Well That Was a Memorable OpenEd Conference

Some conferences are more difficult to cover than others, and this year’s #OpenEd19 – the primary OER-related conference in the US – goes in the former camp. Obviously the big story was David Wiley’s announcement that this would be the last OpenEd even he (and Lumen Learning) would organize.

The End, The Beginning

With that growth comes change. That little meeting I convened 15 years ago has evolved organically in a way that has served the community fairly well. However, as currently constituted, the conference does not leverage all the energy, enthusiasm, passion, and leadership ability in our increasingly large and increasingly diverse community. And so the time has come for us to reconsider, as a community, how we wish to organize ourselves, learn from each other, and collaborate with one another.

In order to make the necessary space for that conversation, this year’s Open Education Conference is the last I plan to organize.

Thankfully, Michael Feldstein came to the rescue with an excellent post “The Crumbling of the OpenEd Coalition”, which starts by quoting David’s post in its entirety and then frames the situation in historical and coalition context.

In my opinion, these reactions miss an underlying dynamic that makes this change more serious and difficult to patch over than it may appear on the surface. OpenEd was always at least partly an exercise in coalition politics. The attendees were a mix of people coming with different primary and secondary goals that overlapped enough for them to make common cause. That coalition has crumbled. In fact, it has been crumbling for some time. The idea that this conference could have been neatly handed off to some new steward as-is assumes that OpenEd is is otherwise tenable as-is. I don’t believe that is true.

My primary thoughts? Go read Michael’s post in full. It’s that important. I’ll wait.

Part of the reason that this conference was difficult to cover was the difficulty to cover a complex subject, with some personal biases and potential conflicts, in a productive manner. First, Lumen Learning is a client of MindWires – I’ll let the reader decide how that should influence your reading of this post. 1 Second, Michael described our joint keynote at the 2015 OpenEd, arguing that OpenEd “a brittle coalition that could fracture if the coalitional challenges were not addressed”. I’m an interested party.

The key argument Michael makes is that “the current situation is not a signal of OER’s failure but rather a side effect of its success.”

It was an encouraging sign to see the conference wrapping up with community discussions on discovering and planning the future, with much of the discussion focusing on the point expressed by Lauren Slingluff and Ethan Senack:

That is exactly right and aligns with David’s point on reconsidering as a community. There is already a shared Google Doc organizing community input (see responses here). I doubt the answer will end up being “continue the same thing with new organizers”, and I would also expect to see several communities come out that capture the needs and interest of various factions. But we’ll have to see what happens.

Alternate Views

One of my favorite sessions at the conference was a session labeled “Alternate Views on Open”, where I was expecting some more of the coalition politics and fracturing views of OER. I guess I didn’t read deep enough into the abstract, as one part of the session captured student views – something that can easily get lost in the internal debates and social media dynamics. Helen McManus from Northern Virginia Community College shared my favorite OpenEd slide, capturing the all-too-common narrative that open education advocates see and present.

The characters of popular narrative - Commercial textbook publishers as the bad guys (Snidely Whiplash), students as the victims (Nell Fenwick), and social justice-minded and innovative faculty as the heroes (Dudley Do-Right).

But McManus’ point was that this is not the view that students have for the most part.

Students are dealing with real-world problems like dealing with jobs and families while trying to get an affordable degree or certificate. Insiders tend to fall back on the narrative and forget the students. Yes, the topics overlap, but it is all too easy to focus on the narrative over the reality, especially with the changing demographics of student populations.

Here’s hoping that the OpenEd community takes the opportunity of reflection and reconsideration of coalition changes to raise the priority of students’ viewpoints and participation in the discussion.

1 Typically I try to avoid writing directly about consulting clients, but for this story it’s unavoidable.