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.

Lost Post-it in Heathrow security line.

Innovation as Place and Practice

Image by S Lowe CC-BY-ND

The use of the word innovation in English text is on the rise according to Google’s ngram, and there is no sign that its use will level off anytime soon. As Emma Green points out in “Innovation: The History of a Buzzword” (Atlantic, 2013), innovation has not always had positive connotations. In the 19th century, it was much better to invent than innovate. Rolin Moe explores this in detail in, Defining (Adj. or V.) Innovation.

I 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!

Building Better Assessment

Photo by Danny Munnerley (Flickr) CC-BY-NC-SA

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.

Read or Just Talk? A Reflection on Conference Presentations


This week I attended the Learning with MOOCs III conference at Penn. I noticed two primary presentation styles used here and at most conferences:

 1) READ: stand behind the podium and read your paper (or slides)

 2) JUST TALK: talk to and with the audience about your paper, research, or project

I have asked colleagues, particularly those in the humanities, about the practice of READing papers at their conferences. Reading papers is a time-honored practice in academia, and one problem of a gathering of JUST TALK presentations is that it is difficult to determine rigor. Additionally, if the proceedings are published, there may be less written evidence about what actually happened during the presentation.

The READ or JUST TALK delivery conundrum isn’t limited to conferences. This weekend I’ll be officiating a wedding ceremony of two friends. I will be READing my remarks. My friends have carefully written the ceremony text, and to honor their work I will read rather than clumsily summarize their liturgy. Back in academia, I all but insist that faculty script and READ their lectures from a teleprompter when recording videos for a MOOC. We have a short amount of time to communicate key ideas, and it’s just too expensive in terms of time and energy to be trying out word choice with the cameras rolling. MOOCs are also a team sport, so scripting allows for collaboration among the learning team and for others to have input into the text before the editing suite.

There certainly is a place to READ text, and maybe it comes down to unilateral or multilateral communication. Researchers and scholars rely on the editing and peer review process to write, revise, and publish rigorous papers. That happens before or after the conference. What I want out of a conference is to embrace the moments in which we are all face to face in the same room as opportunities to unpack the paper. Have you ever attended a class where the teacher stood up at the lectern and READ aloud the assigned reading for that day? I hope not, because that would be an expensive waste of time.

I must admit that I have a bias on which method I prefer as a presenter, and as an audience member. I’m solidly in the JUST TALK camp. I recognize that this has roots in my comfort of speaking to groups, is accepted in my field that embraces and encourages disrupting norms, and is a privilege I have in presenting in my first language.

Here is my charge to presenters. At the conference, tell us something we can’t find in the paper. Go meta – what was it like to do this research, collaborate with others; tell us where you failed or met challenges, and leave room for people in the room to interact with you, your content, and each other. Your presentation should be a “value add” to your paper, not just your paper in another form. As for the published proceedings, publish various types of evidence, including papers, slide decks, videos, or web links. Presenters, the next time you walk into the session room, take advantage of the presence of your colleagues. Make us put our email and Twitter aside, listen to your ideas, and TALK with each other.

Girls Who Code at LWMOOC3

Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code kicks off Learing with MOOCs III and Penn. Thank you to Reshma and the organizing committee for an inspiring and provocative opening keynote. Here’s my attempt to capture some of the talk in a sketchnote.

Girls Who Code Sketchnote

The Trouble With Learning Management

Bogged Down Scooter

Originally published in EdSurge on April 8, 2016

By Adam Finkelstein and Mike Goudzwaard

If you’ve been an instructor or a student in a class in higher education in the last 10 years, you probably used a learning-management system or LMS. There are plenty to choose from, including Blackboard, Canvas, Sakai, Moodle and D2L. Many of these systems started as small, nimble startups but have grown into large “learning-technology” organizations as they have matured.

One of the biggest challenges with LMSs is that they are designed to support everything. From content organization to discussions, assessments, lecture capture and synchronous learning. This results in an overbuilt system with too many features that you may never use. It’s an 80/20 problem: You need 20 percent of the features, such as a standard webspace to point your students to a roster and gradebook, but 80 percent of your LMS just gets in the way.

Is an online synchronous chat room needed for a face-to-face class? Most instructors just leave that chat room in the menu, unsure of its purpose. The result is that this bloated software locks learning into restricted choices between suboptimal versions of features. There are many options for interactivity not included in your LMS you could choose, but the defaults are still there getting in the way. The problem with the LMS is the “M,” management. Learning software should facilitate learning, not manage it. Learning management reduces teachers to middle-managers between students and the registrar.

Micromanagement Migraine

Most institutions will change from one LMS to another specifically to improve upon their learning tools. At most institutions, a switch to a new LMS provokes two reactions: 1) it’s better than the old one, and 2) it’s more complicated and not intuitive. These reactions are both correct. Sure, software built from the ground up will incorporate new features that the old LMS scrambles to shoehorn in with software patches, but both are overbuilt and lock in choices about how learning should happen.

Michael Feldstein explains why our institutions keep repeating the same choices as a procurement problem in the recent piece,“What’s Really to Blame for the Failures of Our Learning-Management Systems.” We have been through a couple of LMS migrations at different institutions and see what Feldstein describes: the committee evaluation and procurement process drive the discussions and decisions of which bloated LMS to buy next. That’s why the emphasis on a learning-management system needs to go.

All LMSs, both new and old, are overbuilt and lock learning into a complex suite of features that administrators and teachers spend too much time trying to figure out, customize and disable. In“What’s Next for the LMS?” Brown, Dehoney and Millichap offer a framework of five primary functions of an LMS and call for a “Lego approach” where components can be fit together and pulled apart to customize the LMS. They are on the right path, but what we really need is not another LMS, but something very different. We need to focus on three features: agility, simplicity and interoperability and ultimately form a new learning operating system.

Trim the Fat

In a recent post, The LMS of the Future is Yours, Mike identifies three features and principles of openness (on the software side) that your next LMS should have. With further discussion, we both propose that your LearningOS just needs two features: a roster and analytics. That’s it.

The roster is the connection to the student information system (SIS). It manages roles and permissions of everything in the online environment. This is a function that every course uses, even if it isn’t currently using the LMS for anything else.

Analytics happen in two domains. First, what has happened, as in time that students spend on tasks, clicks and downloads. Second, what does it mean for a student’s learning, as both formative and summative assessment. This has traditionally been the role of the gradebook, however most lock assessment into letters, points, percentages and maybe a few comments. Analytics will require an API (application program interface) to connect the data from the LearningOS to dashboards and transcripts, much like what is being proposed by Caliper. The Caliper Framework suggests a standard method to capture, display and transport learning analytics.

All of the other tools in the LearningOS are plugins. The good news is there is already a mature standard for this, Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). This means that all the learning tools out there designed to support LTI already work with your LearningOS. Projects like EduAppCenter already provide over 200 tools that can be implemented using LTI.

How is this different than adding plugins to your existing LMS? LearningOS promotes depth rather than breadth by starting with the basics and allowing for teachers and students to plug in the rest.

Are there concerns? Absolutely. Are providers really offering LTI-compliant environments? Are extensions really LTI-compliant or just “mostly compliant”? Is data safeguarded? How will support work in a multi-tool environment? These are among the challenges that institutions will face with the LearningOS.

Some might wonder if LMS providers would support external plugins when they’ve been creating competing toolsets. By allowing for specialization, providers can accommodate for best-of-breed tools built by people with expertise in these specific capabilities, instead of growing a feature set until the platform becomes bloated and static. This move also puts the choices back in the hands of the pedagogs. Don’t want features from one tool? Find another that is compatible and works better for your learning environment. This would ultimately drive greater adoption at an institution, where instructors have greater flexibility of tool choices within an interoperable framework.

LearningOS isn’t just your current LMS stripped down, it’s a new approach that favors well curated plug-ins over vanilla features suites. LearningOS will handle the learning in your classes and probably more, depending what teachers, students and institutions choose.

Mike Goudzwaard (@mgoudz)is is the lead instructional designer for Digital Learning Initiatives at Dartmouth College. Adam Finkelstein (@adamfdotnet) is an educational developer Teaching and Learning Services at McGill University.

Live Blogging Mass Media and Democracy


This post was originally published on Teaching Out Loud on April 2, 2016.

I’m live blogging the fourth meeting of Mass Media and Democracy (FILM 7) from the Berry Innovation Classroom. I walked in a couple of minutes late to find ten students sitting in a semicircle of tables and six joining me in the “second row” behind them at the team stations.

My position in “the back” with several other students might be a commentary on the democracy playing out in this classroom. The moment I walked in, students were voting on which posters they want to print with Amos Kennedy in the Book Arts workshop next week. Yes, even people in “the back,” including me were given a vote.

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Why Wikity

Bit Rot Saudade

This post was originally published on Teaching Out Loud on March 25, 2016.

This spring I’m working with Michael Evans on his Film 7: Mass Media and Democracy course. The “sevens” (i.e. Film 7) are the last in a series of required writing courses at Dartmouth. Each “seven” lives within a specific department and explores writing from a particularly disciplinary lens. As part of the writing in Film 7 students will be producing F7, an online journal exploring mass media and democracy. Students will also enage with learning experiences from printing with moveable type in the Book Arts Workshop, printing posters with activist Amos Paul Kennedy Jr (funded through the Dartmouth Experiential Learning Initiative), and of course drafting, editing, and revising each others’ work on Wikity.

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(e)Portfolios and Digital Badges: A Curated Learning Journey

I just finished my session at Learning Solutions 2016 in Orlando. I was so impressed with attendees who designed badges during the workshop portion and shared out their work. I hope to write more about getting to know a new conference, learning the lingo, collaborating across distance, and leading an active learning session. For now, I’ll share the Storify below.

Slides can be found and downloaded here.