Dusk Requiem for OpenEd
It’s conference season again, and this time of year always brings on a heavy stream of Tweets from the Open Education Conference. Folks at the conference Tweet out all kinds of learning nuggets and inspiring work from others in the community, and sometimes you find really good finds to inform your work even if you’re not there in person (like me!) In past years I certainly joined in on the live Tweeting of sessions, although most of that is now only archived after wiping a bunch of old Tweets from the platform.
This year there was a surprising cluster of Tweets that came out, the first of which I saw from Martin Weller:
Wow – @opencontent is saying he will adjourn the #OpenEd conference and not run it any more so we can reset and think about how to go forward. This is a big deal – he wants this “reimagining” to be owned by the community
— Martin Weller (@mweller) October 30, 2019
Thinking back on my history with Open Education (the conference and the movement more broadly), this conference and community played a significant role in my professional development. I encountered open education as a special topics section of the Foundations of Learning Theory course I took in grad school. This included the work of David Wiley, George Siemens, and Stephen Downes. I’m pretty sure my instructor had Skype interviews with each of them, and highlighted projects and work of theirs. One item that I found myself going back to for years after grad school was Wiley’s Project Management for Instructional Designers book (proto-opentextbook? The book is now in Pressbooks, but when I first saw it, I think it was all plain HTML). This would have been around 2011/2012, and of course around that time MOOCs were all the rage.
Early in my career in instructional design I often advocated and used openly licensed materials in the courses I worked on, and I feel like although Creative Commons had been around for years there was a period around 2013/2014 where open education and CC picked up quite a bit of momentum. This is likely just because of my increasing awareness in the area though. I recall advocating for more CC licensed materials in continuing ed courses that my colleagues and I worked on. I kept up with blogs of folks in the area, of particular note in this were Jim Groom, Alan Levine, Mike Caulfield, in addition to those I already mentioned. The further I read into the work of folks in this global community, the more I wanted engage more deeply with open education. It didn’t have to just be resources, but it could be syndication, new assignment types, assignment banks ala DS106, or FedWiki (later Wikity). These were all very inspiring things.
In 2015 I had the opportunity to work on a project that was funded by Alberta OER, creating an open curriculum for professional communications. I left a full-time pretty much permanent position to chase this six month contract. Crazy I know, but to this day, that project is one that is high on my pride projects list. I worked with great folks from across Canada and got to cut my teeth on a project that was higher ed related but not quite a “course”. It was late 2015 that I went to the OpenEd Conference for the first time, in Vancouver. I was so jazzed to reconnect with colleagues of mine from USASK, as well as folks I’d met on Twitter. Sessions that stand out the most for me were Brian Lamb and Alan Levine introducing SPLOTs to the world, and Mike Caulfield doing a demo of Wikity. There was a session that I remember really liking by Rolin Mo as well, although the details are fuzzy now. But you know what the whole rest of the conference left me with? A big ball of open textbook talk. It felt overwhelmingly like open education was being reduced to open textbooks and via that, cost savings, governance and policy to cut costs, and to shame publishers. Was I still happy to be working on an open textbook as part of the communication OER project? Totally. Did I think that was the be all and end all of what open education had to offer? No. The poutine crawl might also be one of the most memorable parts of this conference (paging Tom, Laura, and Jen).
The other great open education opportunity I had starting in the summer of 2015 was to work with Designers for Learning on their Instructional Design Service Course (MOOC) on Canvas Network. That list of projects I’m so happy I got to be part of? This is also up there. It was an opportunity to apply a different approach than writing an open textbook, and be a bit more audience focused. Working the Jen Maddrell, John Baaki, and other IDs, as well as a great team of SMEs such as Amanda Duffy and Janet Lee. In 2016 I had the opportunity to go to the Open Ed Conference in Richmond and participate on the panel discussion about the course D4L had created and offered a couple of times by the time the conference rolled around. Although there was still a lot of open textbook talk at the 2016 conference, I recall being appreciative that open education projects that were not just about cutting textbook costs for undergraduate students were welcome. Our panel was just one example of widening the perspective at open ed, and it sounded like the committee that organized the conference heard and responded to the comments about “too much open textbook stuff” from the year before. This was the last open education conference I attended. That said, there was a weird feeling I got at this conference this time around. There must have been over 600 people in attendance, still small compared to some of the other conferences I attended that had 1500-3000 attendees. But this conference was the first time I think I felt the cliques in open education. Tensions between different cliques was almost palpable, and I found that folks who I though I had good relationships with online were much more exclusionary in person than they appeared or claimed to be online. I had lots of good people around me at the conference, but I was saddened to discover that some people’s attitudes in person were not who I thought I knew.
In following years I looked for other open education related conferences to try to get an even broader taste of what the community had to offer. I presented at the Alberta OER Summit mere months after moving back to Saskatchewan. There was great work happening there, and I was glad to have the chance to highlight work that went beyond replacing publisher textbooks with CC licensed textbooks. A year later I attended ALT’s OER Conference in the UK and was blown away by how this conference drew an international audience that felt like a coming home. Not only Canadians I met there were welcoming and friendly, and genuinely interested chatting, but folks from the USA, UK, and even further away. I even got to meet Maha Bali in person and still feel humbled by that. OER included so much work and stories of open education beyond open textbooks that I was nearly overwhelmed by all the new (to me) ideas folks were floating. I find conferences often tire me out (it’s a lot to take in in just a few days), but OER invigorated me. Following OER I went to Open Ed Global. There was plenty of familiar faces at OEG, similar topics to other open education conferences, and I was genuinely surprised actually about the number of MOOC presentations. OEG drew a pretty big crowd, and generally was a good conference, but there was something lingering there that felt less like home.
I now have not been to a conference that focused on open education in a couple of years. I still follow along on Twitter when conferences are happening, and connect with folks informally about their work, or about things I’m working on. But that feeling I sensed in 2016 kept coming back. I could really start to see where lines were in a community I originally perceived to be pretty cohesive (yeah, I know, no community is totally cohesive and that’s ok). Thinking about my own journey in open ed, I wonder where I would be if it weren’t for all of those who came before me and shared their work and their thoughts openly. No where near where I am now that’s for sure. I am appreciative for all I’ve learned from folks like David Wiley (although I’ve only talked to him personally for like 2 minutes in person), and others I mentioned at the start of this post. Thank-you all for sharing your passion and work.
It didn’t take long before this prediction rolled in:
I’ll call it now: adjourning a central community will damage, at least in the short term, the overall #opened movement. Groups will spin off, driven by individual’s identity (we saw this in the lead up to the social media conversation). Fragmentation. Antagonism.
— George Siemens (@gsiemens) October 30, 2019
While I see Georges point about adjourning a significant (not central) community will have an impact on a large contingent of the Open Ed movement, I don’t know that I would describe it as damage. There is plenty of work that goes on related to Open Education year round in large organizations and small. If it weren’t for the work of folks that established the community of this particular Open Ed Conf open education would be in a much different place no doubt. But it has become a movement and has networks and nodes throughout the globe now with many advocates. It’s disappointing that this specific group of people won’t be convening for this event in the foreseeable future, but this is a opportunity to grow and change. I think David’s message was still a hopeful one, and I think there are plenty of people in all corners of the larger open education community that will run with this opportunity.
In Canada we already have an addition to this field in the Open/Technology Education, Society, and Scholarship Association, its inaugural conference being in May/June 2020. OER and Open Ed Global continue, and numerous other gatherings that have sprung up, no doubt inspired by the Open Ed Conf. It’s now up to us as a community in this space to work together to create what we need to move forward, help and inspire one another, and advocate for learners around the world.