The title of UNESCO Chair in Open Education and Social Justice has been awarded to the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams, associate professor in the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT).
A total 700 institutions in 116 countries are involved in the UNESCO Chairs Programme, an initiative of the United Nations. It seeks to promote international inter-university cooperation and networking to boost institutional capacities through knowledge sharing and collaboration.
The network of chairs serves as a think tank and bridge-builder between academia, civil society and local communities, as well as researchers and policymakers.
UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng announced Hodgkinson-Williams’s appointment during her address at the Open Education Seminar in celebration of Open Education Week on 6 March. The event was held under the banner Open Education and Social Justice: Towards Equitable Access Through Participation.
Open Education Week is an initiative of the Open Education Consortium and kicked off around the globe on Monday, 4 March. It aims to turn a spotlight on and showcase the impact of open education on teaching and learning worldwide. CILT, in collaboration with UCT Libraries, hosted this year’s event at UCT.
“Open Education Week as a higher education institution is key, particularly with the theme of open education and social justice. Social justice for us at UCT and in the country is something that we grapple with a lot, especially given the challenges that we’ve had in the past few years,” Phakeng said.
“Social justice for us at UCT and in the country is something that we grapple with a lot, especially given the challenges that we’ve had in the past few years.”
She congratulated Hodgkinson-Williams on her appointment, encouraging her to challenge the prevailing discourses on the topic and to help people around the world think “wider than they [already] do”.
Hodgkinson-Williams teaches online learning design and advanced research design courses to postgraduate students at UCT. She has been awarded the position of UNESCO Chair in Open Education and Social Justice for her contribution to ground-breaking research and implementing initiatives focused on open education in the global south.
Defining open education
Hodgkinson-Williams described open education as a process of sharing educational materials and resources, and exposing all students, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds, to teaching and learning.
It offers the freedom to reuse and share learning materials without any constraints, she explained, and provides students with equitable access to the material that they need at any time and any place.
“But it’s not just about materials, it’s about what we are teaching our students, in what language we are teaching them, the examples we’re providing, and evaluating whose culture is being privileged in those materials,” she said.
“It’s about what we are teaching our students, in what language we are teaching them, the examples we’re providing, and evaluating whose culture is privileged.”
Cultural equality, according to Hodgkinson-Williams, is a clear description of open education and social justice. It’s having contextually appropriate materials that students can relate to, taught in a manner that they can understand, using a method they can appreciate. While UCT has made progress in this regard, she said it remains a key development area.
Hodgkinson-Williams’s new role is multifaceted, but one of her focus areas lies in strengthening the voice of the global south in the global north.
“Sometimes when I speak, I kind of feel like, because of my position as a white middle-class woman, that I am partly the global north in the global south.
“But when I go to institutions in Europe and in America and elsewhere, I am definitely the global south voice. Despite that I might look a little similar [to them], I don’t have the same message and I’m a bit of a thorn in their flesh.”
“Thorn in their flesh”
As the chair-holder, she will focus on capacity building which she said involves developing and growing students and academics in the open education context.
Mentoring and advising within UCT, as well as on open education projects outside of the institution, also forms part of her scope of work.
“Because our ROER4D garnered such success, I’ve been asked to support quite a number of new projects around the world to give them advice on how we went about this,” she said.
ROER4D (Research on Open Educational Resources for Development), led by Hodgkinson-Williams, was a four-year, large-scale networked project. It set out to contribute a relevant research perspective on how open educational resources can help to improve access, enhance quality and reduce the cost of education in the global south.
“In terms of open education, we are really trying to model ways to do things differently and hopefully we will find ways to be more socially just with open education,” she said.
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