Circular Records Hall on Atlas Obscura

I was quietly chuffed a couple of weeks ago when one of my photographs was featured in Atlas Obscura, and even more so, because the picture in question was one that I uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as part of the Wiki Loves Monuments competition last year.  See?  Good things happen when you contribute to the Commons.  You can read the Atlas Obscura article here: General Register Building of the National Archives of Scotland, and the original image is available on Wikimedia Commons here: General Register Office, Circular Record Hall.

I actually snapped this picture during a consultation meeting on the Scottish Government’s Digital Educations strategy a few years ago and as far as I ca recall it was taken on an ancient beaten up old iPhone.

Reflections on CELT Symposium 2018

I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit NUI Galway last week for the annual CELT Symposium. It was the first time I’d been to Galway, but it reminded me a lot of a (much!) bigger version of my home town of Stornoway in the Western Isles so it felt a bit like home away from home.

The theme of this years symposium was Design for Learning: Teaching and Learning Spaces for Higher Education and, as always, it was a really thought provoking and engaging event. Although I’ve never been to CELT before I always follow the conference hashtag on twitter so it was great to be invited to participate in person this year. I’m not going to attempt to summarise the entire symposium, but I do want to briefly mention a few highlights.

Alastair Blyth, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Westminster, opened the conference with a keynote on Re-imagining Learning Spaces in Higher Education. Alastair noted that conversations about space are never just about space, they’re conversations about pedagogy, curriculum, technology, time and most importantly people. Learning is a social process, so learning spaces need to be learner centred and inclusive, and they need to enable collaboration between both students and teachers.  Alastair also highlighted the important civic function of universities, which blurs the boundary of public and private space.  This is a function that has always been central to the University of Edinburgh and indeed the university’s civic mission is written into the institution’s vision for open eduction.

Lorna Campbell & Donna Lanclos, CC BY-SA 2.0, Catherine Cronin

Anthropologist Donna Lanclos also gave a really inspiring keynote on supporting active learning pedagogies through creative physical spaces.  Creating the space is just the starting point, staff need time to develop a curriculum that maximises the effectiveness of active learning spaces. Experimenting with teaching in this way can be unsettling for students, as it’s a different model of authority. Teachers that are comfortable in active learning spaces, are comfortable with the realisation that they are not the main point of the learning experience.  Research shows that active pedagogies and active teaching and learning strategies break down inequalities in student success. If we choose not to adopt these approaches, then it becomes a social justice issue.  Donna cautioned against asking students what they want from libraries and learning spaces; instead, ask them what they do, where they go, ask them about their own learning spaces. We need institutional spaces that facilitate collaborative learning, we can’t just send our students to Starbucks. Donna also introduced us to the wonderfully icky concept of Sticky Campuses – campuses that students want to come back to.

Another session that really captivated me was Catriona Carlin‘s lovely talk about designing biodiverse spaces to feel joy and inspire learning. Catriona reminded us that the outdoors isn’t just for ecologists, the outdoors enables people to think outside the frameworks that constrain them, allowing them to notice, observe and think.  A timely reminder for us all!

Given the Symposium’s focus on physical teaching and learning spaces, I was a little worried that my closing keynote, The Soul of Liberty,  on digital open learning spaces, might be a little off the mark, so I was really encouraged by all the positive feedback I got from participants on twitter both during my talk and after I posted the transcript here on my blog.  It’s particularly gratifying to see such a positive response to our Open Content Curation Student Interns and the Wikimedia in the Classroom initiatives led by our wonderful Wikimedian in Residence Ewan McAndrew.  I’d also like to give a little shout out to Alice White, WiR at the Wellcome Library, and my colleague Anne-Marie Scott, whose gorgeous photographs of the Processions collaborative art work I used in my slides.

I’d just like to finish by thanking Catherine Cronin and Ian McLaren for inviting me to the Symposium and to all at NUI Galway who worked so hard to make it such a welcoming and engaging event. Tapadh leibh a huille duinne!

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.”

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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The Long View: Changing Perspectives on OER

Transcript and slides from my keynote at the OER18 Open For All Conference in Bristol. A recording of the keynote is available here.

Being invited to keynote is always a privilege, and I’m particularly honoured to have been invited to present the opening keynote at this year’s OER18 Conference here in Bristol. Not least because I’m following in the footsteps of the three inspirational women who presented last year’s keynotes; Diana Arce, Maha Bali and Lucy Compton-Reid, but also because it’s a real privilege to be here talking, and more importantly, listening to you. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the people at this conference, people like you, who have shaped my thinking on OER and my career as an open education practitioner more than any other. You see, OER is my conference, I’ve attended every single one since the conference launched at the University of Cambridge in 2010, and in 2016 I had the huge pleasure of chairing the OER Open Culture conference at the University of Edinburgh with my inspiring colleague Melissa Highton.

Over the years I’ve seen this conference grow in scale and scope, I’ve seen themes and trends around open education change and evolve, and I’ve watched with real pleasure as the conference has become more diverse, inclusive, and international. The OER conference really is increasingly open for all.

One of the things that I’ve always loved about open education, and indeed about learning technology more generally, is that we have all arrived here by very different, often circuitous, and sometimes surprising routes. We all came from somewhere else and we all bring something different to the domain of open education in terms of experience, practice and perspective.

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