OER15 and the nature of change in higher ed

Last week was the OER15 conference here in Wales. I was the co-chair along with Haydn Blackey. While my view may be somewhat biased, I think it was a great success. We had great sessions, everything worked well, the venue was marvellous and the sun was out in Cardiff. If you haven’t been to the Uk OER conference before, I recommend getting along to Edinburgh next year for OER16. I was, as is so often the case, reminded very forcibly of how enthusiastic and engaging the open ed community are.

The theme of the conference was “Mainstreaming OER”. I suggested in the opening remarks, that it wasn’t the case that OER are already mainstream practice, but that they now stand on the cusp of it. After 13 years or so of development, a global community has been developed who are focused on OERs, open textbooks and open education in general. But the next stage is to move into the mainstream. There is almost nowhere else left to go now. That transition may not be successful, and it isn’t inevitable, but it is the next phase we need to attempt, in order to realise much of the ambition that underpinned the OER movement.

Often conference themes are rather vague, and don’t really bear any resemblance to the actual sessions. They’re rather like having a theory of parenting – you think it will go one way, and reality trundles along regardless of your interventions. But I feel that the theme of mainstreaming OER was really very relevant to the content of the conference. All of the keynotes explicitly addressed it, and in all the sessions I attended, participants made it a key thread in their work.

This caused me to muse somewhat on the nature of change (especially in higher education). I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction the other week, and she talks about the nature of extinction and its time frame. Darwin and others believed species go extinct very slowly (the winding down of a natural selection process). But of course, we discovered that sometimes extinctions happen quickly, caused by major events (the dinosaur slaying K-T event being the most famous). As Kolbert puts it, “conditions on earth change only very slowly, except when they don’t”. Or as paleontologist David Roup sums it up, evolution is “long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.”

Related to this, my colleague Simon Horrocks pointed me to the French historical tradition of la longue duree. This argues that we shouldn’t focus on the big events in human history, but rather on longer cycles. While we tend to talk of significant battles and revolutions, the ideas or regimes these have overthrown persist for much longer. This is in line with the theme of my book, that having had the initial victory, it is actually now that direction is determined.

Which brings me back to the theme of OER15. I think change in higher ed has some resemblance to the evolutionary pattern (although over much shorter timescales) – change happens very, very slowly, and then very, very quickly. At the same time there are also longer patterns of change beneath this. For example, one might argue that MOOC hysteria was an example of one of those moments of panic. But this occurs within longer cycles – for example, the trend towards openness might be one, but so are much more fundamental practices such as knowledge construction, autonomy, critical thought, etc. I would suggest that silicon valley and the media are almost exclusively focused on those moments of panic, but ignore the equally important longer processes. In terms of OER then, I would argue we need to embrace both – be prepared for the long haul, but ready to react when the rapid change comes.

Here is a nice playlist of all the keynotes from OER15, and also an overview video:


  1. Kudos for coming off running what looked like a supreme conference event, and in a way, even maybe subtly shifting the focus of the OER Conference to OE.

    My years of studying geology sometimes come into play in my work education. What you describe (and Roup’s quote nicely restates) is the landmark work in the early 1970s for evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould on punctuated equilibrium.

    Gould may be my favorite scientific writer in the way he used analogies to make earth and life history understandable by non-scientists, invoking baseball and the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head over time. I’d really recommend his book Mismeasure of Man on the history of intelligence measurement.

    But his 1972 paper took on no one less than Charles Darwin, who’s Evolutionary theory on based on of gradualism, tiny increments of change in species over deep, beyond human scale spans of time. His chalked up the explosion of new species found in the fossil record as “incomplete record” (blame the data 😉 It’s easy to see in hindsight, but in Darwin’s time, the recognition of the real length of Earth history had to topple over the conventional theory based on literal interpretation of the Bible (another good read is “The Map That Changed The World”, the story of the first geological map, a local UK story).

    Gould’s paper introduced the idea of evolution happening in short bursts of time with long periods in between of “nothing happening.” There’s a lot of places you can extend the metaphor… I am back from a trip down to see the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. If you ever get to take a multi day river trip on this river, you remember the excitement of the rapids, but there are long, calm stretches in between where you float slowly, almost boringly peaceful. Glaciers can site quietly for long periods of time, then surge with changing pressure or temperature. Volcanos site quietly for thousands of years, then violently explode, changing everything in their proximity. The earth itself is subject to the punctuated effects of meteorite impacts.

    Of course, this plays into the people’s hands who love to talk of the benefits disruption, so use it with caution. Metaphors cut both ways 😉

Leave a Reply