North African, Arab nations in open access initiative

Ten North African and 12 Arab countries are to benefit from an initiative called the Open Book Project, which will provide universities with open access to high quality educational materials in Arabic, with a focus on science and technology.

The countries in North Africa are Algeria, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Somalia and Tunisia.

Despite rapid improvements in digital readiness in Arab states, which include 22 countries with a population of about 350 million – of which 70 million people are between the ages of 15 to 24, representing 19% of the population – adoption of e-books is still at an early stage in universities, as indicated in the 2012 Global Information Technology Report.

This is due to several challenging factors facing Arab states including limited internet penetration, challenges of piracy, issues related to the rule of law and censorship, and vast disparities in purchasing power, according to the March 2012 survey, What is the Biggest Obstacle to Arab Digital Publishing?

Internet World Stats has shown that only about 24% of the Arab population – which represents about 5% of the world population – use the internet.

Another challenge facing the take-up of e-books in the Arab world is technical issues related to the Arab language, according to a 2012 report Digital Publishing Growth in the Arab World: Slow, but steady.

To contribute towards solving problems facing the promotion of e-books in Arab education systems, the Open Book Project was launched by outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 28 January, just days before she left office.

It is a joint initiative between the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation, the US State Department and education innovators including Creative Commons, the Hewlett Foundation, the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, Meedan Meedan (the community for Arabic-English dialogue and translated current affairs), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare, the OpenCourseWare Consortium, and Rice University’s OpenStax College.

The Open Book Project will support the creation of Arabic-language open educational resources (OER), and the translation of existing OER into Arabic, and will disseminate them free of charge.

The resources will be released under open licences that allow free use, sharing and adaptation to local context. It is hoped that expanding access to these resources will help to create educational opportunities, further scientific learning and foster economic growth in the Arab world.

The Open Book Project will also offer training and support to governments, educators and students, to enable them to put existing resources to use and develop new OER, and will raise awareness of the potential of OER and promote the uptake of online learning materials.

“Our hope is to lower geographic, economic and even gender-based barriers to learning. Anyone with access to the internet will be able to read, download and print these open materials for free or adapt a copy that meets the local needs of their classrooms or education systems,” Clinton said at the launch.

"Now, we know it’s not enough to generate the right material. We have to work together to make sure it is connected to Arab educators, students and classrooms.

"I hope we can put a full year of high quality college-level science textbooks – biology, chemistry, physics and calculus – online, for free, in Arabic. And we also want to help Arab professors and intellectuals create their own open courses,” Clinton added.

Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of the City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications, in Alexandria, Egypt, welcomed the new initiative.

“The Open Book Project will provide a helping hand to online science and technology learning programmes, especially in Arab virtual universities, through transferring know-how about digital technology along with preparing technical workforces in the field of electronic publishing,” Abdel Al told University World News.