Open-ing up our Education

By: Akanksha Bhatnagar

2018 was the first year I travelled completely alone. A backpack, myself and my headphones with a broken left ear. I was sitting on the New York Subway, honestly pretty nervous and I was walking around downtown Toronto just hoping to meet Drake. This year, my Stretch Experience allowed me to travel across the country to represent the undergraduate open education movement. For my Stretch, in my role as the Vice-President Academic of the Students’ Union, I was elected the Chair of the Open Education Advocacy Group.

Up until early 2018, my knowledge regarding open education was limited to just arguments regarding affordability. I’ve learnt since that open education allows also for a more inclusive educational system, that is able to respond to the world around us. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation defines open educational resources as “[t]eaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others”. Because open education resources are specific to just materials, this year we also renamed our advocacy group as it was previously known as the Open Educational Resources Advocacy Group. Faculty members at the University of Alberta can deposit their work into the Education and Research Archive (ERA) which is a digital archive; however not all work is mandated to be submitted into ERA meaning thousands of research papers are being let out of this repository. In every conversation with University stakeholders, the top three discussions we had were: (1) How can we better involve undergraduate students in the open education movement?, (2) How can we better educate students on the benefits of open education, past the discussions around affordability? And, (3) How can we better connect all open education stakeholders?

The challenge is, how can I, just a mere 21-years old, attempt to do all three things at one; I’ve found that the easy answer is a balancing a delicate line.

In an attempt to strengthen the student movement regarding open educational resources on campus, I was elected the Chair of the Open Education Advocacy Group (OEAG). This group was created in an attempt to get advocates of open education in the same space. Initially, this group presented to bargaining units at the University of Alberta to try and gain momentum by including incentives around the creation of open educational resources in contracts. However, with a lack of leadership, this group began to lose its momentum.

As mentioned previously, the argument for integrating open resources in your classroom is so much deeper than the affordability angle. The question was, how can we get students to connect with this concept so they can question their professors? The Students’ Union developed a campaign years ago, known as the Be Book Smart Campaign. This campaign was targeted at educating students on alternate options of textbook purchasing. This campaign, however, was always a passive one; with a huge banner screaming “STOP” in front of the bookstore, this campaign looked like nothing more than an attack on the University Bookstore (who has none, to very limited control over costs of materials). The OEAG brainstormed a way to answer all three of the aforementioned questions. From there, we developed the concept of the Be Book Smart Fair! With amazing attendance, this fair aimed to be a physical manifestation of the campaign to educate students on their textbook purchasing options, including language around open educational resources. Some of the booths included a Guess the Price Booth with coursepacks, textbooks and open resources part of the test, a booth about plagiarism, a student advocacy photo booth and the most fun booth – an Open Education Resources Petting Zoo! Check out some pictures below!  

Never would I have believed that I would be able to travel across the country to represent the University of Alberta. The University of Alberta and the Centre for Teaching and Learning were kind enough to send me to the OpenEd Conference in Buffalo, New York, where Michelle Brailey, a Digital Initiatives Librarian and a SPARC Fellow and I presented on the intersection of libraries and the student movement in open education advocacy. A conference of around 10,000 advocates from across the world, could you guess how many undergraduate students attended? Less than 25 people. Out of every session, panel, workshop and discussion table, I went too, this quote still influences my work every day: “Diversity is a number; inclusion is a process; equity is an outcome.”. Advocating for open education is more than affordability, open education is creating a world where anyone can access education, where education is a right rather than a privilege.

Michelle Brailey and I with our handbills from our #OpenEd2018 presentation titled: From the Front Lines to Behind the Scenes: Librarians, Students & The OER Initiative

I learnt about OpenCon while at OpenEd. OpenCon is a much smaller conference, much harder to get accepted into, and much more action focussed.  I wanted to push myself to learn something new and step outside of my comfort zone. The OpenCon Conference was organized into streams based on designs systems – the stream I chose to go into was “How might we encourage open advocacy and the practice of open beyond the tenure track?”. This conference also focussed on how we can learn from each other as a community and I was therefore asked to host a session on how other institutions across the world could start their own Open Education Advocacy Group – not only did I share my challenges and successes there, but I was able to learn so much from other people about unique ways to include other stakeholders. Lastly, I was asked to give closing remarks on behalf of undergraduates students (seeing as I though I was only 1 of around 10). 

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I knew I would have a lot to say at OpenCon, so I tweeted my thoughts in this thread! Read here if you’re interested – but to summarize, OpenCon was so much more than a conference, it started the creation of an international family about OpenCon who I still talk to today. This conference gave me the language to understand that while cost is still a big conversation in OER, people need to start talking more about how open education leads to higher student success and allows for the innovative creation of texts from professors retaining, reusing, revising, remixing and redistributing OERs.

As young advocates in this field, we have a unique opportunity to shape the narrative of open education. We have to push ourselves and stakeholders around us to open up our education. It’s not just about affordability – it’s about us taking charge in creating dynamic, inclusive and high-quality educational materials for all.

If this at all inspires you at all, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at!

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