Inspired by a New Generation of Energetic, Thoughtful Leaders at Big Ideas Fest

Guest Blogger

Barbara Illowsky, PhD

I recently had the great privilege and honor to share some stories about my role in promoting Open Educational Resources (OER) during the recent Big Ideas Fest in Washington, D.C. This year’s theme was “Democratizing Access to Education.” My leadership and efforts in OER are fueled by my passion that ALL students have the right to succeed. Having access to course materials by the first day of the class is a social justice issue that I can influence.

During the Action Collaborative Storytelling Panel, I shared how creating and switching to OER supported my students. One of the stories I told was of my student who was using Introductory Statistics from OpenStax that I had co-authored. She told me that because the textbook was free, for the first time ever she “didn’t feel like the poor kid for 50 minutes a day” (our class period). This is significant because data have shown that that De Anza College alone, a community college in California, students have saved over 3 million dollars because most of our faculty teach statistics with this open textbook.

I had attended Big Ideas Fest several years ago as an invited participant, before “design thinking” had become ubiquitous in education, or at least before I had understood and embraced it. This time, I was invited as an expert panelist on Open Educational Resources. I also had the luxury of participating in the rest of the conference, which I cherished.

My first impression, one that has stayed with me since the conference is the overall enthusiasm and activism of the group of young, energetic, and thoughtful leaders who attended. Normally, I consider young adults as “upcoming leaders.” In this case, what was so clear to see is that they already are leaders. They instilled within me a great sense of hope for the future. For example, I shared the panel with the brilliant Tamir Harper. Tamir grew up in the urban Philadelphia school system. While in high school, he met his first black male teacher, which made him realize that he too could become an educator. That experience inspired Tamir to co-found UrbEd Inc at the end of his sophomore year of high school. This remarkable organization is a “student-led, student-oriented nonprofit that advocates for a quality and efficient urban education.” As Tamir was speaking, I saw so many people busily reviewing his website and developing their “to do” list on how to incorporate his activism techniques into their own projects.

I also sat mesmerized by the enthusiastic Maya Smith who spreads kindness. Maya is the Executive Director at Born This Way Foundation, founded by Lady Gaga and her mother. This novel foundation is “committed to supporting the wellness of young people and empowering them to create a kinder and braver world”, using research as its basis.

Throughout the conference, attendees used action collaborative methods to devise, revise and finalize plans for our initiatives and projects. ISKME’s facilitators guided us through this four-stage workshop. Together in our small groups we researched, designed, prototyped, and evaluated our innovation and solutions based on the design challenge: How might we develop inclusive access to high-quality teaching and learning? Again, I was quite impressed by the enthusiasm, expertise, and innovation of the participants. I applaud Dr. Lisa Petrides, Founder and CEO of ISKME, along with her team, in selecting the variety of national leaders and advocates who improve the lives of our young generation. With this body of leaders, our future education is most certainly in great hands.


Dr. Barbara Illowsky is the co-author of “Introductory Statistics”, “Introductory Business Statistics”, and “Collaborative Statistics” published by OpenStax of Rice University. She received the 2013 International ACE Educator Award by the Open Education Consortium. Dr. Illowsky has been a faculty member at De Anza College in CA since 1989. This year, she is the first OER & Innovation Fellow by the Michelson 20MM Foundation, created to advocate and promote large-scale OER adoption in CA’s public higher education systems.

January 14, 2019