A Summer of Learning: Reflections from OTNSI, OpenEd, and OpenCon

Hi! My name is David Rose, and I am the new Faculty Innovation Technologist at American University’s Center for Teaching, Research & Learning (CTRL). One of my main responsibilities is running the Open American program which provides faculty with stipends and instructional design and technology support to facilitate the adoption of open educational resources (OER). Since joining AU in February 2017, I have had the opportunity to meet many new faces around campus; I hope to meet many more in the near future, and hope this post will serve as a jumping off point for our work together.

I recently completed a Summer of Learning, attending three conferences on open education and open educational practices that will help me grow the Open American program here at AU.

In August, I was at the University of Minnesota for the 2017 Open Textbook Network Summit & Institute (OTNSI). American University recently joined the Open Textbook Network (OTN), an active community of over 600 campuses across the country (that’s about 15% of higher education!) that promote access, affordability, and student success through the use of open textbooks.

Then in October, I headed west to Anaheim, California for OpenEd17: The 14th Annual Open Education Conference. This is probably the biggest open education conference there is, and is often called the open ed “family reunion.” It’s a big family now with over 750 people in attendance.

Finally, in November, I was one of roughly 150 lucky ones selected from among more than ten thousand applicants to attend the invitation-only OpenCon 2017 in Berlin, Germany. OpenCon is unique in that brings together early career professionals in three key fields — Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data — in an effort to “catalyze action toward a more open system for sharing the world’s information — from scholarly and scientific research, to educational materials, to digital research data.” From my experience, I can say they have already been successful.

I was able to attend OpenCon because of a scholarship I received from the Open Textbook Network. Part of my scholarship was reporting back to the Network about my experience, which I did a few weeks ago:

I’ll try my best to be brief, so I’ve distilled my takeaways from the Summer of Learning into three buckets: open pedagogy, diversity & inclusion, and growing the Open American program.

Open Pedagogy

“I don’t want to be part of a movement that is focused on replacing static, over-priced textbooks with static, free textbooks.”
Robin DeRosa, Professor at Plymouth State University and open education researcher

The open education movement has reached its teenage years. When we were first learning to walk and talk, the concerns we addressed were affordability and reducing the rising costs of education. This is still a huge concern, but if the only goal is to reduce the cost of education, open educational resources aren’t the only option. OER becomes the golden ticket when we start talking about open pedagogy.

The key here is that “open” ≠ free. The internet is already free (just going to skirt past this #netneutrality rabbit hole here). What “open” really means is free + permissions. That is, permission from the copyright holder to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute — The 5 Rs, as frequently referred to. So when we talk about “open pedagogy,” we’re really talking about OER-enabled pedagogy. Once we have that permission to engage in 5R activities, what can we now do as educators that was previously not possible?

We can create renewable assignments like editing Wikipedia pages, building new websites, or turning our students into textbook authors. It’s moving from students as content consumers to content creators. Or, again calling on Robin’s words, engaging “learners in contributing to their learning materials so that knowledge becomes a community endeavor.”

Inherent in the open movement is changing mindsets — of traditional power structures in publishing, of who we’re allowing to have access, and ultimately, of what people are capable of. Instructors are capable of moving beyond disseminating content via textbooks and powerpoints. Students are capable of producing scientifically valuable work, or work that impacts public policy. Open or OER-enabled pedagogy was a theme central to every conference in my Summer of Learning.

Data to Policy Project (D2P)

One such example I explored in great depth at OpenCon was the Data to Policy Project (D2P), an initiative to connect student research across multiple disciplines through course-based assignments to meet a local community need which culminates into data-driven policy proposals to local governments and agencies. The project is being piloting in Denver this spring when participants will explore issues in Denver policing — its policies, practices, and most importantly, its data.

Such a project can have powerful impacts in our AU community as well. Racial targeting has become a massive issue at AU, and seemingly our most pressing challenge since I started here. I didn’t go to OpenCon with the aim of addressing this problem, but when I heard about the D2P project, an idea hit me like a ton of bricks:

This can be a way students actively work to solve the problem. I won’t presume to know what students of color (and anyone else who was directly targeted by these acts) are feeling, but I would imagine that having a way to feel empowered to take action and fight back would be a liberating thing. This might already being going on at AU. I know Professor Dick Bennett does really cool community based data and research projects. AU’s new Antiracist Research and Policy Center led by Professor Ibram Kendi seems likely to be on the cutting edge of initiatives like this. My first step will be connecting with someone from the Antiracist Research and Policy Center to see if they think a project like this would indeed be beneficial at AU.

The last day of OpenCon was dedicated “do-athon” time, and I choose to spend my time working on creating an outline of active steps to take to get this project off the ground.

Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion was likewise talked about very extensively at all three conferences. When you have a subject that touches on access and affordability, naturally you’ll find yourself talking about who has a seat at the table, whose voices are being heard, and who’s stuck on the margins.

Just before I left for OpenCon, the AU Library hosted a Colloquium on Scholarly Communication titled, “Scholarly Communication and Social Justice: Pushing to Subvert Traditional Publishing Power Structures.” The speaker at this event, Charlotte Roh, a Scholarly Communications Librarian at the University of San Francisco, showed some amazing data that perfectly highlighted the power inequalities in academia. All her slides are available on her Bepress site, but some of the highlights include:

  • 73% of full-time faculty are White/Caucasian
  • 79% of published authors in “mainstream” journals are White/Caucasian
  • 91% of published authors in scholarly publishing are White/Caucasian
  • 87% of librarians are White/Caucasian

Image courtesy of Charlotte Roh

With this fresh in my mind, I walked into a session at OpenCon about creating open textbooks. One of the other attendees had an interesting observation: almost every single one of the 20+ people in the room was from a western country.

Power structures come in many forms. In academia, ethnicity clearly plays a role. Even in a subset of academia like open education where we’re all about inclusivity and access, this power dynamic is still evident.

Was that room so western-country dominated because of some egotistical thinking that we have all the answers? Or perhaps just well-intentioned savior-syndrome? i.e. We are the content creators with all the answers and We need to deliver this accessible content to those who don’t have it. Perhaps that was a cynical way of looking at the issue, but it’s a question worth asking.

The point is: “open” is needed in different ways by different communities. It is not our right, our duty, or our responsibility to assume we know what others need. We are not saviors; we are collaborators. We need to make a better effort to support cross-cultural content creation with a diverse group of authors. The Rebus Community is a great organization working on issues like this.

I’ll leave this topic with a quote from writer/activist/educator/poet Walidah Imarisha’s opening keynote address at The Liberated Archive:

“And that’s the other piece, about making sure it’s accessible to people. It’s not just about saying, ‘Come, come into archives!’ Even if it’s open and it’s free and you can just walk in, ‘You don’t even need ID!’… That’s not enough because these institutions for centuries have been telling oppressed peoples ‘You do not belong here.’ You can’t change that just by sending out an e-mail and saying ‘Hey it’s open!’ and then sitting there and saying ‘Why aren’t people of color coming?’ It’s important to say: how do we make [sure] that this information is accessible, how do we take this knowledge that people actually want– not what we assume they want– out into the community where folks can use it and engage with it.”

Growing Open American

The Open American program started in 2014. Over the past 3 years, we’ve saved AU students over $500,000 in textbook costs. By “we” I mean the 19 faculty members who have already adopted open textbooks, and CTRL. But this can’t just be a CTRL issue. Since taking over the program, I’ve made it my top priority to broaden Open American beyond our walls in Hurst.

The library launching an open access publishing fund has been a convenient avenue to build camaraderie and mutual goals with a small group of librarians. We’re currently working on creating an open libguide that will include useful resources for open educational resources, open access journals, and open data repositories. We also did a joint presentation in Kogod about open initiatives at AU earlier this month.

Creative Commons, the organization that provides the open licenses which support OER, split into regional chapters within the past few years. Their U.S. chapter, Creative Commons USA, is conveniently run out of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at AU’s Washington College of Law. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much collaboration in years past to capitalize on this wonderfully convenient connection, but I was fortunate enough to meet Meredith Jacob and Ethan Senack this summer, and we’re making plans to change that. A small first step: a blog post about Open American from CC USA!

I have also started working with U.S. PIRG, a student-run and funded public interest group that has made textbook affordability one of their top initiatives. You might have come across them on the quad one Wednesday afternoon this fall semester, collecting hundreds of signatures from students and faculty alike who all made commitments to lower the cost of textbooks and other course materials. Through their efforts, 42 faculty members have signed a pledge to:

  • Seek and consider open textbooks and other open resources when choosing course materials.
  • Give preference to a low or no-cost material such as an open textbook over a more expensive, single use access code if it makes sense for the class.
  • Encourage institutions to develop support for the use of open textbooks.

And most recently, the AU interns at U.S. PIRG and myself reached out to the Center for Diversity & Inclusion to plan an event for the spring about how we can help first generation students adjust to college life, in part, with the help of free and affordable course materials. Ample studies have shown that high textbook costs cause students stress and lead to unwanted behavior changes. If we can do our part to minimize this, we should.

It was very clear at the Open Textbook Network Summit & Institute that this is a program I cannot run alone. Nor do I want to go it alone. Affordability, access, and improved teaching and learning practices are issues that touch every corner of this campus. These are issues we should all be concerned with.

There’s lot of work ahead! In 2018, I expect to be working with 21 more faculty who indicated they plan on adopting an open textbook following our Open Textbook Workshop in September.

To get even more faculty engagement, I also plan on creating a proposal for the inclusion of language recognizing open educational resources in AU’s promotion and tenure guidelines. At OpenEd, I learned about such a success at the University of British Columbia. An excerpt from the UBC Guide to Reappointment, Promotion and Tenure Procedures (RPT) reads:

“Evidence of educational leadership is required for tenure/promotion in the Educational Leadership stream… It can include, but is not limited to…Contributions to the practice and theory of teaching and learning literature, including publications in peer-reviewed and professional journals, conference publications, book chapters, textbooks and open education repositories / resources.”

Wouldn’t it be great if AU recognized such work as well?

I’m pushing 2,500 words, so I’ll stop here for now. I’m grateful to the organizers of all these events, CTRL for allowing me to attend and spend my summer learning and growing, and most of all to my community of open education advocates.

I love the community we have here at AU as well. I am excited about the potential we have to grow together in openness. Faculty, staff, and students alike have all shown tremendous interest in helping change the status quo in higher education, and I hope to be around for a long time helping to facilitate that change.

I’d love your help! Come find me in CTRL, call me at x1089, email me at rose@american.edu, you can even tweet me even @davidrosegoes… I’m available!

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