Last week was Open Access Week on Twitter and the hash tag #openaccess is still flying around the social media sphere to hype up various Open Educational Resources and open platforms for research that have been developed (or are currently under development). Links and tweets share educational materials, unlock archives through digital means so that researchers can access and utilize them, and mine “big data” for innovative new directions in thinking, learning, being, and doing. Like many avant-garde practices, it’s a Dutch initiative (along the lines of other social innovations the Dutch embrace warmly, like socialized medicine, biking everywhere, paid maternity and paternity leave, forward-thinking immigration policies etc etc……). I’m happy it’s sparking a discussion across the globe over who has access to resources, and how. As author Neil Gaiman reminded readers this week in the Guardian, we need open access in all forms (he was speaking specifically in support of public libraries that face looming austerity cuts in the UK) as “our future depends on libraries, reading, and daydreaming” – in both concrete and virtual forms.
Conversations around open access are near to my heart, and especially those on Open Educational Resources as I’m currently researching the effects MOOCs have on teaching and learning as part of my fellowship at the Schwartz Institute, and I have built and run an OER-style website for art history instructors over the last few years. I have listened to OER leaders I admire, like Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker of Smarthistory, and Sal Khan of KhanAcademy, extol educational resources that can be accessed by everyone. And I agree. Wholeheartedly.
However, over the past few months I’ve had many conversations that have begun to temper (but will never extinguish) my passion for these kinds of resources. The conversations have been with colleagues and friends, all emerging or early career academics. We’re all encouraged to publish. Publish, publish, publish. Publications are still the holy grail of academia – the way to land a job, and keep it; the way to maintain respect amongst peers and senior figures in our fields; the part of the resume, we’re all told, that really counts. And now, many academics are being encouraged by their seniors to create OERs for institutions eager to be seen at the avant-garde of teaching, learning, and technology. These are often younger academics who are using tech skills their seniors do not possess. If they’re not doing it institutionally, then they’re innovating independently, striking out and creating their own OERs as ways to connect with peers and truly collaborate as researchers, teachers, and writers.
And yet, Open Educational Resources are not “publications.” They’re innovative ways to share information. They’re labors of love for many of those who work on them. They’re mind-blowingly effective for students and teachers in the classroom (I can attest to this having switched from using a physical survey textbook to an online, OER-style crowdsourced virtual textbook in the last year). OERs are a hot topic of conversation at any THATCamp or Digital Humanities conference. But the Humanities fields still fail, for the most part, to recognize digital publications as, well …… publications. Which leaves the conundrum thus: either the publication of OERs will trail off as this generation of academics is reviewed by their seniors and told that “non-traditional” publications don’t “count.” Who has time, when all is said and done, to write sustained, high quality texts that will not help them retain their livelihood (rhetorical question!); OR this generation of academics, especially those in the humanities, will join together and make it known that this type of publication not only DOES count, but can be hugely beneficial. I know which scenario I would prefer.
OERs are not here to replace older, more traditional forms of publication and knowledge sharing. It’s a case of “and-and” rather than “either/or.”