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UNESCO OER Recommendation

UNESCO members states unanimously approved the OER Recommendation on November 29, 2019. It is the first international normative instrument to embrace the field of openly licensed educational materials and technologies in education and builds on almost two decades of UNESCO work on OER.

The Recommendation pinpoints five essential areas of action to build and sustain a worldwide OER ecosystem:

  1. Capacity-building;
  2. Developing supportive policies;
  3. Effective, inclusive, and equitable access to quality OER;
  4. Creation of OER sustainability models; and
  5. Use of international cooperation to foster OER.

 

UNESCO will publish guidelines on these five action areas in early 2023.[1] This communication is about action area three—effective, inclusive, and equitable access to OER—which touches on all five areas. We are focusing on areas one to three from the list below.

What does effective, inclusive, and equitable access to quality OER mean?

UNESCO’s list is quite broad:

  1. Ensuring online and offline technical access;
  2. Supporting OER stakeholders to develop gender-sensitive, culturally, and linguistically relevant OER, particularly in under-resourced and endangered languages;
  3. Ensuring that the principles and programmes are in place for gender equality, non-discrimination, accessibility, and inclusiveness;
  4. Ensuring public and private investments in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and providing increased access to OER, particularly for low-income, rural, and urban communities;
  5. Incentivizing the development of, and research on, OER; and
  6. Developing and adapting existing evidence-based standards, benchmarks, and related criteria for OER quality assurance.

 

The UNESCO guidelines will discuss and analyze this and the other action areas in detail; this article provides examples of innovative ways that OER is being used in educational systems from basic to tertiary education to ensure effective, inclusive, and equitable access to quality openly licensed content.

Policies and implementation

There are some institutional and national policies on technical accessibility, which are reported on in the forthcoming UNESCO guidelines. Policies on gender, culture, and language are less entrenched. In some African countries, there are policies in place to use local languages in teaching through grade three or four.  However, a lack of sufficient content, appropriate teacher training, and public attitudes that favour English or other colonial languages, makes implementation difficult.  In Kenya, for example, the implementation of mother tongue education policy: [2]

'is likely to flop if it is not supported by careful implementation strategies that take care of teacher training, the production of teaching/learning materials and attempts to change the attitudes of parents towards indigenous languages.'

In Sierra Leone, the politics of language complicate policies in favour of learning in local languages: [3]

'People are looking at it like, if you are literate in mother tongue, what will you eat? Will it get you a job? Are you even considered literate?'

The UNESCO OER Recommendation requires governments to report to UNESCO annually on their progress in meeting the Recommendation using an accepted list of criteria. Governments will begin reporting in 2023. Progress in meeting all of the action areas in the OER Recommendation will be known as reporting continues, including this action item on accessibility, inclusion, and equity.

Online and offline technical access

According to the Recommendation, all content created for the Internet, whether it is used online or offline, must meet certain technical standards to ensure that resources can be accessed by the visually, hearing, or otherwise impaired individuals

In a 2021 briefing paper co-published by UNESCO and the United Nations Partnership on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNPRPD), the organizations identified six barriers to accessible OER for people with disabilities or those who are underserved in education: [4]

  • Languages used in the creation of resources (particularly for English language learners) and the readability level; [5]
  • Images, charts, and figures which are instrumental to the text, however, do not include alternative text; [6]
  • Multimedia such as video, which does not include transcripts or closed caption; [7]
  • Lack of access to digital technology for learning; [8]
  • Poor assistive technology compatibility with OER; and [9]
  • Locating appropriate OER resources can be difficult. [10]

Figure 1: CUNY accessibility logo

The City University of New York (CUNY) in the United States has created an OER accessibility toolkit to assist librarians, faculty, staff, and developers meet some of the challenges enumerated by UNESCO and UNPRPD. [11]  It does not address problems associated with languages, for example, or locating accessible OER resources.

The toolkit contains information on:

Creating Accessible Content: Tips on how to create accessible Word documents, PDFs, images, videos and other multimedia.

Platforms: Which OER platforms are accessible? What are the pros and cons of each one?

Evaluating your OER site: Determine if your site is accessible and see how to fix issues on your site.

Voluntary Product Accessibility Templates (VPATs): Collection of VPATs from various vendors to see relevant information on how a vendor’s product or service claims to conform to IT standards for people with disabilities. (Section 508 Standards in the US Rehabilitation Act).

The University of British Columbia in Canada has published a similar open education toolkit, which is far more detailed than the one produced by CUNY.

There may be a disjuncture in how different authorities determine what is entailed in accessibility.  UNESCO includes language, gender, and culture in the OER Recommendation.  CUNY, UBC, and other universities examine the technical aspects of accessibility, but not the broader societal issues that also impact on the ability to people to use content.

Much has been written about accessibility policies and there are clearly excellent toolkits available, but it is not always easy to identify accessible OER to support diverse learners. Accessible OERs are not readily apparent on relevant hubs and in Google searches. This appears to be an unmet need for anyone who wants to adapt existing content that is already accessible.  In an interview with University World News, Kesah Princely, a blind PhD student in conflict resolution at the University of Buea in Cameroon, outlined some of the accessibility problems he and other students face: [12]

'The challenges are quite enormous. The library is inaccessible to blind students because there are no books in Braille, nor are there audio recorded materials. Infrastructure-wise, it is also not accessible to people in wheelchairs. Some of these students with disabilities are not even aware of the school library, just because things are not well explained to them.

Also, the curriculum is not well designed to suit learners with different abilities. It becomes very difficult for us with visual impairment to comprehend some key courses, especially those which have to do with images. Photojournalism is an example. In other areas, like mathematics and diagrams, the lecturers lack the requisite skills to explain the concepts to learners with visual impairment.'

Gender, cultural, and linguistically sensitive OER

Below are some instances on how gender, culture, and language intersect with content and its use. Not all the examples are openly licensed, but they provide ways to ensure that inclusion is an essential consideration. There is nothing to stop you, the reader, from modelling your efforts on the ideas given in these examples and using an open licence.

Gender

Use of the Internet and other technologies are now essential, for education and much else. UNICEF reports the disparities between the sexes both as users and designers of technology:

'There is a gender digital divide: girls are disadvantaged when it comes to digital adoption, have lower levels of access to and use of digital technology than boys, and often they are not benefitting from digital technology in the same way as boys.'[13]

The UNICEF office for East Asia and the Pacific therefore produced a toolkit of best practices, to support innovators, designers, and implementers of digital products and services, to benefit girls and young women equally and help close the gender digital divide.

Figure 2: Blowing bubbles and writing code at Girls Code Africa

The Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) puts ideas about gender-based best practices and training to work. WOUGNET, which partners with many different international organizations, including UN Women, has a mission of promoting the use of ICTs by women and girls for gender equality and sustainable development. There are also many programmes to teach African females of different ages how to code, such as the African Girls Can Code Initiative and Girl Code Africa.

Programs carried out by WOUGNET and the ones to teach girls coding, empower females with the kinds of skills they require in their work and studies.  WOUGNET focuses on adult women in training, technical support, networking, and advocacy to empower women.  Its workshop on digital security training, for example, showed how social media platforms can be misused to the detriment of women’s safety [14]. Coding is important for a number of reasons.  According to the British organization, Funtech, girls who learn to code improve in math, writing, and creativity.  Coding also offers girls admission into a variety of tech careers. [15]

Openly licensed digital story platforms, such as African Storybook and StoryWeaver, have numerous stories promoting the roles of girls and women. StoryWeaver has a special section for middle readers on challenging gender stereotypes, which includes a boy who is mocked because he wants to dance and a girl who lifts weights.

Culture and language

In 2019 UNESCO celebrated a Year of Indigenous Languages and marked this effort by releasing the Los Pinos Declaration in 2020. In this document and elsewhere, UNESCO integrates culture and language with several key principles including:

'Centrality of indigenous peoples – ‘Nothing for us without us’, according to the principle of self-determination; the right to use, develop, revitalize, and transmit languages orally and in written forms to future generations which reflect the insights and values of indigenous peoples, their identities and traditional knowledge systems and cultures; the equal treatment of indigenous languages with respect to other languages; and the effective and inclusive participation of indigenous peoples in consultation, planning and implementation of processes based on their free, prior and informed consent right from the start of any development initiative as well as the recognition of the specific barriers and challenges faced by indigenous women, whose identity, cultural traditions and forms of social organization enhance and strengthen the communities in which they live.' [16]

Initiatives that focus on the use of mother-tongue languages sometimes also incorporate gender into their efforts. In 2016, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning reported on one such instance on maternal health, literacy, and language. In Bolivia, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport worked in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund to implement a bilingual literacy project in reproductive health. The project was instituted in response to high levels of illiteracy and high maternal and infant mortality rates among poor people, particularly those from indigenous populations. It employed a gender-based approach and primarily targeted women. Learning was conducted in both indigenous languages and in Spanish. This bilingual approach is vital because it helps learners to comprehend the issues covered, while drawing on the learners' experiences and cultural sensitivities. This initiative was then implemented in Paraguay, Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Guatemala, with coordination and support from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL/ ECLAC). [17]

In Canada, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous Services Canada works collaboratively with partners to improve access to high quality services for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Resources on the platform have been created by the Public Health Agency of Canada, Indigenous Services Canada, and various Indigenous organizations, with a vision to support and empower indigenous peoples to independently deliver services and tackle the socio-economic conditions in their communities. COVID-19 awareness resources are available in English, French, and languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of Canada. [18]

Turning to the youngest learners and nascent readers, Dorcas Wepukhulu of African Storybook explained the importance of using local languages and familiar images as follows:

'For children’s literacy material to be equitable and inclusive, it must be appropriate for the child’s context and age, with images that make sense to the child and support the meaning of the written text, it must also be available, accessible and affordable. With technology and open licensing, ASb aims to get storybooks to every child learning to read, in a language that is familiar to them; with content that speaks to their interests, and experience.' [19]

Interconnections and complexity

The UNESCO OER Recommendation is about creation and utilization of openly-licensed content.  This action area on accessibility, inclusion, and equity addresses the underlying issues that are necessary to both produce and use OER.  Governmental policies and implementation are critical to the success of the Recommendation if it is to have benefit. Some areas are technical, but others impact on cultural assumptions, towards language, for instance, or girls’ education.  The complexity of action item three is therefore notable.


References

[1] Guideline authors include OER experts in the action areas covered by the UNESCO OER Recommendation and listed in alphabetical order: Tel Amiel, Javiera Atenas, Melinda dela Peña Bandalaria, Neil Butcher, Lisbeth Levey, Ahmed Tlili, and Zeynep Varoglu

[2] MANDILLAH, Lucy. Kenyan curriculum reforms and mother tongue education: Issues, challenges and implementation strategies. Educ. as change [online]. 2019, vol.23, n.1 [cited  2022-11-18], pp.1-18. Available from: <http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1947-9417201.... ISSN 1947-9417.  http://dx.doi.org/10.25159/1947-9417/3379

[3] “Mother tongue won’t help you eat”: Language politics in Sierra Leone. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345815874

[4] https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000380471

[5] Rets, I., Coughlan, T., Stickler, U., & Astruc, L. (2020). Accessibility of Open Educational Resources: how well are they suited for English learners? Open Learning, 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680513.2020.1769585 (This journal requires a subscription to access articles or a fee of $47 for purchase.)

[6] Coolidge, A., Doner, S., Robertson, T., & Gray, J. (2018). BCcampus open education: Accessibility toolkit (2nd ed.). https://opentextbc.ca/accessibilitytoolkit/

[7] Ibid.

[8] UNICEF. (2021). Responding to COVID-19: UNICEF annual report 2020. https://www.unicef.org/media/100946/file/ UNICEF Annual Report 2020.pdf

[9] Zhang, X., Tlili, A., Nascimbeni, F., Burgos, D., Huang, R., Ting-Wen Chang, Jemni, M., & Mohamed, K. K. (2020). Accessibility within open educational resources and practices for disabled learners: A systematic literature review. Smart Learning Environments, 7(1), 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40561-019-0113-2

[10] Anderston, T., Doney, J., Hendrix, B., Martinez, J., Stoddart, R., & Wright, M. (2019). The five laws of OER: Observations from Ranganathan. Journal of Librarianship and Scholarly Communication, 7(1), https://www.iastatedigitalpress.com/jlsc/article/id/12846/

[11] CUNY OER accessibility toolkit, last updated 2021. https://guides.cuny.edu/accessibility/home

[12] Njie, Paul. (2022). All students must learn about inclusive education – Activist. University World News. https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=202211161601561

[13] https://www.unicef.org/eap/innovation-and-technology-gender-equality

[14] https://wougnet.org/website/news/newsingle/70

[15] https://funtech.co.uk/latest/why-should-girls-learn-to-code

[16] https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/los_pinos_declaration_170720_en.pdf

[17] https://uil.unesco.org/case-study/effective-practices-database-litbase-0/bilingual-literacy-and-reproductive-health-bolivia

[18] https://www.sac-isc.gc.ca/eng/1586548069915/1586548087539

[19] https://www.earlyliteracynetwork.org/blog/how-do-we-ensure-quality-equitable-and-inclusive-education-all-early-literacy-qa-part-3-3

What's New

Why might you want to publish your research in an open access journal? Open access journals use Creative Commons licences, which lay out the terms under which they can be used and distributed. Although most open access journals are highly respected and entirely legitimate, there are scores of journals that can be classified as ‘predatory’; they prey on the unwary who want to publish or to read a reliable article.

Introduction: Why is open access publishing beneficial to academics?

Why might you want to publish your research in an open access journal? Open access journals use Creative Commons licences, which lay out the terms under which they can be used and distributed.  All Creative Commons licences require full attribution.  Open access can benefit scholars because wider access to their research, enhances visibility and citations.[1]

Figure 1 shows some of the possible benefits of OA publishing, many of which are relevant to researchers around the world, including those in Africa.

Figure 1: Benefits of open access publishing

What are predatory journals?

Most open access journals are highly respected and entirely legitimate. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists more than 20,000 journals, many without an author processing fee:

Figure 2: DOAJ coverage[2]

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in South Africa includes the DOAJ journals amongst its list of accredited journals. Academics, researchers, and librarians are sure to find a reliable open access journal on the DOAJ database or any of the others that DHET lists.[3]

Even so, there are scores of journals that can be classified as ‘predatory’; they prey on the unwary who want to publish or to read a reliable article.

What is a predatory journal?  In 2019, a group of legal experts and publishers agreed on this definition:

"Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices."

Though it might seem straightforward, there are so many forms of predatory practices that this group of specialists had trouble agreeing on a definition to describe how predation manifests itself.[4]

Experts [5] believe that there are now more than 15,000 predatory journals, which promise:

  • Peer review with a fast turnaround time.
  • Low author processing fees—low in comparison to some of the top tier journals, but high in terms of what authors get for their money.
  • Online publication and visibility.
  • Indexing in platforms such as Scopus and Web of Science.

Figure 3: How to spot a predatory journal[6]

OER Africa has a free online tutorial on open access publishing, which includes suggestions on how to verify a journal’s legitimacy.[7] There is also a discussion in Open Knowledge Primer for African Universities on the ways in which DOAJ tries to ensure that the journals in its database are legitimate.[8]

All researchers are under pressure to publish to keep their jobs and become eligible for promotion. The pressure on African scholars is increased because they cannot afford the high publication fees some journals charge, and some may not be familiar with the steps necessary to evaluate journals.

Two researchers are quoted in a 2022 article in the Africa Edition of University World News to illustrate the dilemmas facing African scientists who must publish but have neither the funds to pay the APC costs of top-tier journals nor the knowhow to discern the legitimate from the predatory.[9]

One scientist, Euclides Sacomboio of Agostinho Neto University in Angola, had two articles published in disreputable journals. His preference would have been high-impact journals, but, as he told University World News:

"I earn US$500, and the article processing fee in reputable journals is about US$2,180. Where do I get the money without any support?"

Sacomboio added:

"To me, it was important to share my data. Worse, it was difficult to choose [where to publish] because some of these journals we call predatory have peer review processes."

The second scientist, Moses Samje of the University of Bamenda, Cameroon and a member of the African Academy of Sciences Chapter of Affiliates, was also taken in—this time because the journal’s focus was on research like his and because of the journal’s allegedly high impact factor. Samje said:

"The impact factor was quite attractive. It was too good to be true … We had to try and we submitted a paper and, in the space of 24 hours, they [the publishers] asked for the processing charge, which was getting way more affordable. In less than 48 hours, we received an e-mail [saying] our paper was online. I was quite excited."

Samje subsequently went online and discovered that the journal’s peer review process was not as it seemed; he believes that the journal is a sham.

‘Plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing’

The noted bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, wrote those words in 2015 and called predatory journals ‘polluting journals.’[10]

Although the points in figure 3 elucidate the major ways to identify a predatory journal, there are two additional strategies they employ. Predatory journals are noted for accepting plagiarized articles and those that have already been published elsewhere. Even though predatory journals may report that they check for plagiarism, they typically don’t.

A 2018 blog post in the Indian newsletter, The Wire, succinctly described the situation in India and gave examples. The authors wrote:[11]

"Fake journals and plagiarism in academics go hand-in-hand. The lack of peer review and a complete absence of quality checking provides a safe channel to publish plagiarised articles. It is therefore no coincidence that along with fake journals, almost all academic fields have also seen an epidemic of plagiarism."

Sometimes plagiarism is intentional; other times it is the result of a researcher’s lack of expertise on what the concept means.

It isn’t always easy to find specific examples of plagiarism. Science Integrity Digest is one source of information. In 2020, it reported on a clear case of plagiarism in which the work of the OstrowskiLab was stolen and published in a predatory journal.[12] In 2019 in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, authors wrote about numerous instances of plagiarism in three predatory nursing journals.[13]

In South Africa, Professor Nicki Tiffin, a former researcher at the University of Cape Town (UCT) found that not only had she been plagiarized in a predatory journal, but her name had been stolen too.[14]

Unwary researchers are also trapped because some predatory journals have titles very similar to those of reputable journals. The three journals in the figure below all have similar titles but the similarity ends there.

What's in a name?

The first journal, Plant Physiology and Biochemistry is published by Elsevier, a reputable scientific publisher. The second, Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Physiology, is published by Longdom Press. Note it has phone numbers in Great Britain and in Spain and a registered address in Brussels. The journal is not included in any of the major indexing services that have quality controls, such as Web of Science, Scopus, or PubMed. The third, Journal of Plant Biochemistry & Physiology, is published by Omics, a publisher that was sued by the US Federal Trade Commission for predatory practices and ordered to pay a fine of more than $50 million.[15]

How to help researchers distinguish between the fake and the real

Above, we outlined several ways to determine legitimate journals from predatory ones. The two OER Africa publications we cited offer detailed help to students, researchers, and librarians.

Intellectual property rights, plagiarism, and referencing are taught in the Use of Libraries or embedded in the Use of English course, which is an integral part of the compulsory General Studies (GS) for first year students in Nigerian universities. However, the effect of the course on students has been found to be minimal.[16] Traditionally, African academic libraries run library orientation activities for new students. This window of opportunity could be widened to include provision of information packs or tutorials (online and physically) on information literacy, copyright, and plagiarism issues (including an introduction to plagiarism detecting software), as well as information about predatory journals.

Figure 4: AfLIA poster for use in libraries

Academic libraries can play an important role in raising awareness to the need to be wary of predatory practices.  But universities as a whole should be engaged in preventing staff and students from falling prey to these journals. They can list the open access journals for which academics associated with their institution can use for purposes of promotion, tenure, and contracts.  The DHET site discussed above would be a good place start.  Supervisors can advise their PhD students about conducting a literature review without including predatory journals.  Sarah Elaine Eaton of the University of Calgary wrote the following about the need of universities to support their students and academics against predation: [17]

"There are implications for mentors of graduate students and early-career stage academics, as well as for institutions as a whole. The issue of questionable conferences and publications is so complex that early-stage academics require support and mentorship to cultivate a deeper understanding of how to share their work in a credible way."

Dr. Eaton’s statement is valid around the world, particularly in circumstances such as Drs. Sacomboio and Samje described—insufficient funds to pay fees and insufficient guidance within the institution.


[1] See Sharing Africa’s knowledge through openly licensed publishing for more information on open access. https://www.oerafrica.org/content/sharing-africa’s-knowledge-through-openly-licensed-publishing

[3]See https://www.up.ac.za/news/post_3048195-the-department-of-higher-education-and-training-2022-accredited-journals-

[4]Grudniewicz, A., Moher, D., Cobey, K.D. et al. (2019). Predatory journals: no definition, no defence. Nature, Vol. 576: 210-212. Retrieved from https://media.nature.com/original/magazine-assets/d41586-019-03759-y/d41586-019-03759-y.pdf

[14] Simon, N. (2023). Protecting research integrity from predatory journals. University of Cape Town. Retrieved from https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2023-11-09-protecting-research-integrity-from-predatory-journals

[17] See Sarah Elaine Eaton’s Resource Guide Avoiding Predatory Journals and Questionable Conferences. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED579189.pdf

 

Education systems around the world have traditionally been characterized by closed knowledge systems, overly prescriptive curricula, narrow conceptions of success, and a failure to fully empower teachers as facilitators of learning. A recent paper by Neil Butcher & Associates argues that a key reason for these issues is that many education systems are inhibited by complex policy environments that, likely unintentionally, impede learning and create educational closure.

Image courtesy of Michael Anderson, Unsplash, Unsplash licence

Education systems around the world have traditionally been characterized by closed knowledge systems, overly prescriptive curricula, narrow conceptions of success and achievement, and a failure to fully empower teachers as facilitators of learning. This inhibits their ability to develop a full spectrum of human learning capabilities amongst learners, especially in their formative schooling years. A recently published paper by Neil Butcher & Associates (NBA) argues that, while there may be various reasons for these issues, one critical problem is that many education systems are inhibited by complex policy environments that, most likely unintentionally, impede meaningful learning and create educational closure.

Education policies often create new rules that accumulate over time, giving rise to inefficiencies and unnecessary constraints that do not support (and often obstruct) learner success. One manifestation of policy complexity within education systems is the growing granularization and rigidity of the formal national curriculum, which has led to the proclivity to use standardized testing and high-stakes examinations as a proxy for learner success. This complexity has also eroded autonomy for teachers, constraining what they can do in the classroom and increasing the tendency to ‘teach to the curriculum’ (or, worse even, to the examination). Standardized testing and high-stakes examinations have also increased anxiety and tension amongst learners, parents, and teachers, who perceive a false equivalence between test performance and success in later life.

The paper argues that despite the diverse nature of education systems around the world, many share a common problem of complex policy environments. Increased use of standardized testing models and resulting curriculum rigidity does not lead to better quality education but can have a deleterious effect on learner achievement. As complexity filters down into the classroom, another consequence is that the teachers who are tasked with delivering curricula are increasingly constrained and disempowered by these central policies. The consequences of this are far reaching as they emphasize rigidity and closure in knowledge acquisition, leaving little space for substantive learner-teacher engagement, contextual adaptation, and discovery.

In response to these challenges, we can use the principles of open learning as a tool to reflect on policy complexity in education systems, including the extent to which a policy environment is facilitating openness or promoting closure. A useful mechanism to tackle policy creep and ensure that education systems are geared toward a broader definition of learner success is to adopt and systematically implement the concept of openness within education systems, which begins at the policy level. Prioritizing openness offers significant opportunities for teachers and learners to reclaim what happens in the classroom and become more engaged members of society.

Integrating open learning principles into policy discourse would be a step forward in reducing unnecessary complexity and closure within education systems.

 

African languages are vastly underrepresented in the global knowledge pool, even though scholars at Harvard University believe that Africa is home to about one third of the world’s languages. This week, we delve into how Artificial Intelligence can assist with African language representation, and some of the challenges therein.

Much has been written about Artificial Intelligence (AI), mainly in English, including by OER Africa.[1] English is the predominant language on the Internet, in research and publications, and in education.  African languages are vastly underrepresented in the global knowledge pool, even though scholars at Harvard University believe that with between 1,000 and 2,000 languages, Africa is home to about one third of the world’s languages.[2]

Artificial intelligence (AI) can play an important role in mitigating these language challenges. Already, international search engines, such as Google, play a large role in using AI to translate English into African languages and vice-versa. Efforts are constrained, however, by the paucity of documents on the web written in most African languages. Additionally, networks of African researchers have become actively engaged in looking for ways to increase the data on the web in African languages, including documenting scientific terms in the African languages where no such terms currently exist. Such data will then be available for use by AI to improve access to African languages. Importantly, they are trying to grow the field of African AI researchers by building networks and finding AI language technology solutions.  

Many of us think about Google Translate when we want to understand what has been written in a language that we do not understand. Google Translate is now supported in 25 African languages: Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Bambara, ChichewaEwe, Hausa, Igbo, Kinyarwanda, Krio, Lingala, Luganda, Malagasy, Oromo, Sepedi, Swahili, Sesotho, Shona, Somali, Tigrinya, Tsonga, Twi, Xhosa, Yoruba, and Zulu. Several of these languages are spoken across borders. The good news is that the number of them keeps increasing. The bad news is that there does not seem to be any one place to ascertain which African languages are covered; this can only be determined through searches within Google Translate. Furthermore, Google Translate uses machine translation, which is mostly accurate, but not entirely.

The Nigerian linguist, Aremu Adeola, uses an interesting example about why context matters in many languages, including Yoruba:[3]

"Most translations done by machines render some words wrong, especially words that are culturally nuanced. For example, Yorùbá words ayaba and obabìnrin have their meanings situated in a cultural context. Most machines translate both words as queen. However, from a traditional-cum-cultural vantage point, it is essential to note that the meanings of ayaba and obabìnrin are different: Ọbabìnrin means queen in English while ayaba is wife of the king.’"

Using AI as a translation tool is not straightforward. Most AI tools:[4]

"Rely on a field of AI called natural language processing, a technology that enables computers to understand human languages. Computers can master a language through training, where they pick up on patterns in speech and text data. However, they fail when data in a particular language is scarce, as seen in African languages."

The South African science journalist, Sibusiso Biyela, gives an excellent example of just how difficult it can be to make scientific discoveries understandable and relatable in African languages, such as isiZulu.   Biyela was given an assignment to write about the discovery of a new species of dinosaur, Ledumahadi mafube in isi-Zulu.  He explained:[5]

"But there’s no word for “dinosaur” in Zulu. Nor are there words for “Jurassic,” “fossilization,” or “evolution.” Despite the fact that Zulu—or isiZulu, as the language is called in South Africa—is spoken by some 10 million people, it simply doesn’t have the words for communicating science.

So my news piece wasn’t just a news piece. It was an attempt to tell a science story in a language that science overlooked—to help right a societal wrong. It was a small contribution among an increasing number that aim to help decolonize South African science writing. And it was rife with more pitfalls than I could have imagined. The task of describing science clearly, concisely, and accurately—already challenging in English—became exponentially more difficult in my native tongue."

At the end of his article, Biyela gives a lexicon of some of the English-isiZulu scientific terms that he used. Biyela uses technology joined with his expertise in science for his work on conveying scientific terms from English to isiZulu. He was one of the partners in Masakhane, which is discussed below.[6]

The underrepresentation of African languages online makes it more difficult to use AI as a translating tool because computers have trouble identifying datasets with which to work. Several organizations are trying to mitigate this challenge, among them the Masakhane Research Foundation. Masakhane is collaborating with the African scientific preprint server, AfricArXiv,[7] to find a way to translate the papers that AfricArXiv receives into African languages.

Masakhane is a grassroots natural language processing (NLP) network that was formed for NLP research in African languages, for Africans, by Africans. The Masakhane community consists of:[8]

 ">1000 participants from 30 African countries with diverse educations and occupations, and >3 countries outside Africa. As of February 2020, over 49 translation results for over 38 African languages have been published by over 35 contributors on GitHub."

Masakhane has a trial translation page, but the translation results do not always match those of Google Translate. For example, ‘kisukuku’ is how ‘fossil’ is translated in Google Translate. ‘Mabaki ya Wanyama’ is the translation given by Masakhane. (Most online translations use kisukuku).

Figure 1: What is the correct translation?

These efforts are just getting started. If Africa is going to join the global knowledge pool, its languages must be represented too. Both AfricarXiv and Masakhane welcome volunteers; there are other such organizations that would also appreciate assistance.

And for those who are interested in the interrelationship between AI and library and information studies, the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions (AfLIA) will host a webinar on this topic on 25 October 2023. Visit the webinar’s information page for more information.


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References and attribution

[3]Lost in Translation: Why Google Translate Often Gets Yorùbá-and Other Languages-Wrong. Aremu Adeola. Rising Voices. 20 November 2020. https://rising.globalvoices.org/blog/2020/11/20/lost-in-translation-why-google-translate-often-gets-yoruba-and-other-languages-wrong/

[4] A roadmap to help AI technologies speak African languages. 11 August 2023. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/08/230811115430.htm

[5] Decolonizing Science Writing in South Africa. Sibusiso Biyela. 12 February 2019. https://www.theopennotebook.com/2019/02/12/decolonizing-science-writing-in-south-africa/

Image at the top of the article courtesy of albyantoniazzi, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA