‘As I was contributing, I was learning’: an interview with Bernard Nkuyubwatsi

In this post I will reflect on the third of the interviews I carried out with OERu community members, as part of the case study for the POERUP project. (For background information, see my earlier blog post, ‘Three compelling voices from the OERu: a case study‘.) My interviewee this time was Bernard Nkuyubwatsi, a colleague at the University of Leicester’s Institute of Learning Innovation, where he is doing his PhD on the subject of open education, and someone who has engaged with the OER university in a voluntary capacity over the last few years.

Bernard Nkuyubwatsi (photo by Gabi Witthaus, CC-BY)

Bernard Nkuyubwatsi

The thread running throughout my interview with Bernard was the sense of his burning quest to facilitate access to higher education for people in his home country, Rwanda, through open educational resources. Bernard’s interest in this area stems from his personal experience as a student:

When I talk about openness … I refer back to my own experience. The way I gained entry to my undergraduate education was sort of through openness. They (the National Examination Centre in Rwanda) accepted non-formal learners to come and sit for national exams – the same exam that was given to formal students. Then after that, they didn’t base their decision on whether you were a formal or non-formal student. They based it on your results in the exam. So that kind of giving a chance to people who did not have a chance to go to formal school, I think people should have that opportunity, really.

According to Bernard, fewer than 4% of the population of Rwanda are able to participate in Higher Education. In order to enable access for greater numbers of learners, Bernard sees the potential value of OERs and massive open, online courses (MOOCs), but as he points out, the obstacles inherent in this route are considerable:

First of all, we need to know there’s a divide, if you like a ‘digital divide’. It’s not only in the OERu. There are people who have access to the Internet, and people who don’t have access.  People who have access will be able to benefit from them. And those people who don’t have access, I think they will stay behind. That’s what I see. And there are some limitations. OERu can contribute to providing educational opportunities to people who have access to the Internet maybe but don’t have access or don’t have a lot of money to pay for expensive schools, so it can help them learn cost-effectively.

We discussed possible ways of supporting those individuals who do not have access to the Internet. I suggested to Bernard that if there was an institution in Rwanda that had access to the internet, and could get suitable materials (for example from the OERu) and make them available to the students in printed form, that might be a solution to the problem. His straightforward answer here was:

Yes, if you did it that way, that would work. Using other media, not being restricted to the Internet, that would work.

The key here is the recognition that, while initiatives like the OERu have the potential to offer education to learners on a mass scale, many learners in the developing world will still remain out of reach of such interventions unless a local provider steps in to provide the physical and technological resources necessary. (The question of digital literacy skills is probably closely tied in here.) This may seem like an obvious point, but it fundamentally increases the challenge for individuals who wish to make a difference in less well resourced societies, something that Bernard was well aware of, and seemed undeterred by. When I asked him if his aim was to go back to Rwanda and build something open there, his response was optimistic:

Yes, that would be wonderful! It’s not always easy, but I’m very hopeful because, as I was saying, when you see there is aspiration there, and financial resources are limited even on the part of government for financing schools, so there’s a need to find alternatives to provide an education for people.

The real highlight of the interview for me was where Bernard talked about the social learning he had experienced in the OERu:

Well, it was like, if I say open, but open in which sense?! … First of all, it was flexible. I was not required to join the community, but I joined and I contributed. I was not asked by anyone to contribute. I contributed when I felt, oh I have something to contribute. So I did not have to force myself to write something, as for example, in the case of classes where you have to write something because you are required to. So, that kind of freedom to contribute when you have something. And that’s what I would call original or kind of natural learning, the learning that comes from me as a learner. But also as people were discussing, they were high professionals… as I was contributing, I was learning sometimes. And when I contributed, people came and they responded to my ideas, challenging my ideas and challenging some other people’s ideas, and that’s the kind of learning I enjoyed, you know participating in the community. And I think that’s where I have been able to really kind of create a, not network, not only create it but maintain it, because I’m still connected with them.

An elegant description, I think, of the kind of learning that the OERu is intending to promote for learners when it launches later this year.

Many thanks to Bernard for taking the time to have this very inspiring conversation with me. (The full transcript of the interview is available here.)

Blog post written by Gabi Witthaus for the Institute of Learning Innovation at the University of Leicester.

CC-BY licence

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