Some of our team spent Wednesday through Friday of last week at the “family reunion” of the open education community, the 2014 Open Education Conference (just down the road from our offices, as luck would have it). In addition to sponsoring, volunteering, and presenting in several sessions, we spent the days hearing a few score speakers on dozens of topics (see the full program). We have yet to fully consider everything we learned, but we came away from those days energized and exhausted; inspired and humbled; determined and heedful. We will soon share more fully how the conference informs our plans and hopes, but for the moment, here are the brief, unvarnished impressions we took home on Friday evening.

It was great to see more faculty and administrators implementing OER on campuses across the country. However, It was also telling to see so many “first timers” at the conference who are still learning about OER, which underscores the reality that there is much more work to be done to get OER to students going through the college and university systems.

Exciting to see results (dollars saved) from many programs that utilize Saylor curated/created OER — University of Maryland University College, Tidewater Community College, and Northern Virginia Community College.

Favorite new company: Open Assembly. They are facilitating a program with dozens of schools in Mexico to utilize OER, including Saylor Academy produced resources.

– Everyone struggles with the role of OER and what “open” really means — let alone the issues of sharing/remixing/attributing;

– Lots of people in the “open” space are trying to figure out how to monetize or bring revenue, and ideas that many people seemed to think would be a long-shot (Lumen Learning‘s business model, for example) are taking off really well;

– OER is easy to do in isolation, but hard to scale;

– As a community and individual members in that community, we’re still infected by the same “we have to do this all ourselves” mentality — there’s a lot of room for collaboration, but few are taking advantage of it;

– Copyright law and policy is terrible, as implemented.

Throughout the conference, I was most impressed by the variety of ways people are using openly licensed materials as a catalyst for creation. Whether through having students create open materials which will be used in future versions of their respective courses, or facilitating student-curated OER courses through dynamic platforms, or inviting critical consideration of the process of academic scholarship, there is a growing undercurrent of the sense that “open” means more than just free content.

This is exciting because it potentially moves us beyond the standard EdTech discourse of efficiency and standardization and into a place where we can rethink the very composition of education itself. For example, in his keynote on open research, John Wilbanks discussed open as a means to facilitate research on ever-growing datasets. In this case, open fundamentally changes the nature of not just what can be studied, but also how that study occurs by inviting critical examination of the methods of data analysis itself.

Similarly, in their talk on open peer review in science scholarship, Eva Amesen, Cesar Berrios-Otero, and Erin McKiernan discussed how making peer review for academic scholarship open and signed (instead of anonymous), changes the nature of academic discourse. By providing scholarship in various stages of review and revision alongside signed reviewer comments, open peer review invites inquiry into the very mechanisms of knowledge creation.

These two examples from the scientific research community stand out to me because they offer more than just democratization of access, but democratization of what constitutes knowledge itself.

I spent much of the conference immersed in the libraries track, but also heard from many school administrators and a few IT folks.

What most surprised me is that the impetus toward the use of OER in higher education comes from different people and positions from one institution to the next. For some schools, a librarian spearheads the drive towards Open. At others, an instructional designer carries the banner. At still other college and universities, it is a professor, a chair, a dean, a provost, a president, or a student who leads the vanguard.

That diversity is quite exciting and bodes well for the success of open education, but also presents a clear challenge for organizations like ours that propose to work with schools. We cannot focus just on presidents, nor on provosts, nor on professors or students (and we certainly cannot focus on all of them); we have to talk to those who show interest, trust their experience(s), and help them to carry the conversation to the movers and shakers at their respective institutions.