Sponsorship & Stewardship: Passing in the Night

Part 4 of 5 Reflections on Open Education

Posted by David N. Wright on November 30, 2015

Note: This post picks up on Part I and Part II and Part III of thoughts stemming from my participation in the Open Education 2015 Conference.

The Simplest Possible Thing

There’s a famous question that was brought to my attention in a talk given by John Maxwell during an INKE session on social knowledge creation at DHSI 2015: “what’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?” John cribbed it brilliantly from Ward Cunningham who championed the wiki. John still owes me a beer stemming from this event, but whatever… bygones. In any event, we’ll come back to this concept in a bit after I discuss the Lumen Learning sponsorship of–and direct participation in sessions at–the Open Education Conference 2015.

Lumen Conversations

I was struck by Lumen Learning’s sponsorship of the Open Education 2015 conference. Lumen is a consulting company “dedicated to facilitating broad, successful adoption of OER” source. I’ll be blunt and say that I thought it odd that a for-profit company (they’re based in Portland, OR) was not only sponsoring, but actively participating in panels at, a conference on open education. It’s a shrewd move given the professional affiliations of those in attendance at the conference and the untapped market for Lumen north of their own border.

I noted the following while at the conference:

Those tweets led to this exchange:

All of which was proceeded by my attendance at a Lumen session–one of three I attended during the conference–about open resources and implementation:

I’m not writing here to demonize Lumen Learning. I totally respect the work they are doing and respect their entitlement to make a buck where they can–it’s all right with me in terms of motivations. What I objected to more stridently however was the sense that Lumen was infiltrating an “open” conversation at the conference with what was for all intents and purposes couched marketing language. The Lumen sessions stressed how the company could “help” and “assist” and “take the load off” institutions trying to implement open educational resources. At the same time, the sessions stressed difficulties, and costs, and what institutions must “bear” in order to implement open resources successfully, often referring to data and evidence gathered from their own experiences. In other words, the sessions did not focus on ideas, or practical implementation models. Instead, the sessions focused on how they did what they do and how they could help–they didn’t contribute much to the conversation beyond “contact us and we’ll let you know what we can do for you.”

Again, I don’t have a fundamental problem with whatever Lumen wants to do–even if they are infiltrating the conversation; the more the merrier. I am interested in how opening the doors to this kind of infiltration, or conversation–so as not to demonize–should push us to think about what’s at stake with open educational resources and how we want to support that going forward. I’ve already covered the costs of attending conferences and the like in an earlier post in this series. But it’s also worth considering the ethical and moral obligations we have as educators not to corporatize something that is, right now, ostensibly a socially-funded endeavour. Most of us are paid out of the public purse–especially so in Canada–and are thus supported in our work by the public.

Enmeshment: There’s an App for That

We should always be mindful of the history of the BASIC programming language and how it was monetized. The same future lurks for “open” educational resources as well if, as Audrey Watters has been warning us for years, it has not already arrived. To be brief about this, we should be concerned about how open educational resources are enmeshed with the language and philosophies of start-up tech culture. Sure, it’s nice to think about how educational practices are merging with the “fast-paced and exciting” world of start-ups. We’ve got incubator models and venture funding in higher education–we have had for years. In fact, that’s the whole model of higher education–you invest in some nascent thing (or individual) and hope that it pays off.

Usually, when companies like Lumen start to enter into conversation with academics, it begins with a question about sustenance–something like: “who’s going to pay for this?” It’s an important question, but one that shouldn’t be presented in the fearful symmetry that it is; instead, we might ask not “how will we implement these tools and who will pay for that” but “how will we support ongoing innovation and archiving once the monetary skim has been taken?” When we inevitably move from Canvas or Blackboard to something else, who’s responsible for the public record contained within that application? It’s three minutes to midnight, do you know where your WordPerfect files are?

Secondly, and more to the point for me, is that I am forced to ask some uncomfortable questions: what is Lumen Learning or me or any of us doing to innovate outside the confines of what they / we need to do to make our money? Where is the disinterested application of open educational models? Where is the exit strategy–is the company / are we ready to leave everything behind once open education is implemented successfully across all educational platforms? These questions don’t even begin to address how Lumen is–or we are–helping to repair and track applications across institutions, sharing those resources so that the mess they are charging to guide–and we are “spearheading”–institutions through is eventually non-existent? I know they–and maybe we–have the answers to these questions–and that is precisely why I am skeptical; no one ever has all the answers–especially when it comes to open education.

Bringing it Back Home

Now I want to return to the concept of the “simplest possible thing that could possibly work.” Have we asked ourselves this question? Or are we too busy thinking about what will work and how to get it working by rummaging through what we perceive to be the inherent complexity of implementing open educational resources? We’re academics remember, we’re really good at making things complicated. To drive the point here: if we need help beyond what we already have in place–if we need a consultant to help us through the mire–we’re not doing it right. We have resources in-house paid for by the students we are accountable to; we have expertise in-house funded by the same. We need to think about the simplest possible thing that will work. And, we need to be leaders in the conversation about what open education as a moral and ethical obligation really means before we start selling “OER Fries” at career day. Time for a shit-check if things are so hard to implement that a consultant needs to be called in despite all the resources normally at our disposal in institutions of higher education–to say nothing of the publicly-funded infrastructures that support them and the open learning techniques and technologies they create.

Let’s welcome Lumen to the table. At the same time, let’s take them up on some of the above questions. Let’s think about how sponsorship and stewardship are different things–stewardship is an ongoing obligation where sponsorship, like “fixing” in my earlier post, is a one-off. And, let’s have uncomfortable conversations–ones where we challenge the logic of having a corporate sponsor of a conference in which “free exchange” and “openness” are major themes. Dissent, dissent, dissent, always with grace and class. But dissent we must if we’re going to call ourselves stewards of open education.

Share this post:

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada