OER18: Listening to the voices

I always struggle a bit when it comes to writing OER Conference reflections.  I come back from the event buzzing with so many new ideas and connections and often with strong emotions too, and this year was no exception.  So before I go any further I just want to say a huge thank you to Viv Rolfe and David Kernohan for co-chairing such a thought provoking conference and to ALT for supporting such a welcoming and inclusive event.

The theme of OER18 was Open For All and the conference encompassed discussions around marginality, inclusivity, diversity, identity, decolonisation, and respect.  It was truly inspiring to hear so many new voices; Momadou Sallah‘s keynote on developing counter narratives of disruption and resistance through open practise was joyful, challenging and thought provoking, and it was a privilege to hear bold and articulate voices from the global south such as Pritee Aukloo and Taskeen Adams.  Other highlights for me included my colleague Anne-Marie Scott’s moving and sensitive talk on using open licensed images and Wikimedia Commons to raise awareness of Phoebe Anna Traquair’s culturally significant and deeply affecting murals  painted for the Mortuary Chapel at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, Ewan McAndrew’s stories of student empowerment through engaging wih Wikipedia, and Nicole Allen gathering global voices to critique and contribute to Capetown +10. In such a packed programme I missed many more amazing sessions, particularly  Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, Christian Friedrich, Christina Hendricks, Taskeen Adam, Jamison Miller, and Sukaina Walji’s conversation about ethics, epistemology, equity and power, and Nick Baker on inclusivity, diversity and what openness means to non-Eurocentric cultural groups. I hope my opening keynote, a personal reflection on the history of the OER Conference, helped to set the scene for these discussions and provide some context for where the OER Conference finds itself today, and where it might go next.

These themes of diversity and inclusion will be front and centre at next year’s OER19 conference which will be co-chaired by two women who have been a continual inspiration to me; Catherine Cronin and Laura Czerniewicz.  The theme of OER19 will be Recentering Open: Critical and Global Perspectives, and Catherine stressed the need to focus on moving beyond hero narratives and including marginalised voices.

And that’s where I want to pause.

We talk a lot about diversity and inclusivity in the open “movement” (and there’s a contentious phrase in itself) but too often the narrative we hear is still dominated by white male voices from the global north.  Some of those voices are not ones that I identify with, and I am uncomfortable being part of any community or movement that includes them.  Personally I really don’t care how significant a contribution an author such as Eric S. Raymond has made to the open movement if he also espouses views that are intolerant, racist, sexist and homophobic. We all understand the distinction between free as in speech and free as in beer, but surely we also understand by now that freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences?  Too often there is a painful lack self awareness and self reflection in these hero narratives and the definitions they espouse.  I find it ironic, for example, that one of the tenets of the Open Source Definition is “no discrimination against persons or groups”, when the community and tech industry discriminates massively against women, people of colour and other marginalised groups.

In his keynote on the history of the open source and open content movement, David Wiley said “not everyone can and will contribute, but that’s okay”, and while that is true on one level, there is an important discussion to be had here about structural inequality and discrimination. The questions we should be asking ourselves are what are the barriers that prevent some people from contributing, and what can we do to remove those systemic obstructions? How can we lower the ladder again, so to speak. And to me this is what openness is about, the removal of systemic barriers and structural inequalities to enable everyone to participate equitably, and on their own terms. It’s not easy to move beyond these dominant narratives when they are so all pervasive that we barely recognise them for what they are, and it’s not easy to hear the voices that they marginalise, but I have every faith that next year’s conference, under the guidance of these two amazing women, will meet these challenges head on.

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Phil Barker and Sheila MacNeill have also written excellent blog posts that reflect on similar issues; #OER18 Open to all but beware the wingnuts and Open Chasms – definitions dividing or uniting the open community? Some thoughts from #oer18.