Collaboration: What it Takes

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At the launch of the OpenUCT repository recently I thanked 70 people by name. It’s a dangerous thing to do because one might leave out some one (and to my shame one name was written down on the sheet I held, but not said aloud when I got distracted for a moment).  It took a long time, but I had decided it was important to acknowledge every person who had helped, and that is aside from the ones I don’t know by name.

What has stayed with me is how every single one of these 70 people genuinely played a part – I was not just “ being nice” . This is what it takes to get to the point of launching a good-looking functional repository containing some good varied content to start with. This is what it takes!

Even so, there are still bugs, and teething problems, and the team are getting great feedback, and ongoing processes are being set in place. This is before the the road show to the faculties has even begun, and the next round of engagement and contestation begins.

But this is what it took to get this far. This is what collaboration actually looks like- that word so easily and glibly written in funding proposals, strategic documents and miscellaneous reports. Next to each of the names listed below is an activity, or two or three. And linking all of those activities were all sorts of connecting activities that make up collaboration: ie  discussing, negotiating, compromising,  disagreeing, clarifying, refining, redefining, requesting, explaining, advocating, interrogating, questioning, interacting, reviewing, requiring, conferring, referring, deliberating, expounding, justifying, rationalising……the mediation of multiple perspectives and manifold interests.

True, it was not an out-the-box process or solution, but the technical developers got mention through just one name because that is only (albeit critical) aspect of the work. Those rock solid technical requirements and the challenges of the diverse content types were embedded in the entire universe of the scholarly landscape, of representations of scholarship, on what the nature of scholarship is in terms of what it looks like and how these can be represented in a dynamically changing environment; and they were entangled in the relationships between subtle communications of institutional, disciplinary and multi-disciplinary identities.

For the outcome of all these negotiations to have any value, there must be shared understandings, and a vision, and buy in, and ownership. That is where so much of the work happens, and where the collaboration happens. It has been a humbling and salutary experience that has cast a light on what real collaboration really looks like. Easy to say but elaborately difficult to do.

OpenUCT Launch, 31 July 2014. Thanks to:

Stuart Saunders and the Mellon Foundation for funding and support

Jo Beall, DVC at the time for sharing the vision and kickstarting the journey with us.

VC Max Price, DVC Research Danie Visser and DVC Teaching & Learning Sandra Klopper for owning the vision; Sandra Klopper for co-ordinating the process of setting an agenda for openness at UCT, Danie Visser for embracing the open access opportunities

Colleagues in CILT who have been pioneers leading the way in vision and imagination and solid hard work: Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams, Glenda Cox, Stephen Marquard, Roger Brown, Eve Gray

Colleagues from CHED generally especially Nan Yeld, Ian Scott and Suellen Shay for their support,  Lena Nyahodza for her solid work curating CHED scholarship

Those involved in the VC Student OER Project so ably lead by Thomas King. The students-  Luyanda Dhlamini, Neil Berry, Boikanyo Modungwa, Chris Andersen, Bongani Baloyi, Rushikesh Alur

Colleagues in Health Sciences EDU working on OERs. Sharing the journey, being advocates, solid work: Veronica Mitchell, Greg Doyle, Nicole Southgate

Colleagues in the Library. Gwenda Thomas for recognising the possibilities and embracing the future with excitement and vision. Reggie Raju and Dale Peters for walking into their jobs and picking up and engaging with immediate effect and enthusiasm. Mandy Noble, David de la Croes  and Janine Dunlop, for solid hours of rigorous work mapping out the specificities that would enable the repository to become a practical reality.

The Metadata Queen Pat Liebentrau, without whom nothing would be organised and found online. Jenny Wood and Yvonne Hertzog for meticulous  metadata work.

Colleagues in ICTS. Andy Duncan  – for asking the hard questions;  Sakkie van Rensburg signing the contract and financial support;  Andre le Roux – who took all the vlak and contributed so much;  Eugene van Rooyen – for general unfailing support including working after hours on a Friday night; Timothy Carr  – platform support and assistance well above and beyond the call of duty; , David Heyns – liaison within ICTS and change management); as well as Dirk,  Trevor and others in ICTS whose names we don’t even know  for patience, collaboration and kind assistance

Lieven Droogmans for diligence and answering every single email; his team at @mire for technical development (so much hidden complexity in that short term!);  Lyncode for the site design;  Rondine Carstens for design work – banner and buttons.

University PVCs  Murray Leybrandt and Mark New for recognising the possibilities, sharing the vision and being prepared to be gueanea pigs. Also Haajirah Esau for solid work on the P&I pilot .

Colleagues in Law IP Unit Tobias Schonwtter and Caroline Ncube for unfailing advice and expertise .

Colleagues in RCIPS especially Andrew Bailey enthusiastically working on the legal aspects of open licenses in contracts.

Colleagues in the Research Office for providing space, inserting us into their programmes, backing the open agenda, being engaged in the debates – Marilet Sienart, Rob Morrell, Lyn Holness, Mignonne Breier and others.

Those involved in the Launch set up:  Blythe Edwins & Kevin Bennett & co; Theresa Schoeman, Wesley Barry and Marilyn Wilford for marketing and IT support for the launch. Sukaina Walji – social media and Tinashe Makwande – videography.

The contributors. This is ALL  about academics , staff and students and UCT. There would be no repository and no point without them. So many have been on this journey with us, Ed Rybicki a backer right from the beginning.  I will only mention the award winners by name for now –  Dr Gina Ziervogel,  Ms Matumo Ramifikeng,  Dr Juan Klopper – but every UCT scholar in this repository is an all award winner. This whole venture is all about the outstanding  scholarship and teaching resources produced at this university.

The OpenUCT Team: a small team at the heart of making it happen. Meticulous, dedicated, passionate, going beyond the extra mile, without whom nothing would ever have happened. In different configurations at different times: Michelle Willmers, Sarah Goodier, Kyle Rother. Also Patricia Chikuni who helped at short notice and Shihaam Shaikh who laid so many solid foundations.


Realising a vision: the launch of OpenUCT

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On the 31st of July 2014 was the official launch of the University of Cape Town’s official repository. It was opened by the VC, Dr Max Price, who ceremoniously cut a ribbon. It was a significant event marking a complex process of collaboration and negotiation between a very wide range of stakeholders across the university, and including technical, policy and advocacy work. But what is it all for? It is just a repository, and unusually beautiful as it is an object (yes!), that is not the reason for all the fuss.

The repository is a means to several ends: showcasing; preservation; visibility; discoverability; legally open content; a contribution to learning and a contribution to meaning making and knowledge creation in a globalised world.

It cannot be disputed that UCT’s world class scholars have produced impressive and extensive research and teaching resources which should be showcased and deserve a good-looking and easily navigable site which users can browse. Those beyond the university have the right to access and use the scholarship of UCT as a (largely) publically funded university.

The advantage of the resources being curated within the university library is that they will be properly preserved by information specialists whose raison d’etre includes taking care of scholarly content so that it can be used and found well into the future. Unlike in other sites, this preservation will continue to happen even as individuals leave and move on.

Visibility and discoverability are linked. In an age of information abundance, resources need to be seen and they need to easily found. In the scholarly terrain where research funder policies require that outputs are made available open access, it is an urgent imperative that scholarship and teaching resources from the global south are made available online. This means that expertise in search engine optimisation and related competencies are essential when it is known that users regard the more highly ranked search results as more relevant, and that convenience and immediate click through to full text are typical user requirements.

At the heart of the university is knowledge creation and dissemination. As online content becomes ubiquitous and the primary source of finding resources, those resources take on a powerful role in shaping what is known and what can be known. Through being available online and through technical algorithms some content becomes visible and through being visible gains legitimacy, while other content remains invisible and is deemed illegitimate. While content does not equal knowledge, new forms of multimodal content and ubiquitous content change the ways in which knowledge is created as well as which knowledge come to be regarded as normal and acceptable. Online content consolidates existing power through normalisation.

Finally, as students increasingly turn to the Internet for learning resources, the fact that most online content is created in the US and other northern countries creates a disjunct in the need for local contextualised content which can support meaning making in specific locations. Thus there is a need for local teaching resources to be made freely available online for the benefit both of students within the university and those beyond.

These are lofty ambitions and fine objectives, and certainly they cannot be realised by one single university repository. But this repository is one essential part of a necessary and growing infrastructure that provides the foundation for a vision that sees academics and students from all parts of the world equally represented online and in a good position to participate in global knowledge co-creation and learning possible for all.

My slides from the Launch are here. A related post is on UCT’s open access policy: a culmination and a beginning .

UCT’s open access policy: a culmination and a beginning

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Engagement with open education and open scholarship has been happening at UCT in an organic way for a long time, as  staff and students have been making their scholarship and their teaching and learning resources available freely online for many years. This has happened across the disciplines, with many individuals springing to mind: in Health Sciences – Juan Klopper, in Science – Ed Rybicki, in Humanities – Francis Nyamnjoh…. the examples are too many to mention. In addition whole groups, such as the physics lecturers, the gender studies unit or the computer sciences department have shared course material and research output in concerted efforts. In addition, over the last seven years there have been several projects supporting the open agenda,  starting with Opening Scholarship (with its broad view of scholars at the centre of a network with others scholars, students and the community), then OERUCT  and  OpenUCT and the most recent addition – the ambitious OER research project ROER4D.  The university’s open content directory has provided a home for open education resources since 2010.

During this time, the university’s senior echelons have made important symbolic commitments to the open agenda. In 2008 a Deputy Vice Chancellor  signed the Cape Town Open Education Declaration which is built on “the belief that everyone should have the freedom to use, customize, improve and redistribute educational resources without constraint” and in 2011 the Vice Chancellor signed the Berlin Declaration which seeks to “ to realize the vision of a global and accessible representation of knowledge [where] the future Web has to be sustainable, interactive, and transparent.“

In 2014 two events mark the culmination of this organic era of change and growth: the approval by UCT Council of an open access policy and the commitment of UCT Libraries to being the home for open online content going forward. Many project activities are becoming mainstreamed into existing and new positions in the Library which has made explicit its support for both research and teaching resources. The UCT Library is the formal owner of the open access policy, working closely with UCT’s Research Office and the Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

The policy foundation for an ongoing emphasis on open education resources  is evident in the new  open access policy which notes

  • The widespread availability of open education resources, open content, open courses etc. from the global north is both an opportunity and a concern as there is an equally urgent need for local teaching and learning resources to be made freely available online.

Scholarship is understood to take multiple forms which cross research, teaching and learning. UCT encourages that all of these be made available, and will provide enabling conditions for the stewardship, preservation and discoverability of this content.

  • The University  encourages Employees and Students to make all forms of works of scholarship available … This includes (but is not limited to) essays, books, conference papers, reports (where permitted by a funder of the research leading to the report), educational resources, presentations, scholarly multi-media material, audio-visual works and digital representations of pictorial and graphical materials.

In addition, the policy requires UCT authors to deposit journal articles (or formally explain why they can not do so) and students will have had to deposit the final versions of their theses  and dissertations in order to graduate.

Policies are only as good as their implementation in practice (and too often they are meaningless or suffer empty compliance). With years of project-based activities, research-informed practice and individuals quietly doing good work as a basis for the future, UCT is an ideal position to meaningfully implement the excellent intentions and activities of its new open access policy. Good luck to us all!

Understandings of open access

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open access

How do people outside the university who work in education understand open access? As my daily experiences are skewed towards the open access and open education communities and towards those academics interested in finding out about open access, I was interested to get a broader sense of what educational professionals understand open access to be. When I was asked to give a talk recently to about 30 working professionals, I asked them to each write down what they thought open access is. About two thirds of the group did so, and I read some of their definitions and comments aloud before the talk.

What did they say? Certainly open access is associated with content being free, as the majority (but not all) mentioned the word “free” in their definitions. “Access is about being free” to view and free to see, and access is about “not having to pay”.

What is it that is free? For most this is free “information”, although three narrowed this specifically to free access to journal articles. Interestingly one person said the opposite – that “free” extended research content beyond the journal:  “Open access means research is no longer confined to journal publications”. One person said that open access is about free software (and then commented that this is very useful), and one included data in the list. Another wide-ranging definition said that open access is “Access to education, the internet and libraries “, thus extending access from content to education itself.

The issue of easy availability even filtering, was another thread, for example: “Every person can get information they need without any problem”, and  “availability of information to someone searching for it”. The definition “When information is gathered together and is easy to access” suggests that open access might be filtered to be suitable to the user.

One person suggested that open access gives users a “license to access documents that are not available to everyone”.  Those in the open licensing world will be interested to hear that licenses, selected by authors, are here understood to be owned by readers.

Only two people made the distinction between access and use: “Open access means access to resources without having to pay , may be able to use depending on copyright”. Another said the opposite, that there are “no copyright restrictions”  - that person also coined the delightful term of “ universal usage”. Other than these comments there was little mention of copyright, and none specifying open licenses or Creative Commons by name. One covered all bases by describing open access as “Free distribution of intellectual property”.

A particularly pertinent comment was one that stated that open access is “Information that is publically available and should also be understandable”. This is an especially valuable comment pointing to issues of epistemological access as critical to engagement and success in education.

Other definitions ? One person conflated open access with wikis- “Open access is a database that allows for works to be edited by others”. Another associated it with networks: “It is access to information across networks globally”. And interestingly, one person took a more ideological approach and focused on the movement “Open access is a movement…it is great because knowledge should not be at a cost

Why does this matter? Because as open access enters the mainstream of research and scholarly communication globally, it is important to bear in mind what is understood by the term, what assumptions are made and what discourses are implied. While open access is on the one hand an immensely simple concept, on the other it is confusing and difficult. Unlike Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass there is a lot to be said for a shared language and shared understandings of the concept “open access”.

Researcher practices in context: a framework

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Like many others, I subscribe to the fine discourse of open networked scholarship with its associated values of participation, engagement and transparency. I hold dear the possibilities of existing unequal forms of legitimacy and power relations in global knowledge production and dissemination being challenged through the enabling affordances of networked technologies.

Yet scholarly practices are firmly grounded in local realities. It was Castells, almost 20 years ago,  who described the opportunities and contradictions of a networked world so well when he said,  “Power, money, and information are primarily organized around flows which link up distant locales, and  unite them in a shared logic” . At the same time he noted “the variable geometry of networked integration and switched off exclusion of the network society translates into the juxtaposition between two spatial forms/processes: the space of flows, on the one hand, the space of places, on the other hand.” In short, “People still live in places, and construct their experience, their meaning, and their political representation around these places”. (Castells, 1996:469)

It is this juxtaposition that motivated us to explore changing researcher practices in Africa. Under the auspices of the Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme, the locally shaped – scholarly communication practices of scholars in four sites were surfaced; Namibia, South Africa, Mauritius, and Botswana. Scholars shared their experiences in thoughtful interviews with Cathy Kell, and illuminated the nexus between global trends and local realities.

How could these practices be described across contexts in nuanced ways that show the subtleties of social relations, users/audiences and forms of communication? A framework was developed using the heuristic of the research cycle with indicators at every stage. At the same time, researchers interviewed worked in different disciplines and it became clear that it would be more useful to categorise their research by the types of research projects undertaken with their associated practices rather than by disciplinary taxonomies. These five types were developed using Using Boyer (1990),  Griffith (2004)  and Cooper (2011).

The SCAP paper Changing Research Communication Practices and Open Scholarship: A Framework for Analysis  by  Catherine Kell, Michelle Willmers, Thomas King and myself has two parts: the first describes the framework and its foundations, locating these in the broader literature. The second applies the general principles developed to the 72 research projects which were described in the interviews (with the proviso that research projects was understood in a loose sense) . It is interesting that only ten of the 72 projects fell into the conventional “discovery research” category; sixteen could be categorised as “interpretive “. The many papers in the “applied” category are of  particular significance in the light of the role of consultancies in African research.

As we observe in the paper, it was striking how importance context is – the history and culture of each of the four institutions studied, and to a lesser extent the history and culture of the countries in which they are located. Even though these universities and the basic features of the types of research they engage in and research cycles that they go through share a  number of similarities in terms of overall geography, history and mission, their differences are sufficient enough to create significant diversity in how their scholars respond to the research endeavour. The framework provides a way of surfacing these differences while sharing rich experiences across sites.


Boyer EL (1990) Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. New York: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching Boyer EL (1996) The scholarship of engagement.

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of the Network Society.  Blackwell Publishing Ltd.: 469.

Cooper D (2011) The University in Development: Case Studies of Use-Oriented Research. Cape Town: HSRC Press.

Griffiths R (2004) Knowledge production and the research–teaching nexus: The case of the built environment disciplines. Studies in Higher Education 29(6): 709–726