The most popular and well known form of volunteering in south east Asia is teaching English, and that’s the focus at Openmind Projects too, but here it is part of a mission that goes way beyond teaching in its traditional form. I got the chance to meet the core team behind Openmind Projects at their welcoming activity center in central Nong Khai.
After a delicious Thai lunch I shared the tandem bicycle with Anna, a volunteer in the IT department. We cycled along the Mekong banks where she shared her experience of day to day life at Openmind Projects. After the bicycle ride we sat together with founders Toto and Sven where they explained how it all started and how Openmind is evolving. A report of both stories.
What brought you into the field of volunteering work?
I studied Physics and when I graduated in June 2013 I was looking for an IT related project to gain experience. It’s easier to get involved in volunteering than start working in a regular job. Volunteering is a relatively common thing to do and when done abroad it allows you to learn to work in a different setting.
Why did you chose Openmind projects?
Most importantly because they are not an agency that overcharges you, instead it is a small organization that is truly involved in their projects. What I also like is that all volunteers who come will personally meet the founders Sven and Toto. It provides you with the feeling of joining the team rather than just being put to work somewhere.
What are your daily activities?
I’m mostly working on the website, mainly to make it more competitive. I have improved the search-ability and outlay of valuable articles that are available and we working on further search engine optimization. Beside the work at the IT department I have also had the chance to be involved in an in-field experience. I have been teaching during a school camp and I taught a group of students from rural areas how to build a computer. But as a volunteer you are mostly developing and expanding the organization, not running it day to day.
Does your work allow you to experience local life?
Yes, besides working with them I am also staying at the training center where Thai people live as well. They are all very friendly and place a high value on farang (foreigners) so they are very keen to be friends with you which makes it really easy to hang around with them.
What is the most challenging about your work?
In my opinion that is Thai culture effecting the working environment. Being very used to deadlines, Thais are very relaxed and for instance go for coffee halfway through the day for no reason that’s immediately clear! Adapting to that and learning to work with people in a totally different culture is challenging yet rewarding.
What are the most important things you’ve learnt regarding Thai working culture?
The first thing is time keeping. In England if you make an appointment to see someone at 10, you will see them at 10 or cancel. Here they say yes but they mean maybe, just to not bring you down or disappoint you. Second is their tolerance. They will never say they are upset or angry with you but rather smile and accept what you ask for so you never really know if you are asking too much of them. It takes some time to work out what is reasonable to ask for without taking advantage of them being so nice.
And the biggest thing you’ve learnt about yourself?
I have never been the most tolerant person around. I’m not very good at coping with people who I feel aren’t as good as they should be or don’t think exactly like me. Here I’ve learned how to deal with that situation, especially because Thai people are so tolerant themselves.
What do you do after work and at the weekends?
I planned a lot of sightseeing and Nong Khai is a surprisingly convenient base. I have been to Laos a couple of times, visited small villages and the good thing about working with local people is that I can join some of their trips into the country.
How did it all start?
For a long time I have been involved in management consulting and training. The first project here in the region was actually a showcase to prove the concept of IT learning with local kids. The first project location was an orphanage outside Nong Khai, second an orphanage for girls in Udon Thani and the third was the school near Toto’s place. Toto started to work with us from this early stage.
Was it crucial to have Toto as a founding partner?
Absolutely. Local knowledge is the key to success. We moved computers to the school in Toto’s village and taught the kids how to use the computer. The school was really proud to be part of our project and school after school came to us to ask for a volunteer. It was a challenge to find the right volunteer for each place.
The start of Openmind projects?
First we created the website www.itinisan.org to demonstrate what and how kids can learn with the help of computers. When the demand for volunteers grew and there was a need for cross counter solutions, Toto started to develop the first version of the Openmind projects website. It was a test of the concept which finally led to the establishment of Openmind projects in 2002.
How did the IT project look like back then?
10 years ago the biggest challenge was simply to get computers and connect them up. There was no internet available at the local schools. We demonstrated powerpoint and asked kids to make a presentation about themselves. They did learn about computers, help each other out and learn from each other by the presentations.
What bothers you the most regarding the traditional learning system?
I have worked in 20 to 30 countries and I sometimes compare countryside Russia with Thailand and Laos. If you go to a teacher who is teaching English in a Russian village, you simply can’t speak English to them. They teach English but they can’t speak it! Then you meet a 20 year old Thai who has been working in a hotel in Bangkok or Phuket, and they can speak English. Not perfectly, but they can communicate and are socially self assured. That’s why I am very critical about traditional language rote learning which means learning by heart without practicing the English in a real situation.
So how could learning at schools be improved?
Content should be more focused on relevant and realistic situations. It makes no sense to learn 50 words by heart to tell your teacher the next day. Learning by doing in relevant situations is the motivating way to learn for kids. This is one of the reasons why we have banned the word teacher from the classroom. Instead, we use the term coach or elder brother.
What’s the biggest challenge regarding online learning today?
It is still a challenge to find the best way to facilitate online learning for underprivileged kids. I’m not worried about the infrastructure because if it’s not there today, it will be there tomorrow. It is more about the content which is mostly created for universities or higher educated people. We are a mini organization, we can’t develop the software, the learning content, but with our local knowledge we would be the perfect distributor. In other words, we should facilitate online learning and see how to best use the available resources and encourage others to develop more that suits the less privileged, less educated.
Who should join Openmind projects?
An independent minded person who really wants to help and likes our learning ideas. If you want a tourist experience, please don’t join us. My advice to future volunteers is to always consider that as a volunteer you are expected to contribute more than you consume. We offer a genuine experience which will be very worthwhile if you adapt to local conditions and arrive with an open mind. Then you are in for a life changing experience few of your friends had a chance to!
Openmind Projects is based in Nong Khai, Northeast Thailand. They offer volunteering opportunities in the following areas: teaching English, teaching IT, ecotourism & conservation, marine conservation, child- & healthcare, Burmese refugees & migrants (in West Thailand), holiday camps, volunteer support and development. But most projects end up being a combination of these areas. Learn more at the brand new website of Openmind Projects: www.openmindprojects.org