Open Education… Is Closed

This year's Open Education Conference had more attendees than ever before. Why is it ending after 16 years, and what does its demise mean for the cause?

November 6, 2019
 
Flickr.com/mnlamberson
Open Education Conference 2015

Last weekend, at the Open Education Conference in Phoenix, David Wiley, chief academic officer of Lumen Learning and the conference's organizer for 16 years, announced that this would be its last gathering, or at least the last with him at the helm. The conference, which grew from 40 attendees in 2003 to 850 this year, was a meeting place for advocates of open education, a sometimes hard-to-define goal that often involved the use of open educational resources -- free, openly licensed digital textbooks.

“This is not a call for another person or organization to come forward to keep the same conference running the same way into the future. Rather, it’s a call to reset and start over,” Wiley wrote on his blog. “This reimagining must be owned by the community. It must be driven by the community. And it would be inappropriate for me to try to facilitate that process beyond extending a brief invitation.”

The announcement prompted reactions across blogs and Twitter feeds, with some commentators saying that the announcement represented a fracturing of the tenuously aligned coalition of open education advocates. Michael Feldstein, chief accountability officer at e-Literate, wrote on his blog that differences in the goals and preferred tactics of open education advocates could no longer be bridged. Tensions within the “coalition” of open education supporters had become insurmountable, he wrote.

Many people in the coalition had different goals, Feldstein wrote, such as increasing access to education, improving educational quality or promoting the values of education. They also had different strategies, such as lowering the cost of instructional materials, increasing their quality or fostering autonomy for educators. As awareness and adoption of open educational resources has grown, so have tensions, he said.

Feldstein referenced a controversy that occurred earlier this year, when some conference attendees criticized the announcement of a panel, later canceled, where all but one of the speakers represented commercial publishers. Publishing companies have recently tried to enter the open education space, taking open educational resources and selling them with added supplemental material or charging for them through a closed platform. Some advocates see the publishers as necessarily profit motivated and not keeping the interests of students and educators in mind.

“This latest episode is a symptom of the crumbling coalition rather than the cause of it,” Feldstein wrote. “It is precisely OER's success and growth that may have pushed this long-simmering problem to its breaking point.”

Wiley responded with a similar sentiment, saying that Feldstein’s post was “directionally correct.”

“It seems to me that over the last decade, many individuals and organizations have gained greater clarity about which problem they are most interested in solving,” Wiley wrote. “The process of choosing a single focus for our individual or organizational work can be difficult, time consuming, and exhausting. Are you primarily focused on reducing costs for students? Improving student success? Increasing pedagogical flexibility for faculty? Bringing retribution to publishers?”

“And here, at last, is where I locate the source of so much of the conflict that has been percolating in our space the last several years,” Wiley wrote. “As we each become more focused on executing the strategies aligned with our specific goal, the more the differences in our goals ‘get real.’”

Differences and Demurrals

Other vocal open education advocates, though agreeing that there had always been disagreements among conference attendees about the role of commercial publishers in open education, for example, or which kinds of licenses should count as “open,” were reluctant to hash out those disagreements with a reporter. Reports of a “fracturing,” they stressed, were exaggerated.

“The fact that some people disagree with other people is hardly to me a fracturing,” said Rajiv Jhangiani, associate vice provost for open education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in British Columbia. “It’s a more mature, more critical, more nuanced discussion.”

Lisa Petrides, CEO and founder of the education nonprofit ISKME, which provides open educational resource tools and support services, said she expects a similar national convening to continue in some form. “Rather than the crumbling of a coalition, I would characterize this as an opportunity to give room to voices that have often been underrepresented and unacknowledged in the open education community,” she said via email. “There continues to be a vibrant and growing community of OER practitioners, librarians, teachers, faculty, policy makers, and researchers who have been working together and learning from each other.”

Nicole Allen, director of open education at SPARC, a coalition advocating for open access to scholarship and education, emphasized that open education advocates are still united in their core beliefs.

“Open education is growing up,” she said. “There are obviously some differences of opinion or ideology or beliefs on the best path forward, but again we’re united in the same belief of making educational materials available to everyone, and that core belief is still true.”

Many said the change might enable future meetings to be more inclusive than previous ones.

“It’s important for the community served by a conference to feel like they have a say in what that looks like,” Allen said. “This is an opportunity to reinvent this conference.”

As to who would be newly included, few seemed happy to publicly specify which groups hadn’t had a seat at the table or hadn’t been appropriately centered.

Nathan Smith, a professor at Houston Community College, wrote on his blog that some conference attendees, though not Smith himself, had questioned Wiley’s prominent role because of his race, religion or association with a for-profit company.

“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 [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], as white male) being the sole leader and organizer of the conference,” he wrote. 

But these concerns were not central, he said. “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,” he wrote.

(Note: These paragraphs have been revised from a previous version to clarify Smith's position.)

Jhangiani, though he said the community owed much to Wiley, expressed a similar sentiment regarding Wiley's role in Luman Learning. “David founded the conference well before he was the co-leader of a for-profit company, and the community is understandably uncomfortable with for-profits hosting the conference or it being extremely vendor heavy,” he said. “The organizational fit will [now] be more closely aligned with the community. It won’t be so closely aligned with one person or one company.”

Jhangiani said that the conference had shown some signs of becoming more inclusive over the past few years, as more panels discussed race, ability status and access to devices as factors to consider in open education.

In addition to including more topics of discussion, Jhangiani said that the reinvention could also help bring new people to the event.

“We could take advantage of more hybrid and online sessions, find ways to bring people who can’t travel to the conference physically,” he said. “It’s going to be done thoughtfully in a way that allows more voices to participate and doesn’t, for example, center the really well-known, vocal people and simply push to the margins the quieter voices or the lesser known voices or the more critical voices.”

Some attendees circulated an open Google survey that asked participants for their thoughts on the future of the conference.

Many of the responses said that the conference was vital and asked that it, in some form, go on. Some noted that the cost of travel and attendance made the conference inaccessible to many, while others noted that regional or virtual conferences might mitigate the gathering’s contribution to climate change.

At least two said that tensions and infighting made the conference unenjoyable.

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