OER17 audience

From OER10 to OER18: OER grows up – Guest post by Gabi Witthaus


(Image: OER17 audience by Josie Fraser CC-BY)

In this post I reflect on all the OER (open educational resources) conferences to date, and how my personal journey as an academic has been intertwined with the “growing up” of the OER movement in the UK. I started working in Higher Education in 2009 when I joined the Beyond Distance Research Alliance at the University of Leicester, and found my intellectual and philosophical home in the team’s JISC-funded OER projects, which revelled in quirky animal-acronym names like OTTER, OSTRICH and SPIDER. I participated in the first few OER conferences with a sense of naive optimism, believing that if we could only solve the operational issues around OERs, we could open the floodgates of free access to high quality educational resources to vast numbers of people around the globe, thereby making the world a better place.

OER10 (in Cambridge, March 2010) had as its themes open educational content, OER design, and open educational communities. The focus was on the structuring, storage, retrieval and reuse of open educational content. OER11, in Manchester, took a slightly longer and wider view, listing OER strategy and sustainability, academic practice and digital scholarship, and collaboration and communities, as its themes. My team’s presentation was on workflow models for developing and publishing OERs, based on the “CORRE” model we had developed at Leicester.

OER12, in Cambridge, had slightly more visionary aims, with the themes of innovation, impact and collaboration. The conference programme reflected the growing momentum of international collaboration at the time. In keeping with this development, my presentation was on the attitudes of UK higher education players towards the OERu (Open Educational Resources university) – an international consortium of higher education institutions offering credentialled OER learning pathways. This research was based on the TOUCANS project, which was a HEFCE-funded SCORE fellowship. Several other SCORE fellows presented at this conference.

OER13 (in Nottingham) took place against the backdrop of a significant shift in the landscape of open higher education, as 2012 was the final year of the HEFCE-funded UKOER programme. Happily for those of us whose employment was dependent upon funded projects, EU funding became available, and so my team at Leicester (and many others around the country) became partners with academics in other EU member states on OER projects, generally with a greater emphasis on policy. I was part of the POERUP team’s presentation at OER13, which was an ambitious “elevator pitch” outlining the national OER policies of 26 countries. Meanwhile, the OER movement had also been affected by the recognition of the role (real or potential) of MOOCs in formal higher education. In November 2012, the New York Times had declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC, and December 2012 saw the birth of the UK’s own MOOC platform, FutureLearn. The hype in the popular media around MOOCs (which had never been realised around OERs) simultaneously empowered and disempowered the OER cause – raising awareness about the potential value of open education, but also sowing confusion by virtue of the varied emerging “business” models of MOOCs, many of which were (and still are not) very open at all. Martin Weller addressed this issue in his opinion piece for the OER12 special edition of JIME, “The battle for open”, in which he took a critical look at different forms of openness.

OER14, in Newcastle, picked up on these threads by focusing on OER as a collaborative catalyst for building communities of open practice. The themes were:

  • Building and linking communities of open practice
  • MOOCs and open courses
  • Academic practice, development and pedagogy
  • Open policy, research, scholarship and access
  • Students as users and co-creators

I didn’t attend OER14, largely because my formal (i.e. contracted) work as an open educator was coming to an end. By this stage, the austerity economy was well established in the HE sector in the UK, the second cohort of students as “customers” paying £9k tuition fees was in place, and university administrations were quick to drop non-profit elements from their portfolios. In December 2014, the Institute of Learning Innovation (the renamed Beyond Distance Research Alliance) at Leicester was closed down, and our team dispersed and was absorbed into mainstream HE work in other universities, where most of us took up new jobs with little or no formal emphasis on open education.

Meanwhile, MOOCs carried on proliferating, and the debate continued around what constituted genuinely open education. The discourse amongst my fellow open educators shifted from OERs towards open educational practices (OEPs). Reflecting this development, OER15, which was held in Cardiff, chose “Mainstreaming open education” as its title. The OER15 themes were:

  • Open Courses
  • Open Education Practice (OEP) and Policy
  • Open Education in Colleges and Schools
  • Open Education across Languages & Cultures
  • Learners and Other Communities
  • Impact Research

I attended the conference in my capacity as an individual scholar, and my presentation, with co-author Andreia Inamorato dos Santos, was on a typology of institutional practices for the recognition of open learning – based on findings from the EU-funded OpenCred study, my final project at Leicester.

OER16, in Edinburgh, was on open culture, with the following themes:

  • Strategic and reputational advantages of openness (including, but not restricted to, outreach, public engagement and return on investment).
  • Converging or diverging cultures of openness (including open data, open science, open GLAM, open knowledge, open source, open content, open access).
  • Hacking, making and sharing.
  • Innovative approaches to opening up cultural heritage collections for education

OER17, in London, was on the politics of open. The themes were:

  • Local, national, and international policy and practice
  • Institutional/organisational politics
  • Participation & social equality
  • Open Party

I attended in my individual capacity again, teaming up as a volunteer with colleagues on the EU-funded ReOpen project to present on recognition of open, online learning. One notable development at OER17 was the large number of German participants, as funding for the OERinfo programme was now in place in Germany to support a range of OER projects. I felt energised by the presence of this new group, and it seemed that many of the old debates – particularly around the sustainability of OER initiatives – suddenly had new life and new relevance.

And now, OER2018 (in Bristol) is just around the corner. The title is, invitingly, “OER for all” – and the themes are:

  • How can open practice and research support learner success?
  • How does Open Education foster learner diversity and support inclusivity?
  • What skills do learners need and develop in experiencing open learning?
  • Politics in action – (following up from #OER17) – what are your latest initiatives in support of learning and growth?
  • How is OER learning from, and contributing to, other open activities, e.g. open science, open source, open data, open access etc.?
  • Wildcard – what do we need to include? What have we ignored?

OER18 promises to be both intellectually stimulating and life-enhancing, under the leadership of co-chairs David Kernohan (a Wonkhe Associate Editor and the extraordinary mind behind Followers of the Apocalypse) and Viv Rolfe (whose expertise includes intestinal physiology, open education research and playing the saxophone). Nine years on, I remain optimistic about the role of OER in making the world a better place – and feel that I’m much better able to understand and overcome the challenges inherent in this mission, thanks to the networking and collaboration with the many wonderful colleagues I have had the privilege to meet there.

So, roll on #OER18… Earlybird registration ends on 25th January – don’t miss it!