Is That What We Meant?

I’m back in the heartland after a wonderful past few days in Vancouver for OpenEd. First, I want to give my deepest appreciation to David Wiley and team as well as the BC Campus for such being such accommodating hosts. The work that has happened over the last decade at BC Campus is nothing short of phenomenal. To get a quick recap, check out their slides from a presentation on Friday when they become available, which chronicled the evolution that brought forth the BC Open Textbook Project. I have mad respect for what they have done and thank you for sharing your city with all of us.

On Wednesday, I wrote a post on my Known blog that gave out APIs that I had built which contained every abstract for OpenEd since 2012. I originally built these because I was curious about the acronym “OER.” When did we go from “Open Education Resources” to “OER” and what is the acronym usually associated with? As a lot of my projects, I abandoned it before I made a ton of headway, but I encourage you to download the files and play with the data to do so (or use it, of course, however you would like).

As I left on Friday, I heard grumbling (some of it, admittedly, my own) that the conference felt very heavily focused on OER Textbooks. This gave me a good reason to revisit the data and see if there has indeed been a growing trend.

Year Total Sessions Abstracts Containing “OER” Percent “OER” Abstracts Containing “Textbook” Percent “Textbook”
2012 69 42 60.87 9 8.74
2013 103 67 65.05 27 26.21
2014 100 83 72.17 32 27.83
2015 123 84 68.29 39 31.71

As you can see, in 2012 “textbook” was one of many conversations that was being had in 2012 and made up less than 10% of the abstracts. There’s a clear moment though in 2013 where the abstracts that contain textbook grow three fold. This has only increased since and now makes up almost nearly a third of every session. Assuming there are four concurrent sessions at once, you are guaranteed to land on something about textbooks.

So what does this mean? While certain folks on Twitter may have caused a stir asserting that “OpenEd = Open Textbook,” it’s not necessarily a new trend. It may even be a positive result of a concerted effort towards a strategic goal for the OpenEd community (something desperately needed and a point that was hammered home by Michael Feldstein and Phil Hill in their opening keynote and further articulated very well in the new OER strategy document).

The tough piece to quantify is, of course, where the conversations diverge and what conversations occurred outside the formal structure. While this doesn’t really give you a sense for the collective conversation, this does give us is the dominate narrative the conference planning committee is building.

I’m not against a conversation about OER textbooks. I’ve attended OER textbook conferences. I’ve worked on large-scale class adoptions. I’m a fan. I’m not so certain though it needs to maintain such a dominant presence at this conference. David Kernohan and I were talking about this on Friday: at what point does their need to be a OpenEd OER Conference? Not necessarily to remove the textbook conversation from OpenEd but at least to make space for other flavors of Open Ed: pedagogy, theory, data, analytics, maybe even courses (dare I say MOOCs?).

That is not what we meant.

Michael Feldstein pointedly said this during his Virtual Connecting session that really stood out to me and I paraphrased below:

There was this pretty strong reaction in this community to what we’ll call “xMoocs” … There are plenty things to be worried about with xMOOCs. I’m not here to argue the virtues. Nevertheless, there is something there that can be legitimately defined as a new kind of “open” that I didn’t get a sense that, now there’s been some rich discussion about it, but at the time there was a pretty strong reaction of, “That is not what we meant.” And rather than, “Huh, that’s not what we were thinking of. What does that mean?” That’s a fine reaction, but I’m not ever sure I got an answer for myself for “Ok, well what is it that you meant?

Ok, well what is it that you meant?

I was reading a book on the plane ride home and tweeted this quote:

Licklider is known as one of the pioneer’s of the Internet and he is writing this pre-Internet. The visions that the Lickliders and Bushs and Englebarts had was not just access to information but re-conceptualizing how we interacted with information. And so here’s the question I want to ask: If OER textbooks are where the OpenEd community wants to make this the first point of attack, what’s next? Let’s assume a world where all textbooks are free. Did we win? Or did we just make the act of passively interacting with information less expensive? Is that what we meant?

My last session of OpenEd ended with this thought from Robert Farrow:

“There is no such thing as openness.”

To become more open is to remove restrictions that you’ve previously imposed. Before we commend ourselves too much for saving students money on a textbook, should we recognize the burden that we’ve allowed be imposed on our students for decades? Is that voice strong enough and does it apply further than textbooks in areas in which we are currently afraid to address? If OpenEd continues to be a conversation dominated by a specific theme, what conversations and themes are we suppressing and how ok are we with that? And, my challenge to myself as much as anyone else, is if this or that or the other is not what we meant, then what the hell is it that we mean?