AFRICA: Low-cost academic e-books project to scale up

An initiative to deliver low-cost, high-quality digital publications to universities in the developing world will scale up to serve 27 countries worldwide, starting in Sub-Saharan Africa. Deals involving major discounts have been reached with academic publishers, and pilot projects have run in three countries. But it is not as simple as making resources available, says Angus Scrimgeour of the International Association for Digital Publications, IADP.

"We thought it would be enough to get the price right and tell academics and universities that publications were available. We did that - and nothing happened," says Scrimgeour, IADP president and a former Vice-president of the World Bank Group.

"We found we also had to tackle cultural issues and matters such as availability of computers for students and computer literacy." Projects further needed institutional buy-in, academics to be motivated and new learning materials to be developed, among other activities.

The UK-based IADP was launched in 2004, aimed at providing students and academics in developing countries with low-cost access to e-books and at supporting the identification, development and use of open educational resources, OERs.

The affordable access project, says the IADP, was made possible by the plummeting costs of computers, expanding access to information and communication technologies, growing use of e-learning and e-publications and "a new willingness of publishers to embrace differential pricing with low cost, high volume economic models".

Pilot projects were run in three countries. The first provided e-books to groups of students at universities in South Africa, in order to develop systems and processes to deliver digital publications to students in developing countries.

The programme, implemented locally with the support of the South African Institute of Distance Education (SAIDE) and Neil Butcher Associates, was positively evaluated by the British Council in 2008.

That was also the year the IADP achieved consensus among a core group of publishers for discounts of between 45% and 85% for a group of countries. This includes a fee of 15% of net sales for the IADP.

More projects were conducted at the University of Botswana and the University of Malawi, providing digital publications to students and staff and promoting the development of OERs into quality, locally relevant learning materials and courses.

"We are now poised to scale up," Scrimgeour told University World News. "We plan to extend to 27 countries in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Provision for the next few years will be in Sub-Saharan Africa.

"We are hoping to achieve something like 70% to 80% of the available relevant e-book resources. Trying to get the last bit would be almost impossible, although we will respond to specific requests from academic staff."

The IADP concentrates on particular fields - especially health and teacher education, but also agriculture, social work and the sciences - where it has been possible to identify high quality resources. These are also fields where it believes the initiative will achieve the core objective of improving the training of people working to support poor communities.

Important lessons were learned from the pilot projects. "We had some successes and some failures," says Scrimgeour.

Delivering digital resources was successful, for instance, when students were postgraduate and fully computer literate, and were able to get texts and reference books when needed. It failed when assumptions were made about willingness and capacity to access and use what was available: for example, in one case students were not computer literate.

"We now understand much better what is needed."

Usually e-book systems, Scrimgeour points out, "require students to have credit cards, but in the developing world often they don't. Students must get online easily, but often they can't. We had to develop a process that involves academics, libraries, financial departments and others, to fully support the new system."

Another key lesson was "the huge degree of asymmetry between universities and also within universities. A crucial part of a successful system is a proper needs analysis, and then working out appropriate solutions", he adds.

Yet another lesson was that many universities, for historical reasons, do not have a strong reading culture. "Changing that culture is very much part of the IADP objective. We do this through curriculum design and pedagogy. We have found we get a good response if reading is a requirement of getting a degree, if it is built into the coursework."

"Also important is using a mixture of copyrighted e-books and open education resources - an holistic approach that draws on high quality reference material and also develops courseware adapted to be local and relevant," says Scrimgeour.

"All these things are at grassroots, where publishers tend not to be involved."

To succeed, the pilot projects also revealed, an e-publications system has to be supported at all levels of an institution, and advocacy is required at the governmental level and with donors. Students need access to computers, and to know what is available and how to get it.

"Importantly, a community of practice will be not sustainable unless everybody benefits. Those who are providing the resources and ideas also need to receive. Academics are busy and are under pressure to do research. They need to be given time to develop and adapt open education resources, and they need recognition for this work."

The initiative focuses on institutions where the IADP has good contacts - "we would rather offer an holistic and comprehensive system to a small number of institutions, than a narrow offering to everybody" - and it is underpinned by 'communities of practice', networks of academics who engage around e-publications and open learning resources.

"We are careful not to recommend certain publishers, but help to build a community of practice so we can get feedback from academics about what works and what does not," says Scrimgeour. "This informs academic staff of the resources out there, and provides other people's experience of these resources."

Following extensive consultation, work will soon be completed on a new e-book selection and procurement system, designed in collaboration with its partner universities and specifically developed for application in developing countries, especially at the university level.

The procurement system facilitates differentiated discounts at the level of the university, so universities in different countries will pay a different price for publications, depending on their position in the United Nations Human Development Index.

"But the focus is on universities that are the least well endowed and have the least resources and lease ability to access publications," Scrimgeour stresses. "The initiative is targeted at the greatest need."

* Publishers who support the affordable access programme include: CABI, Cambridge University Press, Elsevier, Juta and Company, McGraw Hill, Palgrave Macmillan, Pearson Education, Taylor & Francis,Van Schaik, and Wiley-Blackwell.

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