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OER Guest Post: 10 Years of OERx – Part two

Author: Robert Farrow, Open Education Research Hub​ / Global OER Graduate Network

This post follows on from Part One  in looking back over the last decade of OERx conferences.

OER17: The Politics of Open

OER17 took place in the capital at Resource for London. Looking again at the programme, I am struck by the increasing internationalisation and size of the conference.  There were presentations focused on lots of different countries in Europe and North America and all of the countries represented by the ROER4D project as well as regionally focused presentations on different parts of Europe.  I think that at this point there was a lot of sharing and exchanging experiences going on. A good example of this was Maha Bali’s keynote which shared a perspective from Egypt but also invited delegates to think about the operalisation of structural (and often subterranean) inequality across educational ecosystems.

Another key theme at this conference was open pedagogy, partly inspired by David Wiley’s argument that open pedagogy is about the 5Rs. This was an area where the ‘politics of open’ came to the fore as people asked whether all there really was to open practice was making use of the affordances of open licences.  This allusion to the wider political stance of open education to me recalls the same tensions as seen in the Open Research Agenda.

OER18: Open to All

OER18 was chaired by Vivien Rolfe and David Kernohan who were collaborating with on the UK Open Textbooks project at the time. The venue this time was Watershed in Bristol, another cool location with lots of things to do and places to encounter other delegates.

Watershed, Bristol
Watershed, Bristol (CC BY Robert Farrow)
Cider masters tasting board
You know you’re in Bristol when… (CC BY Robert Farrow)

I feel like this conference largely followed on from OER17 in terms of the themes and scales of the questions being raised and the experiences shared. Momodou Sallah’s popular keynote was thematically complementary to Maha Bali’s the year before and emphasised the importance of disruptive narratives that can be supported or enabled by OER, making a clear connection with the category of praxis. For me, it’s tempting to see this period as one of strategizing and reflecting as people continued to try and make sense of their own perspectivity.

2018 marked 10 years of the Cape Town Declaration, and I think this was also a cause for thinking about accomplishments and strategic directions. David Wiley spoke at this conference about the importance of narratives in affecting change and appealed to the purist/pragmatist distinction in relation to various open movements.  He pointed out that by 2023 we will have the first generation of those who grew up using OER taking up positions as educators and people of institutional influence.

OER19: Recentering Open: Critical and global perspectives

I think a lot of people enjoyed the OER19 conference, not least because Galway is so charming and holding the conference in Ireland was a refreshing change. (Another reason might be more retrospective, since it would be three years before most of us would meet again.)

Galway Bay
Galway Bay (CC BY Robert Farrow)

The conference was very well attended again, and saw another strong international showing.  If there was a key theme at this conference for me it was diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).  DEI has become much more prominent as an open education focus in recent years and this conference had a lot to do with that, I believe.  Many presentations challenged colonial practices in education and wholeheartedly embraced the idea of ‘recentering’ our appreciation of the role and potential of open approaches in education. This was evident across all the keynote speeches and the keynote panel featuring Taskeen Adam, Caroline Kuhn and Judith Pete, all of whom are prominent researchers within GO-GN. 

Thinking about it now I’m encouraged to think of the bigger movement here as away from the UK focused (and perhaps more pragmatic) origins of the OERx conference in the UK OER movement and towards the kinds of wider, ideological explorations that were indicated in the Open Research Agenda outcomes. 

OER20: Care in Openness

Inevitably the OER20 conference had a different vibe when, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the event was moved online.  Obviously this was originally going to be a face-to-face event and considerable planning must have gone into moving to an online conference during the first UK lockdowns. Thinking back now, the pandemic was felt as something much more disruptive then.  Things are hardly satisfactory now though a lot of things about it have now been more normalised after living with them for several years.

My kudos goes to the organisers of the 2020 conference because the timeline must have made things pretty challenging to say the least.  There was also the additional challenge of trying to create online spaces for socialising and hanging out which is never easy!  

The conference theme was particularly appropriate given the way that 2020 turned out; finding ways to express support for and within open communities is of critical importance and the pandemic has only accentuated this.  In April 2020, lots of people were already experiencing burnout and finding it harder to concentrate on (virtual) working.  I recall not attending many sessions other then the ones I was presenting in, feeling a bit guilty, and wondering whether others were doing the same.  I believe that online events can be successful, but there’s something different about the rhythm of a face-to-face event where people travel to (sometimes unfamiliar) places and have a shared experience.  I think a return to this mode of congress is welcome, even if we are still working out how to be that way again.

Rather than share the classic 2020 picture of people on Zoom, here are some of my experimental fermentations from the depths of lockdown… 

Fermentation - Pickled vegetables
Fermentation (CC BY Robert Farrow)

OER21: OERxDomains

Necessity is sometimes the mother of innovation, and for this year the presentations were recorded and you can browse pretty much all of them.  I think this is a good thing, although it’s obviously a bit easier when everyone is online rather than speaking in different rooms of a conference venue.

Treating the conference feed almost like a streaming platform made it easier for me to keep up, and I think there was also something about being more used to things this way, too.  By now, a significant proportion of presentations included some aspect of the impact of the pandemic on our practices, reflecting the way that Covid-19 has dominated our lives.  There were more than 30 presentations framed this way, and it was a key element of the opening plenary.  (I presented the Pathways project on behalf of an international team working to employ resources from The Open University (UK) in several African countries.)

Another key theme at this conference was care; and by extension, I suppose, the ways we can express care and support at a distance.  This was the subject of our GO-GN session.  Others were perhaps braver and engaged with finding.  We heard about #joyfe (which is still going strong) and the OER picture book team.  There were also lots of presentations about the many ways in which open approaches are now explored across technology, pedagogy, strategy, and collaboration.  If you compare the diversity and complexity of presentations from this conference with the one from 2012 you can really get a sense of how far things have come over the last decade. Also, things got weird (if they weren’t already).

Reflections: Looking Forward

This has been quite a long post, but obviously it could have been a lot longer as there is so much more to say about each of these events. I’ve tried to pick out some personal highlights and look for some indications of the wider trends in the field. Personally, I get a real sense of progression and perspective from an increasingly international and diverse community.  I also perceive the growing importance and maturity of GO-GN as a presence at the conference.  

OERx remains a really important international conference (which has been very important for my own teams on various different projects).  Communities and events like these empower us to make important and lasting connections that help us all in our professional and personal lives. 

I often come away from very large conferences feeling like there was a lot more to see but you can only be in one place at one time. I find myself now reflecting on just the sheer volume of material that has been communicated to people online in the past couple of years.  Even if you’re primarily a teleworker there’s never been so much online activity to the exclusion of everything else.

As I’ve been looking through old blog posts, photos and websites to refresh my memory it has struck me how much I was doing before the pandemic:  going to new places, meeting new people and learning new things.  Most of us who have lived through lockdowns and restrictions on our behaviour in the last couple of years have been lacking various forms of stimulation. In-person conferences are already returning.  Even if it does feel kind of strange, it’s also good to be returning to more interaction with people in the room for one day, at least.

It feels like we are at a bit of a juncture with regards to the pandemic, and this is a theme I expect to come up at the conference in lots of different contextual variations.  At the very least, though, we have reached a kind of space in the process that allows for drawing (deep) breaths and reflecting on what everyone has been experiencing and hopes for from the future.

The programme will be announced soon, but I trust that we will continue to build on the legacy of important exchanges and reflections from the OERx community.  The key themes of the last 10 years will continue to be important so that progress can be checked and new approaches envisioned.  Going forward, it’s going to be important to keep the motifs of care and community foregrounded, fostering vibrant connections to others.

I hope you have enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and are looking forward to making more memories this April!


Register for the conference

OER22 will be the first hybrid edition of this much-loved event, taking place over three days, 26-28 April 2022. The first day of the event will take place in London, UK, and the second and third day of the event will take place online.

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