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South Africa

In the Spirit of Openness

By Lindsey Gumb, Instructional Technology Librarian

If you’ve read any of my articles here on the library’s blog, you may have noticed a theme of openness.  I’ve been interested in this movement for the last several years and have worked hard to nudge Roger Williams University in the direction that the rest of the world seems to have already moved.  Local support for open education and open educational resources (OER) is finally gaining momentum, but I knew that in order to best serve RWU, I needed a broader perspective and deeper understanding of the topic aside from the overstated “what is OER and why should we encourage faculty to incorporate it into their curriculum” spiel.  So in early March I journeyed to Cape Town, South Africa to attend the 10th annual Open Education Global conference.  Every year the conference hosts an intimate international gathering of minds to share new research, practices and theory behind the movement of open education.  This conference provided me with exactly what I was looking for: a fresh outlook on the research of open education that pushed beyond the tangible financial savings to students.   What I had hoped would be an informative and “worthwhile” few days abroad turned into the most inspiring week of my life.  The friends who I met at and outside of the conference and the experiences we shared together  will not soon be forgotten.  This blog post will give you a brief insight into both my personal and professional experiences, because without one the other would have been far less substantial.

 

After flying 13 hours to Ethiopia and then another 8 to Cape Town, I found myself standing at the gate of my beautiful Airbnb nestled among the tropical coastline. I was renting a room in a large house in Bantry Bay and after ringing the bell was welcomed with open arms (quite literally) by the housekeeper, Ronel, a beautiful woman with kind eyes and a shy smile.  Ronel and I immediately hit it off and shared a cup of delicious tea on the balcony overlooking the splendor of the Atlantic Ocean.  I was exhausted from my trip, but the two of us spent hours sharing story after story, evoking laughter and tears over the struggles and joys that bond all of us together in this world, regardless of race, class or geography.  She reflected on the harsh realities of growing up as a black woman during Apartheid, about the daily emotional and physical abuse from her ex-boyfriend that led her to miscarry 4 children before she was even 25 years old, and how most recently the South African government has denied her Congolese husband re-entry into the country because his ID expired while he was teaching out of the country: it’s been three long years of separation.  The racial injustices, heartbreaks, and disappointments this woman has endured in her 60 years is enough to break a person’s spirit, and yet she perseveres – no, she flourishes.  This one cherished evening that I spent with Ronel set the tone for my week abroad and encouraged me to push my normally introverted-self to engage with as many people as I could.  I wanted to experience more meaningful connections with strangers like the one I had just been privy to.  I went to bed that night pondering why I had to travel half way around the world to share such a personal experience with a stranger, when I could just as easily knock on my neighbor’s door.  Better late than never?

 

Carrying Ronel’s spirit and energy with me to the conference, I made it a point to introduce myself to others during all of the coffee and lunch breaks.  If you know me, being social in these situations is intimidating.  Not because I don’t like people, but because I’m an introvert, and while I love interacting with others, I tend to shy away from initiating conversations.  Peter was the first person I met.  While I was wandering around the Civic Center looking for the keynote session, I noticed a man with a similar confused and desperate look on his face.  “Are you looking for the keynote?” I asked.  “Yes!  Please tell me you can help me,” he replied.  I laughed and shook my head.  “I’m afraid I’ve been searching for the last ten minutes myself with no luck – I’m Lindsey, nice to meet you.”  Peter and I eventually found our place, but we also found a friend each other, and he introduced me to a number of fascinating individuals over the course of the week.  Such a mundane and humorous situation brought us together, but I know we’ll keep in touch forever.  I met Joe in the espresso line.  He was in front of me and we shared a quick, acknowledging smile.  At the cream and sugar station we met again, and I noticed him looking for a spoon. I reacted by handing him mine– accompanied by a big smile.  We talked throughout the break and I learned that he works for the UN, lives in Paris with his wife and boys, but that he was born in Boston and his sister currently works in Providence.  During lunch, I met Jasmine: a brilliant and friendly young woman who teaches Communications at Ohio State. I was inspired by her enthusiasm for teaching and learned that she had just written her first open text book.  That night for dinner, Jasmine, Joe and I ventured to the waterfront and had a delicious dinner under the stars and learned more about one another’s lives.  It was wonderful feeling so at ease with these two individuals who were strangers only hours before.  Each day afterward was similar in spirit: new adventures in learning and meeting interesting people from all over the world and being inspired by their stories.

 

Throughout the conference, I observed that while the United States is still heavily focused on the financial benefits of implementing OER, much of the rest of the world has moved on to identifying a deeper understanding of the intersection between pedagogy and OER.  It was interesting for me to hear the phrase “open pedagogy” used in nearly every presentation, because prior to my arrival in Cape Town I had only (maybe naively) been in tune with the dialogue about saving our students money as opposed to focusing on the pedagogical innovation that can accompany open resources.  I wouldn’t say that the US is “behind” the rest of the world but rather that our higher education system is structured so that we simply have different (financial) priorities at the moment.  After  some back and forth discussion with my fellow American veteran-conference attendees, I learned that they too noticed a shift in the dialogue from OER to open education practices (OEP), more so now than ever before.  It was fascinating for me to see where the potential lies in this movement, and how as an OER advocate I can encourage our local community to participate in manageable and meaningful ways now, regardless of what the rest of the world is doing.  Many invested in this community, such as Robin DeRosa argue that they “… don’t want to be part of a movement that is focused on replacing static, over-priced textbooks with static, free textbooks,” however, as one of my new acquaintances, Rajiv Jhangiani, said during his presentation, it’s all about knowing one’s audience (faculty) and engaging them in ways that will work for them and their students.  If that’s just adopting an open textbook right now and saving students money, then that’s a step in the right direction.  In my opinion, there is no defined right or wrong approach to this, and my role as a librarian and educator is to help guide faculty through the process of identifying and evaluating relevant content and resources that will best suit their pedagogy and the defined student learning outcomes!

 

I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to travel abroad to this incredible conference and incredible country, where I was able to coax myself out of my shell and meet so many wonderful people.  I came back inspired to redistribute the passion and energy I gathered in Cape Town to our own campus here at Roger Williams University.  My hope is that I can take steps to continue to interweave my personal experiences with the professional, because I truly believe that when we open ourselves to sharing experiences in our personal lives, it’s easier to translate that openness in our pedagogy, which in turn benefits our students.  Stay tuned for more of my involvement in this exciting movement!