By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education
[Note: This is the third in a series of articles in which Stefanie explores open and informal learning. See the other articles in this series: Open Learning at P2PU: An Interview with Jessica Ledbetter and Julia Kaltenbeck: How Crowdfunding and Social Payments Can Finance OER. -Editor]
Stefanie Panke: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where do you live? Are you in school or working? How old are you?
Billy Sichone: I am Billy Sichone from Zambia and work as program manager for one of World Vision‘s large scale development programs, located north of Zambia, Africa. I am married to Jane, and we have two daughters. My work is very demanding and involves a lot of travel as well as interactions with different kinds of people. I am 41 years old and have been a student of the University of the People for two years now. I am pursuing an online undergraduate degree in business administration. I have found it fascinating and a serious learning point to update my knowledge base as well as acquire new skills. The most interesting thing is that it is 100% online and free in addition to a diverse learning environment with colleagues from all over the world.
Billy Sichone, a student at University of the People (UoPeople), “the world’s first tuition-free online university, dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education.”
Please describe how you first got involved with University of the People!
Sichone: I first got involved with UoPeople in very interesting circumstances sometime in September 2009. I must have subscribed to some online site and stated that my interest was online learning, and then one day I just received a mail from an unknown source suggesting that there was an opening to study with an online university called the “University of the People.” At first I thought it was spam mail but decided to follow the link nonetheless. What I discovered surprised me, and I immediately signed up, commencing my studies in November 2009.
Do you remember where you heard of it? Was learning at UoP your first encounter with open learning or are you well traveled in the world of open educational resources?
Sichone: Like I mentioned earlier, this mail landed in my box as a surprise although I have done a lot of online study. I have also learnt a lot from open ware sites such as from Yale and MIT in the USA, except that these were not degree granting but free online resources. UoPeople was the first of its kind for me (i.e., the philosophy and interactive nature of the school). It has proved very rich an experience.
What part of the concept of University of the People grabbed your attention and made you “stick around”?
Sichone: The whole idea was very intriguing and in a sense startled me. A number of specific things, though, grabbed my attention:
- It was totally free and 100% online.
- It was to be student-centred rather than the traditional approach where the instructor or lecturer is the star.
- Learning was therefore constructive, meaning new knowledge was “created” as students interacted with each other as well as shared or learnt from each other.
- The interactive nature of the University enabled us to learn from each other as well as broaden our friendship scope.
- From the start, it made me feel like a “pioneer” of sorts, scanning uncharted territories. This thrill still intrigues me today. The staff and students have simply been great!
Please tell us about your current semester at UoP and give one or two examples of courses you have taken so far and particularly liked.
Sichone: I have just completed the last semester from the last “academic year” — 2011 and now enrolled for the first semester 2011-2012. I have done many courses across the two years, but I liked the organisational behaviour, marketing, entrepreneurship and ebusiness courses. It’s hard to pick out which one was best because each was unique in its own right. The macro and microeconomics and marketing courses were very eye opening and interesting as well.
Tell us more about the ups and downs in the life of a student at University of the People. Can you think of an occasion when you experienced fun and flow in your learning process? And what about the opposite: How did you deal with frustration, e.g., after a difficult assignment or a bad grade?
Sichone: A lot of emotions and circumstances have been my lot over the years. The best moments have been when we have a fruitful lively discussion forum week. It has made it worthwhile to learn from colleagues as well as to be corrected or helped to get a better perspective. The tough times have been when we have a sort of “quarrel” in the class due to difference of opinion or when everyone agrees with everything another says. The best is that such “bad” times have been few and far between as most of the times the discussions have been issue based. Another hard time which I have had as an individual is the back wrecking workload in my regular employment such as travel or critical reporting times and then school assignments are up to the neck! I have been tempted to give up and quit that particular course but somehow I have persevered. So far, I have passed every single course I have done or attempted, though I withdrew in one course early in my studies due to time factor. To balance my study schedule and heavy workload, I have resorted to taking one course per semester though last semester I took two for the first time after probably a year. In future, as workload hopefully declines, I will scale up and then hurtle to the MBA.
Could you elaborate on how you organize your learning process? For instance, do you study more or less spontaneously whenever you find the time or do you set aside specific time slots for engaging with UoP?
Sichone: This is a great question! I study in very interesting ways. At the outset of the week when the topic of discussion is introduced, usually Thursday morning of each week, I check the site to assess how much reading and work is involved that period. I then plan my week, how I will “break down” the week into easily chewable chunks. Usually, I do the easier bits first such as assessing peers, checking my grades for the previous week, getting the DF question and reading assignment. I then proceed to read the overview or summary. I then take a day off from school or class while I chew over what would be the issues at hand. On day two, I commence the major read up and then do the responses as I go. By Wednesday, I should have done most of my work. So, in short, I am always reading, carrying a script around and peering through the reading assignment as often as I have time, say at lunch time, after hours or when travelling. My phone has been a valuable asset as I can check the internet for information at any and every time. For instance, I once took an international trip to two countries in a row and the phone was my only source of assignment submissions etc. I did not miss out at all.
Were you ever tempted to just quit? What kept you going?
Sichone: Once or twice I was tempted to quit, largely because of heavy workload. The university itself, the environment, professional responsive staff and the idea of being part of the “pioneering team” kept me going! I am more than very resolved to complete my program at UoPeople. Withdrawal or quitting is the last resort or option.
Besides learning the subject matter, are there other skills you acquired at University of the People?
Sichone: Plenty skills such as how to navigate my way through a site, searching for information and interacting with colleagues I have never or will probably never meet in this life. I am more confident working in the virtual environment, and I think that is the way to go.
How important were your fellow learners in the learning process? Have you made an attempt to get to know them better?
Sichone: My colleagues have been marvelously superb! Everytime we meet in another course, after having gone to separate course in between, brings a sense of joy as though you’d reconnected with a close friend. It has built a sense of family and cohesion. I must confess that outside the class, I have not interacted much with colleagues except one gentleman from Ghana who has since left UoPeople. We chat once in a while. I have also made friends with my professors who have been very professional and most helpful. My colleagues have taught me a lot, far more than I can describe here!
Courses at University of the People are organized into a curriculum and led by teachers and tutors. Students get feedback on their work and grades. Do you think this concept is more successful than just learning informally on the Internet?
Sichone: This has proved remarkably successful, far more than I ever dreamed or imagined. At first, I was also skeptical, but now I am very happy with this arrangement because it not only keeps serious students engaged but also encourages serious study and research across the week.
Do you get recognition of your “virtual” learning in your “real” life? How do you communicate what you have learned?
Sichone: I am not sure what you mean by “recognition” but I assume you mean do people notice or does your employer vouch for the learning engaged in. In one sense yes because my competencies have grown and it shows in my efficiency, reasoning capacity etc. In terms of the paper being recognised as authentic, my context is generally skeptical to virtual learning, preferring the traditional methods. That does not worry me for now because I can see a trend towards online virtual learning globally, and by the time they arrive where I am now, I will be miles ahead!
Would you describe yourself as a person with strong goals, driven towards self-improvement? Or are your learning activities led more by serendipitous discovery?
Sichone: I am strongly self-motivated and driven by a desire to learn, regardless of where I get the right knowledge. UoPeople has given me just that challenge.
So, where do you go from here? After you graduate, what are your future plans regarding open learning? Will you get involved with other communities like OpenLearn, OpenCourseware or P2PU? Will you tutor or create open courses yourself?
Sichone: Interesting question! The options are many but, for now, my goal is to complete the degree and transition to the MBA. I am presently toying with the idea of taking up other online studies and possibly turn out a lecturer in online studies. As retirement draws nearer, so my earnestness in my studies. The internet affords a wide opportunity for all and the earlier people realise this, the better!
Thanks for interviewing me and let’s keep interacting! Please sign up with UoPeople if you can! The earlier the better, methinks.
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