It’s the end of OpenEd as we know it…

Last week was the 16th annual Open Ed Conference in Glendale, Arizona. I have attended this conference every year since 2016, when it was held in Richmond, Virginia. Every year, I get to know more people who work in different aspects of OpenEd, I find myself energized by all the great things that others are doing, and I learn so much from their experiences. Over the past two years, I’ve funded travel for six adjunct professors out of my department budget and have had many full-time colleagues join us. It has been a valuable part of our growing OER program.

This year, the conference opened with two excellent keynotes from Angela DeBarger and Norman Bier that were the sort of inspiring addresses I have come to expect to lead the conference. What happened next was quite unexpected. In fact, I had stepped out just as David Wiley began speaking and so I only learned of the announcement on Twitter. It was a bombshell. You can read the announcement he read here, on Wiley’s blog.

I want to start by saying what should probably go without saying: I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to David Wiley, for his scholarly work on open education, his organization of the OpenEd conference for 16 years, his founding of Lumen Learning, his generosity, kindness, collegiality, and who he is. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I wouldn’t be doing what I do today if it weren’t for David.

As he says in his post, the conference that started as a small, fringe gathering in 2003 had grown to something quite different. It is probably not a coincidence that this announcement comes after a particularly challenging year when #thatpanel criticism on Twitter caused enough of a backlash to have invited speakers withdraw their participation (you can read about it on the Chronicle of Higher Ed). It’s also probably not a coincidence that the growth of OpenEd had invited contingencies of participants who were skeptical of David’s role (as founder of Lumen Learning, as prominent member of the LDS, as white male) being the sole leader and organizer of the conference. It’s not a coincidence that several years ago, David had tried to open up responsibility for hosting the conference to include a program committee.

But we are likely to make too much of this.

Organizing OpenEd was surely a monumental task. The repeated criticisms over perceived mis-steps probably made that task so much more difficult. Last year, in Niagara, repeat attendees may have been surprised at the absence of the open jam session. Fortunately, OEReoke stepped up in its place. But can you imagine what a logistical nightmare it must have been to ensure not only that the conference was staffed and running smoothly but that there was a full band set delivered to some random hotel, ready for an impromptu jam session? No matter how much you love music – and I know David loves music – any human being has to wear down at a certain point.

I think the most charitable and reasonable conclusion to draw from David’s announcement is that OpenEd had outgrown its centralized organization, the ambition of a single person (even a person with the resources and capacity of David Wiley and Lumen Learning). The conference organization had to change. Moreover, Wiley recognized that he could not hand off management of the conference to one or more individuals without poisoning the well. David’s stature is too prominent, his influence too big for even the faintest indication of a christening to taint any community decision to follow.

The centralized organization of OpenEd needed to end.

It’s the end of OpenEd as we know it, II

At my first OpenEd, David welcomed us by saying that OpenEd is like a family. He invited attendees to get to know each other and become part of the family. For certain people, that metaphor is a welcome embrace, but for others – and for good reason – it’s chilling. The idea of a conference or professional organization as a family is just as problematic as it sounds.

Reflecting on David’s announcement, Michael Feldstein wrote that it represents the crumbling of a loose political coalition around open education. He identifies three disparate goals around which OpenEd participants loosely congregated:

  1. Increase access to education by lowering cost of curricular materials
  2. Increase quality of education by increasing quality of curricular materials
  3. Promote values of education by fostering autonomy for educators and agency for learners

Many—possibly most—of the OpenEd participants would likely say that they support all three of these goals. (I certainly do.)

That’s good. Overlapping priorities are a critical success factor in building coalitions. But it’s not everything. Depending on how you interpret and rank these three priorities, your beliefs about strategy and values could be quite different. And there have long been signs that, in fact, there were very serious tensions among the views and priorities of the coalition members.

This post prompted some really good questions on Twitter:

Wiley responded with a post of his own, outlining a slightly different list of competing values and framing them in the negative (as problems to solve) rather than the way Feldstein frames them.

From my perspective, many of the arguments leading up to and occurring at OpenEd this year can be understood in this way – as an ongoing conversation between different people and organizations with seemingly similar goals that – surprisingly – often call for different and sometimes contradictory strategies. As we each continue to pursue our individual and organizational goals, we will continue to find ourselves with frequent opportunities to collaborate. But we will also continue to find occasions when our strategies will be in conflict with each other. These are not shallow, “simple misunderstanding” types of conflicts in our strategies. These are very real conflicts that are deeply rooted in our differing goals.

Much will depend on how we navigate these conflicts.

I agree, much will depend on how we navigate the competing priorities and values of educators who care about open education.

Is OpenEd a coalition? It definitely has aspects of it that involve a coalition around a political agenda. Promoting and ensuring the sustainability of Open Educational Resources requires linking concerted political efforts. Is OpenEd a community? Open education definitely emphasizes connections and sharing between people. Pursuing an open strategy requires working with other people, sharing resources, and making connections. Without the expertise and insights from others, new OER practitioners wouldn’t be nearly as productive or capable as they can be with those supporting organization. Is OpenEd a movement? Open education tries to enact concepts and ideas that will reshape education, shifting our understanding of teaching and learning materials.

Clint Lalonde, in reply to Michelle Reed’s Tweet above, links to Brian Lamb’s blog post following the 2005 conference (if a picture is worth a thousand words… seriously, click the link) where John Seely Brown reminds attendees that, as educators, they form “interlinked communities of co-creation.” That phrase seems to capture a kernel of truth behind our talk of community, coalition, and movement. Is the conference the only way that educational communities can be interlinked in co-creation? Is it a necessary way for these communities to remain interlinked in their co-creation? These seem to be the pertinent questions. What type of event should we have such that it supports a growing, diversifying, interlinked network of co-creation?

More to the point, envisioning our shared work as interconnected co-creation allows a positive approach to difference. Rather than seeing different priorities as competing for oxygen, we can see them as inspiring diverse tactics. It’s yes, and… I’m not saying there aren’t conflicts to be discussed and resolved, but I think a lot of the current frustration stems from anxiety about who has agency and power, not deep disagreement.

It’s the end of OpenEd as we know it, III

No conference is perfect. From my very limited perspective, as a philosopher and community college educator, OpenEd strikes me as a conference growing in diversity (it’s still pretty white, to be honest) and one very self-conscious about inclusion (De Barger’s keynote from 2019 and Jess Mitchell’s keynote from 2018 strike me as high points). But there are very legitimate questions about its organization and structure.

I think these sorts of questions have been exacerbated by the design of OpenEd. I talked to several members of the program committee and none of them could answer basic questions, like: how do decisions around venue and location get made? how is the program set up? does the conference run in the red or in the black (financially)?

Without a transparent and democratic decision-making structure, conference decisions are doomed to be second-guessed. If there is no process, then process will always be a problem. If participants don’t feel like they own the conference, then they will lack an incentive not to undermine it.

Half of the attendees at this year’s conference were coming for the first time! That’s amazing and speaks to the vibrancy and potential for this conference to grow. But if those attendees don’t feel welcome, we will lose them. And if we don’t have a way to invite them and listen to them, we will miss out on their perspectives.

And I feel fine

I really do feel fine. And not in the slightly nihilistic way that Michael Stipe sings the lyrics I’ve cribbed. I mean I’m actually hopeful for the future. I anticipate the remix of OpenEd. There are many communities that are interconnected through the OpenEd conference. I believe these communities can link together to create a better space that will address the shortcomings of the conference and expand on its strengths. Here are my suggestions for moving forward. I am happy to help.

  1. Establish the conference with a transparent and public organizational structure. Set up a mission and by-laws (keep it really general and basic, but make it public). Incorporate, probably as a 501c(3). And have elected leaders with term limits.
  2. Create membership status through small fees and give members voting rights with a direct voice in the direction of the conference (h/t Hillary Miller). Allow them to select representatives to review applications, pick keynotes, and plan the program.
  3. Reconsider the conference structure. Here are some things I like: shorter sessions, a variety of activities, unconference sessions, virtually connecting (please make this a regular part of the conference – I always miss it!), workshops, included lunch, a reception with poster sessions, the code of conduct. Here are some things I don’t like: being torn by way too many choices, having the same people present multiple times at the same meeting, having sessions with irregular start and end times so that I miss one session because I’m in the middle of another one. Here are some things I’d like to see: special kick-off events for new-comers, fewer invitation-only gatherings (or, better, options for including those who didn’t get the invite).
  4. Continue to work with a variety of funding partners, but make the financials transparent. There is no reason why a treasurer’s report can’t be published with each conference. We shouldn’t be in the dark about where the money is coming from or where it’s going. We should have the freedom to consider scholarships and grants for attendees, organizations, and awards. The revenue for the conference should belong to the members and the organization.

Please submit your ideas to the Google Form collecting public responses on the Future of Open Ed.