On ramps to participation: what open education can learn from open source communities

slow exposure photo of a freeway with two on-ramps that go off in different directions
High Five Ramps by SETShot

As a newcomer to the open education community I observed that there is a core group of smart and passionate people who were doing their thing. At first the opportunities for where and how I could participate were not obvious or clear to me. I don’t think I’m the only person who has been puzzled by how to become an active participant, instead of a bystander, in this community.

I’m completely inspired by the idea of a Z-degree, or a degree program where there is no cost for textbooks for any of the classes, but feel that’s a daunting goal from where most of our institutions are at currently. I’m excited about how some faculty are moving away from disposable assignments to assignments that further knowledge creation and sharing, but I don’t regularly teach so this isn’t something that connects with me either.

While the open education community is much more decentralized and open source communities have some additional structures (like feature road maps and release dates) there are still some valuable lessons that can be learned.

Evergreen open source ILS community

I was an active member of the Evergreen open source ILS community in the early days and saw that as the community grew and matured that members started thinking of how new people could get involved, make valuable contributions, and create a sense of community with the shared goal of making better free and open source software for libraries. The Evergreen website now has a prominent page on how people can get involved. These activities include jumping into the IRC channel, joining the mailing lists, answering other people’s questions, writing documentation, testing code, code contributions and funding development.

The On-Ramp: Creating Collaborative Processes

I like how Jono Bacon clearly describes this as a four step process in his book The Art of Community Management (which is also CC licensed!)

  1. Identifying the on-ramp – make it clear that participation is welcome and encouraged
  2. Developing knowledge – what skills and knowledge gaps exist? How can they be bridged?
  3. Determining contributions – which areas/projects/ideas need help? What problems need fixing?
  4. Growing kudos – recognizing people’s contributions
4 steps on the on-ramp to participation: identifying the on-ramp, developing knowledge, determining contributions, growing kudos.
FIGURE 4-1. An on-ramp is a useful means of defining the different milestones in how a community member learns how to participate in your community. From page 155 of The Art of Community Management.

Implicitly I’ve felt that my participation is welcome, but I come from communities where the culture is very DIY and pitching in and doing things is valued. I’m massively extroverted and gregarious. In my experience higher ed is more structured, siloed and hierarchical than open source communities, so the open education community would benefit by making the invitation to participate clearer and more direct.

For most people in education, faculty, instructional designers, education technologists and others, identifying how to bridge a skills or knowledge gap is what we do. This is a strength of ours.

I’ve observed that leaders in the open education community receive a lot of formal and informal kudos, in the form of awards, fellowships and prestige through publishing. Recognizing the unsung heroes and the non-faculty advocates who are working in this community is also key to encouraging participation and diversity. Mary Burgess and David Porter’s closing keynote at OpenEd 2015 is a great example of raising up many individuals’ contributions for the community to acknowledge.

The third step, determining contributions, is where we need to better articulate how people can do something useful to move open education forward.

Identifying on-ramps for Open Education

I find it useful how David Wiley points out that as an advocate for Open Ed you need to make different arguments with different stakeholder groups. I’d argue that the initial steps to participation in the Open Education community look different for different people. Here’s my initial brainstorm.


Tweet a photo of your textbooks with the receipt using the hashtag #textbookbroke to join other students protesting the absurd cost of textbooks.

Find out what kind of advocacy your student union is doing around open textbooks and affordability for students.


If you don’t already know, find out the cost of the textbooks that you assigned for your courses.

See what open textbooks exist in your discipline. Check out the BC Open Textbook and OpenStax collections.

Ask one of your colleagues at your institution who is using an open textbook out for a coffee and ask them about their experience making the change.

Find out what kind of advocacy your faculty association is doing around open educational  resources.


Add open educational resources as an information item for your next Board meeting.

See where your institution ranks in terms of adoptions and student savings. Is your institution one of the top 4 in BC?


License your subject guides and presentations with a Creative Commons license and put them online so other people can reuse them. Reuse and remix other people’s CC licensed work instead of writing things from scratch.

Load the set of MARC records for the BC Open Textbooks to your library’s catalogue to improve discoverability. Kudos to BCCATS for producing high quality records making this easy.

Do an audit on a couple coursepacks and see if students are being charged again for content the library has already paid for access to. If so, reach out to those instructors and show them how to deep link to the article, if they don’t already know this.

Next level: Figure out how much people at your institution (students through textbooks, the library through subscriptions) are paying the big publishers. Depending on what databases your library licenses Wiley or Elsevier might be good candidates. Librarians can likely access a booklist through the library and get an estimate of the number of students through the Registrar’s Office.

Making it easier for more people to get involved in the open education community is critical for broadening participation and creating change.

What are some other low barrier initial steps that people can take? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you

Thank you Zak Greant for all the conversations that we’ve had about the mechanics and politics of various communities over the years.

3 thoughts on “On ramps to participation: what open education can learn from open source communities”

  1. Great points and ideas Tara. In terms of low barrier initial steps I think being an advocate on campus is a great start- engage people in conversations, host webinars, sit in on webinars or talks that are happening in and around the community. CCCOER always has great virtual events that can be broadcast http://oerconsortium.org/cccoer-webinars/. I also think starting with a workshop series in Institutions is a great way to start. The first workshop could be “Why Open?” and would provide context for why open education matters. Then the idea would be to ramp up those workshops on “How to Adopt”, ” how to adapt”, etc.. as interest begins to grow. Another great way for faculty to get involved is to review an open textbook: https://open.bccampus.ca/call-for-proposals/call-for-reviewers-2/

    and lastly— come on out to the Festival of Learning, where on June 6 and 7 we will be hosting presentations and workshops directly related to Open Education- https://open.bccampus.ca/2016/02/01/festival-of-learning/

    hope this info helps a bit!

  2. Sorry to be late to the conversation! It’s lovely to read your thank-you note at the end and to be be able to reflect exactly those sentiments back at you. 🙂

    Thinking a bit, there are a few other things that some open source communities do that might also benefit open education.

    # Modeling what “good” participation looks like.

    In some communities there is a lot of implicit modeling of what good/normative participation looks like. Experienced participants don’t just silently participate – they share their process on mailing lists, IRC channels, source code comments, commit messages, conference talks, blog posts, etc. This helps people understand not just what concrete things they can do to participate, but also helps them understand how to participate in a way that works for them and for the community.

    # Understanding how participants benefit from participating.

    Communities that have been around for a while have gotten to make a wide variety of mistakes when it comes to working with participants. Most participants have multiple motives for participating and changes to how the community works, how the project output is licensed, etc. may have serious effects on a participant’s business, career, etc. If a community understands why people participate (and that most people have multiple reasons for participating) they can govern themselves in a way that better meets this needs (or at least takes them into account.) It also makes it easier to explain the benefits of participating to new participants.

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