The Fast-Growing Academic Conference — That Shouldn’t Be Happening in the First Place.

Illustration by Bryan Alexander

The annual Open Education Conference, which is coming up again next month, may be the world’s fastest-growing academic meeting. Scheduled this year for early November in Richmond, Virginia, the conference will open its doors 13 years after the first such gathering was conjured into existence by then-Utah State University Assistant Professor David Wiley.

Wiley’s meeting drew just a handful of participants its first year but attendance has been growing exponentially ever since. There’s no telling how many scholar/activists will show up this year; all three official conference hotels are already fully booked (space is, however, still available at other hotels nearby). Long gone, though, are the days when the small band of OpenEdiacs could take a group hike where everyone could bond, sing silly songs, and get to know one another. Now, a parade permit would be required.

What makes this success truly remarkable is that we’re talking about an academic conference that, by all rights, should never have been necessary in the first place, let alone have grown into a major yearly happening. And it would not have happened, or have turned into the pedagogical necessity it has become, if the incumbent $60 billion-a-year-plus U.S. higher education industry had been on the stick.

In fact, you may even laugh when I tell you the astonishingly simple overall purpose of this now hot-ticket academic event: to exchange information and collaborate on using available tools, technologies and resources, and, specifically, open educational resources, to provide the highest-quality educational opportunities to the greatest number of students at the lowest possible cost.

“Huh?” you say.


U.S. colleges and universities are/were not already using all available resources to better serve more students?

Some young assistant professor had to create an entirely new meeting to make progress toward this self-evidently necessary goal?
Isn’t providing as many high-quality educational opportunities as possible using available resources what the leaders of U.S. colleges and universities, and particularly our public colleges and universities, are already paid to do?

The answers are really, no, yes, and yes.

Let me explain.

When most U.S. colleges and universities were originally founded, many a century or more ago, the idea was pretty simple and, in many respects, quite similar to the goals of the annual Open Education Conference. President Abraham Lincoln’s famous decree creating land grant colleges, for example, reflected the exceptionally American desire to use available resources to create as many high-impact educational slots as possible for all the reasons that are vital to a free society, including to nurture economic growth and to build a better-informed citizenry more capable of wise self-government. At the time, the tools and resources available were prosaic, consisting mostly of land, bricks, mortar, labor, books, blackboards and chalk, along with face-to-face instruction. Put simply, educationally-minded folks did the best they could with what they had at hand. There were, by necessity, limits to admission to the first U.S. colleges and universities but those limits were based primarily on physical limitations imposed by circumstances, and by the times.

And then, slowly but surely, far too many unimaginative academic leaders mimicking each other began acting as if their schools had been dipped in amber rather than created to serve changing public needs.

Perhaps it was the administrative aristocracies in higher education, which over time grew encrusted with privileges unrequired by their roles. Perhaps it was because the school leaders themselves often unselfconsciously replicated royal traditions with more faith and rigor than democratic ones, right down to all those fancy robes, sashes and crests. For whatever reasons, and they are legion, over time as a group the leaders of our U.S. system of higher education often lost sight of and in some cases fully abandoned its original purpose: to provide the highest-quality education to the greatest number of students possible using the resources available.

Rather than honor this original animating impulse by expanding the reach of higher education as new possibilities emerged, many higher education leaders instead started to see themselves and their responsibilities in a light that too often obscured much of their potential value to society. We still hear this perspective today in convocations, at graduations, in fundraising appeals, and such, in the many, many dog whistles of exclusion from on-high about “the need to protect the fine traditions of this institution,” or to “maintain high standards,” and, most distressingly, in the shameful portrayals of the number of student applicants excluded as constituting a measure of quality rather than failure. After all, what good, true teacher boasts with a full and apparently satisfied heart about turning students away, as does the Ivy League?

This is the vacuum David Wiley and his colleagues stepped into some 13 years ago when they first brought the Open Education Conference to life. Professor Wiley wanted to see if there were other professors, policy makers, academic leaders, students, investors, entrepreneurs and business leaders who wanted to work together to achieve the central, original goal of publicly-supported education, which is to provide education to all who might benefit to the benefit of all. I will forever be astonished that this OpenEd movement rose up on the fringes of the American system of higher education rather than at its core, and further astonished that, even now, the open education movement continues to be led primarily by academia’s foot soldiers, mostly idealistic instructors, rather than the college presidents and boards of trustees who command the system.

In the meantime, though, I’ve learned more at these OpenEd conferences than anyplace else in recent years. I’ve learned the reasons why ed tech businesses that claim positive outcomes without sharing the underlying data on which those claims are based are unworthy of public investments or support. Moreover, I’ve learned that we have a real fight on our hands, a true and genuine donnybrook, simply to preserve social gains made by previous generations with regard to the public nature of public education in a digital age dominated by overly-aquisitive libertarian tech entrepreneurs.

But we are not so lonely anymore, those of us who think we should use all available tools and resources, including open educational resources, to provide the highest-quality possible education to the greatest number of students at the lowest possible cost. In fact, I am more confident than ever that soon, very soon, this basic idea, of opportunity for all, will find its way back to the core of our national system of higher education, as it must, to preserve American exceptionalism and all it represents to the world.

I hope to see you in Richmond!