#oerhf – personal reflections: “…there is a light?”

With half-a-day’s distance between now and the Hewlett Foundation OER grantholders conference, I have been mulling over some of the issues and themes raised at the conference. These are my own thoughts and do not represent the views of JISC, the UK Government or even – possibly – me on another day. Those I have quoted I do so out of context and without permission, and will happily correct instances where I have misrepresented views. The video is a live recording of “Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra” playing “There Is A Light” (and lyrical quotations are also taken from this song), which both fits my themes and is one of the most amazing pieces of music I have heard in recent years. The track is available on Constellation Records on the album “Kollaps Tradixionales”
“Lux et Veritas”…”Light and truth” is the official motto of Yale University, our conference host, and has been since foundation in 1701. Like many of our older institutions, the origins of Yale are shrouded in mystery – but like most higher education institutions it was created to fill a public need, a need for skilled and knowledgeable elite men (and later, as we became more enlightened, women and those of less noble birth). Always, universities, though founded by kings, governments and commercial benefactors (and spending the money they have accrued by exploiting the hard work of “lesser” people), have been designed to serve a civic need and provide skills and training in areas where they are needed. So, if we work for, or support, an institution of learning we are public servants, working for public benefit. “We are the people we are waiting for”, as Hal Plotkin (http://plotkin.com/) paraphrased Barak Obama, and we have work to do.
A lot of the work has been done. What was clear from the presentations, workshops and informal discussions was how much of the ground has been cleared. Governmental support in the US, in the Netherlands, Brazil, New Zealand, the UK. Projects releasing materials all over the world. The Creative Commons framework of licenses. The network itself. And it is worth noting who has done this work – the institutions. Serving the public.
Wayne Mackintosh (http://wikieducator.org/Main_Page) made provocative arguments about the place of the commercial in “free culture” – his arguments challenged many people but is message was there is a cost to freedom, and to be truly free we needed to accept that it may be others that are collecting the coins. This is tough for institutions as they seek to maintain their position via scarcity, but moving the battle to the forums of quality and utility would serve everyone. We should not be hiding behind century-old reputations, scorning those who are late to the feast. To embrace this, institutions need to accept that they are not always the best people to exploit what they do, and the exploitation can bring benefits other than financial.
Alongside, and inspiring the institutions, there has been a network of  OER funders and supporters. Vic Vuchic and Barbara Chow (http://www.hewlett.org/oer) made it clear that this network will, and needs to grow. And a discussion at lunch led by Steve Carson of MIT and OCWC (http://www.ocwconsortium.org/) made it clear that external funders are not always the answer – state and foundation funding is not sustainability, and if we are not sustainable all the movement has done is given the world a library full of books, more accessible than the books in the Beinecke Rare Book Library (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beinecke_Rare_Book_Library) locked in their isolated glass core and shielded by marble and concrete, but neverless a library. And OER as a movement needs to be more than that to answer the problems that education faces.
Anya Kamenetz (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anya_Kamenetz) described problems faced by the education sector well in her closing keynote. The rising demand for higher education’s lifelong benefits, and the inability of our current system to cope. The dissatisfaction with the experience, whether warranted through our  failure to engage or unfair and petulant pouting from “learners” who expect spoonfeeding and have no reason to expect anything else. And the time, the money, the work. Is there an easier way?
What Anya proposed was a trainwreck – starting off with a splitting of education into three “chunks” that cannot feed in to each other (the content, the social, the recognition of efforts), and a call to grab what we can from goodwill and good connections – the institution cast aside in favour of open content (produced by whom? for what reward?), social networks with names like “Brazen Careerist”(http://www.brazencareerist.com/) where only the confident can flourish, and new media “superstars” vouching for former interns in a grotesque parody of the old patronage/neopotism model. It’s who you know, not what you can do. These days the grandchildren of Thatcher, Reagan and Friedman wrap themselves in the language of revolution, and parody Che Guevera’s raised fist of solidarity on the covers of their books as an incitement to begin the revolution of me me me. This is no time for personalisation and the crowning of new gods at the expense of a broad and fair offer to all who can benefit.
People built institutions, institutions build knowledge, and now institutions are giving knowledge back to the people. And people are people, more than “brazen careerists”, more than a set of competencies. Barbara Chow’s ideas of “Deeper Learning” respect this, and have a genuine chance of bringing about a positive change to the lives of millions excluded by circumstance from the sheer pleasure of learning.
And institutions are more than commercial knowledge and skill factories. They were built for another world, and it is this otherworldliness that creates the gaps that allow the trickles of OER that are turning, often without any (or much) external funding, into torrents. We need this otherness, and we need institutions, to do what we are doing. Our next challenge as a movement is to understand what it is we are doing and why, and marry this to the fleeting concerns of managers and policymakers whilst retaining our own plurality and independence. If the OER case is so compelling, we shouldn’t need to seek external funding. Perhaps we need to change the institutions, return from our ineffectual forays into the commercial world to light and truth. 
And we built the institutions
And we are the institutions
And we can rebuild them.
So c’mon ye children
If there’s one thing we know
It’s that them gathering arses are swinging low

We’ve been building in the dark
There’s so many of us

Now blinking in the light
There’s so many of us
Illuminated and proud
There’s so many of us

Though we’ve been denied too much hope in our lives
Let tonight be the night when it ends.

Tell me there is a light
There is a light