Held virtually for the first time in 17 years, the 2020 Open Education Conference drew more than 1,500 participants on November 9-13th. The turnout was nearly twice that of the previous year and included representation from more than 70 countries, with more than half of the attendees participating for the first time.
Previously held in-person, the Open Education Conference has become a nexus for open education practitioners, researchers, and advocates. After years of steady growth, the conference’s future was suddenly called into question late last year when the founder and long-time organizer stepped aside. In response to widespread interest in continuing the event, community members stepped forward to establish a steering committee and organizing partnership to support the conference for two years while it transitions to independent governance.
“The difference with this conference was that it was more community led,” said Regina Gong, a member of the 2020 steering committee who had also been involved in planning two previous years. “We intentionally sought the input of the community on programming and speakers.”
Virtual monthly planning meetings organized by the steering committee gathered input from community members, which in turn, informed how the conference was designed at every step of the way. With the theme “Reimagining Open Education,” the event emphasized the need to respond to the challenges of the moment, addressing racial injustice and equitable access to knowledge in the age of COVID-19.
Originally scheduled as an in-person gathering in Denver, the conference pivoted to a fully online event in the summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The innovative format included five days of live meetings and pre-recorded sessions on open educational resources, open pedagogy, and open education initiatives with more than 200 sessions in total.
There were a variety of ways to meet new people, reflect on presentations, and network in informal breakout rooms including daily “Tea Time” chats. Without the expense of travel, this year’s conference attracted a wider international audience. This made for rich discussions and fostered broader community connections that exceeded the organizers expectations, according to Gong, an OER and student success librarian at Michigan State University and member of SPARC’s open education advisory group.
For Abudulla Al-khafajy, a medical student at the University of Baghdad in Iraq, this was his first Open Education Conference. He was part of a delegation of 15 students representing the International Federation of Medical Student Associations, all from different countries.
“It is very inspiring that people around the world are advocating for this great cause,” said the 23-year-old whose group would not likely have been able to attend a conference in person because of limited funding. Al-khafajy gave a presentation on the impact of COVID-19 on the transformation of medical education. “It is even more urgent now for us to advocate for open education,” he said. “Medical education is dependent on patient-physician relationships and that is something we lost because of the lockdown worldwide. We, as the future health sector, need to compensate for that and we need tools to overcome this obstacle – open education is one of them.”
Al-kahfajy praised the inclusion of participants from Egypt, Zimbabwe and parts of Asia, but hoped there would be even broader regional and youth representation in future conferences – which he’d like to see continue online. This year’s virtual format made it possible to support more than 100 attendees with scholarships, including the IFMSA delegation.
Meet IFMSA’s first delegation to the #OpenEd20! Fifteen young leaders that will serve as the voice of youth and medical students worldwide. Advocating for #OpenScience and all its domains!
— IFMSA (@IFMSA) November 10, 2020
Tiffany MacLennan, a current fellow in the SPARC Open Education Leadership Program, was another first-time attendee. MacLennan recently graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in May and works at the Maple League of Universities, a consortium of four undergraduate universities in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec.
“All of it was amazing and especially as someone who is relatively new to open education,” said MacLennan. “What I didn’t know was a lot of the logistics of how to make an OER or how to play out a regional or state repository.”
MacLennan said she appreciated the creative ways to connect with other people through online chats, the virtual lobby and the talk show-style conversations held at the start and end of each day.
Working on a capstone project for her fellowship, MacLennan said she got new ideas that prompted her to broaden its scope. “I recognized through this conference that the sky is the limit,” she said. “Being able to see what other people were doing, I realized there is a lot more help and a community there.”
Because all of the sessions were recorded, some participants are eager to continue learning from the material in the weeks to come – another advantage of the virtual structure. Amanda Larson, affordable learning instructional consultant at The Ohio State University, said the 100-plus hours of content will be a useful resource for the one hour she schedules at the beginning of every workday for professional development.
This was the fourth time attending the conference for Larson, who served on the program planning committee. The community-driven development of the event created an environment that she said made it easier for new people to feel welcome.
“The conversation moved beyond just talking about affordability to talking about social justice and how open pedagogy is the future,” Larson said. “Faculty get jazzed when the conversation shifts to how it changes the way students can engage with the material. The way open pedagogy transforms teaching is going to be how we move forward in this movement. I left feeling really hopeful.”
— Open Education Conference (@HeyOpenEd) November 14, 2020
Emily Ragan, associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Metropolitan State University of Denver, joined the conference steering committee when the conference was set to be held in Colorado, but stayed on to plan the online event.
“It turned out to be really fantastic to host it virtually because we were able to get so much more participation. It helped expand the reach of the conference in a very positive way,” said Ragan, who has been teaching with OER since 2015 and now serves as her campus OER coordinator. The conference highlighted the equity benefits of OER, which Ragan said resonated with faculty, as well as new resources available for developing courses.
“What really helps faculty stay motivated with OER is that it can energize and revitalize our teaching,” Ragan said. “We can create courses that are more customized and that we really enjoy teaching. Our students can also get really engaged, rather than a cookie-cutter experience.”
Like Larson, Ragan looks forward to tapping into the recorded sessions throughout the year — perhaps hosting watch parties as a way to engage faculty on campus.
After attending his first Open Education Conference conference this November, David Draper, a fourth-year political science student at the University of Alberta, said he approached administrators about expanding OER programs on campus. He was able to bring data about the affordability of OER and the impact on student grades that he learned from a presentation at the event. With this new information, Draper hopes open initiatives will gain transition at his institution and he sees potential for connecting advocates in virtual hubs in the coming months for discussions.
Although hope is on the horizon for in-person gatherings to return, many involved in planning the event recognize the value of the online format and anticipate that it will continue to be part of future Open Education Conferences.
“The pandemic has made clear that a face-to-face conference is a privilege for a select number of people with resources and time. The reason we had a record number of people was because it was virtual.”
“If there is one thing that we learned from the virtual format is that we cannot go back,” Gong said. “The pandemic has made clear that a face-to-face conference is a privilege for a select number of people with resources and time. The reason we had a record number of people was because it was virtual.”
SPARC is proud to be among the four partner organizations supporting the 2020 and 2021 Open Education Conferences, alongside Rice University’s OpenStax, the University System of Maryland’s Kirwan Center, and the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s OER Council. SPARC served as the lead for conference operations and community organizing.
“After months of planning and hard work by hundreds of people, it was incredibly powerful to see the event come together,” said Nicole Allen, director of open education for SPARC and a member of the 2020 steering committee. “It was a joy to see the SPARC community out in force and also exciting to see the many new voices included through the virtual format. It enriched the experience for everyone since each attendee brought something unique.”
As the 2020 event wraps up and 2021 planning begins, the conference will also be embarking upon a strategic planning process to establish a community governance model to carry the conference in the future. For more information and how to get involved, sign up here.