she hopes to advocate for nationally.

“Open access is about opening up access not only culturally and politically, but also to differently abled students. It has huge potential for saving costs and for transforming the curriculum.”

She said various elements and materials could be used within open learning online, from video, audio and text, to quizzes.

She also stressed the importance of making content relevant. She said textbooks were often written from an American or European point of view, and used the subject of astronomy as an example.

“Our view of the stars from a northern and southern hemisphere perspective is very different. What we often see in textbooks is the northern perspective of the sky. We need to see our southern African perspective.”

Professor Caroline Ncube, from UCT’s Faculty of Law, said a move towards open access was in tune with a quest for equity, fairness and social justice.

The government’s National Development Plan as well as the White Paper on Post School Education and Training has set ambitious goals for education, innovation and training in South Africa, she said. Open materials that are created for teaching and learning and research will be key to this.

While technology opens up important gateways, it is also necessary to be able to print the materials, bearing in mind intermittent internet access for many people, she added.

“We need to make sure the material is open and equitably available.”

Equity, fairness and social justice

For students with disabilities, Ncube said, it is imperative to have audio and multimedia formats online, with subtitles for people who have difficulties with audio. Content should also be adapted for people with cognitive disabilities.

“For example, a text that has a lot of jargon should be translated into plain and simple language,” she suggested.

Student Zuleikha Abrahams, who is blind, described how she had struggled with printed textbooks and the inordinate amount of time it had taken to get them into a format which she could use to study.

Thanks to technology, which she called “a great friend”, her Job Access With Speech (JAWS) computer screen-reader program is able to read the screen either with a text-to-speech output or through a refreshable Braille display.

But the technology is expensive, so many students are unable to afford it.

“When I listen to the discussion here about how textbooks are adapting online, that is awesome. I have had to persevere and would like to pave a way for people not to struggle anymore,” she said.

Curriculum planning

Several speakers at the seminar said content should be adapted to make it culturally relevant, or alternatively, it should be crafted anew and be locally grounded

“This can only happen in a clear copyright framework where we have the right to adapt to these needs,” said Ncube.

Professor Penny Andrews, dean of Law, outlined her work in developing a constitutional law ebook in South Africa, which takes into account the needs of students, their legal-profession career paths and the 21st century skills they need to learn.

Apart from the traditional skills like sound judgement, attention to detail and persuasiveness that law graduates need, they also need to develop additional skills such as emotional intelligence and networking, project management and financial literacy.

“This is what we need to think about when we shape our courses and do our curriculum planning. We have moved away from the all-important lecturer on the stage.”

Andrews also said nobody should have to pay for a constitutional law textbook.

The 14-chapter ebook will challenge students on different levels, she said. Students will engage with state institutions supporting democracy, such as the Human Rights Commission and the Commission for Gender Equality. They will not only be assessed on the content of the law, but also on ways to challenge the Constitution.

“We have got to approach constitutional law with a vision for transformation and a need for curriculum change.”

Development in Africa

Representing UCT Libraries, Jill Claassen said African universities should be agents for economic growth and development on the continent. She said that 80% of knowledge created in Africa comes from Egypt, South Africa and Nigeria.

“UCT has the highest research output on the continent, therefore we should share its research for the public good,” she said.

“Sharing demonstrates UCT’s moral obligation locally, to the continent and globally, through access to its knowledge.”

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