Putting our Values into Practice: Reflections on #OpenEd18

Photo by Gianni Zanato on Unsplash

The Open Education Conference. Even though I had never attended this conference before, it felt like a summer camp-reunion. People I knew from other Open events. People from Twitter (my main source of professional friendships). People I had never met before but who were sharing in this experience and that was enough to feel like we knew all the same campfire songs and ghost stories. It was like in that cold conference centre I could feel the warmth of a campfire and smell the burning wood and marshmallows.

The conference program devoted a lot of presentation space to topics related to equity, diversity, accessibility, and privacy: critical issues that are integral to consider in open education work. Keynote Jess Mitchell invited us to consider these issues and address them head on not only with the message she delivered but the way she delivered it: with humility and deference to the lived experiences and knowledge of others, both known and unknown to her. She challenged us to engage in open dialogue, to criticize, to open ourselves to discomfort, to improve open education.

And yet these themes, clearly identified as important by the conference organizers, attendees, and presenters, often fell short of action.

We heard over and over that Open Education needs to bring in more voices. Inviting people to join us in our work will do nothing but strengthen our capacity, and it is our responsibility as open practitioners to make the space for new voices. And yet the financial cost and the time cost of attending OpenEd is steep, often too steep for precariously employed or early career professionals to afford.

We heard Open Educators need to go beyond creating accessible alternatives by designing OER with accessibility baked in. The flexibility of format for OER can help level the playing field for our students. And yet there were issues of accessibility around every corner, including limited access to microphones for those who wanted to ask questions, a low-contrast colour-coded map to navigate the venue, and seating that was often too close together to accommodate anyone requiring the use of a wheelchair, walker, or other mobility-assistive device.

We were reminded that Open means creating an inclusive space for everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. And yet this event had no Code of Conduct, putting the responsibility for creating this environment on the attendees, and leaving no avenue for support.

When we accept that the “open movement” is inherently good, we run the risk of operating as if the individuals who comprise this movement are above more than surface-level critique. But this is a movement still steered largely by the woke and privileged: people who enjoy enough privilege in their daily lives to not have to think about these issues beyond a theoretical perspective. People who are rarely confronted with the practical realities of walking through the world as a woman, BIPOC, LGBTQ2S, person with a disability, etc.

As a cisgender white woman, I cannot speak to most of these experiences. I the luxury of not encountering many of these issues on a daily basis, and though I struggle to remain conscious of lived experiences that are different from my own, I often catch myself failing in some respect, and I wonder how often I fail and do not catch it.

At OpenEd this year, I felt the warmth of being a part of a community of like-minded people joined by shared experience. But I also felt the absence of diversity, noticed implicit ableism, and experienced sexism turning quickly to sexual harassment. The shock of this experience in this space shook me, and the lack of avenue for reporting felt isolating. I was stuck in silence, holding onto my program and actively reminding myself that we were here for a great cause.

After a few days of strong coffee and limited sleep, wrestling with these bad moments that lived within good, I was unable to reconcile things that were seemingly at odds. OpenEd18 was both an amazing experience and a bad experience. I was challenged to make progress as a practitioner and I was challenged by the lack of progress we had collectively made. I karaoked and I cried. I can’t separate one from the other, and I can’t tune out one of those experiences and let the other narrative take over. Doing so would be a professional and personal disservice.

Jess Mitchell called for the open education movement to engage in an open dialogue. This struck me as a profound ideal at the beginning of OpenEd18, but it’s more than that. If our intention is progress, open dialogue is a fundamental necessity.

Let’s tell all the sides of our story. Let’s bring our lived experiences to our practices, good and bad. Let’s hold each other accountable not only for our ideas, but also for our actions.