Different Goals, Different Strategies

Cropped photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

I think Michael Feldstein is directionally correct in his analysis of what has been happening to “open education” for the past several years. Without wading into the labeling fray (are we a movement? a coalition? a community? a field? a discipline?) I’d like to add a bit of my own perspective. Where Michael sees three groups with different goals, I see four groups who are trying to use OER to solve closely related – but ultimately very different – problems:

  1. The negative impact on access to education caused by the high price of traditional learning materials
  2. The negative impact on student success caused by limitations in the traditional publishing model
  3. The negative impact on pedagogy caused by copyright-related constraints inherent in traditional learning materials
  4. The negative impact on students caused by a wide range of behaviors related to the business models of traditional publishers

(If you use OER and don’t see yourself in one of these groups, what problem are you trying to solve by using OER?)

It seems to me that over the last decade, many individuals and organizations have gained greater clarity about which problem they are most interested in solving. While I think many agree that it would be terrific to address all these issues, by definition an individual or organization can only focus on one thing at a time. And real, systemwide changemaking requires incredible focus.

The process of choosing a single focus for our individual or organizational work can be difficult, time consuming, and exhausting. Are you primarily focused on reducing costs for students? Improving student success? Increasing pedagogical flexibility for faculty? Bringing retribution to publishers? These decisions are very hard won, and the incredible amount of work that goes into making them leads us to feel very strongly about them.

This is how I interpret the many comments I’ve heard recently along the lines of “open education is growing up” or “open education is maturing.” Comments like these suggest to me that many of us have come to understand that, not only can we not make every change we’d like to make, but we will be incredibly fortunate if a dedicated career’s worth of effort is enough to make a single change. And so we focus – we truly dedicate ourselves to making that change.

Perhaps the most important part of changemaking – after the hard work of selecting the specific change you want to make – is selecting a set of strategies you believe can help facilitate that change. Choosing tactics, techniques, approaches, models, methods, partners. This is where the rubber hits the road – in our ability to maintain our focus and effectively carry out our strategies.

And here, at last, is where I locate the source of so much of the conflict that has been percolating in our space the last several years. As we each become more focused on executing the strategies aligned with our specific goal, the more the differences in our goals “get real.” A strategy that effectively supports one goal might be completely ineffective in the context of a different goal. More problematically, strategy that effectively supports one goal might actually move things backward in the context of another goal. When the resources invested in advancing one change are of no help to advancing another change, proponents of the second change will be apathetic and unhelpful. When the resources invested in advancing one change actively interfere with another change, proponents of the second change will be angry and unhappy.

From my perspective, many of the arguments leading up to and occurring at OpenEd this year can be understood in this way – as an ongoing conversation between different people and organizations with seemingly similar goals that – surprisingly – often call for different and sometimes contradictory strategies. As we each continue to pursue our individual and organizational goals, we will continue to find ourselves with frequent opportunities to collaborate. But we will also continue to find occasions when our strategies will be in conflict with each other. These are not shallow, “simple misunderstanding” types of conflicts in our strategies. These are very real conflicts that are deeply rooted in our differing goals.

Much will depend on how we navigate these conflicts.