I’ve been keeping out of the debate around the OpenEd conference panel (Rajiv has an excellent analysis of it, if you want to catch up), partly because it seemed a very N. American discussion, but also partly because I found it, well, boring. But then I thought about why it bored me, and that was, well, interesting (perhaps).
Firstly, to clarify, it wasn’t the objections made very clearly by people such as Billy Meinke-Lau or Michelle Reed that induced my ennui. These are important and valid arguments and I thank them for articulating them. Rather it was that the panel itself, and the ensuant kerfuffle, are symptomatic of a narrowing of focus and range as to what constitutes open education.
Irwin, Viv, Katy and I wrote a paper about the range of topics that can be included under the open education umbrella, and the manner in which these areas don’t reference each other. The distance ed people don’t talk to the MOOC people, who don’t acknowledge the OER people, and vice versa. But even then, within OER, there is a reduction, where OER comes to mean “North American Open Textbooks”.
I think, in part, the backlash against this panel reflects something of this identity crisis. I haven’t been to OpenEd since 2016, maybe it has changed, and I’m happy to be corrected if it has (I note several papers on Open Pedagogy in the programme), but the panel would indicate not. The OER Conference (disclosure: I’m President of ALT who organise this, so not an entirely disinterested party) started from the Jisc OER projects, and was thus initially focused on content. It has moved away from this over the years, to focus much more on practice and thought around openness. In fact, one could argue that “OER” is not really the best name for it now, and something like “Critical Open Educational Practice” might be more accurate (but I doubt they’re going to change it as it has recognition). OpenEd seems to have gone on the opposite trajectory – from a conference that was built around the possibilities of what openness could mean in education, to one largely focused on the open textbook as artefact. A more appropriate name might be the “USA and Canada Open Textbook conference”.
That is not a criticism – for those working in the field that is a very valuable conference. Just as a Blackboard conference is probably the most useful event many people who work with it daily will attend. But if I went to a conference called something like “21st Century Learning” and it was only about VLEs/LMSs, then I would feel a tad aggrieved that they were implying that was the only thing of interest. Similarly a major conference called OpenEd that is almost entirely US/Canada and open textbook centric implies that is what constitutes open education. And from this disjuncture tension arises which the current debate is an example of, but not the only instance.
I don’t have an objection in principle to hearing from a commercial publisher (although one on a mixed panel might be a better option), but for instance, imagine the different message it would send if that panel was focused on OER in the Global South, or OER and Social Justice. Keynotes are signifiers about the identity of your conference, and that’s why this one didn’t grab my interest (although I should add I like the other keynotes). I just want Open Education not to be synonymous with this one narrow instantiation – there’s a big, wide, open world out there folks, go explore.
PS – I realise I’m complaining about open textbooks, and thus seem to be transforming into Jim Groom. Stop me before I reclaim something 😉