I began writing this while sitting in the gate area waiting for my 12:15 boarding of my flight from Malpensa airport in Milan to New York. I thought that would be a good moment to begin reporting my impressions of the weeklong stay in Italy and the three-day Open Education Global Conference that ran from Tuesday to Thursday. I’m revising and publishing these first impressions on Thursday, December 5th, a week after the conference’s final day.
I met a bunch of interesting people and very much enjoyed the conversations and networking. The executives running the conference were friendly and I guess I’d say approachable. They also, however, seemed to be having other conversations and VIP interactions that didn’t really have much to do with the rest of us, especially the attendees who were there for the first time. When I mentioned this to some Europeans who had been to the event for several years but were not part of this executive group, they suggested this is a somewhat typical feature of European interactions. The other American first-time attendee who was part of this conversation agreed strenuously that there seemed to be something going on that wasn’t for those of us sitting at the “kids table”, suggesting this wasn’t just something I was imagining.
There seems to be a bit of a class system in the OE Global world. A bunch of what I’m calling the VIP executive group were members of international commissions. Several were actual UNESCO open education executives. One of the keynoters, Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams, had helped write the Cape Town Declaration. She was very nice and gave an inspiring talk about equity and social justice; so I don’t imagine she was intending in any way to exclude anyone from conversation. The people who had been leaders in passing the recent UNESCO OER Recommendation were also at the conference. So these people were legitimate executives and movers of the OE world. However, it still felt a bit like there were two conferences going on, and many of us were just spectators rather than participants at one of them.
The people I interacted with were mostly from Britain or the US, due largely to the language barrier. The conference was conducted entirely in English, but even so I guess it was just easier for people to hang with fellow speakers. I met several Europeans living in England who were comfortable speaking English all the time. I also met some native Brits and an Australian. And a bunch of Americans, including two from Minnesota whom I’d never met before. Kind of crazy, going to Milan to meet someone from Brainerd or Minneapolis!
The content of the talks I attended was about evenly split between the type of detailed study report you’d expect at a disciplinary conference, more general conceptual talks, and talks that revolved around a specific technology (or app) that is being offered to the open community. My own talk was one of the general conceptual ones, and I think it came a little too early in the schedule to be completely successful. I followed the first keynote, which was about a similar topic with a lot of ideas I was able to call back to. I heard the same themes echoed throughout the following two and a half days, and it might have been better for me to present my talk to people who had already been through the thought process. As it was it seemed a bit like a summary before the narrative.
The one thing I’d change about the conference might be to add some panel discussions so folks doing the same sort of work in different parts of the world could bounce ideas off each other and spectators could see a topic dealt with all at once rather than over and over again in individual sessions. There was some talk about the idea that the movement is stuck in unproductive loops of discussing issues like textbook cost for too long. I think this is partly a function of new cohorts of people entering the movement; talking about reducing textbook costs when that’s a brand new idea is exciting and worthwhile. The veterans are more than ready to shift the discussion to wider issues like equity. I was very impressed with the gentleness with which Rajiv and Robin made that turn at last year’s “E”ffordability Summit – even moreso in light of this week.
I wondered while sitting in Milan how much attention the UNESCO Recommendation was going to get in the US? The sentiments and ideas in it are certainly relevant, but there seems to be a bias in America that UNESCO doesn’t really apply to us. I’ve noticed over the past few days that David Wiley has called attention to the shift from the very open, 5-Rs definition of OER that was present in the drafts of the Recommendation, to the wording of the final draft that was adopted on November 25th. Wiley called attention to the watering down of the right to retain open texts to merely the right to access. As he argued when he added the 5th R of retention to his list in 2014, retention is actually crucial to making all the other rights actually function. I’ll be following the argument over amending the Recommendation closely, and I’m very curious about the thought process and negotiation that went into the change from the 5-Rs definition of OER in the draft and the much more restrictive wording of the final.