The Crumbling of the OpenEd Coalition

Author: Michael Feldstein
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At the OpenEd conference this week, David Wiley made an announcement that was more significant than it may have sounded. Before I attempt to further characterize or analyze it, I think you should read it for yourself in its entirety, copied here from David’s blog:1

In 2003 I invited a small group of about forty people interested in open content and open courseware to Logan, Utah. Since then, this annual meeting has grown year after year to where we are today – 850 people interested in everything from open educational resources and open educational practices to sustainability and social justice. This annual conference has been a remarkable forum for the community to meet, share ideas, and foster collaborations, and the conference community is larger and more diverse than ever before. 

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. As of this Friday afternoon the conference will be adjourned indefinitely. 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. To go back to the drawing board – as a community – and critically examine all of our assumptions about conferences, to grapple with a range of ideas about how we want to learn from and collaborate with each other, and to talk frankly about our end goals and guiding values. And when something like a consensus starts to emerge, the community can choose what to do next. To borrow a phrase, this is an opportunity to revise and remix what is, honestly, a very traditional academic conference, into something – or some things – far better.

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. And so I invite all of you to use the breaks, lunches, dinners, and other free time you have here in Phoenix to engage in this critical reimagining and to explore with one another the possible shapes future meetings of our community – or communities – might take. I expect this will be a difficult, messy, and at times even painful process. But most things worth doing are.

On a personal note, I want to thank the hundreds of people who have made the conference incredible over the years by presenting, reviewing proposals, convening sessions, volunteering at the information desk, and in countless other ways. Thank you to our Program Committees. Thank you to our sponsors. Thank you to Utah State University, Brigham Young University, BCcampus, and Lumen Learning for serving as the conference’s fiscal agents and logistics leads over the years. Most of all, thanks to each of you. Thank you for giving a bit of yourself to this community, for building each other up, and for moving the work forward. And, as always, thank you for everything you do for students.

David Wiley

I was at the conference for the first day and heard a range of different reactions to the news. Some said it was no big deal and that characterizing it as essentially a changing of the guard of the leadership:

Others expressed more concern about the nature of the handoff from David to the next steward than Lisa did, but the fundamental view was the same.

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.

This is not ultimately about David Wiley or even Lumen Learning stepping away from organizing the conference (although the loss of an organization willing to manage an 850-person conference is a significant blow). My conversations with various OpenEd participants this week provided ample confirmation to me that there continue to be long-standing and deepening fractures within the OpenEd coalition, even though many of the participants are either not fully aware of them or not seeing how consequential they are in terms of how people may think about future convenings.

I am by no means suggesting that OER or “open education”—whatever that is—is itself in danger of ceasing to exist. OpenEd is the only conference I know of that fell apart in a year when it had record attendance. If anything, OER adoption appears to be accelerating. In fact, I believe it is precisely OER’s success and growth that may have pushed this long-simmering problem to its breaking point. That growth has caused the balance of power within the coalition shifted in ways that created tensions among coalition members. Ultimately, those tensions proved insurmountable. The center did not hold.

The OpenEd conference as we know it is dead. It may come back in some form, possibly even next year, and possibly even with the same name. But it won’t be the same coalition with the same focus and balance of interests. It won’t be the same OpenEd. That is neither necessarily bad nor necessarily good. But whether it is good, bad, or indifferent, it is a fact.

This was foreseeable—and foreseen

The OpenEd coalition has long consisted of (at least) three different groups with three different primary goals:

  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.

In 2015, Phil Hill and I gave a joint keynote at the OpenEd conference in Vancouver. The theme of our talk was precisely that OpenEd was a brittle coalition that could fracture if the coalitional challenges were not addressed. Phil, in his part, talked about the challenge and opportunity that faculty surveys about OER demonstrated. There was a lot to be accomplished. My half of the talk was about my experience as a climate activist and how hard it is to build a coalition that holds together and accomplishes its goals over time (hint hint).

Here are some of the questions that I encouraged the conference participants to discuss:

  • What is your goal?
  • What is your theory of change?
  • What is your strategy?
  • Who do you have to convince?
  • What are your obstacles?
  • What power do you have?
  • Who are your natural allies?
  • Who is persuadable?
  • What is your best message?
  • Who are you willing to let win?
  • What are you willing to give up?

At the time, Mike Caulfield noted on Twitter that the question about who you are willing to let win was a particularly important one.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. A fight broke out about the planned conference programming that was bad enough to have caught the attention of the Chronicle:

Less than two weeks before its 16th annual meeting, the Open Education Conference has canceled one of its keynote panels — “The Future of Learning Materials” — after facing a backlash on social media.

The panel, which had been scheduled for November 1, was slated to include representatives from Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Lumen Learning, and Macmillan, all for-profit publishing companies, as well as the managing director of OpenStax, a nonprofit. It was supposed to explore the potential role of traditional commercial entities in the future of open education resources.

“That role could be anything from ‘no role’ to ‘deeply committed participant,’” David Wiley, a member of the program committee and a co-founder of Lumen Learning, said in an email. Of the more than two dozen speakers and panels nominated for keynotes, the future panel was one of the top vote-getters on the program committee, he added.

But the reaction to the panel highlighted the often contentious relationship between advocates for open education resources and commercial publishers, as open resources expand in the learning-materials market. The outcry also raised broader questions about the politics of providing platforms to those with opposing views and social media’s tendency to amplify outrage. Many open-ed advocates pushed back against the framing of the panel and objected to elevating profit-seeking entities with a keynote and prescreening questions audience members could ask.

The conference’s program committee, comprising Wiley and 11 others involved in open education, said the decision to cancel had stemmed from “toxic behavior” on Twitter, adding that committee members had received “abusive and harassing” direct messages. Two panelists withdrew, according to a statement, and potential replacements declined to participate because of the tone of the discussion on Twitter. But some in the open-education community, both those who had pushed back against the panel and those who had stayed out of the discussion, said they did not see anything particularly troubling in the public posts.

Wiley declined to share copies of the direct messages that committee members had received, or to comment on their nature. Several committee members and panelists did not respond to requests for comment.

A Conference on Open Education Invited For-Profit Publishers to a Keynote. Then the Objections Began.

To be clear, this latest episode is a symptom of the crumbling coalition rather than the cause of it. Phil and I saw this kind of tension—and occasional acrimony—as far back as 2015, which is what caused us to warn about it. Here’s one quote from the Chronicle article which marks one end of the spectrum of disagreement:

In conjunction with the statement announcing the panel’s cancellation, the programming committee also released all of the questions that had been submitted to the panel. Of the 56 questions submitted, many were directed only toward the for-profit panelists and could be quite pointed. “Why should open-education advocates and OER publishers listen to the opinions of the commercial publishers, whose greed has directly caused the current textbook-cost crisis?” said one question.

Others took the position that, while they were open in principle to commercial publishers participating, some of those entities did not meet key standards for good behavior and good will:

Rajiv Jhangiani, associate vice provost for open education at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, in British Columbia, published a blog post outlining how he thought commercial entities had engaged with open education maliciously in the past, and how many of them were trying to improve how they work with the field.

“While this may seem like a tricky balance, I see it as quite straightforward to criticize openwashing” — marketing as open education without offering a fully open product — “by a commercial player while also recognizing positive developments from the same actor,” Jhangiani wrote. “You see,” he wrote later in the post, “I do want to have these discussions with commercial players. I am interested in a diverse and healthy commons, and I take no joy in skewering for-profit actors publicly when they perpetrate harm and lie to advance their bottom line.”

While it is not a 100% match, OpenEd coalition members’ views of this sort of question—who they are willing to let win (and under what circumstances)—tend to correlate with primary goals. On one end of the spectrum, those who see OER as a particularly effective tool for achieving their primary aim of improving quality of curricular materials (and therefore student outcomes) are likely to be most tolerant of commercial vendors whose tactics they don’t always agree with but who may contribute in multiple ways to improving student outcomes, both through OER and through other means. On the other end, coalition members with different primary goals tend to be least tolerant of the commercial vendors and less forgiving of their perceived bad behavior, in part because these advocates tend to hold a theory of change that is tied to correcting power imbalances. For example, the claim that the publishers’ “greed has directly caused the current textbook-cost crisis” entails the beliefs that the publishers have had all the power to control prices and that correcting the fundamental problem requires taking away power from the publishers. Different primary goals or different theories of change may lead people to different conclusions about who they are willing to let win under which circumstances.

Making matters more difficult, as OER moved from a fringe interest to a more mainstream trend, the balance of attendees at OpenEd has changed from a high percentage individual contributors who sometimes felt alienated from the decision-making processes in their home institutions toward a higher percentage of participants who came precisely to advance institutional initiatives. As is often the case in coalitional politics, it is impossible to completely separate the political from the personal. People attending OpenEd come with both their professional responsibilities and their personal convictions, which tend to be deeply enmeshed among people who are passionate about what they do for a living. As the coalition came under increasing tension from the changing mix in priorities, personal tensions were also bound to increase.

While I did not follow the public fight about the panel on Twitter and have no inside information about any private messages that were exchanged, Phil and I had both seen enough similar behavior by 2015 to have been concerned about whether this group would hold together over the long haul.

What may come next

As I have tried to say throughout this post, the current situation is not a signal of OER’s failure but rather a side effect of its success. Note that none of the three priorities I listed at the top of this post included “OER are intrinsically good and an end in themselves.” Even folks who tend to believe that openness is an important value that leads to other good things—and I count myself as one of those people—argue that a Creative Commons license is an end in itself. An open content license or, more broadly, a bias toward openness of various types can be useful in accomplishing a wide range of goals. And because interest in using OER has increased across a range of people who are pursuing different goals, it is no longer adequate to talk about “open education” and “open pedagogy” as nebulous things that we don’t all need to define and explicitly agree on because it is somehow obvious that we all agree enough. That simply isn’t true anymore, to the degree that it ever was true in the first place.

The OpenEd conference as we know it is dead because it represents a coalition that has, at least for the moment, crumbled under the weight of its own growth and diversification. What comes next will almost certainly be one or more attempts to either reconstitute the old coalition or build new ones—or, most likely, both.

I think it more likely than not that somebody will run a conference next year that will be called “OpenEd.” I also think it more likely than not that there will be one or more conferences—regional, national, and/or international—that attempt to build a new coalition that aligns more closely with one or more factions rather than trying to reconstitute the same blend as OpenEd as it has existed to-date. The efforts that succeed will be the ones that embrace the task of coalitional politics and develop a strategy that both recognizes the real differences among participating factions and develops an explicit strategy to attract and retain a coalition that can maintain alignment over time.

There will doubtlessly be OpenEd participants who passionately disagree with this analysis, and some who may even be angry over it. Unfortunately, that is new to neither OpenEd nor e-Literate. A public platform is a blunt instrument. Sometimes the only way to both ethically and effectively get a message across in a venue like a blog is to be plain spoken and independent-minded at the risk of offending friends.

The OpenEd coalition fell apart this week. It is not the end of OER or open education. But there are multiple paths leading forward from here. Finding the one that maximizes opportunities to do good will depend on the degree to which future coalition members are willing to take a hard look at what went wrong and learn from failures.

  1. Disclosure: David is an employee of Lumen Learning, a sponsor of the Empirical Educator Project.

The post The Crumbling of the OpenEd Coalition appeared first on e-Literate.

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