OpenCon 2016

Nov 30, 2016

Earlier this month I was very fortunate to attend OpenCon in Washington D.C. at the grace of the Open Textbook Network. I have attempted here to encapsulate as much of the conference as possible, but I’m afraid that I have not even reproduced a small fraction of the inspiration that it offered me. The conference brought together incredible people who I learned a great deal from. Some of them became friends who I look forward to keeping in touch with. Nick Shockey, Nicole Allen, and every other organizer were perfectly hospitable and made the conference a pleasure to attend. I am very appreciative of the Open Textbook Network for sending me and allowing me to participate in such an amazing event!

Also, I took a few personal days while I was in the nation's capital.

Space Shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia

Space Shuttle Discovery at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia

Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Open Textbook Network Scholarship Application

I'm an Emerging Technologies Librarian trained as an electrical engineer. My professional interests include developing open educational resources and managing a makerspace for OU Libraries. My personal interests include tinkering with electronics, coding, and informal education.

During my undergraduate career I developed a passion for the Open model and did an independent study of all things "open" during which I met the leaders of the Open Educational Resources effort of OU Libraries. I interviewed them for my study and was ultimately invited to join their effort as a student assistant to the OER Coordinator.

For two years while I finished my undergraduate degree, I facilitated OER publishing, regularly met with faculty, and also carried out some administrative duties within our program. Following an eight month interim period between OER coordinators, where I handled the day-to-day responsibilities of our program I was offered a full-time position as an Emerging Technologies Librarian where a portion of my time is dedicated to supporting OER. This new position allows me to take on an exploratory role with respect to OER support and development. Currently, I am exploring innovative approaches to publishing OER as the methods we used in the first few years of our program are not sustainable.

I am passionate about Open Education because unfettering access to education in every possible way seems like the right thing to do. This is especially true given the relatively recent development of open licenses and modern authoring tools that allow anyone to publish content for the web.

I am currently very interested in improving the authoring workflow of OER. Most OER is not being written in the most open way possible. Many times the only format OER is made available in is PDF. PDFs are fine for viewing, but they are difficult to edit. The nature of OER is such that anyone should be able to edit it in order to rapidly iterate on the content or otherwise adapt it for one's specific needs. I would love the opportunity to share and discuss my ideas with peers who might have opinions of the workflow that I am currently developing.

Another idea that I am eager to discuss with peers is that of a tool which facilitates the curation of OER. On average I discover three or four new OER each week. Right now I save those links but not any metadata about them, nor do I save them in such a way that makes searching them easy. Those I work closely with collect OER in a very similar way. I'm sure there are many others across the world that do too. I would like to create a tool that accepts structured data about a specific OER and creates records in a database that would be easy to search. Ideally this would make responding to the requests for specific OER in the listservs trivial.

Another moonshot idea that I would love the opportunity to discuss with peers would be the mirroring of OER in a database such as that perviously described. Inevitably the sites where OER are currently being hosted will not exist forever. I would love to see it downloaded and mirrored on the servers of a large institution ideally achieving maximum longevity of the resource.


Nick Shockey opened the conference with facts and figures about those in attendance which was, for me, the first moment of inspiration of the event. There were 10,000 applications submitted to attend OpenCon in-person. Only 230 of those could be accepted unfortunately. Consequently, over 2000 people RSVP'd to participate in OpenCon Live -10 times more people in virtual attendance than in the room. More than half of those in the room were between years 2 and 5 of their careers and on the whole represented 60 countries, he said! OpenCon was dense with people who are altogether brilliant, self-critical, innovative, and brave. Throughout the conference, several speakers alluded to feelings of imposter syndrome; a term used to describe the inability of an individual to accept their own accomplishments leading to a fear of being exposed as not belonging to a respected group of peers. These symptoms became very real to me when I realized that I was included in such a narrow selection of attendees.

Brewster Kahle's keynote began with an appeal that "events of earlier this week [2016 United States presidential election] are going to have a severe impact" on how information is shared and therefor the advancement of knowledge. Following an assertion that freedom of the press is under threat by the Trump administration Kahle argued that the web needs to be "locked open." That is, that the First Amendment ought to be baked into the code of the web. His talk, Locking the Web Open: A Call for Decentralized Web was an outline of how this will be achieved.

Defining what it means to have an open web, Kahle stressed that the web ought to be reliable, private, and fun. So far, he said, it is only fun citing that The Internet Archive is currently blocked by the governments of entire countries. The web is neither reliable nor private as long as this is true. In an effort to change that fact Kahle made the case that the tools and content that are the web ought to live everywhere and at the same time nowhere. This he called the Decentralized Web.

I found his argument for the Decentralized Web especially compelling in the context of open educational resources (OER). Presently I am focused on how to author OER in such a way that they are made available in as many formats as possible while at the same time remaining easy to edit and preserving their provenance. Following OpenCon this is still my focus, but I believe that the Decentralized Web will become a central part of how I will think about delivering OER in the future. After all, OER are not truly open until access to them is ubiquitously unfettered now and forevermore. Kahle spoke generally with respect to all open issues, however applying his statements directly to open educational resources was natural and was, for me, one of the most influential things I took away from OpenCon.

The first interactive session of OpenCon was my favorite not because I learned a solution to a problem I'm working on or because I made a great professional connection -the things I was expecting to take away from OpenCon. The session was titled "Story Circle" and it perfectly summarized the inspiration that I would draw from OpenCon over the two and one-half days to follow. Prior to the conference attendees were assigned a small group to be part of for this session. Before splitting into small groups we received instructions for how the session was to be conducted. We were to share our "story of open", that is, how each of us became interested in open. We were to explain what led us to attending OpenCon starting from the day we were born and not from when we began professionally working on open issues. This session was personal and at times emotional where each member shared their story in unspoken confidence of their group members.

True to much of my experience at OpenCon, my group was comprised of members from several countries. This only ensured that each of us shared very different perspectives. Some in my group were primarily concerned with Open Access and told very passionate anecdotes that related openness to promotion and tenure, a theme that was echoed throughout the conference. Hearing those accounts deepened my understanding of issues that before were shallow. Others were fighting for access to information at the level of their country's government. It was during the Story Circle session that my privilege was made perfectly clear to me. Prior to OpenCon I typically only focused on access to textbooks in the context of the United States. Some of those at OpenCon represented regions of the world where reliable internet access is not guaranteed, a luxury that I take for granted! I ate nine meals with fellow OpenCon-ers. At each I was the only American at the table. Having made friends with some of these people, it will be difficult to not think of open issues in the future as the global issues they truly are. The passionate accounts of how my group members came to be interested in open culture struck me with disbelief; disbelief that I had been included among those doing work that I so categorically revere.

The final day of OpenCon again shuffled attendees into small groups that prepared agendas for which to advocate and then traveled to various offices across Washington D.C. to do so. The first advocacy meeting that I participated in was at New America, a think tank that "bridges the gap between technology and policy." Already aware of and working on issues involving open education, our strategy as a group was to offer support to the causes they are already working on and to reinforce their relationship with SPARC.

The second advocacy meeting I attended was at the National Academy of Sciences with Dr. George O. Strawn, the board Director for the Policy and Global Affairs Division at the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Strawn was obviously very familiar with Open Access issues. He opened the discussion with a talk that was laced with complacency about the very issues that had been discussed at OpenCon over the prior two days. In a few words his opening could be summarized by "sticks and carrots," a phrase hardly appetizing to a group energized by two days of intense support and inspiration. When the discussion opened up and those of us sitting around the table began to voice concerns about Open Access publishing, promotion and tenure structures, and open education, Dr. Strawn was attentive and provided thoughtful responses to the people who were so clearly demonstrating their passion for these issues. In the end, he was apparently moved by the brave people who argued for their concerns in the meeting. In closing, Dr. Strawn asked us, through SPARC, to form an advisory committee of OpenCon-ers that would report to him on perhaps a quarterly basis to keep him abreast of open issues. This felt like a small win.

Walking from the meeting, the group reflected on the meeting as if high from the thrill of advocating for such deeply personal issues at such a high level. One person in the group summarized the meeting as having formed a solid support structure underneath a progressive member of a conservative, yet powerful, board. "Modest progress" I thought and with that I again found myself disbelieving what I had just been a part of.

At that evening's reception, the final of the conference, there were several moving speeches given, but I found Nick Shockey's most moving. By the number of people in the crowd wiping their eyes I sensed I wasn't alone. He addressed the recurring feeling that I had experienced throughout the conference and that which was mentioned by others in nearly every session I attended: imposter syndrome. He made the case that all of us never mind our backgrounds, location on the planet, or sense of relationship to a peer group have all been implicated to carry the torch of open having participated in OpenCon. Any work towards openness is noble, and moral, and altogether a worthwhile thing to do he argued. In that moment I couldn't have been more proud of the people I was surrounded by, energized by their work, and driven to return home and continue working on facilitating unfettered access to educational materials with more vigor than ever.