Getting to Know Open: A Grad Student’s Experiences at OpenCon 2015 in Brussels

As part of Open Access Week, the University Libraries and the Graduate School offered a travel scholarship to OpenCon 2015, a conference for early career researchers on open access, open data, and open educational resources. From a pool of many strong essay applications, we chose Sreyoshi Bhaduri, a Ph.D. student in engineering education. Sreyoshi attended the conference in Brussels, Belgium on November 13-16, and sent the report below. Be sure to check out the OpenCon 2015 highlights.

Sreyoshi Bhaduri writes:

Towards the beginning of Fall 2015, the graduate listserv announced an opportunity for a graduate student to travel to Brussels for a conference on Open initiatives. As a doctoral student starting my second year at the department of Engineering Education, I had been involved with some open education related citizen science endeavors, but was very new to the world of Open. I had always been fascinated with the idea of Open Access and Open Data, which can be understood as “unrestricted access and unrestricted reuse” of data, however I had never really delved deep into understanding and appreciating Open initiatives. Recognizing this as a perfect opportunity to learn more, I applied, detailing my interest in Open Education and eagerness to learn about the same. Application submitted, I promptly forgot about the scholarship, as course-work and exams and deadlines engulfed and occupied all thoughts and activities. On a busy evening in September as I sat finishing an assignment, I received an email from the University Library informing me that I had been selected for the scholarship. I was to represent Virginia Tech at the OpenCon 2015 in Brussels, scheduled for November 2015. This was the start of my journey to getting to know the Open community, and I slowly become an advocate for all things Open.

The message from the University Libraries notifying me of the travel scholarship was followed by an email from the OpenCon organizers, who warmly welcomed me to join their community. I was directed to a pre-OpenCon webcast, which helped me understand the basics of Open Data, Open Access, and Open Education. I was also asked to join in on a community call, and introduce myself to other attendees. The first thing that I realized about the Open community was that it is comprised of a group of very passionate and dedicated professionals who are determined to build a case for Open initiatives. The next month passed by, as I prepped to attend OpenCon, learning more and more about the community, the cause, and the rationale behind Open. I slowly grew to appreciate and understand the Case for Open, and was eagerly looking forward to exchanging my ideas at the conference.

Roaming Brussels
So we networked and roamed about the streets of Brussels. This is posing with the Manekken Pis.

The day of the flight soon arrived, and after 17 hours of traveling from Roanoke to Charlotte and then to Philadelphia, I finally made it to Brussels. On the flight, I made a few friends who were also traveling to OpenCon. The great thing about OpenCon is that the organizers ensured that most attendees had half a day to themselves before the start of the conference, to familiarize with each other and network. I met a bunch of young professionals and grad students who were doing wonderful work in different disciplines, and learned how some of their work related to Open endeavors.

Days One and Two of the conference comprised various sessions. We had live tweeting (#OpenCon2015) and broadcast of the sessions, so that the larger Open community which wasn’t able to join in physically, was able to contribute in the discussions. Day One had also been the day we had woken up to the news of the France terror attacks. A poignant remark by one of the attendees, who was from Paris, on the importance of Open Education, was that Open resources fights the barriers of access and divide, which in turn seeks to eradicate disillusionment and hence fights terror. This remark truly spoke to me, and I was inspired by the commitment and grit shown by the attendees, especially those from France.

OpenCon, Hotel Thon
Sneak peek at the sessions at Hotel Thon conference center

On Day Two we had the Unconference sessions. I was totally new to the idea of Un-conferencing, but found it a very useful brainstorming and networking session. I recommend organizers of seminars and educational events to have similar sessions at all conferences. During this session, we grouped with people with similar interests and discussed ideas for implementation in “real-world” scenarios. For instance, in the group I un-conferenced with, we discussed the role of Open in academia. We discussed how difficult it is to convince faculty who are probably tenure track, at R-1 institutions, to publish in Open journals, since a large part of their tenure process depends on publication impact. Our conversations then drifted to the subject of impact factors, and how a single number could not truly capture the essence of a research publication. The second evening ended early, with a reception dinner, and more networking.

Day Three was the most anticipated day. This was Advocacy Day. Basically, we formed teams of 8 individuals and we met with Members of the European Union, and discussed Open initiatives. This was by far the best experience I had at the conference. It was very interesting to meet with and learn from members of the EU, and discuss the challenges of implementing Open policies.

EU open advocacy
All dressed up for Advocacy Day

Following the meeting with the MPs, we attended the last event for OpenCon, the final reception dinner, in which we had the opportunity to interact with the founder of Wikipedia: Jimmy Wales. Wales talked to the gathering about the importance of Open Education, and of inspiring early career professionals to take up causes pertaining to Open initiatives after the conference.

The conference was only three days, short but packed with information and activities. I had read up about the conference, before attending it, and had anticipated meeting talented and passionate individuals; but the clockwork precision of the management, the energy of the attendees, and the warmth of the community; truly inspired me to learn more and contribute more to the cause. I would definitely recommend learning about, participating in, and potentially even attending Open community events, for all students and early professionals. I would further urge readers to contribute to your immediate academic communities in Open endeavors. The University Libraries at Virginia Tech, for instance, does a fantastic job of making available resources for graduate students, researchers, and faculty to learn about and publish in Open channels. Over time, I have come to view Open as a part of my identity as a graduate student. I believe each one of us should commit to making our research publications easily accessible by everyone. I believe I was truly lucky to have been selected for OpenCon 2015, I learnt so many new things, met some wonderful spirited individuals, am associated with some great work, and hope to continue to advocate for Open in the future.

OpenCon t-shirt
OpenCon 2015 Memories
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About Philip Young

Philip Young is Scholarly Communication Librarian at Virginia Tech where he supports outreach about open access, copyright/open licensing, open data, ORCID, and metrics/altmetrics.
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