How I Became an Open Educator

Shared by @jennihayman

In sitting down to write this story, I had to reflect and think very hard about exactly how I arrived at here, an open practitioner-researcher, part of a global network of doctoral students, working as a Program Manger for a 45-institution online teaching and learning consortium called eCampusOntario in Ontario, Canada, and talking about open practices every day with engaged peers. Then it occurred to me…it was George.

I was minding my own business really, when open hit me. And while it seemed at the time, to come from out of the blue, one of those “why have a I never seen this before” moments. It was really, as with many things, a convergence of pathways and a lifetime of reflection and experiences that delivered me into that moment. It was like a rebirth. I remember it like it was yesterday, although it’s somewhere around eight or nine years ago now. I was working at the Apple Store in Sherway Gardens, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My job title was “Creative” which in the scheme of things in life is a better job title than most. What that meant was, I was supporting and engaging with Apple customers to help them learn how to use their computers. This wasn’t typical adult training, this was an any customer, any way they want to use their computer, for any reason situation. Very, as it turns out learner driven. As part of my training (I got to go out to Apple “Campus” in Cupertino, once in a lifetime story for another day), I was advised to “never touch a user’s mouse” to use my voice, to encourage and guide, and ensure that the user was learning experientially. Fairly radical thinking in 2007.

I had a customer in my queue, one sunny day in 2007, named George [not his real name]. At the appointed hour George walked in with his son. Now George appeared to me to be an elderly gentleman, soft spoken, a little stooped, very wrinkled, smiling and warm in spirit. His “son” appeared to be in his sixties at least. It turns out that George’s great-grand-kids (a flock of them) had purchased great-grandad a new iMac so he could send them email. This was no small computer, and George brought it in with him on a cart. I helped George and his son get the computer up on the desk and get it plugged in, and George and I sat down on our Apple stools in the 3-ring-circus that is an Apple Store and started talking about George’s needs.

George, it turned out, had never had a computer, had never touched a mouse. Hmmm. Where to begin? There are a lot of assumptions that went through my head about George, quite possibly there were a lot of assumptions going through his head about me. Where we landed, was me asking George to tell me about his life experiences communicating with his family and others, as a starting place. It turns out that George was a history professor and had a long and fruitful career researching, writing, and teaching at a local university. Hmmm, that was pretty interesting and maybe a good starting place. I decided to take a radical approach to interacting with George and be as frank and open with him as he was being with me. I asked him, “George, what’s the best way I can help you learn about this computer that’s not going to make you feel like an idiot? As you are clearly not an idiot.” In that moment I made the deepest connection I have ever made to my own passion for learning, my love of reading, writing, problem solving, puzzling, parenting, my teachers that taught me in that way, my desire to teach others that way, and George’s wisdom and patience in his reply, “well,” he said, “let me try it on my own, and let make mistakes.”

For the next year, pretty much every week, George and I had a tremendous amount of fun with George trying things on his own. He figured out ways to do things on his computer that I would never have thought to try. In a conventional sense (societal norms about “using a computer”) he did a lot of things “wrong” and made a lot of mistakes. Not only did George learn how to use a mouse, he learned how to email his grandkids and great grandkids, he learned how to use a digital camera, he took pictures, he made slideshows, he learned how to use Garageband to make his own music for his slideshows. He created flyers for his church, he started a newsletter, he wrote, and wrote, and wrote about his life and his work in researching and teaching Canadian history. I never once told George he had made a mistake, I encouraged him, and let him know that while I wouldn’t necessarily have done it that way, he got the job done and it was fine work. I occasionally suggested an easier way if I knew of one, to save him some frustration about things, but it was alternative, not a prescription. Very wisely, he did not always take my advice.

George died in mid-2008 at 91, peacefully in his sleep, which is about all one can ask perhaps. It was a cathartic time for me in many other respects, but losing George was a heavy blow. I know how his family felt because I went to his funeral, we cried and laughed, and I heard all about a side of my relationship with George that I hadn’t known about. It turns out that our relationship was a frequent topic of conversation with him and his children, grand-children and great-grand-children. “Jenni-at-the-Apple-Store” was a legend in his mind, very much larger-than-life in the minds of his family because of George’s stories about me and our work together. He called me his “research assistant.” His family was deeply grateful for the year of creativity, and particularly the gifts they had received from George in the form of his writing and storytelling of the last year. A few months later his son David came into the store with an envelope for me. It contained a cheque for $500 dollars. He said that it wasn’t much, but George didn’t have much left this late in his life. George had asked David to make sure that I got a little something so I could go back to school.

I had been considering what to do next career and education-wise, and had talked about that with George many times. He felt I would make a fine teacher and that achieving his PhD in 1950, just after the war, was one of his favourite achievements. I went back to school that fall, a masters in education (distance education), a new career in online learning design and scholarly teaching and learning, a drive to always be different, to push the boundaries of how teaching and learning takes place in higher education, to always be listening to what every individual learner already knows, already cares about, and find ways that I can let them “try it on their own, and make mistakes.” This requires a fundamental shift, in my view, from where we are now in a paradigm of authoritative and narrow prescription in education, to the learner’s view of what is possible, with access to information, with technology, but most of all through collaboration, imagination, and the power of freedom to explore without being told they are idiots. Thank you George.

photo of an gnarled old tree in Ireland

Image from a trip I made to Ireland in May 2007. George helped me edit it as part of our practice in photo composition. It’s my favourite.

Post and Image: Jenni Hayman CC BY 4.0 International License

6 Comments

  1. I love this story Jenni – it encompasses all that I believe about people learning digital (and lots of other things come to that) for their own purposes and in their own ways. My beliefs from my own experience and what I have observed and talked about with students over nearly forty years. Your story is particularly inspiring for me as I stand on the brink of a new experience. In a couple of weeks, once the refurbishment is complete, I start as an IT Buddy at my local library, where people can book sessions. Thanks Jenni – I’m watching and learning from you.

  2. Hi Frances, I’m so glad my story resonated with you. I like the title IT Buddy. Public libraries are my new favourite space for connecting with my in-person community. Bon chance, I’m certain you will have some wonderful experiences.

  3. This story hit me straight in the heart, Jenni thank you. So much beauty in the connection from George to you, and at an individual, empowering level, how you never judged him for where he was but more or less where he might go.

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