“But the cake is already baked! I can’t make it gluten-free now!” —Reflecting on Open Educational Principles in Grad School

I had a steep learning curve when I started my doctorate. Back then, it wasn’t just a case of imposter syndrome. It was a lack of theoretical training. My previous program focused on applied and experiential learning, so I had scant familiarity—and I mean scant—with the specific terminology used within academic discourse. I remember not being able to pronounce performativity because I stumbled on the consonants. Barthes and Bourdieu I kind of knew. Foucault or Deleuze not so much, let alone a breadth of other thinkers like Karen Barad, bell hooks, or Homi Bhabha. So I did what any desperate student does in course-based panic: I Googled, Wikipedia-ed, and YouTubed my way through other people’s content until I had an “ish” understanding of these theorists and their ideas. 

My biggest mistake? Not sharing my learning with others, especially since my experience is not unique.

Looking back at my scramble to perform academic, I was so anxious that I lost sight of the greater ecosystem of knowledge to which learners belong. I was so focused on myself and let my anxiety play out in the form of hoarding (I might need this one day) without ever considering how I might add to the conversation or improve the collective experience when learning. This collective unit is something we often don’t think about, mostly because education is firmly rooted in individualistic merit and distinction. But we are always and already part of this ecosystem of knowledge—the commons. And rather than fence off ideas as my knowledge to claim, I wish I had come to see our learning in this ecosystem. As I approach the finish line of my doctoral marathon, my hope for learning echoes what the world of Open Education has been arguing for a while: learning is transformational when it leads with care, curiosity, and collaboration. Because together we can learn more.

Imagine a world in which sharing was the default, free of paywalls and withheld copyright because the resources were designed to be openly available and explicitly made to help you learn. Whether you’d chance upon these materials or not does not depend on your resourcefulness or privilege; you would have access to these ideas from a baseline of generosity. Imagine resources that explain theories like agential realism, concepts like assemblage and biopolitics, all of it, ready to go, for you and everyone else. I could have created such a resource in my time as a grad student. And, one might argue that it’s not too late to share my explanations of these now, but I think there’s value in sharing the process of learning along the way to understanding. Why? Because the questions and assumptions that I have now after I already know and use these ideas differ from my initial grappling and trying to make sense of them. So at the risk of sounding resentful, I wish I had come to know Open Education principles earlier in my graduate student career and my thoughts here are a combination of reflection and hope as I become more familiar with the Open Education ethos. 

Open Education: ways to enable others’ learning

Open Education (OpenEd) is both a philosophy and a movement driven by the belief that everyone should have access to educational resources. OpenEd works towards reducing and eliminating barriers to achieve this goal, advocating through concepts like equity and accessibility as well as through concrete projects like affordable textbooks and community-driven publishing. It is led by a robust collective of researchers, instructors, instructional designers, librarians, student advocates, administrators, and more, who have spent the past few decades ideating new and just ways to share knowledge as time (and technology) moves on. One example of an OpenEd intervention is the creation of openly licensed textbooks for undergraduate courses, where making these books available at lower cost disrupts the surge in book prices that characterize conventional publishers like McGraw-Hill and Pearson. OpenEd is political in this regard and interventions like affordable textbooks can transform the very premise for learning. 

I root for affordable textbooks (I remember borrowing chemistry textbooks from the library during my undergrad because I couldn’t afford $280 for the latest edition with a snazzy new CD of practice problems), but I have a hard time rallying for the cause as a graduate student. With smaller seminars that tend to be topical instead of introductory, and with a strong emphasis in research methods instead of course-based learning, we don’t necessarily share the same concerns. When I started participating in OpenEd events, I noticed that grad students seemed to be missing from and missing out on interventions that OpenEd could provide.

At the 2020 Open Education Conference, I pondered about graduate student involvement in shifting OE adoption from niche to default. While I have slightly different thoughts now, I think grad students continue to fall through the cracks of OpenEd advocacy. I often think about how I could have shared my annotations and reading notes with permissions so that others could build upon them. I think about how many documents I’ve published without knowing what “all rights reserved” actually means. I think about how most of the content I’ve created in extra-curricular contexts (workshop activities, slide decks, promotional materials) are still owned by my current institution. As I look back on all the material I’ve made, I thought: the cake is already baked. I can’t make it gluten free now.

To introduce OpenEd further upstream, I thought about ways of enabling other students to share materials on their own terms. At my institution, I worked with our (then) OER Librarian, Chloe Lei, in developing a professional development course about how to make an Open Educational Resource, or OER. This fit in nicely with the suite of other workshops for grad students including some on CC licensing and Open Data. 

Afterwards, I chatted with librarians at other institutions, including Emily Carlisle-Johnston at the University of Western Ontario, and we wrote a blogpost to reflect on what worked (and what didn’t) with the workshop. In hindsight, starting out with OERs as an acronym or even OpenEd as a whole philosophy was just too much to unpack in a 90-minute workshop for newcomers. No matter how good our intentions were, explaining the entirety of the OpenEd/OER universe may inadvertently alienate newcomers and commit an implicit form of exclusion that OpenEd attempts to counter. 

As we suggest in our blogpost, perhaps there’s wisdom in starting with the meta-goal of making knowledge publicly accessible and then scaffolding OpenEd values along the way. I don’t mean to sound like an OpenEd strategist, but I do see value in promoting the philosophical foundations of OpenEd and practicing its principles in a way that is invitational and interesting. (As a food analogy: I may not be able to convert someone into adopting new dietary habits using words or workshops alone, but I can make a food delicious and delightful enough to perhaps have someone want to try and change their diet.) At the same time, I don’t want to tout the axiom “lead by example” as the only form of persuasion, especially since there’s no One Right Way to practice open principles. The analogy I like to give is that of a spice mix (two food analogies in the same paragraph!) where (a) as a content creator, you can mix your spice blend together and share the recipe with the world; or (b) as a user, you can take apart that recipe and use only the relevant parts, if permitted, instead of having to create your own mix from scratch. There’s no One Spice Mix that works for all dishes and all people, all of the time. Instead, OpenEd sees value in enabling others to mix their own spice blends to whatever their needs and desires might be. 

Giving Back to Public Knowledge

Making knowledge publicly available is not a mission driven by OpenEd alone. Indeed, I came to the idea of open scholarship from my own institution’s Public Scholars Program, which primarily focused on media training and leadership skills. Years later (and as more graduate schools launch similar programs), I redouble my belief that the premise for public scholarship cannot be for self-promotion but for the commons. If what we learn comes from an ecosystem of knowledge, and we use these knowledge claims to promote ourselves, then ought we not give our ideas back to the public domain? Is this not the very definition of sustaining an ecology of ideas? 

We are always building on other people’s ideas in this ecosystem of knowledge; sometimes formally through lectures or citations and sometimes through passive exposure to informal chatter (e.g., Twitter threads, blogs of professional associations, instructional videos). All of these sources help us make sense of the world, whether we are conscious of it or not. What sustains this sense-making ecosystem is its give-and-take setup: somebody gave their version of an idea for others to take it up. This flow of ideas keeps everything going. It keeps the metabolism of knowledge stoked and the purpose of learning alive. Like environmental ecosystems, knowledge systems (like academia) thrive when there’s a balance of give and take. To only take—one way—is extraction. It’s inherently limiting.

In the ever-optimizing academic industrial complex, student success gets measured and bankrolled through metrics like learning outcomes, competencies, and credentialing. Don’t get me wrong, these measurements are all very important, but I worry that this checklist approach to learning frames the journey as a skill to master, a field to conquer. Instead, I circle back on the importance of care, curiosity, and collaboration as drivers for inquiry because these will be the practices that restore balance in our ecosystem of knowledge. Care balances concern with intentional actions. Curiosity balances critique with creativity. Collaboration balances individual with collective pursuits of knowledge. These are my hopes for OpenEd, as well as for academia writ large, and my goal will be to carry these thoughts with me (and continue to share them here!) as I transition into new roles and projects.

Resources & Tangible takeaways

  • Publishing. Want to see what options you have with a publishing contract after you’ve signed away your rights? Consult the SPARC author addendum for insights and legal resources to navigate publishing contracts. CARL-ABRC created a Canadian version of the author addendum too. To revisit the cake-baking analogy earlier, this addendum allows you to use the cake after it’s been baked and share it under very specific circumstances (e.g. in a classroom setting).
  • Presenting Research. Read through the considerations posed by Cascadia on creating accessible presentations. While the toolkit is a comprehensive resource, try integrating one new tip or practice with every conference so that we can incrementally work towards inclusive presentations.
  • Teaching. Read about non-disposable assignments here, where you can also find examples/prompts. Consider integrating these assignments into syllabi so that students can give back to the ecosystem of knowledge?

Post Script

I spoke with Terry Greene on his Open Pedagogy podcast Gettin’ Air. We talked about how I got into open principles as a grad student, how I planned my own “public” dissertation defense, and where I hope Open Education will go next.

Listen to the podcast episode here.