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Good conferences tend to fall into one of two categories: either the people are so familiar that it feels a bit like a reunion, or there’s so much good information that it feels like drinking from a fire hose. The Northeast Regional OER Summit has both.

By dint of location, I’ve been able to reconnect with some former colleagues from Holyoke, which has been fun. I dropped off TB at his friend’s house in the town where we used to live, then made my way up route 91 towards UMass, where the conference is.  On a whim, I dropped by HCC. It was my first time on campus since I worked there, and it was great seeing old friends again. The conference itself has a pretty decent HCC contingent, so between the two, I’ve been able to reconnect with probably a dozen or so former colleagues. 

But the content of the conference is the real star.  There’s so much that I have to resort to fragments.

Robin DeRosa and Rajiv Jhangiani kicked it off with a conversational keynote.  I’ve followed DeRosa’s work for years, and we’ve followed each other on Twitter for a while, but it was the first time we actually met.  She even took a selfie with me, which will probably find its way to Twitter sooner or later. She and Jhangiani placed OER in the context of struggles to meet student basic needs in the context of chronic defunding, especially in this part of the country; I was heartened that within the first few minutes, she quoted both Sara Goldrick-Rab and Tressie McMillan Cottom.  (For the latter, she illustrated a pull quote from Lower Ed with a photo of a vulture.) The point was to show that there’s a much larger set of issues at hand than simply lowering costs. As DeRosa put it, “my institution is very good at cutting costs. The point is to provide the best learning environment.” OER is the rare intervention that can accomplish both.

The rest of the day featured very short presentations by folks at various places who are trying to do just that. 

The audience was dominated by librarians, which makes sense.  Librarians have been champions of making information open and free for centuries; it’s what they do.  (Also, by default, they are often their own campus’ copyright officers.) While most folks were from higher ed and mostly from the Northeast, they represented a cross-section of community colleges, smallish four-year colleges, and flagship universities.  That led to some odd moments. At lunch, for instance, I was with some folks from universities, as well as a Brookdale colleague. When the conversation turned to scaling OER, one of the university folks opined that “it’s probably easier at community colleges, because there, you can just tell faculty what to do.”  I exchanged raised eyebrows with my colleague, and rebutted the presumption. In my extended experience, community college faculty are zealous guardians of their academic freedom, and rightly so.

Lance Hidy, from Northern Essex CC (MA), led off with a notably practical presentation on Universal Design for Learning in the context of OER at community colleges..  For example, he noted that formatting handouts in two vertical columns makes them easier to read on phones, since students can zoom in on one column at a time. He showed how to use “alt text” to put a form of closed-captioning under images, so students who use screen readers will know what they’re supposed to see.  He also mentioned that Google has a filter you can apply to image searches based on “usage rights,” so you don’t violate copyright. I didn’t know that.

Elizabeth McKeigue and Gail Rankin, from Salem State, presented on the OER initiative there.  The takeaway for me was “Brand It and Sell It.” They named their OER push after the school mascot, and got photos of students holding whiteboards saying “I just spent $$$ on textbooks.”  The idea was to enlist students as advocates, because they’re much more effective than administrators can be.

Ann Fiddler and Andrew McKinney, from CUNY, developed a “ZTC” (zero textbook cost) icon that shows in the student scheduling software, with the goal of helping students who want to keep costs down.  I had to chuckle when they mentioned that it was lightly used at first, because the various “attributes” by which students could search were listed alphabetically, and this starts with “z.” It’s exactly the sort of stupid, random, wouldn’t-have-thought-of-that detail that derails so many things.

Bill Hemmig, from Bucks County CC (PA), introduced the concept of the “course curator,” who gets a small annual stipend to update the course template for each OER course.  (That involves updating any dead links and keeping the content current.) It struck me as a reasonably sustainable way to ensure that OER courses don’t wither after the initial rush of development.  The key is drawing on the faculty who teach the classes to be the curators. Small annual stipends can be built into operating budgets as a cost of doing business.

Of course, longtime readers know my weakness for big-picture ideas, so the highlights for me were the presentations by Nicole Allen and Matthew Cheney.  Allen, the director of SPARC, offered an overview of the political maturation of OER over the last decade. It went from a fringe or boutique idea to a cause to a movement.  But now, it’s being threatened with something much more dangerous than straightforward opposition: co-optation. “Netflix for books” subscription models draw on much of the rhetoric of OER, but do so in the name of profit.  I’ve written before about my skepticism towards “inclusive access,” based largely on my experience with Comcast. When a single company gets a monopoly by lowballing its initial prices, you can count on those prices to rise quickly as soon as exit becomes more difficult.  The recent merger of McGraw-Hill and Cengage only amplifies that danger. Allen presented the ironies of the publishers using the same arguments that had previously been used against them. The OER movement had become so successful that the publishers have launched a disingenuous takeover, going so far as to brag about their paywalled platforms containing OER for the low, low price of a subscription.

Matthew Cheney, from Plymouth State, offered a larger theoretical framework within which to situate moves like those.  He counterposed the “gift” economy with the “gig” economy, suggesting that in a neoliberal society like ours, the latter will tend to warp or consume the former.  That extends from the adjunctification of institutions founded on “gift” logic to the incorporation of OER into for-profit subscription platforms. Citing Thomas Frank’s “Commodify Your Dissent,” he noted that “without a vision, dissent is a pose, not a program.”  When people working by a gift logic have their work commodified, they are exploited. In the spirit of reducing or stopping that exploitation, he proposed five terms by which the OER movement should conduct itself: solidarity, cooperation, coalition, refuge, and regeneration.

One astute audience member suggested a third “g” to counterpose to “gig” and “gift:” the “good old economy.”  That refers to secure, full-time, benefitted positions that leave people enough time to volunteer or do art or other gift work on the side.  This is the classic model of tenured faculty. But under neoliberalism, this model is under assault.

I have to admit, the erstwhile political theorist in me found it refreshing to hear words like “neoliberal” and “commodify” in the context of a well-constructed argument.  His argument has much deeper historical roots than he let on, but it was a brief presentation, and there was work to do. A tip of the cap.

On to day two...

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