How we can make open education more feminist (REPOST)

In my previous post, I reflected on what it means for the open movement to be a feminist movement, and why it’s vital to us achieving our goal of more equitable global knowledge and education systems. That vision is exciting and challenging. It drives so much of what I do, so the next logical step is for me to think out loud about how I can and do apply them to my work in open education. How can I be a part of building those values into the foundations of OER creation through my work at Rebus Community?

Recently, we grappled with these questions in our two-parter Office Hours series on Invisible Labour (Session 1 and Session 2), held in partnership with the Open Textbook Network. In these sessions, our guests and the community discussed the extensive invisible labour OER work often entails, including the widespread reliance on underpaid and unpaid work, emotional labour, and leveraging of ‘passion’ to help motivate others in unsustainable ways. We also considered the disproportionate impact that this reliance on invisible labour has on women, who are typically expected to perform more of this work than men, and how it limits who can participate. Monica Brown of Boise State University raised the important point that the risks of participating in OER—spending time on OER instead of research that could support a tenure application or challenging the status quo as a contingent faculty member et cetera—“[are] amplified for folks who have historically been barred from the academy”. None of these are easy problems to address, but the first step is to surface the issues, acknowledge their impact, and consider how we might work to address them.

Volunteerism, collaboration, and questions of compensation

In reflecting on my work at Rebus, I have to reckon with our role in perpetuating the expectations of volunteer labour in open education. Our whole approach to collaborative open textbook publishing is built on the idea of largely volunteer communities working together to create a common resource. Few of those volunteers are financially compensated, and even those who are, tend to be undercompensated. That’s not to say that any or all volunteerism is bad. Volunteering can be an immensely rewarding experience, with very concrete benefits to those who participate, and arguably no social movements have ever progressed without immense volunteer support. At the same time, if an over-reliance on volunteerism creates a false sense of the costs of OER creation, and/or if it creates barriers to participation for already historically marginalised groups, we have a problem. We also can’t count on passion or intrinsic motivations alone to sustain people. At a point, we need to have strategies in place to support the work being done, and in the uncharted territory we are navigating, we’ll need to get creative.

Rebus’s role in the ecosystem, and the role for which it is funded as a non-profit, is to establish infrastructure and processes, meaning we aren’t in a position to grant creators funding ourselves. In addition, many of the factors that explain this undervaluing of OER work—funding shortages in higher education, pressure on library budgets, the devaluing of teaching, adjunctification and precarity in the academic job market, capitalism—are well beyond our ability to address. So what can we do? First of all, understand the risks and inequities in this work and help our community understand them as well. And second, strive to make sure that the work people do within our community is concretely rewarded and recognised in whatever ways possible. Essentially, we’re aiming to make it easier to run a volunteer-based project ethically. We think a lot about how to do this, and have tried to embed this approach in our Guide to Publishing so that everyone approaching OER creation can consider these issues and address them as best they can.

A feminist approach to…

A few other areas where a feminist approach is important that have been brewing in my mind recently (drawing a lot on Denisse Albornoz’s open science work cited in part 1 of this post) include:

  • Informed consent & refusal: This is an area in which many open pedagogy practitioners have done excellent work, creating clear frameworks for ensuring informed consent from students. How might we model the same practices when collaborating with volunteers on OER creation? Can we rethink consent as a process or ongoing negotiation rather than something irrevocably granted at a single point in time?
  • Harm reduction: Can we consider how the creation and use of OER might reduce harm to both students and instructors in the context of the pressures, demands, and challenges of today’s higher education institutions? How might OER make the experience of higher education less fraught with risk, both financially and otherwise?
  • Radically rethinking success: What might success look like if we interrogate what we currently believe to be the best measures of success? What if we focused less on outcomes (especially economic outcomes) and more on the process of learning? This could equally go for instructors creating their own OER as for students – is the only goal to secure 50 adopters and replace a commercial text as the go-to? Or is the satisfaction and fulfilment of benefiting personally from their own creation enough?
  • Radically rethinking expertise: What kinds of expertise are valued, and why? Can we reconsider who is considered an expert, and how that status is affected by much more than just the knowledge a person possesses?

None of these are new ideas. Those working in open pedagogy in particular have been engaging with these ideas in their classrooms and research in exciting ways. I’d encourage us all to think about how we can translate them to our own areas of OER, beyond the classroom and student interactions. FemEdTech is another example of folks in education engaging with these issues, thoughtfully critiquing educational technologies through a feminist lens. Feminist values are found all throughout the open education community, and many of us are working to make sure they form the foundation of the future we’re building.

And we really are building something extraordinary! We might borrow and adapt and remix—it’s what we do!—but it’s all in the service of a new status quo, a future in which we hope to see an education system that truly serves all who participate in it. To be successful, we need to be deliberate about the choices we make along the way, and continually reflect on them as we go. At all levels of this daunting task, we can use a feminist lens to interrogate and question systemic, organisational, and interpersonal power relationships. We can use it to reflect on our own practices, to help articulate our values and motivations, and to hold ourselves responsible, both individually and collectively, as a community. It’s a high bar to hold ourselves too, but not trying really isn’t an option, is it?


With thanks to Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa for editing and inspiration, because creation is always collaborative.

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