Open Reflections: OpenCon 2018

Wall covered in sticky notes that read love.

Critical Openness

At OpenCon 2018, attendees built upon inclusive practices in open education and open research. Denisse Albornoz, an OpenCon alum, a Research Associate for the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network and The Knowledge G.A.P. kicked off the conference with the concept of “critical openness.” This reflection is influenced by her as well as the other speakers who shared their incredible work with the OpenCon community this weekend including Jasmeen Patheja, Alexis C Johnson, Leslie Chan. For those interested, I highly recommend that you view the panel on Diversity and Inclusion. It is by far one of the best panel presentations I have ever seen.

Critical openness is a call for challenging questions – ones contextualized in the histories and lived experiences from people around the globe – with the goal of generating productive and meaningful dialogue across power and difference. Critical openness calls us in to find approaches to research and education that are built to serve communities and push forward change. This includes:

  • Cultivating relationships between researchers and the communities they are meant to serve by building trust and meaningful consent processes;
  • Questioning and shifting the ideological neo-colonialism that persists throughout education and is reinscribed through educational technology;
  • Understanding the systematic and continual erasure of knowledges not recognized by Western academic culture and the pressures on academics from marginalized backgrounds to produce a certain type of knowledge or publication.

Critical openness runs parallel to open advocacy ensuring that the practices furthered by the open community don’t carry on the very systems that have resulted in the widespread exclusion in the first place.

When we use critical openness as our framework, we identify approaches to challenge social injustice in academic structures. In a lot of ways, this runs counter to finding “solutions” enabled by a technology or product that oversimplify and miss the goals and values of the people it is designed to help. Approaches are complex, nuanced, and take practice. They are plural and flexible and responsive to context. Approaches enable sustained resistance to structures we are hoping to change.

OpenCon is about the ways in which openness can become a vehicle for decolonizing scholarship: from teaching methods to research practices. Openness cannot inherently serve this purpose on its own. Rather, openness is one method for engaging with the practice of decolonizing knowledge production. The goal is not openness in and of itself. The goal is to decolonize learning for us all.

How might we?

To apply this practice of critical openness, questions for discussion have been phrased “How might we . . .” This framing is a refreshing opportunity to generate conversations that seek multiple perspectives and approaches to address long-standing and oftentimes historical challenges.

Questions raised this year include:

  • How might we equip those working in colleges and universities to embed diversity and inclusivity into their work with open educational resources?
  • How might we welcome, embolden, and care for open advocates and provide inclusive support that considers the whole person?
  • How might we use open communities to support a fight for a fast, affordable, safe, transparent, and decolonized internet in Africa?
  • How might the open community account for and address labor and power dynamics in academic culture? How can open challenge those abusive power structures in productive ways?
  • How might we include alternative sources of feedback and other non-traditional measures as we measure the success of OER and open initiatives?
  • How might we create structures that do not default to English-only OER creation?
  • How might we address the unique barriers that faculty from diverse backgrounds face that prevent their engagement with open textbook creation?
  • How might we create open pedagogical practices that are fundamentally inclusive and equitable and do not rely on assumptions of who the “average” student is?

At the heart of all of these questions lies: how might we put diversity and equity first? In doing so, we fundamentally acknowledge equity as an active practice that spans the scope of every single decision made about open. In this context, inclusion is not a compartmentalized topic to address before moving on to other concerns.

This is perhaps what I find most exciting in the framing of “how might we?” questions. These questions invite the acknowledgement of complexity, the exploration of implicit values, beliefs, and biases, and the opportunity to envision practices built for equity.

Situating Open Education in the Context of Open Knowledge

Finally, as a part of the process of engaging with critical openness, we are encouraged to examine the bigger picture. As a result, this means that open education and OER advocates must ask themselves how their contributions fit into, further, or harm the larger efforts of inclusive open knowledge practices.

How might we work through the creation of an open educational resource that doesn’t simply mirror the expectations for and valuing of particular types of knowledge that are fundamentally exclusive?

How might we demonstrate our commitment not only to active, engaged learning but to student produced knowledge and ways of knowing while creating open textbooks?

How might we use OER to make inroads in decolonizing knowledge?

To better understand how OER and open textbook creation can become an inclusive (i.e. truly accessible) practice in education, our communities must wrestle with these “how might we?” questions. At OpenCon, the energy and attention of the attendees was centered on the people, practices, relationships, and ideologies that inform open work. Rather than centering technology tools or workflows or procedures, we collaborated to explore the complexity of equitable action in the production of scholarship. This must be the heart of the open education movement if we are to achieve what openness aims to do.

Leaving this conference, I carry with me more Open Questions about the intersections of open scholarship, open education, and justice. But I also carry with me hope for a better model of knowledge construction and sharing in our world. It is so rare to leave a conference feeling restored and whole. I’m grateful to the OpenCon community for fostering such a radically different type of conference and to the Open Textbook Network for providing me the opportunity to attend the first conference where I have been truly included.