Revisiting OpenVA 2014 — Bringing the Conversation to W&M

Image Source

Image courtesy of the OpenVA website.

Following up on my post from October, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect upon the topics discussed at the OpenVA 2014 meeting, how they reflect some emerging trends in academic technology, and plans to host an OpenVA event here at W&M.

The meeting was hosted by Tidewater Community College (TCC) at their Virginia Beach campus. TCC has been gaining national attention as home to the first associate degree to entirely use open educational resources (OER), thus eliminating textbook costs to the students in that program. The ultimate takeaway from the meeting was that OpenVA is centered on fostering a dialogue in ed tech across the state so that the myriad of post-secondary institutions can build and share best practices. It’s an exciting and promising movement.

OpenVA Session 1: Open Educational Resources


The meeting jumped right in with one of the most prominent aspects in open education, OER. We first heard from Anita Walz, the newly appointed Open Education Librarian at Virginia Tech, who spoke to one of the greatest inhibitions to OER adoption: awareness. She explained the role of librarians in OER facilitation, and the kinds of activities and programming she is organizing to generate awareness at Virginia Tech. Her main points are widely applicable, and there are many examples that we can readily deploy at William & Mary.

Next we heard from Daniel DeMarte, the Chief Academic Officer at Tidewater Community College, who reviewed the development of the college’s first degree program that relies entirely on OER for course materials. From his leadership perspective, we shifted away from the specifics of particular resources to the contingencies and complexities of OER at the institutional level. Notable was his emphasis upon making sure that faculty are given the autonomy to drive OER inclusion in their courses rather than imposing a top-down mandate.

OpenVA Session 2: Open Infrastructure


I was most curious about this session as I couldn’t wrap my head around how something as technical and rudimentary as infrastructure could play to into an open epistemology. However, this turned out to be one of the most intriguing sessions. First up, Rusty Waterfield of Old Dominion University listed some of the troubles and constraints of traditional servers, specifically “server crawl” and the associated cost sink and lack of scalability. He argued for virtualizing resources with Amazon Web Services. While the technical concerns here are outside of my expertise, the solution sounds fascinating.

We then heard from two academic technologists from the University of Mary Washington, Martha Burtis and Ryan Brazell. They discussed their WordPress solution — akin to blogs.wm.edu — and their “A Domain of One’s Own” project that I’ve written about previously. I see much potential for fruitful collaboration with the team at UMW, as their emphasis on high quality instruction and rich learning resonates with that of William & Mary’s. Additionally, their orientation to promoting digital literacy is something I find increasingly imperative in higher education.

OpenVA Session 3: Open Pedagogy / Open Curriculum


Here we took a refreshing turn to the classroom, and got to hear about some great examples of mobilizing technology to enhance teaching and learning. First we heard from Jeff McClurken and what he calls “outward facing” pedagogy. He offered compelling examples of the benefits of student assignments in the public via the web. Further, he argues how faculty and students can benefit greatly from openly sharing syllabi and assignments, and how these practices need to be supported in promotion and tenure systems.

Cheryl Huff, an associate professor of English and humanities, shared her grassroots adoption and promotion of OER at Germanna Community College. Echoing Daniel DeMartes’ comments earlier, she stressed that OER is gaining traction at her institution because it is fostered as a faculty-led, bottom-up initiative rather than top-down. Tom Woodward of VCU’s AltLab presented work he did in a fascinating freshmen-level course called Thought Vectors. This example in particular holds tremendous potential for application within the new undergraduate curriculum at William & Mary, something I plan to explore more thoroughly in a future post.

OpenVA Session 4: Building OpenVA: Planning for the Future


Perhaps it was fatigue or attendees’ blood flowing from their heads to their bellies after lunch, but the last session was the least cohesive and lacked the enthusiasm and energy of the previous three. Nonetheless, we heard important insights from local and national perspectives, from institutional, private, and governmental perspectives. We were able to hear directly from Melissa Hoch, a student who expressed the immediate benefits of eradicating the costs of textbooks in her coursework at TCC.

Kim Thanos from the ed tech startup Lumen Learning took the larger view of open learning, invoking a powerful metaphor of building an ecosystem rather than a bridge (which only offers a limited channel to traverse). She is working with open education guru David Wiley to move these ideas beyond dependence upon soft foundation money into what she claims is more sustainable venture. She admits that a private company and open ed appear to be a distinct mismatch, but offers a compelling account what they’re up to.

Bringing the Conversation to W&M

What remains most impressive and promising about the OpenVA meeting is the firm orientation to free-flowing collaboration. In this spirit, I am working with Kathleen Delaurenti from Swem and our new associate provost Michele Jackson to bring the conversation to William & Mary this spring. Details will be forthcoming, but we are planning on hosting a mini OpenVA meeting focused on OER in mid to late April. We are working on drawing in an exceptional keynote speaker, rich panels comprised of William & Mary faculty as well as some neighbors.