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OpenCon: Students and Early-Career Researchers for Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data
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Posted On December 2, 2014
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OpenCon, the first full conference for students and early-career researchers that’s focused on the open knowledge trifecta—open access (OA), open education, and open data—was anything but a typical event. During his welcoming remarks, Michael W. Carroll (professor of law and director of the Program on Information Justice and Intellectual Property at American University and a founding member of Creative Commons) set the tone for the whole meeting and pushed participants to think that “open isn’t just about the technicalities of using open licenses and open policies. At the core, it’s about the values.” He challenged attendees to think about the connection between OA and human rights: “[It’s] a deeper human rights analysis about equality—that every researcher ought to get access to research,” and that this belief leads to a deeper commitment to OA. He explained that “there will be compromises and darkness, so you need to have a good handle on what your value is. You can’t just think Open Access is a good idea—you have to believe it.”

The event was organized by the Right to Research Coalition (R2RC) and SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and was held Nov. 15–17 at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. The event brought together a high-energy and enthusiastic group of approximately 115 students and early-career researchers (with around 150 participants in total) from around the world to learn, share, and advocate for openness. Thirty-seven countries across all continents (except Antarctica) were represented by the attendees; more than half of the participants were from outside of the U.S. Also unusual: Nearly all of the speakers paid their own way, while many of the students and early-career researchers’ expenses were covered by the conference’s sponsors.

The first and second days of the event showcased current and emerging trends within open knowledge, demonstrated the impact of openness in action, highlighted the efforts of students and early-career researchers to push for openness, and generally raised the bar on what it means to be an open knowledge advocate. The third day involved getting out of the building. Participants engaged in advocacy training and took part in meetings at congressional offices, embassies, and policy-related organizations.

Lessons From PLOS

During the first keynote speech, Patrick O. Brown talked about his experiences and lessons learned as co-founder of the highly successful OA publisher PLOS (Public Library of Science). His key messages included, “Don’t just complain—do something. Be entrepreneurial. … Come up with a better way and go for it.” He spoke about finding kindred spirits and working together, being strategic, and radiating confidence. In terms of what’s next on the horizon, Brown made clear his feelings about prepublication peer review: “I’d argue that it’s the most backward thing in science right now,” he said, and he thinks it is time for a dramatic change. He explained, “The one thing pre-publication peer review unquestionably does is delay dissemination of scientific discoveries. If scientific publications are an important way to communicate scientific discoveries and ideas, then delaying publication delays any resulting benefits to society.”

Z Degree Program Successes

One of the most exciting panels was about impact—how openly accessible research, data, and open educational resources (OERs) are being used. Daniel T. DeMarte, the VP for academic affairs and chief academic officer at Tidewater Community College, talked about his school’s foray into OER adoption through its Z Degree pilot program. The Z Degree program offers a full degree in business administration, conducted entirely through open textbooks and OERs. It is the first accredited college in the U.S. to offer a degree in this manner. As DeMarte noted, the “metrics we pay attention to on a regular basis [are] student savings, student satisfaction, and student performance.” In all three of these categories, data and comments from students have been extremely positive. Comparing textbook classes with OER-based classes, 85% of students said they’d enroll in a Z Degree course again, and 98% of students indicated that the course quality was at least as good as, if not better than, the courses for which they’d have to buy the textbooks.

This last data point mirrored faculty comments. DeMarte explained that faculty members said all along that content had to be at least as good as, if not better than, what they were using for traditional courses. But OERs offer more flexibility—with OERs, faculty can match reading materials and course content to course learning outcomes, so courses can be designed differently, with the extraneous sections stripped out. For instance, with textbooks, instructors might teach a particular chapter because it was in the book between two other chapters, even if the content was not tied to a course. That problem is eliminated with OERs.

In terms of numbers, DeMarte shared that the retention rate at the add/drop deadline is significantly higher in Z courses than in traditional courses, the school is seeing lower levels of withdrawals compared to all sections for the same courses, and Z-course students are completing at a grade of C or better at a higher rate—almost one full percentage point higher than for non-Z-counterpart courses. In short, “not only are [Z-course students] finishing at a higher rate, fewer are dropping, fewer are withdrawing, which means more of them are getting to the finish line.” 

In terms of cost, Tidewater Community College is able to estimate the amount of money it has saved students through the pilot program. Over the course of the pilot (from fall 2013 to spring 2015), the school will have offered 112 sections of Z courses, with 2,745 students enrolled across all of those courses. Using the U.S. PIRG estimate that open textbooks save students $100 per course (which seems like a conservative figure), the school has already saved those students $274,500. In comparison, during a full academic year (from summer 2013 to spring 2014), textbook sales at the college’s bookstore totaled nearly $12 million. DeMarte noted, “Nearly $12 million was spent in one academic year, at one college. That was all spent on textbooks. … If you need a reason to do what Tidewater has done, here’s $12 million of them from one academic year …”


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Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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