I had a wonderful childhood. I come from a middle class family, in some ways typical, in some other ways quite unconventional. My brother and I grew up surrounded with love. We lived in a small pack. Our grandma raised us since she lived with us. My parents worked hard. Every summer, and after schools closed, we would spend our holidays somewhere near the sea. Every August though, we did something different. Totally different for two city children.
In Western Greece, there is a small village up on the mountains very close to the borders with Albania. It is called Oinoi. Pontic Greeks live there, immigrants who moved back to Greece from Asia Minor in the beginning of the century. Ionians. Very tough and rough people. But generous.
I have family there, not related to them by blood but still family. From the age of 8 and until I was 15, my parents would send me, my brother and my grandma there for about a month. Or less. Every year! Why? To help them out with farming. They needed hands. Working hands. And they could not afford to pay for them.
The mother and the father of that family would wake up every day at 4 o’clock in the morning to go to the fields. Did I tell you what they cultivated? Tobacco! A lot of acres. They would return home at around midday, with their baskets filled with tobacco leaves and all of us the children (5 in total) would follow them and go under a poorly set up shed, would sit on the ground, cross our legs, and would start work. We had to lay the tobacco leaves in a certain position and ‘sew’ them together. Afterwards, hung on tiers we would let them wilt in the large barn . Until the merchants would come to buy them. And that would mean that then the family could make it through the winter.
We used large needles to ‘sew’ the leaves. For years that family could not even afford machines which would do that. We had to do it by hand. Also, for years they did not even have electricity out in the shed. Only in the house. We normally had to stay up until 8-9 p.m. in the shed to finish working on the day’s harvest and hang everything in the barn. And we used gas lamps for light late in the evening.
My grandma would spend the day cleaning up their two-storey house, kitchen, yard, etc. And she would also cook for all of us. Every day a different dish. Because the family that hosted us normally fed on freshly baked bread, feta cheese, tomato and olives. They rarely cooked. They did not have time to cook. Nor had they ever had the luxury to learn how to. They were rough mountain people. The women did not know how to cook the complex dishes that my grandma prepared (I come from a family of cooks and restaurant owners – but that’s another story in itself).
So, anyway, in this way the rest of us could concentrate on working hard with the tobacco harvest. Have you ever touched tobacco leaves, by the way? They stick on your hands! So much so that your hands get seriously rough in the end that no hand cream can soften.
I could talk for hours or could write whole pages about these summers I spent there. Working hard daily (weekends included) but having fun, incredible fun every day. We worked for hours, never complained and learned how to live in the countryside and appreciate it as well.
Did I mention we were never paid? There was never a matter of payment . Because they were family. Though no blood related. And because our parents wanted to teach us a few valuable lessons. Volunteering being the biggest one. Giving without necessarily asking to receive back.
Why am I telling you this story? I am a strong advocate of volunteerism. I have been working pro bono since I started working, after the age of 18. In multiple ways. And I did it consciously, it did not just happen because I needed to acquire certain skills, I needed to train. Ever since I remember myself, I felt the need to give back to the community and so I contributed in various ways. I made sure I worked and earned enough money to pay my bills and survive and then I did pro bono work, too. The people who know me also know I am a hard worker. And a dedicated one. I also like to believe I have a strong work ethic and so I do not differentiate between pro bono and paid work. Both of them are done with the same diligence.
I believe that volunteering can help people develop skills, but it also promotes goodness and it can also improve human quality of life. Volunteering may have positive benefits for the volunteer as well as for the person or community served. It is an altruistic activity and there is nothing superior to being able to give to others without the expectation of gaining anything back (UN volunteers, 2006). Not because it makes you ‘feel’ superior! But because it makes you feel humble. Because a true volunteer is someone who put themselves in someone’s shoes. Not someone who looks at them from above!
Now, what triggered all this? I work in education. You already know that. What I am sure you also must know is how much I value open education, open access, open data. ‘A lack of access to information hinders learning, stifles innovation and slows scientific progress’, says Erin McKiernan (McKiernan, 2014). Today more than ever we need open educational resources. They are important for developing countries, for students who may not be able to afford textbooks, where access to classrooms may be limited, and where teacher-training programs may be lacking. They are also important for young or older researchers who cannot afford the publications which are under a pay wall. Also, OERs are to their greatest degree digitized and so they represent an opportunity to have one’s own materials enhanced (Anyangwe, 2011).. The material can be modified, transformed by other faculty around the world, so the modifications and additions can be countless and can lead to a work stronger than the original. The possibilities are utterly immense.
Besides their increasing importance for developing countries, they are also important in wealthy industrialized countries, where they can offer significant cost savings. Cost savings are directly linked to open data and OER generally (Salomon, 2008). For these resources to keep the cost low though, they largely depend on volunteers (Eve, 2004). Volunteers who will write, select, edit materials, curate the websites, etc. And this is exactly the point I am trying to make.
I am one only of a great number of people who work tirelessly (dedicating their non-existent free time a lot of times!) and without payment trying to provide free education and open educational resources within the ESL world. In hard times like the ones we are living in, keeping education and educational resources open benefits teachers, research and students worldwide. By doing so, we serve a not elitist and cost free education and training for thousands of citizens. Besides the downsides of such a venture (quality of materials, quality of peer review, etc.), the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and this is why OER should remain open.
However, what is free tends to be considered of lower quality as well. While in some cases it is true that quality is not optimal yet at all instances, we need to keep in mind that the movement of keeping educational resources open is still in its beginning, relatively anyway, and has a long way ahead of it. Yet, one more thing to consider is that we should shift the focus on the openness of the resources and services and not on the fact that they are offered for free. The fact that they are available to everybody so that education is not limited to the few. We are building a more democratic society in this way as well as a more inclusive one. Even with all the downsides this might entail, I would still stand up for it and I am!
This text serves as my response to people who recently seem to not have respected or appreciated our work as volunteers in this sector.