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.
Barnes compared textbook prices to prescription drug prices. If your Dr could get the same result with a cheaper product, wouldn’t you want them to try?
— Marisa Petrich (@ItsMsMaris) October 30, 2019
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.
Which is central, and which is periphery?There's OER in the UK, OE Global and other big events where open has a strong showing. Central community by geography, by focus, by association or membership? My central community has been the OER conf because of strong #femedtech lens
— Dr. Tannis Morgan (@tanbob) October 31, 2019
I guess I'd like to underline that for some of us, they aren't the central node globally. Eg.If you want to deep dive into social justice + feminist perspectives on open, OER might be that central place. Agreed, central node in the US, but blind spots come from that
— Dr. Tannis Morgan (@tanbob) October 31, 2019
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.