A Month for Equity from the Perspective of Open World Learning

When doing a PhD there is a constant challenge in terms of balancing commitments and remaining focused on the target of completing your thesis. It is a humbling experience and there are constant reminders of all the areas where you need to develop in order to do the best possible job to create a very long piece of writing that feels, at times, more important to yourself and your own development than to anyone else. In the continued examination and re-examination of my thesis I took a month to dedicate my work to equity. What I mean by that is that two weeks were spent working on equity issues. I was in Punta del Este, Uruguay participating in the 1st EdTech Winter School held by ANII and Foundacion Ciebal during the first week in July. For the last week in July I was in Boston, MA presenting at the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Social Justice Symposium. My presentation at this symposium reflected efforts to support students with disabilities at the Open University in the UK. This meant that the work I participated in during the month was reflective of challenges of equity faced by Uruguay, the United States, and the UK. This form of national perspective taking in the global arena of educational technology is precisely why I opted to pursue my PhD at the Open University in the Open World Learning research program.

Figure 1 from http://www.open.ac.uk/iet/main/research-innovation/research-projects/owl


According to the Open World Learning (OWL) research frame a meaningful investigation into educational technology considers enablers and disablers at the micro, meso, and macro level of people places practices and properties. As I use this research frame for my thesis and my PhD is in OWL this is the frame I will likely use in my career as I develop as a researcher. Uruguay is a great place to flex my newly developed research skills as the country has a national initiative to address issues of equity leveraging Instructional Computer Technology (ICT). Many of the Macro level aspects of the OWL research framework are in place in the country through a One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative 10 years in the making that has effectively closed the digital divide. Everyone in the country has access to technology, instructional technology, and they have internet access in schools and at or near home. The next step in Uruguay is to get the retired population computers and internet access so that as they build a digital community the retired population are participants and represented in the digital culture. While the OWL research framework was developed based on the assumption that Open Educational Resources provide people access the parallel in Uruguay is that there are national initiatives ensuring everyone has access to educational resources.


I distinctly remember on my first day at the Winter School walking along the lake talking with an international group of researchers about our various perspectives on education. As you can see in the above picture I was puzzled as to how this could be considered “winter” in Uruguay. I spent a week considering the elements and challenges in Uruguay and through an international collaboration I started work on a grant proposal to explore how the development of help seeking behavior related to using the available educational resources. In effect the proposal is to explore if there is a relationship between developing help seeking behavior and developing people who will take advantage of the readily available educational resources. The retention issues in Uruguay are related to High School retention.

While working on this proposal it was noted that the environment in Uruguay was a fantastic place to explore how ICT could be used to address equity issues at a national level. I am looking forward to pursuing this work and furthering my understanding of how to leverage the OWL research framework to effect social change in the world.


As I returned from Uruguay to the UK I had the time to reflect on the decisions and choices that led me to this environment.  The first year in my program I worked with researchers at the OU on a policy report for learning analytics that included a global scan of productive initiatives around the world. One of my contributions to this report was a one page summary of what was going on in Uruguay. I could tell from my desk research that there was a lot of interesting work going on there.

One of my colleagues visited people doing to work in Uruguay and I had a brief twitter interaction where we discussed learning analytics and their potential to help create equity. I did not understand the depth of work or the broad spectrum of possibilities developing in Uruguay through these interactions. As I spent a week there working with the people focused on creating a equitable nation I got a much clearer picture of how these elements could fit together.

I returned to my wife and children after this trip and could not help but wonder if the society my sons would experience would be more or less equitable than the one I had experienced. I may not be pursuing a path of personal gain that would directly benefit my children to shield them from society. Rather I am doing my part to create a world where fathers can look forward to how society will challenge and activate their children. In what felt like a short two weeks in the UK, I prepared to return to Boston.

As I lived in Boston before I moved to the UK there are friends with whom I can stay when I visit. In fact, my favorite safe haven is in the neighborhood where I used to live in West Medford at the residence of Matt & Nell Weber. They recently had a child so it was nice to see my friends as new parents. Matt  is the director of digital strategy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and he was a classmate of mine during my masters program at HGSE. Matt would likely have a ton of advice on how to make this blog post have more impact. Nell is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As I talked with Nell about UDL and social justice symposium she said that she had just recently worked on a Harvard Education Review on a series of articles which included the following three pieces:

  1. “Cross-Pollinating Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning: Toward an Inclusive Pedagogy That Accounts for Dis/Ability” by FEDERICO R. WAITOLLER & KATHLEEN A. KING THORIUS
  2. “Responding to “Cross-Pollinating Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning: Toward an Inclusive Pedagogy That Accounts for Dis/Ability” A HARVARD EDUCATIONAL REVIEW FORUM with
  3. “Strategic Coalitions Against Exclusion at the Intersection of Race and Disability—A Rejoinder” by FEDERICO R. WAITOLLER & KATHLEEN A. KING THORIUS

In this series of publications there was discussion about the intersection of Culturally Responsive Curriculum and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). I was presenting at the UDL Symposium for the third year in a row, I previously worked at CAST for four years, and I had the pleasure of taking David Rose’s course on UDL. I had more experience with the UDL guidelines than I did with Culturally Responsive Curriculum. Although many of my family members have dedicated their lives to the preservation of Native American culture in many forms including higher education. It is disappointing to me as a Native American how poorly US education serves native youth. Just as America is a cultural melting pot this topic and this conference felt like a collision of two perspectives I have on education. There is the cultural traditions of my family ( Joseph, Mary, Pauline) from the Lummi Nation and there are the pedagogical practices I learned about while a masters student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This conference was a place where the two perspectives were creatively colliding (my personal mantra is to creatively collide with my environment). During my time at the conference I listened to a variety of perspectives and gained some further insights on how to reconcile my own understanding of education. The integration of pedagogical perspectives and inter-cultural communication is in fact part of my daily life now.

As a graduate student in the UK at the Open University I have the pleasure of myself being an international student. In the Open World Learning program there are a total of 18 students (12 of whom I have met and 6 that will join this coming fall) and I think each comes from a different country. One of the benefits of have a global program with international perspectives is the opportunity it creates for cross-pollination between graduate students.

The presentation I gave at the UDL and Social Justice Symposium was in fact a collaboration with my fellow student Francisco “Paco” Iniesto from Spain. We both have experience working on research on the topic of students with disabilities and we both seem to be on campus frequently at the same time so we have had ample opportunity to collaborate. Last Christmas break we asked ourselves what lies at the intersection our research. Paco focuses on students with disabilities and I focus on the role of emotion in learning. We decided the intersection would be to explore what emotionally accessible learning would look like. From that question we decided to explore how synthetic voices from screen readers emotionally expressed the learning material from online courses. Effectively we were asking if these voices read the content with an appropriate emotional expression. The short version of the results of our initial work is that the voices we analyzed do not do a good job of using appropriate emotional expression of course material. You can read more about this project here.

At The Open University it is important to understand that it is itself an educational organization that supports a nation. In the United Kingdom there are around 200k students at The Open University. In the age of MOOCs nearly every University offers some form of online course though the Open University has been doing distance education since courses were offered on the radio. It is an institution with deep knowledge about online education and it is fascinating to see how developed they are at supporting learning. For example one of the things that is clear at the Open University is that students who self-report disabilities are increasing. It has gone from 4.18% in 2010/11 to 16.58% in 2015/16. A recent report went into detail about the disparity in completion rates for OU Students declaring a disability and I have worked with the people at the OU who are working to address these issues of equity.

In talking about examining the effects of synthetic voice and emotional delivery of course material we determined it would be good to start with interviews with students that could potentially benefit from this type of delivery. The initial students we plan to interview will be students with visual impairment, learning disabilities (e.g. dyslexia), and students who self-report fatigue. We are interested in Audio Supported Reading as it may help students who experience fatigue while access the course material online. While this project is not the thesis topic of Paco or myself we both feel energized whenever we get the time to collaborate on this work.  We also recognize it cannot take our focus away from the thesis though we have setup the pilot study to be done in conjunction with staff at the OU and we have high hopes that we can get the ball rolling on thinking about how this line of work can have an impact on equity for students in the UK.

As if this was not already a packed month for my studies I decided to apply for my first grant in the UK which actually fits into the topic of equity. I have an upcoming study that is focused on my thesis topic where I am examining the emotional dynamics in group chat during computer supported collaborative learning. One aspect of my study design scaffolds emotional communication. I am interested to investigate how supporting emotional communication affects inter-cultural communication. There was a UK Council for International Student Affairs that offered a small grant scheme to help ensure that international students in the UK have the best possible experience while studying at University. I wrote an application for my first grant where I asked for support for conducting interviews in an upcoming study to understand how supporting emotional communication affects inter-cultural communication.

I concluded the month with a sense that I was capable of working in the world across nations at different points of focus on the topic of creating a more equitable world. In each respective PhD journey I have noticed how no one gets everything they want out of their graduate studies. I have to admit that there are times I am uncertain of my path. However, for the month of July the Open World Learning research program was authentically a global investigation leveraging a common framework considering how to help people around the world benefit from the embarrassment of educational resources that we have available today.