Michael Goudzwaard

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.

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!