‘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.

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‘In the OERu, education is something that grows as it shares’ – an interview with Haydn Blackey

Further to my earlier blog post about the POERUP-OERu case study, and the highlights from my interview with Wayne Mackintosh, I would like to share a few highlights from my interview with Haydn Blackey. Haydn is Head of the Centre of Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the University of South Wales, and is responsible for liaison between and the OERu (Open Educational Resources university).

Haydn Blackey (image from USW website)

Haydn Blackey (image from USW website)

The University of South Wales is the new name for the former University of Glamorgan, which recently merged with the University of Wales. They were the first UK university to take the innovative step of joining the OER university. (While senior leadership of UK universities has been watching the development of the OERu network with interest, their engagement has been characterised by a wait-and-see attitude and a concomitant reluctance to join the consortium. For a summary of the issues involved here, see my blog post from the TOUCANS project ‘UK HEIs and the OERu: Snog, Marry, Avoid?’ Since USW joined however, the Institute of Technology of Sligo in Ireland has also become an anchor partner, so this may be gradually changing.)

As in the interview with Wayne Mackintosh, the notion of widening participation in higher education is a central theme in Haydn’s responses to my questions. This is clearly a key principle for him on many levels – personally, from the perspective of his institution, and from a national perspective:

The purpose of the OERu is to make use of open education as a way to make a significant contribution to social change and development internationally, and I think what attracted our institution to the OERu… was that sense of giving back to the community, and … widening access… You know, we have eight times more widening-access students at our university than any other Welsh university does… That’s why… particularly in the context of Wales, where we have a Labour Party government which would be to the left of the Labour Party in England, [and] while we’re a small nation right beside a very large nation and so on… there’s a sense in which Welsh institutions are encouraged to take a much more egalitarian perspective on the engagement of learning and teaching than might be the case in a more market-dominated model, which might be more prevalent in England… The OERu is our route into a community of people who interact with those sets of values and context on an international scale rather than just on a local one.

Haydn elaborates on this point when I ask him whether the purpose of the OERu is clear to all members:

I think the institutions that are committed to [the OERu] are committed to it exactly because of that philanthropic contribution to the development of education that is genuinely open and is genuinely world-wide. I’m pretty certain they wouldn’t be putting their names against it without that.

And again when I ask him whether OERu members have any special sense of group identity:

I do think that the majority of people who are part of the OERu are… there… because of its value sets, that sit aside from the value sets around the venture capitalist approach to education. There is a view about education as something that grows as it shares in the OERu, which you don’t get the sense of from participation perhaps in other things which are more focused on what value you can gain… I think the OERu holds some of those values quite strongly, and people who belong would feel that they would want to be emoting those values.

One of the major contributions which Haydn sees the University of South Wales making to the OERu community is in terms of the sharing of their expertise in accreditation of prior learning with other consortium members:

Accreditation of prior learning, particularly learning that might have happened in the workplace, is something that we’ve built a whole raft of experience in. And as a widening access institution over the years … where we might have people who have over 30 years of experience but no qualifications beyond getting their school-leaving certificate … and so we’ve spent quite a bit of time and energy developing systems that accredit learning that takes place in employment, that accredit learning through flexible approaches which aren’t simply credit sharing in the kind of European Credit Transfer approach. And certainly in the dialogue that we’ve been having with the [OERu] network with that set of questions, when the wiki raised those, it was interesting to see that our contribution was actually quite a long way through that journey, where many of the American, Australian and New Zealand partners were beginning to explore the possibility, but it certainly hadn’t become part of what they already do.

If you’d like to hear more about the University of South Wales’ participation in the OERu, please see the full transcript of my interview with Haydn. Many thanks to Haydn for giving of his time to participate in this study.

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

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The OERu is smart philanthropy: interview with Wayne Mackintosh

As a member of the POERUP project team, I recently had the good fortune to interview Wayne Mackintosh, founding director of the OER Foundation and coordinator of the OERu OERu network, for a case study about this community. (For more about the POERUP case studies, please see my earlier blog post.) In this post I will share a few highlights from the interview.

Wayne Mackintosh (by Jane Nicholls: CC-BY)

Wayne Mackintosh (by Jane Nicholls: CC-BY)

The first theme that runs through the interview is the fact that the OERu is fundamentally a philanthropic initiative, and that it aims to widen participation in higher education:

The purpose of the OERu is to provide free learning opportunities for any student in the world who wants access to tertiary education, using courses which are solely based on OERs, with the option to acquire a formal assessment services from any of the OER anchor partners, which would typically be offered on a cost-recovery basis.

The second strand running through the interview is the link that Wayne makes between this philanthropic underpinning, the identity and cohesion of the OERu community, and the likely sustainability of its activities:

We are first and foremost a philanthropic collaboration. What we are aiming to do is to widen educational opportunity through the agendas of social inclusion or the missions of community service of our individual partners, and that is central to what we are doing. We are a philanthropic initiative, but it’s smart philanthropy in that the lessons learned from our members through being part of this network can be ploughed back into the mainstream delivery on their own campuses. But the core identity is one of widening access to education using OERs… One of the top reasons for our partners joining the network is one of widening access, and for us that is the core differentiator from any of the open online course initiatives that are out there. We are philanthropic and that’s the reason why we will succeed. In short, we don’t have to figure out how to pay back 20 million dollars of venture capital.

And further, on the subject of sustainability:

The OERu, since its inception, has been designed for sustainability. In terms of fiscal sustainability without reliance on third-party donor funding, we are 60% towards achieving our breakeven threshold, so we only need to recruit an additional 15 partners to be self-funding. But at that point the model becomes extremely interesting because with any additional partners above the breakeven threshold, we have money to reinvest in the commissioned development of OER university courses, and… there will be an incentive mechanism built into the system. So for example, you could have a scenario where the institutions that have completed their two-course contributions will get voting rights on where the money is spent on developing the next courses. And there’s no way that a Coursera or Udacity would be able to compete with that model economically.

Wayne’s dedication to the OERu concept filters through his every utterance, and considering the time (by his own admission, roughly 80 hours per week) and effort he clearly puts in, it was very encouraging to hear him say:

This is the most rewarding experience of my entire career. It’s a return to the core values of education and to share knowledge freely. At the heart of every educator is this passion to share knowledge; it’s [given me] the ability to share this passion. You know, working openly we can achieve great things. It’s been the most rewarding experience. I wouldn’t change it for the world!

If these few quotes have whet your appetite for more from this inspiring thought leader in open education, you can read the full transcript of the interview with Wayne Mackintosh.

Thanks again to Wayne for participating in this study.


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

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Three compelling voices from the OER university: a case study

As part of the POERUP project, I have been given the enjoyable task of conducting a case study of the OERu (OER university). The OERu is a global, post-secondary education consortium that currently has 26 member institutions in Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, India, Spain, South Africa and Fiji (representing 12 Pacific Island nations). These institutions are collaborating to offer OER-based learning and accreditation to adults globablly on a mass scale, targeting individuals who would not be able to afford to participate in mainstream higher education. Member organisations pay an annual membership fee and contribute OERs and expertise to the network. The OERu will formally launch on 1 November 2013. (If you are unfamiliar with the OERu concept, you might find this 2-minute video helpful.)

The OERu case study is one of seven being carried out by the POERUP team in different OER contexts. The lead partners on the case study for POERUP are colleagues from the Open University in the Netherlands, who are making use of their considerable expertise in Social Network Analysis to facilitate our collaborative work on this task. The aim is to identify good practices associated with communities or networks of practice around OERs and to disseminate this information to the global open education community. The case study included three interviews with members who have different roles within the OERu community: Bernard Nkuyubwatsi (a volunteer), Haydn Blackey (an academic from the University of South Wales, one of the member institutions, and the institutional link person between that university and the OERu), and Wayne Mackintosh (founding director of the OER Foundation and coordinator of the OERu network).

In the mini-series of blog posts that follows, I would like to share a few highlights from these interviews. The full transcripts can be found here:

Interview with Wayne Mackintosh

Interview with Haydn Blackey

Interview with Bernard Nkuyubwatsi

These three very engaging voices make for compelling reading, and I would like to thank Wayne, Haydn and Bernard for giving of their time and sharing their knowledge with us.

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

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