Why un-conference?

Image: M Goudzwaard

I’m in Whistler, British Columbia for the edX Global Forum this week. Starting in 2014, several edX partners organized a small un-conference at Boston University held a few hours before the opening reception. Each year the un-conference has grown: 12 people in Boston, 23 in Georgetown, 30 in Paris, and now 50+ in Whistler.

In each of these locations, there were much more tempting ways to spend an afternoon than hiding away from the sunlight in a windowless room with digital learning folks. I’m surprised each year that people choose to gather with colleagues rather than ski, sleep, visit a museum, or drink wine (Paris) for a couple of hours. Here is what participants have said about why they keep showing up and bringing colleagues early to participate in the un-conference.

There is a timely, participant-driven agenda. The topics chosen serve the actual people in the room, not a selection committee or an organizational agenda to give people stage time. Sages have their moments on stages, but allowing the people in the room to generate ideas that are burning for them at that moment makes the conversations relevant. It also gets everyone talking, not just one person, providing a more inclusive and diverse learning space.

A month or so before the meeting, we send out an invitation and ask people to register (at no cost), articulate their goals for attending, and identify any areas of expertise they are willing to share. This is then shared back with everyone planning to attend.

An hour before we start, facilitators write up themes which emerged from participant input on large sheets of paper. In the first portion of the un-conference, participants generate additional topics on very large post-its, and then we have a round of straw poll voting. This voting determines what topics will be included in the breakout conversations.

Disruption is not only tolerated, but encouraged. Un-conferences don’t have many rules, but one of my favorites is vote with your feet. Throughout the three hours people were coming and going to get lunch, to have quieter conversations, or to go to another meeting. When people were in the room, they were talking to each other.

One of the most commonly stated goals for attending the un-conference is to network and build relationships. If you have been part of the edX community for awhile, you probably have no problem finding someone you know to talk to or getting invited to a committee meeting. However, if you’re new here or an introvert, the un-conference can provide a space to meet a few people in small conversations around topics where you have knowledge or curiosity.

Finally, an un-conference provides a space that we work so hard to create in our digital learning spaces, a place where we are learning from each other. As we leave our mountain top meeting, we educators will need to continue to meet up in person and online so we can share practices, curiosities, and challenges.

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I want to thank my co-facilitators over the years, Romy Ruukel, Josh Kim, Diana Marian, Ella Hamonic, Shelly Upton, and John Zornig. Erin Brown from edX has been instrumental in building participant-led sessions in and around the Global Forum.

Innovation as Place and Practice

A few weeks ago, I attended the Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) Innovate conference in New Orleans. This was the second annual conference since OLC combined the conferences on blended learning and emerging technologies (ET4Online). Similar to many conferences, Innovate showcases projects and products, however increasingly invites attendees to participate in design-thinking sessions to solve big problems. I co-led one such design thinking workshop on next-gen digital learning environments (or see LearningOS).

I was looking for what themes might emerge from keynotes, lighting talks, demos, and hallway conversations. This year I found innovation to be represented in two domains, as place and as practice.

Innovation as Place

2016 must have been the year of the innovation hub. Southern New Hampshire University’s Sandbox ColLABorative where faculty and staff play (experiment, fail, dare, ideate and iterate) to make “higher education more affordable and more accessible to more people.” The University of Michigan launched an institution-wide academic innovation initiative. This brings together several innovation labs, including the Digital Innovation Greenhouse, where they bring UMich edtech seedlings from around the university and scale them up for use all across the institution. Just down the road, a new hub has opened at Michigan State University. The Hub brings open meetings, public project boards, and cross-unit team space to improve the student experience using the agile development process. No, hubs aren’t new (Georgetown’s CNDLS is one of the early hubs and has been around for 15+ years), but they are on the rise, and by next year’s Innovate conference, several big universities will have “hubbed” their innovation, learning technology, pedagogical research, and faculty development groups.

Innovation as Practice

One of my favorite spots at the OLC Innovate conference is the Technology Test Kitchen, which brings a “makerspace approach for sharing innovative tools, new media, and approaches to integrating technology.” It has become a staple at OLC’s major conferences, and I think a critical part to an engaging event.

What makes the test kitchen work is the topically-driven booths where attendees can explore a technology or technique at their own pace. I played with Twine in the ‘gamification in education’ booth, recorded a video selfie in the reflection booth, and did some improv. Yes, improv!

In Justin Lee’s Innovation Dojo, he started by leading us in some improv to “bridge the gap from learning the fundamentals of innovation to becoming confident innovators.” If you have ever been to an improv show, you are familiar with the rule of “yes. . .and” which requires each person to build on the story, hopefully in a hilarious direction.

“The snail walked into the bar. . . yes . . . .and sat down at the piano to play a little ditty . . . yes . . . and spilled her drink. . . . “

Justin and his colleagues use improv with their faculty to warm up before digging into a design process. We did a little improv with the group:

Situation: narcoleptic toll booth operators

Resources: duct tape and good hugs

You have 60 seconds to come up with as many ways to solve this problem with these resources using the “yes/and” technique with your small group. GO! The test kitchen buzzes with ideas, from taping open eyelids to creating some sort of hug bot that keep that toll booth operator awake. Some teams even challenged the premise that the toll was needed and freed the operator to be a full-time hugging professional.

I have deployed this technique with several groups, and I have yet to find anyone that has flat our refused to deploy the duct tape and hugs toward some result.

Yes, And!

We don’t have an official innovation hub at my institution (yet!), but I’m looking for and creating the places and practices of innovation in my work. I suspect that innovation hubs are sometimes created by accident, and I hope to learn more about those this year and bring this framework to OLC Innovate 2018!

Hola, Open edX

Two weeks ago I traveled to Madrid, Spain to attend the Open edX Conference, hosted this year by Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (or uc3m). Uc3m is located in a suburb just south of central Madrid and was concurrently hosting EMOOCs, the 5th annual European MOOC stakeholder meeting. As you might imagine, Open edX and EMOOCs attracted many of the same participants, which was by design.

“Why are you at Open edX?” asked one edtech company founder. Working at a U.S.-based edX partner institution, offering MOOCs on edX.org, but no open edX instance of our own, this is a great question. What benefit might an edX consortium member get from attending Open edX?

Attending Open edX, an annual gathering of the Open edX community, there is obvious benefit for developers to get together in working sessions, hallways, and over tapas at night to talk about coding, development, and aspirations for the platform. On the first day, I walked down the hall and saw a group of developers who had just claimed a hallway table as they leaned in over each others’ screens to pitch and hack new code.

Hacking in the hallway

However, for those of us mostly building courses and programs and not writing code or running instances of Open edX, there is also benefit in coming to the the Open edX Conference. As Joel Barciauskas, Engineering Manager of Open edX, said in his opening remarks, “There are so many ways to contribute to the Open edX platform that are not writing code.” As Joel said, documentation and, I’ll argue, pushing the platform forward, are also valuable roles in our xConsortium and Open edX communities.

One Platform, One Ecosystem

edX.org was founded five years ago and now has more than 11 million learners. Open edX was founded four years ago as a community of institutions and developers who are using the open-source code on their own instances. These instance might be a single institution or, in the case of France, Israel, and others, a national open edX platform. Surprisingly, Open edX instances have just as many learners as edX.org, 11 million and growing. The Open edX learner base is growing at a faster rate than edx.org, and the Open edX community will continue to influence edX code development and the broader MOOC community.

Open edX is Open

One thing that distinguishes Open edX from the edX Global Forum, which is for edX partner organizations only, is that vendors are invited and integrated into the event. The term “vendor” doesn’t quite capture their contribution. Since this is a small, start-up driven community, I prefer to think of these participants as edtech collaborators. Sure, they would love to drum up some new business, but most interactions felt to me like genuine conversations about learning and the edX platform, not a pro forma sales pitch. We need more honest exchanges between our teaching and learning professionals and the companies developing edtech. Open edX gets this right.

One of my criticisms of conferences in general is that all the concurrent sessions lead to decision fatigue, especially if your interests are broad and, like me you like to hear a lot of ideas from as many people as possible (C-FOMO, or conference fear of missing out). Open edX still has the concurrent sessions, but the organizers really walk the talk of “open” by streaming and archiving all the talks on YouTube. There is an excellent overview of the talks, presenters, and indexed YouTube links on this wiki page and the tweet-stream can be found at #OpenEdx2017.

During one session block where I was really torn about which session to attend, I attended one session and streamed another on my phone. I don’t recommend this as a great learning strategy, and a friend commented, “That is horrible for mindfulness!” I do recommend you single-task your conference, but if you are in an engaging conversation in the hallway, you should see it through and know that sessions will be there for you that night or in weeks to come.

Online Collaborators Need Face Time, and Tapas Too

As professionals working in online education, the Open edX community seems particularly adept at working together across time zones, languages, and regional differences. One thing that strikes me about the strength of their collaborations is that many of them are working together to develop the platform.

As adept as they are at long-distance relationships, the Open edX — and I dare say any — collaborators benefit from some focused time together. Time spent coding in the hallway, planning the next partner gathering on a rooftop, putting the pieces together to co-develop courses, and sharing large quantities of Jamon Iberico and Manchego. (I now severely regret not throwing out all my clothes and just stuffing my suitcase with ham and cheese for the trip home!!)

As we say in my office, “people who work together, work together.” As edX partners, we’re often working on our own courses and programs, but not necessarily with one another. That’s why I think partner collaborations on courses, programs, and community tools are so important for the consortium. I recently traveled with one of our course teams to Washington, D.C. to film several Smithsonian exhibits and scientists for an upcoming course, BiPedalism: The Science of Upright Walking. Working on a course with another institution will expose the many strengths and challenges of our consortium, and in-person events are often where these ideas are seeded and sprout.

In addition to these occasional face to face meetings, we need a similar vibrant space to exchange ideas, share wishes, and might-bes. One session at Open edX unveiled a new Kickstarter-like wiki space called Ed Xchange where edX and Open edX course designers can share practices, hacks, wishes, and, possibly, co-fund development. You can watch the recording, check out the deck, or jump into EdXchange.

Live Locally

One of the things I like about the two European hosted conferences I’ve attended is the deep connection to the host university and city. Partly out of necessity due to the lack of mega-hotels with reserved room blocks, attendees live a bit more like locals, or at least dispersed tourists. I had no problem meeting up with people for evening eats and activities, and we didn’t seem to need “the hotel bar” when we had WhatsApp. Did you know that the whole world uses WhatsApp (except for U.S. iPhone users)?

As you are planning your travel for the next year, I would recommend checking out Open edX (host university not yet announced), in addition to attending the edX Global Forum. You will certainly see some different sessions than the Global Forum, and you’ll probably get a sneak peak of an xblock being developed in the hallway.

Building Better Assessment

Photo credit: Danny Munnerley CC-BY-NC

By Erin DeSilva and Mike Goudzwaard

Does your university have an assessment center? We’re not just talking about a place to take standardized tests and final exams, but a space that supports both students and faculty in the pursuit of designing and completing better ways to measure student learning.

The recent AC&U report on assessment in higher education  finds consensus among its members that there is an increase in the use of learning outcomes in courses, a shift away from standardized tests, and new efforts to build assessments of learning that measure beyond the grade. This is an important development in advancing learning design, however this critical work needs an organizational and physical home on our campuses.

Many faculty identify a need for a place where students can take tests that provide privacy, a test reader, screen readers, and just a place to take rescheduled exams. The pinch is felt each time a test is given in class, but the classroom is only scheduled for the length of the class period, not allowing for 1.5x or 2x test time, which some students need and the institution has the responsibility to provide. Many universities have testing centers for this purpose and these student-focused centers are an important resource. However, how might we build or adapt an assessment center to support both students taking assessments and faculty designing them?

Anyone who has ever written a multiple choice question knows that this is difficult work. It has the advantage of being quite scalable (auto-graded), but is it the best measure of learning? What if instead of faculty spending hours on end writing exams in their offices or asking students to pay hundreds of dollars for a commercial test bank, faculty could come to the assessment center to –

1) learn multiple assessment techniques
2) design assessments that support their learning objectives
3) develop and improve rubrics
4) receive feedback and consultation on authentic assessment methods

Rather than the assessment center staff serving as just exam proctors, they would be collaborators, providing research-driven assessment techniques to faculty and collect feedback on the effectiveness of those assessments from students. This type of learning laboratory would allow faculty to design assessments that apply the principles of Universal Design for Learning such as multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement that have been shown to improve learning for all students. (CAST).

Many universities have an assessment officer (or office), with a focus on aligning program objectives with school objectives and gathering evidence of learning. The problem is that these experts often operate in an “accreditation bubble,” fully immersed in collecting data for institutional reporting, but not having access or bandwidth to build better assessment at the program or course level. What is needed is a space where assessment experts can use their expertise to collaborate with faculty and connect institutional efforts with courses. An assessment center could hire both pedagogical experts and student scholars to work side by side with faculty to design authentic assessments, rubrics, project-based evidence of learning, and experiential assessments. This might just shift the perception of assessment in the minds of faculty and students, moving from a mandated interruption into something deeply connected to the learning process.

It’s time for students and faculty to come out of their dorm rooms and offices and connect with assessment experts, have a cup of coffee and together build better assessments for and of learning.
Assess early, often, better, and among friends. 

The Value Problem in Digital Badging

The Value Problem in Digital Badging  was originally published as a guest post on Joshua Kim’s Inside Higher Ed blog, Technology and Learning on January 5, 2015.

by Mike Goudzwaard (http://mgoudz.com/bio) and Michael Evans (http://michaelsevans.com/)
Digital badges are gaining traction in higher education. A learner might earn one badge in a traditional university classroom, another for participating in a MOOC, and yet another from a professional organization for completing a training course.

But now what?

In theory, badging empowers learners to self-direct their lifelong learning by combining badges from different sources and exchanging them for more advanced badges, credentials, certifcations, or degrees.
In practice, this rarely happens. Most of the effort in badge ecosystems involves issuing and collecting, and most of the issuing happens within institutions like universities, museums, and professional organizations. The current situation is that digital badges are relatively easy to collect and display, but relatively diffcult to assess and exchange, especially across different organizations and institutions.
The core problem is what we call the “value problem” in badging. Which badges are valuable? Who recognizes and accepts them in exchange for more advanced badges, credentials, certifications, or degrees? What badges will actually help you progress toward lifelong learning goals? How can one organization determine the value of a badge issued by a different organization?
The typical response to the value problem is that badges, unlike grades or other traditional credentials, carry metadata that links to evidence of the underlying accomplishments and skills. You can value a badge by looking at the attached evidence.
Badges do carry evidence. But in practical terms, evidence takes time to assess, and time does not scale. Few evaluators, whether they are employers making a decision about accepting a credential, organizations making a decision about issuing a more advanced certi cation, or learners seeking to nd the right path to advance their
sou
learning goals, will be able to spend additional time on badge assessment without signi cant extra cost.

Evaluators need a better, faster way to value digital badges. Until this value problem is solved, the potential for digital badging in higher education will be limited.
To address the value problem, we recently started a project called Open Badge Exchange (archived version) designed to provide a public, distributed, and shared badge transaction ledger. When badges are successfully exchanged for other badges or digital credentials, a transaction record is written to the shared ledger. Anyone can look up successful transactions for a given badge in the shared ledger, drastically reducing the evaluation time required for digital badges that have previously been exchanged.

Say, for example, that a university accepts a badge in partial exchange for a certification credential. Learners seeking that certification credential can see the successful transaction and choose to pursue the badge that is consistent with their learning goals. Likewise, peer institutions can see the successful transaction and choose to accept the badge into their own credential program with confidence that it has value.

Making transactions visible also creates entrepreneurial opportunities in the assessment of badges. The recent explosion of MOOCs, the rising cost of traditional degrees, and the need to build skills in a rapidly changing workplace challenges universities to “unbundle” the degree into agile learning experiences. But bite-sized learning on its own lacks the narrative of a traditional degree program. Opportunities exist for a trusted institution to bundle and credential a learner-driven, synthesized narrative of lifelong learning achievements. (See, for example, the “credentials for your career” offered by Deakin University sponsored startup DeakinDigital.

Digital badges can empower lifelong learners, but they are most powerful when they connect learning opportunities to valued recognition. Open Badge Exchange seeks to address the value problem by opening up the badge economy, connecting learning opportunities to the assessment of digital badges, and supporting issuing of credentials based on actual exchanges. Whatever the ultimate solution looks like, solving the value problem requires connecting the learners and institutions that give digital badges their value, allowing all participants to collaborate based on real-world information.

What do you think about the idea of Open Badge Exchange?

How is your institution addressing the value problem in digital badging?

Would you participate in Open Badge Exchange?

What do you think is the right way to value digital badges?

How might badge value rankings help learners to set and achieve their learning goals?