OEP,  oer

The Open Ed identity crisis

(Openwashing by @bryanMMathers is licenced under CC-BY-ND)

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 😉


  • Alan Levine

    Ah, the lifestyles of the Conferencing and Famous.

    Were I still in Arizona, I might have crashed, I doubt I would have attended. Some advice- try to get out of Glendale, the venue are is all a bit stripmall-ish. Look for Ken Bauer, I connected him with some locals to get away from the fluorescent food zone.

    Enjoy the hockey too.

  • Susan Jones

    I went in 2017 and 2018 b/c the first time I could camp out at my brother’s and the second time conference funding landed in my lap. There was much talk about trying to hear different voices. I’m in adult ed — no budget — so lots of interest in finding and adapting OER esp. for the kind of basic skills that there just aren’t good ‘adult’ materials for… but yea, I got the feeling it’s mostly administrative stuff.
    The silos are real… and the opposite of open. Reclaim!

  • Frances Bell

    Before we get into a renaming funk about OER, could I suggest we be flexible about what we mean by resource to include Critical Open Educational Practice and Practitioners. There- I fixed it.
    I would say (somewhat cryptically) that where patriarchy is embedded and pervasive, narrow-mindedness and limited thinking abound. Thinking about OER conferences (I have only attended and reviewed abstracts since 2016) I have seen that year by year they have become more critical and covering wider contexts, whilst at the same time keynotes and participants have become more diverse and international. No coincidence 🙂

    • mweller

      Hi Frances – ha, yes I’m really not proposing a name change for OER, so will gladly accept your fix 🙂
      You are quite right about the diversity positive feedback loop, and I think it is this closed nature of OpenEd ownership that is at the root of some of their issues.

  • Verena Roberts

    I will be attending OpenEd 2019 and I will be presenting on open educational practices (OEP). I am more focused on the open learning process and OEP, rather than OER. I have been to the conference off and on since 2013. I have been an OERFellow for the last year and that is the primary reason I am able to attend OpenEd.

    In the spirit of thinking about new open learning opportunities…..I wanted to mention https://otessa.org/

    It is a new Canadian based research community pursuing excellence in #opened #edtech and #openaccess Inaugural conference May 31-June1, 2020

    • mweller

      Hi Verena – I’ll see you at OpenEd! Re OTESSA – yes, I’m the international adviser, so Valerie reached out early on to have some discussions. I’m hoping to make it there next year, looks great.

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