Getting the Most Out of the Smartest Room in Education – an #OpenEd16 Reflection

I only attended half of OpenEd16, which makes it difficult to write a reflection.  To spur this reflection, why did I only spend 36 hours in Richmond, such a short time at a conference which for my four years’ attendance has gathered what I consider to be the smartest room in education?

There was work stuff.  I mean, that’s the practical reason — I am fortunate to have a good position at a good school and am doing good things, so sometimes conferences get cut short for logistical purposes.  That’s a fine rationale and a perfectly suitable one.  But I look at the 2013 version of me (my first OpenEd), the OMG that’s The Brian Lamb at my table me, and I struggle to think that 2013 me, the one gobsmacked while watching David Kernohan’s brilliant multimedia keynote full of the critical and the questions instead of answers, would have had the same halfhearted resignation to attending only half the conference, the half of the conference where I got to present.

There was talk after 2015 OpenEd that the movement had somewhat lots its way, that the successes of the free and low-cost textbook adoption such as the US Department of Education’s #GoOpen campaign had overshadowed the spirit of the movement.  That presumes there was an established and agreed-upon way for the Open movement to unfold, so I struggle to agree with the assumption, and in turn I cannot say OpenEd16 righted the ship.  The only way the ship was off-course was if there was a clearly defined objective at the outset, and Gardner Campbell’s deft keynote criticisms of learning objectives and rubrics is more in line with a phenomenological understanding of the Open Education conferences based off shared yet loosely defined (acknowledging the discord) energy.

It makes sense that the lion’s share of presentation at OpenEd is in regard to OER, with a sizable focus on textbooks (h/t Adam Croom for the data).  The acceptance of OER on state, national and international levels, combined with the community-localized cost savings, should be celebrated to the point of shouting from the highest rooftops.  Yet I think this is some of the problem — we are not shouting from the highest rooftops, but rather from lecterns in Conference Room 14 in front of 50 people who are either also going to shout from a lectern this week, or came because lectern sharing is what they need in order to go back to their institution and start a project so next year they too can shout from a lectern in a room or 50 people about OER.  What would our experiences be if we were using our conference time for more than reporting to the community?

I attended OpenEd 13 because I followed OpenEd12 and it felt like I missed out on something monumental, something much different than the stereotypical conference of reading a paper and listening to hifalutin questions.


OpenEd 12 promised sessions with information about OER and policy and administrative negotiation and best practices, but what was fascinating about the conference was the opportunity to be in a space with the brightest minds in the business, dedicated to collaboration and creation. My favorite memory of Open Education was in 2013, after my session when Jim Groom and Luke Waltzer approached me with questions about my presentation on something I was calling the MOOCseum.  It would have been easy for either of them to interject with the problem they saw; rather, we talked for a bit and got to the fallacy in this part of my argument (I was both critiquing MOOCs yet appropriating that which I wished to be positive), at which I stopped and they provided ideas on how to work around this block.  I was fortunate to have their expertise and their guidance, but I was also fortunate to be the last session at a conference where most of the people had stayed for the post-conference dinner, and there was an hour between the end of my session and the meet-up.  Through blind luck I had received at OpenEd 13 what I had seen listed at OpenEd 12, an opportunity to workshop with the best and brightest.

The conference has grown significantly in these four years; almost 60% more presentations and double the number of attendees.  Open Education’s family reunion is now a size where we can no longer call it a family reunion (Kate Bowles touches on this in her thoughtful reflection on OpenEd16).  It’s probably been this way for several years, to be honest, and only now that the situation is paramount do we notice — my Twitter timeline is littered with comments of “how did I not see you at #opened16,” and I am asking myself that question of many people of whom I only see at this conference.  And this growth is great, but with it comes change and we must embrace rather than remain steadfast.

Gail Morong brought up a wonderful point in the Q&A section of my presentation.  Where in the conference schedule was time for us to debrief, to communicate, to work with one another?  Where were the spaces that were advertised in OpenEd12?  David Wiley was in the room, and noted that the Thursday schedule was truncated for that very reason — to provide people an opportunity to communicate and collaborate.  But this was precisely the point, Gail noted — without any scaffolding the free time would be used to perpetuate existing needs:  people would go to their cliques, or take care of work from their home institutions, or nap (or fly back to Seattle).  Time was not the problem as much as well-crafted time.  How could we use the conference to create opportunities for meet-ups and partnerships and discoveries rather than those moments being simply ‘happy accidents’ in the unstructured, while the structured continued to report on OER adoption case studies?

OpenEd sent out a survey today to ask about how to imagine the conference moving forward.  Here are my thoughts:

*We must create time for reflection.  If learning happens best with peers, that process must be somewhat active rather than by osmosis as we sit while one presenter leaves and the other plugs in their laptop.  I had the good fortune of doing a Virtually Connecting on Tuesday morning with Jim Luke and Martin Weller, and we noted during our session the pleasant opportunity to immediately have a space to reflect on Gardner Campbell’s keynote with others.  The opportunity to have a space to talk through the keynote with others, a space with people I knew as well as people I had just met, created a stronger sense of the keynote and a diverse set of opinions unlikely to occur at lunch with old friends.

*We must create time for introductions, for new conversations, for all people to share.  I am lucky – in that video above, I am sitting next to Martin Weller, author of The Battle for Open and one of the most thoughtful educators I have met (even if there are moments he looks like a Bond villain during my turn talking!).  Lunches and receptions and breaks are good chances to see old friends, but it is daunting for anyone to make connections at a conference, much less when social media can create the impression that some members of the field are unapproachable rock stars.  What about doing a session akin to speed dating (note:  I picked this up at a Museum Computer Network conference in 2013; this is not my idea)? Take a room, and then put eight chairs in a circle, making as many circles as you need.  Each person has a minute to share their name, affiliation, reason for being here, and elevator pitch about Open (is it research, practice, ID, administration, criticism, public policy, advocacy, etc.).  At the end of the eight minutes, give five for conversation among the group.  Then, have everyone get up and move to a new circle.  Do it again.  Do this for an hour.  It’s a way to introduce new people to the community, but when I did this at MCN13, I was shocked not just at the established guard who participated, but also in how people from the same institution would learn something about their co-workers.  Specifically, I remember two people from the Metropolitan Museum of Art who had worked together for years but had never really talked about why computing was integral to their thoughts on museums.  Just that moment of structured activity got the conversation moving.

*We must encourage the progressive edge, not just in research presented but in how we access and engage, and this includes the studies which were not successful.  I *loved* Gardner Campbell’s keynote, in part because there was no listicle of answers at the end, just questions and some dissonance and a chance to think and ruminate about his words.  This was not a typical keynote, and it is not ironic that my favorite keynotes have come from OpenEd and have pushed this envelope.  Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of space between David Kernohan fleeing the auditorium/Jim Groom creating a Dr. Oblivion exhibition at OpenEd 13 and Gardner’s 2016 address…and there has been nothing on the schedule.  I completely retooled my presentation because of Gardner’s address, specifically pulling my citations (a la Roland Barthes) and creating an evocative response rather than a liturgical one.  It wasn’t the home run I wanted, and perhaps it was a swing and a miss, but I felt like there needed to be a space of questions rather than answers, of uncertainty, of discord, of incongruence.  Can we create these spaces for exploration and (dare I say) innovation as part of the expected conference-going experience?  Can we celebrate the trial and error, the administrators who have struggled in creating cultures of Open, the advocacy groups who have met resistance in government and international adoption, the jurassic technology which promised a great big beautiful tomorrow but were forgotten yesterday?

There is plenty more we can do to support the growth of Open in our environments.  The case studies are important to learn from, the suggested steps are potential spaces for implementing locally, the policies can be shared to create buy-in or amended to create action.  But what speaks to me about Open Education is learning with people rather than from them.  This is the thinking at the heart of sustainable resources, the five R’s and open pedagogy.  As we design our future conferences, let’s not settle for archaic thinking about the few days we get to spend together.

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)


  1. I concur with your reflections and suggestions. Perhaps participants can also work on solving some “open” problems together during the conference. Sometimes less is more.

  2. Is it an explicit criticism of open pedagogy, and of the pedagogy used by open advocates, that when at events which behave like a lecture, still use lectures. If open has nothing better than the proscenium arch, then perhaps it isn’t

    • I have a slightly different critique but I think is broadly in the same area of ‘practice what you preach’. There is a lot of talk around the Open Ed scene about the emancipatory power of the virtual to allow people to communicate as equals and allow voices that aren’t heard to pitch in regards of geographic location etc etc – you know the drill.

      However I followed the #Opened16 conference as a virtual attendee and to me the tweeter feed projected the idea that it’s a very friendly very emotional rather baggy conference about a lot of things but no real core but more importantly it seems to have no critical or theoretical edge at all (I saw one tweet that could be said to be approaching a question and one presentation that discusses theory generation).

      Now when I raised this, I was told that this actually does happen on the ground (which is great) but in the same way that if open ed is trying to get away from the lecture and sage on stage via em..lectures and sages on stages, then it’s hard to take seriously these claims of connectivity if the people on the group are unable to put this into practice themselves.

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