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Reflections on the past two and a half years of a collaborative African health OER project

Authors: Kathleen Ludewig Omollo (University of Michigan) and Monica Mawoyo (OER Africa)

One of the often touted benefits of open educational resources (OER) is that the associated Creative Commons licenses allow anyone worldwide to view, copy, adapt, and redistribute them. This does not, however, mean that an OER developed at one institution can simply be taken and used by colleagues at another institution, especially not one in another country, without any alteration. In an OER from the health sciences, for example, there may be differences in curriculum, clinical practices, cultural sensitivity in patient interactions, and the manifestations of certain diseases, particularly dermatological diseases, on light versus dark skin tones, to name a few. The context in which instructional materials are presented and delivered is of the utmost importance in a learner’s ability to make sense of and create meaning out of the instructor’s lessons. As such, the instructor must still play an active role in mediating how best to use available OER from other contexts to provide a high level quality education to the students in their particular context. The availability of OER therefore calls for new skills among instructors to select and adapt teaching and learning materials for their specific purposes.

OER have not been without detractors, least of all those who point that OER are not an altruistic undertaking. Along these lines, the OER movement has recently faced some criticism regarding content produced, attitudes, and interactions – or lack thereof – between OER initiatives in Western countries and those in developing countries. In his blog post “OERs: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” e-learning and distance education consultant Tony Bates wrote, “Some components of OERs also smack of hypocrisy, elitism and cultural imperialism…. [An institution should not] assum[e] you can just take content from one country and dump it into another, like giving away free coal.” While this is a useful and cautionary observation, it falls short of acknowledging how recipients of this content might not always embrace it uncritically, but would sometimes engage in skilful mediation to make the content contextually fitting. More importantly, the significant ways in which, if used critically and creatively, OER can open up knowledge for students, reviving the education system by injecting fresh content into the curriculum, needs to be acknowledged. In some higher education institutions, education is characterized by the “yellow notes syndrome”, where content development is such a low priority that lecturers teach what they themselves were taught when they were in college. In these contexts, OER from elsewhere are a welcome injection to boost what could easily become out-dated knowledge being taught to students.

There exist some OER consortia who strive to combat the stereotypes espoused by Bates. Meena Hwang, Director of Community Outreach for the OpenCourseware Consortium (OCWC), invited us to do this guest blog entry because OCWC has seen an increase in both interest in and number of cross-institutional collaborative OER projects.

Background on the African Health OER Network

The essential role of institutional context in OER development and adaptation was one of the motivating factors for the formation of the African Health OER Network. In November 2008, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation sponsored a pilot activity to develop health OER through collaboration among four universities in Ghana and South Africa. The subsequent 2009 health OER project was a joint effort among the Colleges and Faculties of Health Sciences at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, University of Ghana, University of Cape Town and University of the Western Cape. In late 2009, the partner institutions submitted a successful two-year follow-on grant proposal to the Hewlett Foundation and launched an African Health OER Network (herein referred to as the Network for simplicity), to foster a continent-wide network to share knowledge, address curriculum gaps and use OER to advance health education. OER Africa and University of Michigan have co-managed both grants. To date, 80 individuals and 17 organizations have added their names to the declaration of support for the Network.

Reflections on Fostering Collaborative, Participatory OER Partnerships

Even before embarking on the Network, both Saide and U-M had a long history of institutional partnerships, including with some of the same institutions that we worked with for the Network. That previous experience with distributed projects and the existing relationships, in particular, proved invaluable. Given the iterative nature of collaborative projects and the flux of participants, one is always adapting and constantly re-assessing how to improve communication and processes to make them more participatory.

Collaborative projects between universities in high-income countries and those in low- or middle-income countries introduce new challenges of power dynamics in project design and implementation and who benefits. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a commentary last year entitled “Nine Problems That Hinder Partnerships in Africa” that highlights some of the common challenges.

Some the principles which guide our facilitation of the Network are:

1. Be humble and open to others’ ideas. One of the benefits of a collaborative project is the diversity of expertise and perspectives. In order to encourage individuals to actively participate, there must be a welcoming atmosphere in which people feel that their contributions are heard and valued.
2. Involve partners in strategy discussions and overall project design. It is essential that representatives from partner institutions are engaged in the project activities at their home institution as well as larger strategy discussions for the project as a whole. For example, when we wrote the Hewlett grant proposals, the institutional representatives reviewed the drafts of the whole proposals and wrote the text for the project activities at their own institutions. The institutions had autonomy over how to spend the grant funds locally. There are minor restrictions imposed on the formats of budgets, but not the activities themselves. Additionally, we are currently discussing the formation of an advisory board for the Network, which would be another avenue for representatives from partner institutions to participate in strategy conversations. We also aim to increase cross-institutional collaboration in research activities, scholarly publication, and peer review of OER.
3. Be mindful of technical and logistical barriers in your communication. Collaborative projects involve lots of back-and-forth communication between participants. There exist a number of significant, potential barriers that may impede that communication, affecting when and how you communicate. This includes technical infrastructure challenges such as Internet connectivity and power outages. For example, attention to editable file formats and small file sizes are essential when you’re sharing OER and other project documents through email or a website. Logistical challenges in the form of time zones, public holidays, and background noise during conference calls also affect communication.
4. Learn about the different institutional cultures of your partners. In a collaborative project that stretches across countries, institutional cultures (e.g. procurement processes, official language of communication, how a project is communicated at different levels of the organization) and work styles (e.g. normal working hours, importance of punctuality, significance attached to public holidays, the number of public holidays available in a year) will vary across the institutions. Up until now, the Network partners have spoken English, so language has not been a barrier. Although some of the institutional processes like following protocol and procurement processes, and even public holidays, can delay project implementation, it is best to respect these and plan accordingly.
5. Share processes as well as deliverables. The OER developed by Network participants is free, public, and openly licensed. We strive to make our processes open and transparent as well. This includes sharing presentation slides from workshops or invited talks, policy reviews, how-to guides, and other project documents under a Creative Commons license. We also aim to publish in open access journals, or at the least reserve a pre-publication copy for institutional repositories.
6. Identify a focal point at partner organizations to coordinate local activities. With some many participating organizations and individuals, we rely on project coordinators or people who play similar roles to oversee work plans, budgets, deliverables, and status updates related to the projects. For simplicity’s sake, a single point of contact per organization is ideal but some organizations have several depending on roles.
7. Face-to-face meetings are invaluable, especially in the initial stages of a project. Collaborative projects often include participants who are geographically distributed. Face-to-face meetings help to build trust and collegiality among participants. This is why we coordinate a biennial meeting to bring together some of the participants and why we also arrange for U-M or OER Africa to visit partner institutions at least once annually. We were also fortunate that, during the initial stages of the Network, two members from U-M were able to have prolonged visits in Ghana: Internal Medicine Professor N. Cary Engleberg spent a year-long sabbatical from September 2008 – September 2009; Kathleen had an 8-week internship in Ghana in mid 2009.
8. Connect participants involved in similar tasks at other partner institutions. Due to travel costs, face-to meetings are normally reserved for senior staff at partner organizations. During interviews conducted in 2009 by several researchers from U-M and University of Cape Town, we learned that junior and middle-level staff and faculty at the partner institutions were interested in connecting with people who play similar roles in OER at other institutions. This led us to establish remote methods of collaboration for the people who assisted with multimedia as well as others who work with students and/or copyright.
9. Enable remote methods of communication between visits. We maintain a centralized website and a quarterly newsletter. Based on a 2009 research paper on Communities of Practice written by Sarah Hoosen of OER Africa, we chose to focus on phone and email-based methods. We facilitate two teleconferences every other month via Skype: one for multimedia and tech support and another for dScribes regarding copyright clearance and student engagement. We also have a biannual teleconference with senior leadership at the partner institutions. We have email-based discussion lists – we have one for dScribe and we plan to launch two more soon: one for health OER and another for technology.
10. Agree on standards and guidelines for joint publications. This may seem like a trivial point, but when working with authors and reviewers from different countries, it is essential to agree on standards (e.g. British vs. U.S. spelling, metric system versus U.S. customary units, whether to use a serial comma). U-M and OER Africa struggled with this during the review process of several case studies that are in progress. We are now developing a style guide to simplify future joint publications. It is also important to manage versions well as documents can get mixed up during the handoffs between participants during the various workflow stages (e.g. from author to reviewer to copy editor to graphical designer) if version history is not recorded systematically.
11. Project management of tasks between partners is very important. U-M and OER Africa use project management software (Basecamp) to track activities, responsibility for action items, and timelines. It is a password-protected website that we use predominantly for tracking OER Africa and U-M tasks, but it includes reminders for us about regular communication with institutional partners and other outreach activities. Basecamp also offers email integration, which has been a convenient feature as we still need to send reminders for overdue tasks so that the people responsible can address them.
12. Use technology to share resources. In addition to Basecamp, we also use another content management system (CTools, a U-M adaptation of Sakai) for organization of internal (i.e. U-M and Sakai) project documents. For large or particularly dynamic documents, we use Dropbox for its convenience of resumable upload/download and desktop synchronization. All Creative Commons licensed resources are publicly available off the African Health OER Network sections of the OER Africa and U-M websites. With multiple applications and locations, it can be confusing. We have chosen to address this by using CTools as the centralized location for project history and documentation and referencing Basecamp, Dropbox, or the public websites from within CTools when necessary.
13. Monitoring and evaluation of the project is essential. The African Health OER Network project began in 2008, and the following year, an external evaluator conducted a formative evaluation of the first phase, in which he concluded that contractual targets had been met by an impressive margin. The same evaluator conducted an interim evaluation in 2010 and found that the majority of participating institutions had sufficient employee expertise and external and internal financial resources to develop contextually relevant OER. This made OER viable and sustainable for the partner institutions. As a follow-on activity, we are currently designing a longitudinal impact research for the next phase of evaluation.
14. Onsite support of project implementation helps keep the momentum. Participants and institutions involved in the project have to manage multiple tasks including teaching responsibilities, which meant that sometimes development, adaptation, and/or research of OER is given a lower priority. On a few occasions when other priorities have impeded OER production or other project activities, U-M and OERA have offered technical support to institutions in order to keep the project tasks on track.

Concluding Thoughts

The African Health OER Network project has provided us with a complex, multi-layered model of collaboration:

1. The first level of collaboration, at a project management level, is the one between U-M and Saide, which has worked very well because of the extensive experience the two organizations have had of managing similar collaborative partnerships with institutions in the past.

2. The second level is interaction between the participating universities. This collaboration still needs to be nurtured, as very little inter-institutional collaboration has developed, except for that which was initiated because of historical associations between institutions, for example between KNUST and UG.

3. The third level is intra-institutional collaboration, where lecturers collaborate with each other, and potentially across departments within the university, in the production of OER. This collaborative aspect has been most successful, with institutional teamwork involved in production of OER, that is, lecturers who develop content and media specialist for filming footage, and their joint effort in editing and publishing the resource being exemplary of the benefits of collaboration in OER production.

Over the next year, we plan to explore the factors leading to the success of the Saide/U-M and intra-institutional collaboration in order to facilitate better inter-institutional collaboration.

The African Health OER Network project has taught us that collaboration is a process that can take its own shape depending on the context and demands of the collaboration, and how these suit the circumstances of the collaborators. We are willing to learn and are confident that our experiences on this project will provide us with ideas on how to continually improve all aspects of the collaboration.