Working towards open, working for you

- 34 mins

this keynote was delivered for Brock University for Open Education: Focus on Open Educational Resources. the slides are available here

working towards open, working for you

I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on land that has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples long before today. This land is the traditional territory of Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples.

It is important to understand the long-standing history that brought us here today and to understand our place within that history. Today, I’m going to talk about my own journey to Open Education. But before I do, please remember that I, like most of us here, am a settler on this land. And that means that my journey and yours is inextricably linked to this land and its rich history. By taking this time to honour the land and its First Nations’ heritage, we take part in an act of reconciliation and acknowledge the sacrifices made and the losses endured by Indigenous people.

I’d like to begin by getting to know you all a little better. Raise your hand if you would consider yourself an educator. Okay, now raise your hand if you would consider yourself to be a learner.

I like to think of myself as both an educator and a learner. As some of you might have guessed by looking at me, I’m relatively early in my career in Open Education. I’m still learning every day. But I’m standing here in front of you all with a big OER job title tasked with, at the very least, imparting some new knowledge about open education, and hopefully striking at least a little bit of inspiration. And today, that makes me an educator.

stumbling into the open

I stumbled into Open Education work. As an undergraduate student studying English, I was supporting myself by shelving books at Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. I loved the job because I got to listen to audiobooks and every once in a while I would stumble upon what I thought was a really hilarious book title. This is a real photo I took on one of my shelving shifts called Evil: a Guide for the Perplexed. Also, unlike my second job working at a telefund, I didn’t have to deal with too many angry people. And unlike my third job as a barista, I never burned myself.

Like many humanities undergrads nearing the end of their time at university, I did not have any idea of what I was going to do. But I loved working in the library, and so I applied to graduate school to become a Master of Information, also known as a librarian. As luck would have it, around this time, copyright law in Canada was shifting and like many higher education institutions in Canada, U of T Libraries was creating their first Scholarly Communications and Copyright Office. And that office was starting a project called the Zero to Low Cost Course Pilot Project to exercise the new expanded fair dealing laws by replacing course packs with library-licensed materials. In other words, they needed to scan a lot of book chapters really quickly, and they needed to retrieve those books from the library stacks. And I knew the library stacks really, really well.

I started in November, at the peak time for getting course materials ready for the Winter term. And when the busy time was over, in mid-January, we started as a team working to calculate how much money we had spent and how much money we had saved. In that term we saved students over $107,000 in 12 courses. And I was really, really proud of that.

Now, I was an extremely privileged student. I had significant financial support from my family. But I also worked three jobs, had a jaw dropping amount of student loans because I was paying international student fees, and a huge pile of expensive textbooks under my bed, from trying majors and shifting courses. So I had finally found something I felt really excited about. Saving students money.

It didn’t take long to go from thinking about saving money through electronic reserves to thinking about other ways to save money. I actually felt that our course project catered unfairly to upper-year social sciences and history courses, since that was most of the uptake we had. But fundamental science and math textbooks are really expensive. Which I knew because I had a $200 Introduction to Psychology book that the bookstore wouldn’t buy back from a course I took to fulfill a science requirement. A few quick Google searches of “Free textbooks - science” “Free textbooks - psychology” landed me on the OpenStax Psychology book. A complete textbook, customizable, remixable, even printable. Something called an “open textbook.”

This Introduction to Psychology course I had taken had assigned me a $200 book. There were 1500 students who took this class because it was offered in the largest space on campus. And it was a half year course, offered two times a year. Replacing that book with an “open textbook” would mean $600,000 of student savings.

That’s how I found Open Education.

I was aware of SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, because we had a few links on our website that pointed to the SPARC author addendum which was very popular at the time.

So I found the SPARC Definition of open education:

Open Education encompasses resources, tools and practices that are free of legal, financial and technical barriers and can be fully used, shared and adapted in the digital environment. Open Education maximizes the power of the Internet to make education more affordable, accessible and effective.

Sounds pretty great, right? And then I found David Wiley’s 5 Rs.

With Open Textbooks you can:

So I decided I would become an “Open Education Advocate.” And when I graduated, I packed up my Toronto apartment and headed South to North Carolina State University to become a Copyright and Digital Scholarship Librarian.

I had a lot of support in this role to pursue Open Education work. I was extraordinarily lucky to have the support of a department head and a leadership team who had been prioritizing open work for years. And I had the luxury of being in a fellowship, which meant that even though I was in a precarious and time-limited role, I had special privileges, extra professional development funding, and a big spotlight on me and any projects I drummed up.

NCSU Libraries also already had an established Open Education program: the Alt-Textbook program. We were distributing funding to faculty to replace commercial resources with free resources, and this program had had sustainable funding since 2013 and was well on its way to saving students $500,000. And, in an incredible twist of fate, my supervisor was having his first child and was going on paternity leave. This made me the de facto director of the Copyright and Digital Scholarship Centre.

I learned quickly because I was hungry, and I learned quickly because I had to. Copyright law? No problem. Expertise on Creative Commons Licensing? Got it. I applied for and received a national grant to work on OER development for Psychology. I even went to Capitol Hill with SPARC to meet with congressmen to advocate for Open Education and Open Access only one week after the 2016 US Presidential Election. I think I reached my peak empowerment that November. I was basically working in a heavily resourced silo, and every time I poked my head out to say hello people just threw more resources my direction. I also was working 60 hour weeks and I was completely burnt out. With little critique or constructive feedback, I became separated from the impact of the work, and I frankly wasn’t sure why I was doing what I was doing and why it was important to me or to anyone else.

And I was thinking a lot about all the happy accidents that had led me to that point.

I would say things to my partner like, “Well, I would never have gone to the information session on this fellowship if they weren’t giving out pizza, so I guess I only have this job because I really like pizza” And then go a little further back. “I would never have gone to library school if I hadn’t worked in the library.” And even further back. “I would never have even worked as a shelver if my roommate hadn’t gotten a job at the library and put in a good word for me.” It started to feel like maybe this wasn’t something I was passionate about, but it was the path of least resistance.

So I decided to go to another library and work as a liaison librarian. And everything that I had felt when I was succeeding at North Carolina State, I felt it ten-fold as a liaison. I was looking for something familiar, open education or otherwise, and I couldn’t find it. The culture shock left me paralyzed. I knew I wanted to do something else, and to be somewhere else, but I didn’t know where or when. And that made me feel like I didn’t know who I was at all.

The World is Round

Every good talk needs an origin story. But today I’m going above and beyond, and I’m going to give you a second origin story. Rose’s origin story.

I recently learned that Gertrude Stein wrote one children’s book, published in 1939. It’s called The World is Round. And it’s pretty much what you would expect from a children’s book authored by Gertrude Stein.

The World is Round is the story of a nine- almost ten-year-old little girl named Rose who is, of course, dealing with a lot of existential angst. She’s having all of this anxiety and dread because she does not know if she would be Rose if her name were not Rose. And she sings herself a little song of questions. She asks

Simple. Rose is having an identity crisis.

When I learned about this book, I felt this instant connection to Rose. She reminded me of the emptiness and gnawing detachment I had felt in my first couple of jobs after the newness and the shine wore off. Her questions and her journey to answer them felt strangely parallel to my own journey to tease apart these giant concepts, open education & librarianship, to understand who I was and who I wanted to be.

But it’s not just me that can learn from Gertrude Stein’s Rose. There’s something we can all learn from these questions. As Open Education has started to take off in the province of Ontario, in Canada, and in North America, large chunks of work being done by educators and scholars and students has started to be pulled into this umbrella that we call “the open education movement” or simply, as some folks say, “the movement.”

Now that’s a big bucket of stuff. And there’s something great in the formative years of growing something about being able to point and say “That’s the open education movement.” To get traction, we need to feel inspired. We need to feel a part of something. We need to feel like we’re doing good.

But slowly, we have started to use the word “open” as synonymous with “good.”

What would happen to Open Education Advocates if, all of a sudden, we couldn’t use the word “open” to describe ourselves? I taught a course this summer on Open Education for researchers and educators, and on the second to last day of the class, myself and my fellow instructors asked the class to name the values that open makes possible. Why are you an open education advocate?

There was, of course, some overlap. A lot of “sharing.” A lot of “access.” A lot of “affordability” But there were also some words that never, in a million years, would I have come up with as a reason I support Open Education. Someone wrote “sustainability”

There were also things that were really important to me that did not show up as frequently as I thought they would. For example, “agency” and “equity.”

When open means everything to everyone, we lose touch with the heart of open, and it starts to mean nothing at all.

Selling Open (we’re here to change the world)

Over the past few years I have been to many Open Education events, talks, and workshops. And most of these events have had the same rhetoric. Open Education will change the world. Open Education is about everyone, everywhere having access to better education. All we, the participants, need to do to create a better, more open and equitable education system, is master a 30 second elevator pitch. We need to be prepared to rebut the sceptics. We need to memorize the facts:

And then we need to sell Open Education as the solution.

There’s nothing wrong with a sales pitch. But an elevator pitch is always strengthened by a personal connection. By knowing why, how, and for whom do you support OER? How will this influence your practice?

The final product of this course was a statement of personal values for OER work. Much like a teaching philosophy, this statement serves as a touchstone when starting OER projects, or when advocating for open education.

You all have different reasons for coming here today; different connections to Open Education, whether or not you have fully grasped that connection yet. I want you to take a few moments to think about the things that “open” may allow you to accomplish as educators and as learners, and why those things are important to you. Maybe you can name endless things. Maybe there is just one thing that brought you here today.

Now, please keep that in your mind as we take a deeper dive into the principles that underpin SPARC’s definition of Open Education.


Technology and the power of the internet are deeply baked into this definition. Open Education works because of the power of the internet. So let’s unpack that. Who has access to technology?

I’m sure you’ve all heard the term “Digital Native.” It was first coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky, a self-described “practical visionary” in the field of education. According to Marc Prensky’s website, his background includes teaching at all levels — elementary through college, and he has also been a professional musician and acted on Broadway. So he’s kind of a “renaissance man”

In 2001, Marc wrote

“Today’s students – K through college – represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age… The most useful designation I have found for them is Digital Natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”

This term has been heavily criticised. Within a few years, critics of Marc’s term and the people who accepted the digital native/digital immigrant binary were out in full force. In 2007, Urban Dictionary author SongPoet, succinctly defined Digital nativism as the “Mistaken belief that young folks who were born immersed in things digital are somehow in a state of grace and older folks are cursed by their age and lack of digital conditioning. Arrogant and insulting division of generations into different camps first proposed by Marc Prensky but unfounded on any survey data.”

But Marc is not only creating a false-binary between generations of students when it comes to technology. He is also making huge assumptions about the experience of growing up in a world where home computing and home internet existed.

What Marc is doing by creating a false homogeneity of a generation is failing to recognize the difference between experience and “lived experience.” The term lived experience has evolved from an emphasis on taking into account not only the visible or categorical characteristics of someone, but also the invisible factors that influence their daily life.

So for example, a student’s experience might be represented as “I am taking an introductory Psychology course and I am not performing well.” But their lived experience might be much more complex. For example “I am taking an introductory Psychology course but the latest edition of the book was too expensive so I bought an old edition. Also, the professor assigned a lot of videos but I only have one computer at home and my little sister needs it to do her homework, too, so I sometimes can’t watch them before class and my marks are suffering”

Dr. Donna Lanclos, Anthropologist at UNC-Charlotte Libraries, writes that, “…experience is a neat thing, that we can think we know the meaning of, while as soon as you start talking about the ‘lived experience’, things get messy.” Donna, in her research, tries to make sense of this messiness of lived experience, because only by beginning to understand this real world of student experience can you begin to design a better student experience.

Here is a cognitive map, drawn by a post-graduate student at University College London, who was a participant in one of Dr. Lanclos’s studies. This student is mapping all of the places where she “learns.” This technique is a large component of Dr. Lanclos’s research. She asks students to change colours of their pen every two minutes to show the evolution of their maps. The students then explain the map to the researcher.

Students have maps that cross state lines, and sometimes even oceans. Learning spaces include institutional, residential, commercial, and public spaces. This student’s map includes public transportation, a recurring theme for students in urban areas.

The fact that students are studying in coffee shops or on the bus isn’t alarming in and of itself. I’m sure each of you walks around your campus or downtown St. Catherines and sees students on laptops or huddled around textbooks. It’s not a surprise that our students are part of a larger world. But what happens when we bring that to the forefront of our consciousness? How can you choose, for example, course materials that are not just “open” but that are accessible any learning space? Can open education even accomplish that?

Now let’s look closer at these devices that students are using. In 2014, Maura Smale and Mariana Regalado published a multi-year qualitative study of undergraduates at six colleges at the City University of New York striving to unpack how, where, and when students accomplished their academic work and how their access to technology or lack thereof, impacted their student experience. While most of the subjects of these studies had access to some kind of internet-enabled technology outside of school, and the overwhelming number of students fit Marc Prensky’s definition of “digital natives,” access to technology was still an enormous source of frustration for students. Having access to an off-campus computing device didn’t mean that they had unrestricted access. In addition to sharing devices with parents, roommates, and siblings, students mentioned having limited data, bandwidth, or battery life. They spoke of struggling to get access to a computer or even an outlet to charge their own device while on campus. Others with personal laptops were concerned about the security of their device outside of their home, or even just the sheer weight of a bag full of books and a laptop.

The average commute for a student at CUNY is between 45 minutes and 60 minutes each way, and a lot of students relied on cell phones to do schoolwork during their commute. More than one student even mentioned typing out essays on a cell phone, and many faculty confirmed that they received assignments “sent from my iPhone.” I don’t know about you, but I can barely text without a typo, let alone write a two thousand word essay. But necessity is the mother of invention, and these students were determined to find a way to succeed in their education.

Ultimately, this study found that students were, for the most part, using their personal devices for academic purposes, but that students were also very strategically using these devices, and that for many students, economic constraints had a huge impact on their ability to do academic work on and off campus.

For students who experience real daily struggles because of financial constraints, simply replacing a heavy and expensive textbook with a free and open digital resource may alleviate some stress, but sometimes it may disproportionately benefit students who do not have the same economic burdens. The student who can afford on campus housing, a new laptop, unlimited data, or high-speed internet is more poised to take advantage of a high-quality, high-tech digital and open resource.

Returning to that definition, how can we say that Open Education maximizes the power of the Internet to make education more affordable and accessible when access to the internet is not a given?

Educator Experience

If we’re going to consider the lived experience of students, we of course have to consider the lived experience of educators using or creating open educational resources.

Consider our “lived experience” of a student struggling in an introductory psychology class. The flip side of that might look something like this.

The instructor’s experience: “I teach an introductory Psychology course.”

Their lived experience: “I teach an introductory Psychology course, but I was hired on contract a few weeks before the semester started, so I used the old text - which was authored by my department head - and syllabus. I tried to give the class my own personal touch by assigning some of my favourite YouTube videos explaining and lectures to supplement the text.”

There are serious constraints on any instructor’s ability to implement open educational resources or pedagogies in their classroom. I want to say you are incredibly lucky here at Brock to have some amazing supports in Jennifer and Laurie from the Library, and in Giulia from the Centre for Pedagogical Innovation. Later today you’ll get to hear from instructors that have already been working with Open Educational Resources or Open Pedagogy, who are models for what it looks like to be at Brock and to engage in this work. But that’s exactly what it is. Work.

I think when you hear your peers speak later today, you’ll see bits and pieces of what you all are doing. Maybe you’ve been doing OER work all along and you haven’t had a word to label it. But if you’re not quite there yet it can be hard to make the space to fit OER in.

First of all, you all have a unique workload balance or distribution of effort. Teaching, Research, Service work, distributed differently. And that plays into evaluation, especially if you are a pre-tenure or contract role. As an Open Education Advocate, I’m well trained to argue that OER work is teaching. Open education is teaching and pedagogical innovation. The fact that OER allows you to remix and revise existing resources gives you a pedagogical flexibility you have never had with a traditional textbook. And, if you take those permissions to the next level, you can engage students in the creation of these resources. So creating OER or reworking a syllabus around an Open Textbook should be evaluated as “teaching.” But, at the same time, all that extra behind the scenes work takes time, maybe it would even require course release, and maybe taking an instructor out of the classroom isn’t in the department’s game plan or budget this year.

You could also argue that it’s research or scholarship. Creating something new, new information, new published work. But it doesn’t have that peer-review or journal impact factor prestige that maybe a tenure committee values, and it’s really hard to write a textbook (it’s a lot longer than your typical research article) and if you don’t have time to do both, you might have to focus on journal publication for prestige.

You can argue that OER work is service to the field. Creating free and publicly accessible information in your domain. Maybe you’ve created the next seminal text for your discipline. But you probably won’t end up on some sort of OER committee and there are tons of university committees you could be on.

And, if you’re not a subject matter expert, perhaps you’re in an OER support role. If you’re an instructional designer, there’s a huge place for you in OER. If you are a librarian, there is definitely a place for you to contribute expertise. But is there space for OER in your workload?

Open Education work is often happening off the side of the desks of super keen and excited educators who have the luxury of spare time or support.

I think many of you here are uniquely positioned to be successful as open educators and open advocates. We’re at an institution with incredible support for new and interesting pedagogy who has devoted time to an Open Education Day of learning twice. You have people in this room who have a depth of understanding about Open Education that many institutions simply don’t have. And you have a provincial institution that has been funding this work. Compared to most places, at a macro-level you’re poised to succeed.

But you each operate within your own microcosm of your discipline, your institution, your faculty, or your department. Organizational culture in academia is layered and complex and often in conflict with itself. Often conventions and policies that may be frustrating and confusing to one person are a comfort to others. Roadblocks pop up in unexpected places and rerouting can be tricky. Expectations may be communicated inconsistently, or not formally recorded at all.

In my last librarian job, for example, there were all of these unwritten rules about space. We had walls on our offices that went all the way to a foot under the ceiling and then stopped. So you could hear everything happening in other offices. And there was a communal staff lounge but you needed a key code to enter and no one seemed to know it. And then there was this communal large shared table that no one ever sat at. But then, in our offices, we all had one or two extra chairs. And we had phones. So I thought “Okay, I can take meetings or phone calls in the office or at that long communal table.”

But this was, for sure, not the case. It turned out that the offices and lack of soundproofing had been a controversial issue in the department dating back for at least ten years. And if you took a phone call or had a chat with someone, inevitably someone would knock on your door about 10 minutes after you were done and say “You know, I’m trying to work and it’s really distracting.” And this lack of understanding of these unwritten and unspoken rules positioned me poorly to create relationships with my colleagues. All because of a wall that was one foot too short.

And that’s just one little relatively insignificant piece of organizational context.

Just as you know your personal values better than anyone else, you also probably have the best understanding of your unique position within your ecosystem. And you probably also have the best understanding of the boundaries of what you know and what you do not know. And having that deep understanding is your superpower.

Rose is a rose is a rose

So let’s return to Rose. In her search for clarity she decides to climb a mountain. Rose was way ahead of her time and she basically is the poster child for millennial self discovery. By putting herself in a brand new territory it forces her to face things unknown. New sounds and smells and creatures. And she emerges, not-quite at the summit of the mountain, having a greater understanding of why, when, and where she is a little girl, and which little girl she is.

But she also emerges with a new sense of comfort in not knowing. She can now ask herself these questions without crying, knowing that she is going to be exploring these questions for a long time. She can feel confident in her identity as Rose while continuing to explore that identity. And so Rose, a nine almost ten year-old girl whips out her pen knife, and carves into a tree (which would probably not be recommended in 2019) “Rose is a rose is a rose.”

In July 2018, I had just started a position at eCampusOntario as the program coordinator, leaving behind that tenure-track librarian job. I felt so lucky to have held that librarian position, and I felt so guilty to not have loved it, and to have wanted to leave so desperately. And also there was a new government in Ontario with new priorities. I was scared and I was excited and I was venturing into new territory. And to ground myself, I wrote the following statement of personal values about how I practice Open Education:

I facilitate equitable access to knowledge inside and outside of the academy. I value all people as consumers and creators of knowledge, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, education, ability, or status. I support open education work as a way to lower the technical and financial barriers to post-secondary education. I strive to create opportunities for my community to engage with OER and open practices and to claim their right to be lifelong participants in the information ecosystem.

I didn’t write anything of this sort in 2014 when I first stumbled into this world. But I imagine it would have been very different. Something like “I advocate for free and digital educational resources to reduce the cost of education for students to make education better for everyone.”

Because five years ago, I had no knowledge of Open Pedagogy. The people I look up to, people who are my role models in Open Education work weren’t even on my radar. I’ve met colleagues through open education that have become my closest friends. They challenge me and they teach me things and they make me think about the way our world works in totally different ways. My world has grown and changed and expanded in so many ways since I discovered open education. And it will continue to grow and change in ways I can’t even imagine. The unknown that used to be frightening is exciting.

Six months into my time at eCampusOntario, a new need arose within our organization, and I saw a growth opportunity, so I threw my name in the ring. Today, I am the Digital Access and OER Lead at eCampusOntario. My context has changed again, as I moved to a role working on our systems that facilitate creation of OER and access to OER across postsecondary education in the province. I now work on the IT team, and I get to be around three people every day with different perspectives, and different skill sets. I have different resources at my disposal, more responsibility for change and more liability for failure. I’m constantly confronted with what I don’t know.

I try to bring in as much of this values statement as I can.

I consider it when reviewing what systems we use, making decisions about licensing and accessibility requirements for resources in our library, or finding ways to better facilitate access to Pressbooks, our provincial Open Educational Resource authoring tool.

But the deeper I get into this new role, the more I think it’s almost time for me to revise this statement.

Two weeks ago, I travelled to Ottawa to do bilingual testing of the new Open Library. And while I was booking my flight, I started to have a little bit of a panic.

Our library exists in French, but it doesn’t work in French. We only have six French resources. That’s about 2% of our library. And those six resources, they have English descriptive information. English keywords, English subjects. How could we possibly test with French-speaking users?

I had a conceptual understanding of the language-bias in Open Education. There’s a great analysis of OER repositories published in 2017 that shows that 89% of OER repositories are hosted in either Europe or North America. Most Open Education conferences or events are held in English, even if they are Global. I have seen calls for proposals for English Speaking OER conferences in Slovenia, South Africa, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Portugal, and France. I have met people from all over the world, but English is still the dominant language for most scholarly communications.

Yet, I can get on a plane and be in a classroom at La Cité, one of the institutions that eCampusOntario represents, and be surrounded by Francophones. And my statement of values that I use as a touchstone doesn’t take into account the lived experience of Franco-ontarians. This had never been part of my context.

So it’s time to ask again:

I am twenty-six almost twenty-seven years old, and I have been working in Open Education for nearly five years. I have almost forty years left of a career. I work at eCampusOntario, and we have been advocating for Open Education in the province of Ontario for less than five years. And our initial mandate was simply to create a home for Ontario to find online courses they could take. We are at the beginning of our OER climb, and we have no idea what the rest of our mountain looks like. I have some modest goals.

In the next year couple months, I want work on our barriers to accessing the tools to author OER by making it easy for anyone to sign up for Pressbooks using their institutional ID.

This summer I want to start an Ontario community of practice that is connected with creating, customizing, and using Open Educational Resources. I’m writing proposals and looking for venues to kickstart this initiative.

This year, I hope we cross 100 reported adoptions of OER in Ontario, increasing from our current 80 reported adoptions. I know more people are using OER and I want to see our impact climb.

In five years, I hope to have built out a fully French library with as many resources as we have in our english library, backed by a strong community of Franco-Ontarian OER power-users and creators.

I want to unlock resources from learning management systems, and make people feel like it’s okay and not scary to share. And yeah, I guess I’m guilty of that Open Education Movement rhetoric, because I do think that we are here to disrupt a system and we are here to change the world. This is the beginning of my journey, and I’m barely looking beyond the immediate horizon.

Whatever point you are at in your OER journey, remind yourself of Rose’s questions. Answer what you can, and let the others be unanswered. Embrace the unknown and the messiness of your own lived experience and the lived experience of people around you. Practice for your context and start where you know. Make open work for you.

I am so honoured to be here today, asked to speak to you as an early-career open practitioner and I am looking forward to seeing how open continues to unfold.

Lillian Hogendoorn

Lillian Hogendoorn

Recovering Librarian. Open Education Enthusiast

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