Every two years since 1983, Cambridge has played host to 90 people from literally every corner of the world – roughly half from developing countries. Drawn together by deep interests in delivering open and distance learning (ODL) to all areas of society, the participants spend three and half very full days listening, reflecting and (75%) discussing and challenging issues shared across institutions and continents.
Started by Alan Tate (now Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the Open University) and Roger Mills (now Research Associate at the Von Hugel Insitute, University of Cambridge) after they returned from a large and impersonal distance learning conference, with a mission to create a small, social, discussion-based event; the conference has remained much the same for all fourteen events. I attended for the first time two years ago, and played a much larger part this year, but like all other 89 attendees was saddened to hear that this would be the final conference. Alan, Roger and Ann Gaskell (Assistant Director, Teaching and Learner Support at the Open University) have put huge chunks of their working lives into the conference, and deserve a well-deserved rest.
What sets it apart from other conferences? The small numbers, the deeply engaged participants from all levels of institutions around the world, and the long discussion time between papers and workshops I’ve already mentioned; but for me the best part is the use of ‘home groups’ to explore and reflect on topics in much more detail within a small group. Timetabled daily for an hour after the main keynotes, these allow deeper and more contextual discussion on key topics for the group members, and are certainly where I have had my most valuable reflections and ideas. This year, I was invited to facilitate one of the home groups, and was rewarded with a fabulous group of people and some fascinating discussions and debates – which you can read on our Cloudworks page. I also got to know all 17 members of my group extremely well, and have forged many friendships.
This final conference was based around the theme of social justice, which was covered at various levels of depth in the keynotes, papers and home groups. The conference has always been one demanding open minds and guaranteed to shift your core beliefs and moral outlook; but this year’s theme created an even more challenging lens with which to take in and absorb worldwide contexts. We heard about the mind-boggling numbers UNISA (South Africa) has to deal with – 140,000 students on one course; 7,000 students registering each day at the start of session; only 17% of students with any access to the internet – about continuing inequality in the education of women in Nigeria, and how ODL is being used with difficulty to provide some empowerment; and many problems and issues surrounding cross-border delivery of courses, due to political/cultural differences. Those of us working in institutions in the developed world were left questioning why we presume to know what the people of distant countries need in terms of education (and charge them a fortune for the ‘solution’) when we barely know what the needs of our own local area are. Alan Davis (Vice-Chancellor at Empire State College, SUNY) provided an interesting take on the latter problem in his keynote which described the make-up of SUNY’s state-wide market and how the College provide student-staff co-created curricula to meet individual needs.
There were other incredible examples of how ODL has been applied in highly contextual ways, with creativity and sheer belief in social needs: most notably Mohammed Rezwan (Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha)’s floating school - a boat which responds to the problems caused by the annual Bangladesh flooding which leaves a third of the country under water (and rising, thanks to global warming) by collecting children from several waterside villages, and then converting the boat into a school with mobile internet access. As a reward for attending, the children are given charged solar lamps to take home and use overnight, before returning them for charging the following day: a very well thought-out approach which considered the very specific local context.
Indeed, the topic of context was raised throughout the conference – the simple, unquestionable fact that before providing education services to a particular social group or individual, you should know something of their context and their needs. Historically, and continuing today, are examples where exactly the opposite takes place: western providers market ODL courses to individuals in developing countries who might spend their entire savings or wages on them in the belief of quality and status – but at the detriment to local institutions who might offer a far more contextualised course and would keep the money and expertise within the local economy.
I had a hand in providing another source of contrast from the serious, belief-shaking matters in much of the conference: two workshops which used fun and playfulness to achieve some equally serious outcomes. The first, with Patrick Kelly (Open University) and Deanna Douglas (Athabasca University) was based around the professional links we’d made at the previous conference, which have continued through regular video-conferences around shared topics of interest to this day; the workshop used a ‘speed dating’ activity to match up couples who shared common interests, and hopefully generated quite a few new friendships and links which will pervade as richly as ours. The second was based around my course design boardgame, and along with my colleagues Clifford Fyle and Nichola Hayes we guided participants through the design and purpose of the game (which aims to set a local context for ODL design, as described above) and generated much interested discussion.
I arrived back from the four days with pages and pages of notes, and a head full of thoughts. I’ve also felt my outlook on ODL, and my own institution’s use of it, shift – with a stronger focus on the need to think carefully about who we design for, and why. The sort of reflection and conceptual shifts all conferences should lead to, but very few do nowadays. Heartfelt thanks therefore go to Alan, Roger, Ann, and all the participants who were there sharing, discussing and reflecting with me. It’s such a shame there won’t be another chance to further challenge ourselves in two years; but the 14 Cambridge International conferences have left a great legacy.