The Soul of Liberty: Openness, Equality and Co-creation

Transcript and slides from my keynote at the CELT 2018 Design for Learning Symposium, NUI Galway.

The theme of today’s conference is designing teaching and learning spaces to facilitate active learning, collaboration and student engagement however my experience lies not so much in physical spaces but in online and digital spaces and specifically open education spaces situated within the open knowledge landscape. I currently work for the Open Education Resources Service at the University of Edinburgh, I’m a Board member of both the Association for Learning Technology and Wikimedia UK, and a member of Open Knowledge International’s Open Education Working Group, and all these organisations are part of the broad Open Knowledge landscape.

What I want to look at today is what we mean when we talk about openness in relation to digital teaching and learning spaces, resources, communities and practices. I also want to highlight the boundaries that demarcate these open spaces, the hierarchies that exist within them, and look at who is included and who is excluded. And I want to explore what we can do to make our open spaces more diverse and inclusive by removing systemic barriers and structural inequalities and by engaging both staff and students in the co-creation of our own teaching and learning experience.

I don’t want to get too hung up on semantics, but I do want to start off by looking at a few definitions. What do we mean if we talk about openness in relation to digital education and open knowledge? This is a question that has been posed numerous times, in numerous contexts by independent scholar and technology journalist  Audrey Watters who, in a 2015 post titled “What Do We Mean By Open Education?” asked

“What do we mean when we use the word? Free? Open access? Open enrollment? Open data? Openly- licensed materials, as in open educational resources or open source software? Open for discussion? Open for debate? Open to competition? Open for business? Open-ended intellectual exploration? Those last two highlight how people can use the word “open” in education and mean not just utterly different things, but perhaps even completely opposite.”

Like Audrey, I don’t have a simple answer to these questions because, as Catherine Cronin reminded us in her thoughtful 2017 paper Open Education, Open Questions, “openness is a constantly negotiated space”. It’s critically important to appreciate that open means very different things to different people, and that our perspective of openness will be shaped by our personal experiences and the privilege of our vantage point.

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AO3 – The mad woman in the open source attic?

Earlier in April when I was preparing my keynote for the FLOSS UK Conference, which focused partially on issues of structural discrimination and lack of equality and diversity in open knowledge and open source communities, it struck me rather forcefully that there is one hugely successful OSS initiative supported by an almost entirely female developer and user community that rarely, if ever, gets spoken about in open knowledge and tech circles. That initiative is Archive Of Our Own. Hands up who’s heard of it? I suspect many of you won’t have heard of it. I know a few of you will have. I bet one or two of you won’t admit it.

So why the reticence?  Run by the not for profit Organisation for Transformative Works, the Archive is a massively successful project that has been sustained by a hugely diverse community of volunteers for almost ten years now. It’s about as open as anything could possibly be. Why are we not singing its praises from the rafters? Why is AO3, as it’s commonly known, the mad woman in the open source attic? Some of us know it’s there, but no one really wants to talk about it. The reason for this reticence, is also the reason for the Archive’s success. AO3 is a repository of transformative works, otherwise known as fanfiction.

I’m not going to debate the validity of fan works as a creative endeavour here, there is plenty of scholarly discussion on that point in other disciplines such as sociology and media, however I really do want to talk about why we don’t acknowledge AO3 as a hugely successful open project founded on the principals of equality, inclusion and diversity. Why aren’t we celebrating it and learning from it?

The success of AO3 is nothing short of staggering. Built on the Ruby on Rails framework, the archive is an open source platform developed, built and maintained by an army of volunteers, the vast majority of whom are women. The project is funded by subscriptions and donations; there is no foundation funding, no sponsorship, no advertising revenue. Indeed AO3 was originally created as a haven to protect fanworks from being monetized by unscrupulous commercial ventures who sought to turn fan labour into profit for their own gain. The Archive itself now has one and a half million users and hosts around four million individual works. It’s free and open to everyone, all user accounts are pseudonymous, and at no point are users required to reveal personally identifying information. In order to manage those four million works AO3 maintains probably the only large scale community generated tagging system that I’ve ever seen working in practice. And it’s all made possible by a large community of tag wranglers who manage the free text tags provided by users.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Organisation for Transformative works also publishes a peer reviewed open journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, maintains the Fanlore wiki to preserve the history of transformative works, it provides voluntary legal advice to creators to protect their works from legal challenge, and it has an active project, Open Doors, to absorb and curate other fan archives elsewhere on the web that are threatened by obscurity, obsolescence or deletion.

It’s an astonishing achievement, but it’s an achievement that many passionate open advocates know nothing about, and, if I’m being honest, that is something that’s pissed me off enormously for years.

So I was absolutely over the moon when I spoke to Claire Knowles, Library Digital Development Manager at the University of Edinburgh, at the recent Digital Day of Ideas (always a thought provoking event that pushes the boundaries) and she told me that Casey Fiesler, a member of OTW’s legal committee, would be presenting the opening keynote at this year’s Open Repositories Conference in Bozeman, Montana. Earlier this week I listened to Casey’s keynote through the conference livestream and was blown away by her talk.  Casey did an amazing job of communicating just what an important achievement AO3 is and how we can learn from its success. Giving an overview of the history and development of the Archive, Casey pointed out that AO3 is an example of amazing design, created for a community that already existed. The open software was designed and built entirely by women, which is remarkable given the small number of women in the open source community. And she concluded her keynote by asking

Is there something here that’s the key to making open source more welcoming to women? I don’t know. What I do know is that if you love something enough you can build your own thing and make it work. AO3 is a great example of a successful open repository but it’s an even better example of the power of community and everything that can come out of it.

The recording of Casey’s keynote isn’t online yet, though I’m sure it will be soon, but in the meantime, I’ve captured my live tweets from her keynote here; Growing Their Own: Building an Archive and a Community for Fanfiction. Many thanks to Casey for her amazing keynote and to the Open Repositories Conference Committee for inviting such an inspiring speaker.

Growing Their Own: Building an Archive and a Community for Fanfiction

These are my livetweets from Casey Fiesler’s inspiring keynote at the Open Repositories Conference in Bozemen, Montana in June 2018.

Growing Their Own: Building an Archive and a Community for Fanfiction
by Casey Fiesler, JD, Ph.D.

Archive of Our Own, a fanfiction repository with millions of users and works, was developed entirely by the community it serves, with a focus on representing the values of that community in its design and policies. Its history is rooted in needs for preservation, advocacy, and empowerment. This talk traces the growth and features of the archive, including grassroots development, design that promotes openness and inclusivity, and the benefits and challenges of maintaining a team of volunteers. Archive or Our Own is a unique example of a repository that has had a transformational effect on a community of content creators, and represents a design philosophy that could benefit other platforms as well.

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CELT Keynote

I’m absolutely delighted to be invited to present one of the keynotes at this year’s CELT Symposium at NUI Galway.  I’ve never been to this event before but I always follow it online as it often has excellent keynotes and a really lively social media presence.  I’ve also never been to Galway before and to say I’m excited to visit would be a bit of an understatement!

The theme of this year’s symposium is Design for Learning: Teaching and Learning Spaces in Higher Education.  I’ll be developing some of the themes I touched on in my OER18 and FLOSS UK keynotes to look at what we mean when we talk about openness in relation to digital teaching and learning spaces, resources, communities and practices. Focusing on open education, OER, open practice, MOOCs, and Wikimedia, I’ll be exploring different and sometimes contradictory definitions and understandings of openness in these contexts.  I’ll also touch on the structural inequalities that prevent some groups and individuals from participating in open education and asking how open and equitable our open education spaces really are and who are they open to?  Using innovative examples from the University of Edinburgh, I’ll look at how we can engage with students to co-create more equitable, inclusive and participatory open education spaces, communities and resources.

The title of my talk, The Soul of Liberty – Openness, equality and co-creation, is paraphrased from a quote by Frances Wright, the Scottish feminist and social reformer, who was born in Dundee in 1795, but who rose to prominence in the United States as an abolitionist, a free thinker, and an advocate of women’s equality in education.

Equality is the soul of liberty; there is, in fact, no liberty without it.

I think the same could also be said of openness; equality is the soul of openness. If our open education spaces and communities are not open to all equally, then really we have to question whether they are open at all.

Fanny Wright, public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.

(I think Fanny would definitely identify with that other free thinker, Ms Janelle Monáe, who I mentioned in my previous blog post – A free thought from a free thinker)

A free thought from a free thinker

I came across this interview with the Fabulous Janelle Monáe just after the OER18 and FLOSS UK Conferences, when thoughts about openness, privilege and whose voices we allow to speak were very much at the forefront of my mind, and I really loved this quote:

“We have to really think who we’re endorsing, we really have to think about what it means to freely think, if it’s at the expense of the oppressed.”

I’m taking this quote completely out of context, but the point stands I think.

See also:

“I’m a free thinker and here’s a free thought: I think that if free thinking is rooted in the oppression of minorities, of black people, of the LBGTQIA people, of immigrants of women, then I don’t fuck with your free thoughts.”

Keep Yourself Warm

I was so very, very saddened to hear of the death of Scott Hutchison, singer and lyricist of Frightened Rabbit today. I only came across the band a couple of years ago but I was deeply moved by Scott’s songs. He was a phenomenally talented writer and his songs uniquely captured the struggles so many face with alienation, depression, isolation and addiction.  Scott faced all these demons in true Scottish style; with scathing wit, self-effacing humour and heartbreaking poetry. Seeing the outpouring of grief today, it’s clear that his songs helped many people who couldn’t find the words to speak for themselves.

I saw Frightened Rabbit play live a couple of times, I heard them bring the house down in Barrowlands in December 2016, and just a few months ago I squeezed into a rammed Academy for the 10th anniversary tour of The Midnight Organ Fight.   One thing really struck me about that last gig, half way through the set the band played Poke, a very poignant, very grown up song about the kind of break up we’ve all been through. What was really striking about that song, on that night, was that the sound of the audience singing suddenly changed and for those glorious 3 minutes it was the voices of all the women in the crowd that raised the rafters. I think I may have shed a tear, I’ve certainly shed more that a few today.

Rest well now Scott and keep yourself warm.

Frightened Rabbit, Barrowlands Ballroom, December 2016. CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

It’s all about the shoes!

Of course conferences aren’t just about keynotes, they’re also about shoes!  As my colleague Anne-Marie noted in her excellent overview of OER18: Sharing a few notes on #OER18 

My colleague Lorna Campbell was the first keynote of the conference “The Long View: Changing Perspectives on OER”. Weirdly, it was all about shoes. But then she spoiled it by getting all political. Typical.

This is the best summary I’ve read of my keynote yet. The shoes in question were these shoes; Backlash by Poetic Licence.

I bought them especially for the conference, because look! They’re nautical and they’ve got little anchors all over them! How could I resist?

And it seems that no one else could resist them either because this tweet now has a completely ridiculous 15,670 impressions and 968 engagements.  Which is about 15,600 impressions more than anything else I’ve ever tweeted :}

How the hell am I going to top that next year?!

Nudging the Door Open

Last week I presented one of the keynotes at the FLOSS UK Spring Conference in Edinburgh.  I had been invited to present as the organising committee were keen to diversify both the scope and the gender balance of their event, after a first call for papers brought in only male speakers.  Persuaded by the enthusiasm and commitment of the organisers, and after discussing the invitation with colleagues at the University, I accepted their invitation.  However after a second round of blind peer review again brought in only male speakers (thus illustrating the problem of blind submission in any domain that already lacks diversity) I began to get a bit apprehensive.  Normally I would politely decline an invitation to participate in an all-male panel and now here I was keynoting at an all-male conference.

I discussed my concerns with the organisers who once again were sensitive to the issue, keen to talk and open to suggestions.  And I was more than a little relieved when my inspirational senior colleague Melissa Highton, Director of Learning, Teaching and Web Services at University of Edinburgh was invited to open the conference, and Christel Dahlskjaer, VP of Open Source and Digital Advocacy at Private Internet Access, was also added to the programme.

My talk was scheduled to take place on the second day, but I went along on the first day to hear Melissa’s opening address and Debian Project Leader Chris Lamb’s keynote.  I had expected female delegates to be in the minority, but I was a little startled to discover there were only three women in the room out of an audience in the region of around eighty people.  Melissa raised this issue diplomatically in her opening address which included a call for more diversity and inclusion in technology industries.

Although I get a little keyed up when I’m speaking in public I don’t generally get too nervous, however I was extremely apprehensive about presenting a non-technical keynote to an all-male audience of technical developers.  Particularly given that my talk, an over view of the Open Knowledge Landscape, highlighted the problem of systemic bias and structural inequality in a wide range of “open” communities.  In an effort to work up a little courage I did something I don’t often do; I called for back-up.  The evening before my keynote I tweeted…

To say that I was overwhelmed by the response would be an understatement, so I’d like to thank each and every one of you who replied to my tweet, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your support.

I also tweeted a thread of all the inspiring projects and initiatives that I had included in my talk, because if you’re speaking about diversity and representation I think it’s really important to give credit where credit is due.  The twitter thread proved to be really popular so I might do this again next time I’m giving a talk.

On the morning of my keynote I was encouraged to see a couple more women in the audience, maybe five in total?  But it was still pretty daunting to get up onto that stage.  The audience however were faultlessly polite and engaged, particularly when I spoke about structural inequality and lack of representation in technology domains and open communities.

I ended by highlighting the story of Bassel Khartabil and the Memorial Fund that Creative Commons established to commemorate his legacy, because I believe it demonstrates why it’s so important for all those of us who work in the broad domain of Open Knowledge to come together to break down the barriers that divide us.  I always find it difficult to talk about Bassel and this time was no exception. I choked when I tried to read a passage he wrote from Adra Prison in Damascus and I was almost in tears by the end.  However I make no apology for getting emotional over such an important story.

There was only time for a couple of questions after my talk, one about business models for openness and another about how the conference could become more diverse and inclusive without compromising the integrity of their peer review process. During the break afterwards, I was really touched by a young delegate from the University of York who said he had benefitted so much from working in open source software projects and using Wikipedia, and wanted to know how he could give something back to the community.  I suggested becoming a Wikipedia editor and gave him some pointers on how to get started.  And I also really enjoyed chatting with some Edinburgh Informatics students who were hugely enthusiastic about the University’s commitment to Open Knowledge. Although there wasn’t a great deal of activity around the conference hashtag, I was touched to get one or two really supportive comments from delegates.

All in all the conference was a pretty daunting event for me, but it’s one that I learned a lot from, not least how supportive my own Open Knowledge community is and how willing other communities can be to listen to new stories and alternative points of view.  So I’d like the take this opportunity to thank the organisers once again for inviting me to keynote.

Last word has to go to the fabulous Kelsey Merkley.

Exploring the Open Knowledge Landscape

Transcript and slides from my keynote at the FLOSS UK Spring Conference in Edinburgh.

I’m not a programmer.  I’m not a developer.  And I don’t contribute directly to the creation of free and open source software.  I originally started out as an Archaeologist but I now work in the domain of Open Knowledge and more specifically open education.  I currently work for the Open Education Resources Service within the Information Services Group at the University of Edinburgh, I’m a Board member of both the Association for Learning Technology and Wikimedia UK, and a member of Open Knowledge International’s Open Education Working Group. All these organisations are part of the Open Knowledge landscape and what I want to do today is provide a broad overview of some of the different domains, communities and cultures that make up this landscape including open education, open data, open textbooks and Open Access Scholarly works.  And I also want to explore the boundaries that crisscross this landscape and demarcate these open spaces, and ask who is included, who is excluded, and what we can do to make our communities more diverse and inclusive.

In the words of the late, great Maryam Mirzakhani, former professor of mathematics at Stanford University and the first female winner of the Fields Medal, who sadly passed away last year.

“I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields—it’s very refreshing. There are lots of tools, and you don’t know which one would work. It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things.”

So that’s what I want to do today, to look at how we can cross the imaginary boundaries of the Open Knowledge landscape and connect our different open communities.

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FLOSSUK Keynote: Exploring the Open Knowledge Landscape

Hot on the heels of OER 18, I’m now preparing for a second keynote which I’ll be presenting at the FLOSSUK Spring Conference in Edinburgh this Friday.  The title of the keynote is Exploring the Open Knowledge Landscape and here’s an overview.

Through a culture of collaboration and sharing, Open Knowledge has the potential to expand inclusive and equitable access to education and lifelong learning, promoting technology transfer and innovation, enhancing quality and sustainability, while supporting social inclusion and preparing the public to become fully engaged digital citizens.

This talk will give a broad overview of the different domains, communities and cultures that make up the “Open Knowledge Landscape”, including open education, OER, open courseware, open textbooks, MOOCs, open data, open science, open access scholarly works, maker spaces, open GLAM, open government, etc, and how they relate to free and libre open source systems.

We have seen significant progress in many of these areas in recent years, yet there has been a tendency for many of these domains to progress in parallel, in bounded spaces, with little sign of convergence. So while Open Access mandates have had a positive impact on opening access to scholarly works and research data, open government initiatives have successfully started to open up civic data and information, and open science networks and infrastructure are flourishing, too often these initiatives fail to connect with other open communities and as a result we are in danger of creating “open silos”. There may be no one simple solution to breaking down the barriers between these “open silos” but exploring the converging and competing cultures and communities of the Open Knowledge landscape is a positive step forward to achieving a more open, inclusive and equitable society.

Free, libre and open source software communities are a particularly male dominated corner of the Open Knowledge landscape, a recent survey by Github of 5,500 random contributors revealed that 95% were men, just 3% were women and 1% were non-binary.  As might be expected, the conference programme reflects the make up of its community, with only 3 female speakers among 19 men.  This has given me much pause for thought, as normally I would politely decline to participate in an all male panel, never mind an all male conference.  However the organisers of the event are sensitive to this lack of diversity and it was for this reason that they contacted me and invited me to keynote. It’s not always easy to take positive action to address diversity and inclusion, so I think it’s important to acknowledge and support those who make the effort.   I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being a little apprehensive about the keynote, particularly as I’ll be touching on the issue of systemic bias and structural inequality in open communities, but at the same time I’m looking forward to talking to a new group of open practitioners.  Wish me luck!