OpenEd16 & my manel shame


I’ve been at OpenEd in Richmond this week, and I feel bad about this post, because it’s been an amazing conference. For example, I’ve just come from post conference drinks with Audrey Watters, Ken Bauer, Christina Hendricks, Autumm Caines, Laura Gogia, Jim Luke, and so on. Anything that brings those people together in one place is worth applauding. So what follows is meant in the best possible friendly critique manner.

OpenEd conference needs to do better at, well, being open. Before we start, I’ll say I dislike the way people use ‘open’ as a means to bash others eg “if you’re open why do you charge conference fees at all?”. I understand the realities of running a conference. But I think OpenEd could do better here. My example involves myself and a moment of shame I felt, but I think it’s symptomatic, so this isn’t just catharsis. I was asked relatively late to be on a panel, talking about the Future OER essays people were asked to contribute. I like to be accommodating so I agreed. But I didn’t pay it much attention (in an effort to redeem myself here, I was presenting, taking part in 3 Virtually Connecting sessions and had arranged numerous meetings with people). Then, when it came to walk on stage I was one of 7 men to just one woman on the panel. I mean, really? In open ed, you could throw a cookie in the air and it’d land on any one of a number of women doing amazing things. It almost seems like it’d be harder to have a 7:1 ration than not.

I called this out when asked to introduce myself, but I know I lack a good degree of moral courage. I should have a) paid more attention when asked to be on the panel and b) walked off the stage when I saw it’s make up. This shit isn’t hard, it just takes a millisecond additional thought.

But I think it goes beyond that panel – there didn’t feel like the appropriate mix of voices beyond north America at that conference. It felt different from OE Global, which feels, well, global. I understand it is predominantly the conference for open ed in North America – that’s what it is, so that community will dominate. But I think we could do better. In a Virtually Connecting session later, I commented that often we (Virtually Connecting) feel grateful for conferences letting us be part of it (and OpenEd did a really great job here, for which they should be applauded), but also they should feel grateful to Maha and team for bringing in some different voices to the conference also.

I won’t address all the issues why it’s good practice to get these different perspectives involved, as so many better informed people than me have written about it, but just to add that it’s not a luxury, it’s vital. Anyway, I’ve learnt never agree to be on a panel without asking a few questions first, and for my failure to do that, I apologise.


  1. Glad you brought this up, Martin. It’s symptomatic and happens so often it’s almost that each time someone says “panel” I notice. It’s funny our OpenEd16 VC panel was mostly male because Kristen, Bonnie and Laura couldn’t make it! I had to actually say aloud that we made sure we had soem gender balance in our advisors (we asked a couple more women but they had declined); and of course the directors of VC (Rebecca, Autumm and I) are women from 3 countries.

    But yeah. Glad you blogged about it!

    1. Thanks Maha – yes sometimes things happen and people drop out which can upset plans to have a decent balance. To be fair there was supposed to be one other woman on the panel but she didn’t make it. But the two convenors (who are both great guys) were male also, so that actually made it 9:1 on stage, so they should have just swapped a few of the men out so that one woman dropping out doesn’t make it nearly all male. It needs to be more robust than that.

  2. In solidarity. FWIW, I also thought about walking off, but decided as I appeared to be token cynic I’d see if I could do any good… and make people uncomfortable with the situation by staying rather than leaving.

    You have a powerful voice and I loved how you used it to call out privilege.

  3. Thanks for the post, Martin – and your comments, Maha, Paul & David. Seeing the gender make-up of that panel was a real clanger at the end of a conference that seemed (as an online observer/participant) to be positive and even inspiring in many ways. Calling this out, even after the fact, is an important step. Your suggestion re: how to respond to panel invitations is echoed here and in other resources on the #ITwomen list — which you’ve shared before, thanks.

    Of course, as you also say, this isn’t just about gender. We need, always, to think about the many ways privilege operates — gender, race, culture, location (institutional, geographic, etc.), status… — and to challenge exclusion wherever we see it. It’s hard. It’s sometimes hard to see, and often hard to act. There’s often-unanticipated blowback. But as an open education community, as educators, and as human beings with the capacity to act: this *is* our work.

    Respect for stepping up. It’s important. #onward

    1. Thanks for the comment and link Catherine. Re that Atlantic piece, it was that “Sure love to, who else is on the panel?” that I failed to do. I think even asking this question then makes them more likely to reconsider it’s make-up. It’s definitely a lesson learnt for me, that email only takes a couple of seconds to send.

  4. Hi Martin and David – Nostra culpa; we are so sorry to have put you in such an uncomfortable situation. We should have done better, for you and for our larger community.

    When we first conceived of the FutuOER project, our goal was to start a broader conversation about the future of open education by seeding the ground with some initial essays (ideally including authors that had a strong sense of open ed’s history). We are concerned, as with many in the community, about the future of open education. We sent emails out to over 40 colleagues in the open space, asking two questions: “Would you write an essay imagining open education in 2036? And would you come to a session at OpenEd to talk about it?” We hoped these would be the first of many essays and voices, and the start of a larger, ongoing conversation. Our criteria for that initial list was fairly simple – authors who were both likely to bring an interesting perspective (a huge list) -and- who we knew well enough to be comfortable in asking for some of their valuable time (a much smaller list). Within a week or so of OpenEd, 9 women and 10 men were committed to writing essays, so we thought we’d done okay on gender balance. At that time, we were actually more concerned about our lack of diversity across several other dimensions: global North vs. South, community college vs. four-year, higher ed vs. K-12, and ethnicity/race, among others..

    Unfortunately, some authors just ran out of time and didn’t end up writing essays by the time of the OpenEd conference, including more of the female authors. The session participants were, quite literally, those that said yes and showed up. By striving for inclusivity, we failed in terms of diversity (especially gender equity).

    FutuOER was always intended to be the start of a conversation – and we hope that this misstep doesn’t end that conversation before it gets started. The future of OER is an incredibly important issue that we all care about deeply. In that spirit, we’ve posted the open call for more visions of the future on the website, and we’d like to ask you (and others) for another favor; please reach out to your own networks and help us solicit more diverse visions of a more diverse future for open education. We know we can do better and are committed to trying to do so.

    -Norman and Brandon

    1. Hi Norman and Brandon, thanks for taking the time to respond. I know these things are difficult to organise, and you end up juggling so many constraints (who’s there, what they’re other demands are, who responds) etc that getting any panel together is a success. But I think we then sometimes don’t take a step back and see how it looks overall. As well as being a good thing to do, it’s also beneficial for the panel overall. A lot of the backchannel was made up of comment on the makeup of the panel rather than the things they were saying, so it ended up undermining the good work you had done, so it’s a win all round really. Also, I think there was an issue in OpeEd generally with it’s N American focus, which seemed even more extreme this year, so I think I was also pushing back on general representativeness at the conference.

    2. I wonder (with respect) if you considered that women may not have met that deadline for writing essays because they were maybe responsible for taking care of a sick child. Or they maybe couldn’t make it to OpenEd because of family responsibilities. Or perhaps they had different institutional responsibilities and finding. I was not there and didn’t see the panel. But I don’t understand how exactly your striving for inclusivity resulted in lack of diversity. Inviting people equally isn’t inclusivity. Recognizing people make different sacrifices to respond to invitations is important. This is not at all a critique of this particular case as I actually know nothing whatsoever about it beyond what Martin wrote. This is a critique of a larger situation. Example, as a woman from global south, inviting me to speak somewhere is hard because how do I get there and how many of these can I do per year? I have two keynote invitations this year but even with my expenses paid it is a sacrifice for my family. Others are contingent and being there means foregoing income. Coming from afar means giving up several work days. Etc

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