Opening Public Institutions

While every Open Education conference I’ve attended has been fantastic, #OpenEd17 was by far the best yet for me. It wasn’t just that there were great presentations (there were), and it wasn’t just that so many great people were there (they were, tho some were missing), nor was it the way we connected beyond the event (we did) via Virtually Connecting, the remote participation during the How can we destroy the open education movement? session, or what we hope is a way to keep the conversations going annotating together. What made #OpenEd17 so great was the way that the conference, some fortuitous conversations, and my own thinking came together so powerfully in a way they never have before.

For me, the conference wound between valuable insights on the practical work of opening education (How do we do this? How do we do it better?) and equally valuable conversations about the open education community itself (Who are we? Who are we not? What are we doing? Why? Who speaks? Who isn’t speaking and should?). As someone who has done quite a bit of practical work opening education and who also cares deeply about our community and its future, I found both strands of great value.

Not everyone did though. I heard some folks say there was too much talk of ourselves — distracting us from the work we need to get done. I heard others saying that we won’t be able to fully realize our goals until we ensure our community itself enacts justice and equality — and that we aren’t there yet. Someone likened it to a debate between pragmatists and ideologues, wondering if one side or the other is ascendant.

I’m not too worried about this tension. It’s ok if some of us want to focus on this thing or that for a while. Others of us will be working on other stuff. As long as we are still fundamentally aligned and talking to each other, that’s how we get things done together.

So what?

During #OpenEd17, the Hewlett Foundation (thank you!) invited quite a few of us to talk about how they should focus their work in education. In the corner of the conversation I was in, we talked about some very worthy efforts to build and spread tools, content and practices. Without a doubt, those are the kind of things we are doing and we need to be doing. And yet, I think there’s something bigger to attend to. If we don’t, we run the risk of losing everything we’re working for.

We need to lift our heads up above our important, but local concerns and remember why we are opening education to begin with. It’s not just to produce and spread more content with full 5R permissions. It’s not just to deploy open pedagogies in classrooms. It’s not just to form a more perfect union at OpenEd. We are working together to make fundamental changes in the way knowledge is created and shared. We are working together to make these new knowledge practices change the way we all live for the better.

Where do we imagine the larger change we seek will take place?

Will we gather in the commons, fostering the practices that support our common needs?

Will we set up shop in the marketplace, working to develop mechanisms that harness capital to drive change?

Will we stalk the halls of government, electing and lobbying representatives to enact our policies?

Yes, we will do all those things, but above all, we need to make change happen in our public institutions — the schools, colleges, universities, and libraries where both knowledge and our civic life are created and shared. (One might also add the military and, sadly, prisons to this list.)

Why make change there? This is the most crucial part.

Yes, these public institutions are good places to open education. A lot of us are already doing that. What’s even more important is that these are the only institutions where we — the citizenry of our supposed participatory democracies — come together. Not every single one of us, but enough — what should be a large majority. And these institutions are being systematically devalued and dismantled by people with other agendas, opposed to ours. We need to focus our work where we come together not because alma mater or liberal education or well-ordered archives have some inherent value, but because it is where we come together that we make the bonds that hold us together. Without these places, we have nowhere to generate and transmit our common interests.

Getting it right

I come away from #OpenEd17 once again believing that our most compelling model is in British Columbia, led by our exemplary colleagues at BCCampus. BC seems closest to doing it right: demonstrating their commitment to their citizens by allocating substantial (tho I’m sure still insufficient) resources to do the right things with public ownership of the human and technical infrastructure necessary to generate and sustain real change.

We are starting to see similar models at work in the US, where states are allocating more resources to do this work. NY is maybe the best example (or maybe the example I know best), where significant new resources are coming together at SUNY and CUNY with the right kinds of people, practices and coordination to make real change.

I’m sure there’s still a lot more we could do and could do better in BC and NY, but these models have the characteristics I believe will have significant, lasting impact: sizable resources supporting open practices, housed in persistent, public institutions that foster varied local efforts, coordinate best practices, common needs, and infrastructure to scale change, and share it all back out as widely as possible.

So I would say to Hewlett as I would say to us all: pursue worthy, focused work, but pursue it in the context of building and supporting a public framework that we all own and can sustain our efforts over time for everyone. If we don’t build there, there will be no place left to build.

If any of this thinking resonates with you, credit goes to the conversations these people made possible. If you don’t like it, blame me alone. Alyson Indrunas, Ann Fiddler, Brenda Vollman, Cable Green, Francesca Carpenter, Jeremy Dean, Karen Cangialosi, Mark McBride, Mike Caulfield, MJ Bishop, Phil Hill, Remi Kalir, Richard Sebastian, Robin DeRosa, Sarah Faye Cohen, and Scott Robison.

Posted by Nate Angell

Wandering IQ. Raised by wolves. Friend to cheese. Working to bend the arc of justice. Learn more about my professional and educational history on LinkedIn and on this blog, or if you really want to get to know me, follow me on Twitter.

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