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Mango Tree Literacy Lab’s innovative use of open licensing is solving textbook problems in primary schools

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Craig Esbeck, Director, Mango Tree Literacy Lab

Mango Tree Literacy Lab (MTLL) is a registered Ugandan non-governmental organization (NGO) that believes African children have the right to read, write and engage with ideas in a language they know and understand. Our mission is to promote reading, writing, teaching, and publishing in African languages through innovative projects and enterprises. Mango Tree’s llaboratory' is the Lango Region of northern Uganda, and 'laboratory' is part of our name for a reason. We aspire to work side by side with government to ensure successful implementation of innovative education policies, making mistakes and learning within the constraints of real-world challenges.

Over the course of our ten years of work in Lango, MTLL has developed over 100 books for children in Leblango, both primers and ability-levelled storybooks. Over a half-million of these books have been distributed to children in Lango through project funds. Despite this accomplishment, we knew that for sustainable development, we needed to support a local language publishing market so that natural distribution channels for reading materials could be established in the region. With assistance from Neil Butcher & Associates, we were able to experiment with off and online sales of children’s storybooks, and through this project we engaged local vendors to sell these storybooks. (See the project case study here.)

MTLL has been working in the Lango Sub-region on literacy issues since 2010, but in 2017 we focused our efforts on supporting the implementation of the Ugandan government’s new national literacy model for early primary. Developed with funding from USAID, Uganda now has pupil primers and teacher’s guides for teaching literacy in twelve local languages (including Leblango) and English for grades one through four.

One issue that we immediately identified is the challenge of maintaining an inventory of usable pupil primers. The national literacy model was designed so that each child would have their own primer during instruction. By the time we began working with schools in 2017, some schools were in the fourth year of using the same primers for Primary One. Not surprisingly, the condition of the textbooks was alarming.

Mango Tree asked our project schools to complete an inventory of their current textbooks for the national literacy model. In districts that had been using the pupil primers since 2014, the average number of books still in usable condition was only 42% of the original consignment by government. This made it difficult for teachers to follow the lesson plans as outlined in the teacher’s guide and also called into question the sustainability of the national literacy model over the long-term.

The classroom environment and culture are also important contributing factors to the deterioration of textbooks. Many classrooms in Lango are overcrowded, especially in early primary. Even though the policy of the Ugandan government is to prioritize early primary with the best classrooms and teachers, this is rarely followed. Teachers have not been trained in efficient methods of distribution, collection and storage of books, nor do they know how to teach children how to handle books properly. The parents’ role in supporting children’s ability to respect and care for books has also not been addressed.

MTLL began working with teachers and head teachers on establishing a proper textbook management system.  We also began to explore how the open licensing of national literacy materials could be harnessed to print additional copies for schools with insufficient numbers of usable primers. Because the textbooks were developed with funds from USAID, the pupil books have a Creative Commons BY licence. This licence lets others distribute, remix, adapt, and build upon the work, even commercially. The only stipulation is that the original creator is properly credited.

Our positive experience with using CC BY licensing to enhance the number of primers illustrates how open licensing can contribute to learning in a real-life context. A full accounting of our experience can be found in a case study published on the Early Literacy Resource Network, but here is a brief summary.

Before moving forward with inexpensive reprints of these primers, we decided to consult with Uganda’s National Curriculum Development Center (NCDC).  We shared our plans with NCDC and requested their institutional approval, but it never materialized for numerous reasons that are discussed in the case study. 

Nevertheless, we knew what we sought to do was legal and served the larger interests of the Ugandan government. We went ahead and printed copies of the Primary One primer in an adapted format. Instead of one big book, we divided it into three smaller books, one for each term of the academic year. Although not formally approved, we continue to update NCDC on the progress of our open licensing experiment.

The cost for printing one pupil primer was about $0.36. We sold the book to our vendors at about $0.42 and they resold them to their customers at $0.56. Mango Tree also sold the books directly to head teachers for the vendor price. In total, 2,286 pupil primers were sold over a six-month period. An additional 7,000 local language storybooks were also sold during the project cycle. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped sales just as word-of-mouth about availability of the books was beginning to catch on.

These numbers may seem small given the enormity of the problem, but considering this was a first attempt to develop a distribution system for marketing local language books in a rural Ugandan context, MTLL and our education partners in the region are enthusiastic about exploring the potential of this initiative going forward.

MTLL’s efforts have increased children’s access to government mandated reading materials and shifted some of the costs of production downstream to parents and head teachers. The format of the book was also adapted from one large textbook, to three smaller books that receive significantly less wear-and-tear in a given year. With time, as more and more families realize the benefits of purchasing the textbooks for their children, this initiative has the potential to empower teachers to improve instruction through more active parental engagement in literacy instruction.

The challenge of maintaining adequate textbooks in Ugandan primary schools is complex and requires multiple strategies. Mango Tree remains committed to making our contribution through the development of effective tools and training on textbook management at the school-level to serve as a model throughout the country. We also want to continue to experiment with open licensing of both government primers and locally developed storybooks. As an education laboratory and idea incubator, Mango Tree is committed to sharing our results and resources freely. Open licensing allows us to do so, while maintaining a connection to our work through appropriate attribution.

For further information or questions about our work, please contact me: cesbeck@mangotreeuganda.org.

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