OER20: Care, hope and activism

CC BY, Bryan Mather

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.

Drawing the Line: Reflections on open practice and digital labour

This is a transcript of my short online talk at the OER20 Conference. 

My name’s Lorna Campbell, I’m a regular contributor to the femedtech network and I’m speaking to you today from Glasgow in Scotland. I make no apology for the fact that this talk raises more questions than it answers, and like much in the world right now, it has evolved significantly over the last few weeks and months.  The original inspiration for this presentation was a post I wrote for the femedtech Open Space during last year’s OER19 conference.  The Open Space sought to question dominant narratives of “open” and explore whose voices are included and excluded from our open spaces and practices. 

As Catherine Cronin reminds us, openness, by its nature is highly diverse and contextual. We all experience openness from different perspectives and different positions of power, prejudice, privilege and discrimination. For some of us, openness is part of our job, our research, our field of study. For some it’s a philosophy, a personal commitment. For some it’s political. For some it’s emotional. For many, me included, it’s a complex mix of all of the above.

I’m fortunate to experience openness from a position of privilege.  I work at an institution with a strong civic mission and a real commitment to open knowledge, where my primary responsibility is to support engagement with open education and OER.   I also contribute my labour to other organisations that support like-minded goals, sometimes as a volunteer, sometimes in a more formal capacity, as a Trustee, sometimes just for fun. 

We all have a deep personal commitment to our open practice, to equity and social justice. We all want to be good citizens of the open community, making a positive contribution to the global commons. But when do the hours that we willingly devote to open education start to become unacknowledged, invisible digital labour? How much does the open community rely on this invisible labour?  And perhaps most importantly, how far does it exclude those who are unable or unwilling to contribute their labour for free? 

These are questions that many in the open knowledge domain are increasingly trying to address.   One of the key concepts underpinning the new Movement Strategy being developed by the Wikimedia Foundation is Knowledge Equity, the commitment to focus on knowledge and communities that have been left out by structures of power and privilege, and to break down the social, political, and technical barriers preventing people from accessing and contributing to free knowledge. If the Wikimedia community is serious about honouring this commitment to knowledge equity then it must also acknowledge the problematic issue of invisible labour.  

CC BY-SA, NASA + VGrigas (WMF), on Wikimedia Commons

As open practitioners, the boundaries of our labour are complex and porous and this has both positive and negative consequences for ourselves as individuals, community members, workers, activists and volunteers.

These complexities have been thrown into stark focus by both the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent UCU industrial action, which focused on equality, job security, fair workloads and fair pay.  The strike highlighted the problems of exploitation, discrimination and precarity that exist right across academia, and from which open education is far from immune. When our personal and political commitments and activism are so interwoven with an exploitative system, boundaries become blurred and it’s hard to know where, if anywhere, to draw the line. How can we balance our agency as open practitioners and citizens of the global commons with cognisance that it is our digital labour that sustains a system that is by turns inspiring and dispiriting, empowering and exploitative?

USS Strike Rally, George Square, Glasgow, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

These issues were encapsulated in a twitter thread from @HEreflections1 during the previous round of industrial action.

“One of the most pernicious aspects of stress, anxiety and burnout in education is that it often starts with individuals who work longer hours through enjoyment and an ethic of care. But at some point the organisation captures this as core work which has to be done.

As a result the enjoyment, the agency is lost and the stress begins to grow, leading eventually to hate and/or exhaustion in some cases. And it creeps up on people so that they blame themselves. This is the failure of the system, and any discussion of well-being or expert groups focusing on happiness misses the point completely.

What starts with dignity and vocation is smashed by performativity, by human as resource, and by an inability to see education as a community.”

And yet despite the toll taken by the exploitation of our invisible digital labour and ethic of care, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in our collective response to the current coronavirus crisis.  Colleagues returning from strike threw themselves into the task of supporting the online pivot, while dealing with the new reality of working from home, juggling childcare, home schooling, caring for elderly relatives and immunocompromised friends, while coping with financial insecurity, and unprecedented stress.  All of this emotional and affective labour has been contributed without question or complaint at the same time that institutions are deducting strike pay from our wages and, in some cases, making redundant the precarious staff who carry so much of the burden of this labour of care.

There are no simple answers to any of the questions I’ve raised here, but I believe it is important that we raise these critical issues and that we keep talking about them, so I’d like to invite conference participants to reflect on the nature of their own open practice and invisible labour and, if they feel so inclined, to share their experiences and reflections at the femedtech Open Space

Further Reading

Sharing the Labour of Care

This article was originally posted on WonkHE under the title We need to recognise where the burden of care falls in higher education.


Most of us work in higher education because we care; we care about our students, our colleagues, our subject specialisms, we care about learning, and we care about sharing knowledge.  Many of us even care about our institutions, even if that care is increasingly unreciprocated.  Our profession is distinguished by emotional commitment, compassion, and a strong ethic of care, but this burden of care is unevenly distributed across the academy.  This critical and largely invisible labour routinely falls to those who are already marginalised in the system; women, people of colour, early career researchers, those employed on precarious and part time contracts, those on lower pay grades.  Caring has always been regarded as women’s work, and as a result, the labour of caring is habitually devalued and taken for granted.  There is an assumption that caring is low skilled work, that anyone can do it, but of course that is far from true.  Despite the toll taken by the exploitation of this invisible labour, we all continue to do our best, to go the extra mile, to pick up the pieces for our students and our colleagues, which inevitably leads to stress, anxiety and burnout. In a timely twitter thread about the current round of UCU strikes, Máiréad Enright pointed out that

“There is emotional labour involved in knowing and being reminded that others will have to face the everyday crisis, because you aren’t there. It’s important that we recognise that this emotional labour is part of what’s distinctive about the neoliberal university. We govern ourselves and each other through emotion. Disunity, competition and compulsory individualism in the university ensure that.”

The reason many of us are striking, to protest universities’ failure to protect our pensions, and adequately address the gender pay gap, unrealistic workloads, and increasing casualisation, is not because we don’t care about our students and those who rely on our emotional labour, it’s because we care too much. And I am fully aware of the irony that I am writing this article while allegedly on strike. Withdrawing our emotional labour is a hard thing to do.

As with many other aspects of our employment and our practice, much of this burden of emotional labour has become mediated through and exacerbated by technology.  Whether it’s spending weekends answering e-mails from distraught students, peer reviewing journal papers and conference submissions, writing blog posts, taking part in twitter conversations, contributing to hashtags, writing Wikipedia articles, or keeping up with social media.  In a provocation recorded as part of Open Education Week, Leo Havemann argues that there is a lack of appreciation for the kind of labour and expertise involved in digital practice.  All too often digital labour is unrecognised and unrewarded invisible labour.  Of course there is a gendered aspect to digital labour in higher education too, which is largely unacknowledged and under researched. A notable exception is research undertaken by the Association for Learning Technology to analyse the results of their sector wide ALT Annual Survey through the lense of gender.  ALT’s research has provided some evidence of different priorities for men and women particularly with regard to dedicated time and recognition for career development.

While much of our invisible labour may be undervalued by our institutions, grass roots initiatives have sprung up to acknowledge, celebrate and support the contribution our digital and emotional labour makes to education.  One such initiative is femedtech, a reflexive emergent network of people learning, researching and practising in educational technology. The femedtech network is informal, unfunded, and cross sector and our resources are our passion, kindness, knowledge, enthusiasm and volunteer commitment. Our name, femedtech (feminist education technology), aligns us with a critical perspective on education and technology. We are alive to the specific ways that technology and education are gendered, and to how injustices and inequalities play out in these spaces.

Despite the burden of care that we carry, there is strength and solidarity to be gained from shared labour and a sense of community and belonging that traditionally derives from women’s work.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education project.  Created by Frances Bell in collaboration with members of the femedtech network, this craft activism project takes its inspiration from the themes of the 2020 OER Conference; The Care in Openness.  Women and men, from all over world have contributed quilt squares representing personal reflections on care, openness and social justice. You can find out more about the femedtech quilt project here https://quilt.femedtech.net/

#femedtch quilt, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

References

Association for Learning Technology, https://www.alt.ac.uk/

Enright, M., (2020), #UCUstrikes twitter thread, https://twitter.com/maireadenright/status/1234456632681168896?s=20

Femedtech, http://femedtech.net/

Femedtech Quilt for Care and Justice in Open Education, https://quilt.femedtech.net/

Havemann, L., (2020), The need for supportive policy environments, https://flipgrid.com/f61bc14c

Hawksey, M., (2019), #ThinkUHI #BalanceforBetter look at enablers/drivers for the use of Learning Technology (#femedtech), https://mashe.hawksey.info/2019/03/balanceforbetter-look-at-enablers-drivers-for-the-use-of-learning-technology-femedtech/

OER20 Conference: The Care in Openness, https://oer20.oerconf.org/

University and College Union HE Action, https://www.ucu.org.uk/heaction

Open World for #femedtechquilt

At the end of last week I sent off my contributions for the #femedtechquilt project, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to part with them.  As soon as Frances Bell raised the idea for this amazing project I knew that I wanted to make something out of Harris Tweed, a protected, handmade fabric that is only made in the Outer Hebrides where I’m from, and which is woven into the identity of both the islands and the islanders.  I decided to try and make a representation of the header image of this blog, not only because Open World is where I share my open practice, but also because that header image is my own picture of one of my favourite places in the whole world, Traigh na Berie beach in Uig, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis.  I’ve visited this beach almost every year of my life since I was a small child, I did my higher geography project on the flora of the beach, my Masters dissertation was on the anthropomorphic landforms of the surrounding area, I worked on archaeological excavations there, and I use another picture of the beach as my twitter header.  I’ve also returned there frequently with my own daughter.  It’s a place that I have a deep attachment to, which has always inspired me, and still does.

I already had some beautiful left-over tweed from a length I bought to make curtains for our VW camper van, and I bought a bundle of off-cuts when I was home in Stornoway in the summer.  It wasn’t difficult to make a rough representation of the beach, as the colours of the tweed naturally echo the colours of the Hebridean landscape.  Sewing it was more of a challenge.  My mother taught me to sew when I was a kid, but it’s not something I do regularly, other than altering clothes.  In order to sew my square, I had to get my mother’s sewing machine, which I inherited when she passed away a few years ago, repaired and reconditioned.  Using it seemed fitting, as she was a talented seamstress who used that machine to make beautiful tweed coats and jackets for my sister and I when we were young.  I was really pleased with the way the square turned out, it looked much better than I could have hoped.  One thing that really surprised me when I was making the square was just how evocative the smell of pressed tweed is. It immediately took me right back to the islands and my childhood. For me, this square represents hope, inspiration, and the unbreakable threads that connect us to the people and places we hold dear.

Tweed on the machair

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My other square was much more low effort, but it still has meaning to me. It’s a tracing of the Open Scotland logo drawn in fabric pen on cotton cut from one of my daughter’s old school shirts, and it represents the hope that one day all publicly funded educational resources in Scotland will be freely and openly available to all.   Open Scotland was an initiative that I founded, along with Joe Wilson, Sheila MacNeil, Phil Barker and others, back in 2013 and I’ve poured a lot of time energy and commitment into it, so I wanted to commemorate it in the quilt.  I also love the idea that my daughter has made a small contribution to the quilt too.

Tracing the logo

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Open Ed: Reflecting on context, centrality and diversity

This week, like many colleagues in the open education community I’ve been following the Open Education Conference. I’m not actually at the conference, in fact in all my years working in open education I’ve never been to Open Ed, but I’ve been following it on twitter, and as always, it’s been a thought provoking experience. This year more so than most. There are a number of reasons why I’ve never attended Open Ed, primarily related to cost and childcare, also I’ve always thought of Open Ed as primarily a North American conference and I’m aware that the North American open education community is focused on quite different aspects of open education than the ones I primarily identify with. That’s to be expected of course, different countries with different education systems, economic conditions, political contexts and social issues will necessarily have very different concerns and priorities when it comes to open education

This tweet from Marisa Petrisch served to highlight just how radically different the US context is to my experience of working as an open education practitioner in Scotland. 

There is so much going on in this one tweet that I can barely get my head around; not least of which is why do people have to pay astronomical costs for life saving medication in the first place?? Though as my colleague Phil Barker commented, this may be an American thing but it’s a reality we may all be waking up to in the UK soon. (And that’s another thing I can’t get my head around.)

Of course to say that I don’t identify with any of the issues that are being aired at Open Ed is a sweeping generalization and one that does a terrible disservice to the broad range of diverse sessions that have featured at the conference this year. Highlighting Women of Color Experiences in Leading OER Projects by Regina Gong, Cynthia Orozco and Ariana Santiago, and Leveraging OER for LGBTQ-Inclusive Teacher Professional Learning by Sabia Prescott immediately spring to mind for example.

This important diversity has been somewhat overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the pulled keynote panel, (I’m not going to go into this, as I’m not sure there’s anything I could add that hasn’t already been said) and David Wiley’s announcement that he would be adjourning and stepping back from the conference so that the community can take ownership of the space and reimagine what kind of event they want going forward. Judging by the reaction on the conference hashtag, this announcement appears to have been met with surprise and respect, and though it’s hard to judge from a distance, my impression is that most people seem to regard this as a positive move.   However I caught one conversation on twitter last night between George Siemens and Tannis Morgan that stopped me in my tracks.

It does seem a little presumptuous to regard one community of people in the US as “the central node globally”.  By its nature, open education is necessarily diverse and fragmentary, because as Catherine Cronin and others have repeatedly reminded us, open education is highly contextual. Indeed Maha Bali wrote a much discussed blog post earlier this week about the necessity of contextualising openness. This discussion about the global context and centrality of different open education communities is all the more interesting as it was pre-empted by this year’s OER19 Conference, chaired by Catherine and Laura Czerniewicz. The theme of OER19 was Recentering Open: Critical and Global Perspectives and one of the aims of the conference was to move beyond hero narratives to including marginalised voices.

With the Open Ed conference reaching a turning point, it’s interesting to reflect on how the OER conference has evolved over on the other side of the pond. When it launched in 2010, the conference was closely associated with the UKOER programme, and as a result it primarily focused on open education projects in Higher Education institutions in England. When that programme came to an end in 2012, many people predicted the demise of the conference, however it continued to grow and thrive along with a growing and increasingly diverse open education community. OER has never positioned itself as a “global” conference, however since it was adopted by ALT in 2015 it has made a conscious effort to be as diverse, inclusive and accessible as possible. This is reflected not just in the diversity of the chairs, themes, and keynotes, but also in the wide range of channels that the conference supports to enable open and remote participation. While the OER conference would not exist in its current form without the generous support of ALT, ALT doesn’t own the OER conference, it facilitates it on behalf of the open community. Anyone can apply to chair the conference and the conference committee is open to all. The role of the chairs is to set the conference theme and select the keynotes, but the shape of the conference and the selection of the papers and sessions is a task undertaken by the whole committee. Like any event, the OER Conference has not been without its own controversies over the years, but the conference’s openness and diversity is, I believe, its strength.

I don’t know what, if anything the Open Ed community can learn from the experiences of the OER Conference, and other open education conferences and communities around the world, but I hope they are able to use this opportunity to re-envision their space in such a way that it meets the unique needs of their own social, political and educational contexts, while at the same time being  inclusive, collaborative and accessible, and cognisant of the diversity of the broader global open education community.