The OER Conference is always one of the highlights of the year for me. It’s the only open education conference I attend regularly and I’m privileged to have been present at every single one since the conference launched at the University of Cambridge back in 2010. So needless to say, I was gutted that the f2f element of this year’s conference had to be cancelled, despite knowing that it was unquestionably the right thing to do. I know from experience how much work and personal investment goes into planning the OER Conference and what a difficult decision it must have been for ALT and for co-chairs Mia Zamora, Daniel Villar-Onrubia and Jonathan Shaw. That initial feeling of loss was tempered by ALTs announcement that they would be moving the event online, an ambitious plan, given that the conference was barely two weeks away. I was always confident that ALT could pull off this #pivot as they already have a wealth of experience facilitating online conferences, through the annual winter online conference, and as an already distributed organisation they didn’t have to cope with the scramble to set up remote working that may other organisations and institutions faced. What I didn’t expect though was for ALT and the conference co-chairs to deliver an entirely unique event. They didn’t just move the planned face to face conference online they completely transformed it into a new, original and completely free online experience that welcomed over 1,000 registered participation from across the globe. And please note, the OER20 conference wasn’t just free as in speech, it was also free as in beer, so if you participated in the event, either listening in to the presentations, or even just following the hashtag online, please consider making a donation to the conference fund. Every little helps to support ALT and cover the cost.
Of course the theme of the conference, The Care in Openness, could not have been more timely or more prescient. The whole notion of care has taken on new weight since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic. Care has literally become a matter of survival. The only way we will get through this is if we care for each other, and if we protect and value those that care for us.
If I was to pick two session that for me, really embodied this ethic of care it would have to be keynote sava saheli singh and Mia Zamora in conversation, and Frances Bell talking about the femedtech quilt project. Both sessions featured films that provoked a really strong, but very different, emotional response. Screening Surveillance’s Frames is a deeply unsettling tale of surveillance, commodification, dehumanisation and alienation. Powerful, challenging and disturbing, watching Frames is a profoundly uncomfortable and thought provoking experience. The subsequent discussion brought to mind Jimmy Reid’s immortal address on becoming rector of the University of Glasgow in 1972; Alienation.
“Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human being, self-centred and grasping.”
This quote particularly resonates with me. So much has changed in the 50 years since Reid’s address, but so much remains the same. It is the system of capitalism that is still so often the root cause of our dehumanisation and alienation. Industrialisation may have given way to surveillance capitalism, but digital technology is simply the latest mechanism for our alienation.
sava ended her brilliant keynote session with a much needed call for compassion and action:
“We need to approach everyone with compassion…All of us are activists now.”
It was a huge privilege to hear sava and Mia in conversation, and my only regret is that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to meet them in person. I hope that will happen one day.
Nowhere is that compassion and activism more visible than in the making of the femedtech quilt, a craft activism project and a material manifestation of care led by the indefatigable Frances Bell. Frances produced this beautiful film about the making of quilt and it’s safe to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after watching it. Like the quilt itself, the up-swell of collective emotion was “beautifully imperfect, imperfectly beautiful.”
I find it hard to put my profound appreciation for this project into words, but Su-Ming Khoo spoke for many of us when she thanked Frances for giving us all “somewhere to put our connection and our gratitude”.
My other highlights of the conference included….
The launch of the University of Edinburgh and Wikimedia UK’s Wikimedia in Education handbook. Edited by Wikimedian in Residence, Ewan McAndrew, this free, open licensed booklet brings together 14 case studies from educators across the UK who are already integrating Wikimedia assignments in their courses and classes. I know how much work has gone into the production of this booklet so it was great to see it being launched. I’m sure it will be an invaluable and inspirational resource that will encourage educators to see the huge potential of integrating Wikmedia projects in education.
Staying with the Wikimedians, Wikimedia UK’s Scotland Programmes Coordinator Sara Thomas gave an impassioned talk on Wikimedia and Activism. I love listening to Sara present, she always makes me want to storm the barricades! Sara reminded us that learning and creating open knowledge are always political acts. Creating knowledge encourages agency, but access to information alone does not result in enlightenment. Knowledge is nothing without literacy and information literacy is crucial for participatory democracy.
I also really enjoyed Bonnie Stewart and Dave White’s thoughtful and compassionate session on Designing for Systems of Care: Can Open Pedagogy Scale Caring? Dave spoke about the dangerous grey area between surveillance and care, and argued that personalised, individualised learning is actually reducing our agency, our self-direction and self-determination. We’re at a point where the tech sector appears to be telling us “we’ll care for you and personalise your experience, if you tell us everything about you.” But we can’t use technology to lock everything down, we need to create a culture of trust now more so than ever.
I made one very small contribution to the conference this year, a short alt-format talk on open practice and invisible labour, which you can read here and listen to here. Sadly this talk became all the more relevant with news reports yesterday afternoon that hundreds of university staff on precarious contracts have been made redundant by the universities of Bristol, Newcastle and Sussex. As my colleague Melissa Highton succinctly put it “This is why we strike.”
There is always a strong social element to OER conferences and there was a risk that this would be lost with the move online. However the conference team excelled themselves and, if anything, this was one of the most social and inclusive conferences I’ve participated in, ether on or off-line. The social bingo was hugely popular and a great use of Alan Levine’s fabulous TRU Collector SPLOT. (If you enjoyed playing OER social bingo, you might like to support Alan’s work by contributing to his Patreon.) The KarOERke was also priceless. Anyone who knows me will know that karaoke is my idea of HELL. I can barely even bring myself to watch it, never mind participate! However, I had great fun dipping in and out of the online KarOERke on ds106.tv. My only regret is that I missed Lucy Crompton-Reid singing Kate Bush. The final rousing chorus from Les Mis was something to behold though. Y’all are daft as brushes.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the OER20 though was that none of the emotion and connection that is so characteristic of the OER conferences was lost. If anything, this was heightened by the #unprecedented global situation we find ourselves living through. Suddenly these tenuous temporal connections we made with colleagues from all over the world during the two days of the conference, felt more important than ever before. A valuable lifeline, and a network of care, hope and activism that connected us all at a time of uncertainty and isolation. Ultimately these are the things that matter and these are the things that will see us through.