Posts in "Indie EdTech"

Some Visual Thinkery

I’ve followed Bryan Mathers and his Visual Thinkery work from afar for a little bit. I honestly don’t know the first time that I ran across Bryan’s work but I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetic and focus on open. In fact, I currently have two stickers on my laptop that he designed including one from Audrey Watters and Hack Education:

Bryan has also been integral in helping Jim Groom think through Reclaim Hosting as an independent record shop; part of which was reworking the Flaming Lips cover of Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots cover for our OU Create project:

Yoshimi Create

So when I saw there was an opportunity to not only support Bryan but grab a collection of stickers, I was quite excited.  Special thanks to Alan Levine for bumping the crowdfunding project back up in my stream.

I supported his Visual Stickery Indiegogo at the £50 level today. I’m fairly used to supporting little art projects here and there (one of my favorite things to do is do an advanced search on Kickstarter by location and just fund local artists) and not receiving anything for months (or possibly at all). But apparently part of my package was my own custom drawing, which I wasn’t even aware of AND Bryan did in a matter of hours.

I immediately started to think about how I could put this image to good use. I’ve had a comic book caricature of myself I purchased for five bucks on Fiverr for a little bit and felt it was about time to stick something else there. I took Bryan’s pen drawing and quickly ran it through Adobe Illustrator’s Image Trace tool to clean up the lines a bit.


Then I swapped out the now messy version of his signature for a cleaner version and stuck it at the top of the ol’ blog:


Thanks Bryan for the doodle and thanks for what you do! To everybody else, please consider supporting Bryan and any independent artist at whatever level you can.

Searching for Student Voices at #OpenEd16

I’m currently on a plane headed back to Oklahoma from OpenEd16. OpenEd brought the end of my pause from social media and a rejuvenation thanks to fellow attendees. Over the two OpenEd’s I’ve attended, Vancouver and now Richmond, the community has brought out the best of me and I deeply appreciate that.

The last activity that I participated in at the conference was facilitating a student panel on March’s Indie EdTech gathering and Indie EdTech projects including BYU’s APIs, Georgetown’s HowToCollege, and the EdSurge Independent, all of which seek to increase student agency. As Erika Bullock has previous said about the Indie EdTech conversation:

The room was full of professors, administrators, undergrad and grad students, techies, activists, entrepreneurs, and the conversations we had were engaging and challenging because of the many voices contributing throughout the weekend.

One thing I deeply appreciated about OpenEd this year was the student experience being at the center of the keynotes. Gardner Campbell focused on learning, insight, awe, and wonder. Sara Goldrick-Rab spoke about how the costs for education are simply too high, our financial aid systems are too complex/not meeting needs leading students to work multiple jobs, drop classes, and often live without adequate housing and food.

Both keynotes struck me in very different ways. Gardner took me on a journey of thinking what is possible in learning through struggle and insight. Sara was frankly a gut punch. I left her talk feeling helpless. And then I started to look around only to realize that the very voices that I would hope we could see amplified through open education simply aren’t represented in our conversations.

I’ve spent the last few months occasionally working alongsisde–not above–students. The HowToCollege project brought me to Georgetown for a couple of weeks this summer where I worked with Erika Bullock. Andrew Rikard and I started (and stopped) producing a podcast. Both attended the IndieEdTech gathering last March.

As I was attending a session that was led by my colleagues John Stewart and Keegan Long-Wheeler on gamified faculty learning communities (GOBLIN), an interesting question was asked about how you could possibly develop games at the quality level of the video games “are students are used to playing and expect” without spending millions of dollars on graphics.

A couple of agreeing questions trickled in. And then from the back of the room Erika answered the question by saying that she had a class project where they created games out of pen and paper based off of film narratives as a class assignment.

My my, how far off we can get. Video games ONLY if we can make them with EA Sports-level graphics that can be viewed on a virtual reality headset. But this happens so often because so often we put words in the mouths of students. Students only want virtual reality right? Because native!

But I digress. Unfortunately, this was the first I had heard a student at least identify as a student and give a perspective.

In fact, when Erika first arrived, we were grabbing lunch and she looked at me and said “Are their any other undergraduates here at all?” My guess is there were but we didn’t give them enough space alongside are conversations about open pedagogy (teaching) and textbooks (which, let’s be honest, starts with faculty).

By the way, I’ve come to recognize these more by hearing colleagues like Andrew Rikard advocate for this. It’s worth too recognizing the way he has opened many people’s eyes, including mine, to student voice and #stuvoice.

How could we partner with students to begin to tackle the very clear problems that Sara laid out about higher education? Where are they at our conferences? Where is their voice in our conversation?

So I want to press the panic button immediately. Let’s design course materials (I really hate to call what she does a textbook) alongside our students like Robin DeRosa is doing. Let’s take all the data about our students that we are so preciously holding onto and put it in the public for students and others to build on top of like BYU is doing. Let’s give them spaces to house their own data and build digital identities like Domains of One’s Own. Let’s fund student-developed projects like the mentorship platform project Erika is leading. Let’s have students have cross-institutional discourse about higher education like Andrew Rikard is doing with the EdSurge Independent. Let’s submit proposals so that we can present alongside our students. I promise. It’s the most rewarding presentation you’ll ever give.

Last, let’s stop treating them like lower tied citizens of our community and let’s treat them like equals. Because they deserve it. Let’s recognize how we are minimizing their voice in our conversations. And then let’s fix it.

DiscPress – A Vinyl WordPress Plugin

In March, I had mentioned wanting to sync my Discogs record collection with my domain. Then Tom Woodward built a WordPress plugin that essentially did that. Because he is Tom Woodward.

The plugin Tom built pulled the metadata of each record into the record collection into a Google Spreadsheet and then the plugin pulled the information from the sheet into a custom post type. For more, read Tom’s post on the technicalities.

This was a big leap though it had some reasonable limitations. For instance, you had to manually pull the records through a Google Script. Also Wordpress didn’t quite know what records already existed and which were new, so it was a bit messy when you tried to update your collection, usually syncing records two or three times.

Then today I got a blog comment from Andrea Facheris says that Discogs WordPress plugin, called DiscPress, has been released to work directly with the Discogs API.

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 1.09.17 PM.png

From the looks of it, it appears that the plugin went live a couple of weeks ago as someone recently posted the release on the Discogs forum:

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 1.13.41 PM.png

I fired up a new site to test it out and you can see it at

The first thing I noticed about the plugin is that, functionally, what is does is HIGHLY similar to Tom’s version without the Google Script/Spreadsheet middle man. It, too, creates a custom post type called “Records” and then pulls in the record meta data as a custom field. As a visual, I’m posting what the meta data for Sam Means’ 10 Songs record looks like on both versions of the plugin:

Tom’s plugin

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 1.16.46 PM.png

Discpress plugin

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 1.17.25 PM.png

Nearly the same data is being pulled except Tom’s pulls the year release (which I really like) and the Discpress pulls the release ID and the album artwork thumbnail. I’m not 100% certain, but you have to think that the work Tom did was highly influencial on this product. So great to see how someone  (again, I think) took the foundation he laid, built it out, and got it in the WordPress Plugin Directory.

The thumbnail is a really nice touch and something I really like (I had to manually pull them in on Tom’s version) but 150x150px just aren’t just high quality enough to display very well on the site, at least for my taste.

Screen Shot 2016-10-20 at 1.24.24 PM.png

The other major is that while it creates the custom post type, the permalink creates a 404 error and so you can’t visually see the details in any way that’s publicly consumable, which makes the plugin virtually unusable in it’s current state. (This has been fixed. Thanks Andrea for your recommendation here.)

But, I will say, I really LOVE how you can directly interact with the API from within WordPress and sync everything up automatically. This is a big improvement to the original project.



I’ll say that, for now, I’ll stick with Tom’s version but I’m excited to see if this one develops any further. But, beyond my neediness, these are the types of projects I’m really interested in. I now have a local copy of all the data that I’ve inserted into the Discogs community. I get to own and display that data in a highly flexible manner. We live in a world where these type of communities sprout up and then shut down all the time, so a tool like this, or Martin Hawksey’s Twitter Archive on Github Pages tool, make it easier for me to grab my data and secure it somewhere as my own personal historical record; some that means a lot to me. Tack on the domain as a piece of infrastructure to unify one’s sprawling personal data collection, and you can quickly see how I would get excited.

At some point, I’ll write more on this, but it does have me thinking again about edtech, student data, and how we build ways in which students can keep the data of their work they do while in school. If anyone has any examples, I’d love to see what tools are out there that allow students to tap into the applications API and extract that data into a usable form. My educated guess is that there are few.


In March, I had the opportunity to host the IndieEdTech gathering with Eddie Maloney of Georgetown and Kristen Eschelman at her place at Davidson College. As I wrote then, the gathering was focused on a design sprint in small teams around personal APIs. Led by the nudging of Audrey Watters, my team’s idea focused around how do we focus on a redistribution of power to students by giving them an online community guided and nurtured by students; a space where a student could ask both what seemed like common knowledge to community insiders as well as some of life’s more complex questions. This sparked Erika Bullock, a English junior at Georgetown College, to sketch out an idea of a community platform focused around both giving and receiving.

I think it’s safe to say that we were all proud of the idea and thought it could really add some value to any institutional community. Quite honestly, I think we all also felt relieved to come up with anything after struggling for most of the idea to articulate much of anything.

I left Davidson with an itch to try to flesh out the idea a little further but with no real expectation of having the time or space to do so. Luckily, Kristen and Eddie are both incredibly supportive individuals and Eddie has a very motivated student in Erika.

Eddie opened up both his office and team as resources for working on a prototype that we could start to put in front of students to gather some feedback. That led to this week where Kristen and I came up to DC to work Marie Selvanadin, Bill Garr, and Yong Lee, three of the developers in Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). One of the highlights of this week was getting to work with the CNDLS team + Kristen as it’s a real privilege to see how other similar organizations work in action, particularly one like CNDLS which has been built and nurtured over the last fifteen-or-so years and works on a number of projects that are particularly intriguiging. I was thankful for both the developers and the other team members (Yianna Vovides, Brian Boston, Maggie Debelius, Randy Bass) who joined us as well for conversations on both this idea and Domain of One’s Own initiatives.

After spending Tuesday chatting about several different angles of the platform, I spent Wednesday morning in the Georgetown library to work on a landing page mockup in Photoshop. While I still get to teach PS, I actually rarely touch it less and less as my role becomes increasingly administrative. So easing back into Photoshop felt like putting on an old jacket you found packed away.


No matter what title I stick after my name, I still wear the “artist” moniker quite proudly. At my core, I love getting the opportunity to create art and much of this kind of work fortunately still feels like it. When I was still in high school, I built a website with a guy in my town who was most likely ten years my senior. I remember asking him why he didn’t do web development for living and he gave me the advice of never making my hobby my primary occupation. I am still unsure as to whether that was necessarily good or bad advice, but I certainly respected it enough at the time to spend college and beyond struggling with the tension of professionalizing myself. Inevitably, I studied advertising and journalism as it seemed to offer a little of both.

All of that is to say I enjoy injecting a few creative ventures into my life every once in awhile. As Louis Armstrong said, “Musicians don’t retire; they stop when there’s no more music in them,” and I believe there’s still music in me.

Anyway, so there I am sitting in a suspiciously empty library. I had already decided that I would use Bootstrap as a common framework that we could do both design and development. I remembered that I had been really impressed with the Flat UI kit from Designmodo that I used for OU Create to bring the login box to the landing page.

I grabbed the free version of the UI kit and began to design what had come to my head based of the conversations the team had the last day. Here’s a look at the where that design is as of today:


Working title “HowToGeorgetown”: the idea is that this page is focused primarily on getting students questions the opportunity to ask questions as quickly as possible. A big question box is calling their name out, as well as a way for them to tag questions, indicate the question’s difficulty (more on that later), ask it anonymous, and a request a “meetup” if they feel there question better suits an “offline” dialogue, which is a large part of the platform; how can we create a space that allows students to ask/answer questions efficiently online as well as encourages one-on-one conversations. A fully filled out home page might look like this:


I also mocked up a couple other pages including a single question page and a profile page:



From our initial round of feedback, the difficulty indicator seems to really throw students off so I’m not quite sure how long that will stay. But the purpose it was to decipher what may require a student-to-student meetup with the thought that we would see ultimate success of an application being peer mentorship.

One of the main focuses of this project was to create something small that could run on a Domain of One’s Own server, so I’m hopeful that whatever gets created continues to be openly documented, discussed, and shared. I’ll end with noting that there are the majority of open questions lie beyond the technology:

  • Does the notion of learning the “hacks” of your institution work if the institution hosts the application or is that fundamentally going to detract users?
  • How do you build the appropriate culture (self-governing, self-moderating)?
  • What (if anything) needs to be in place when self governance breaks down?
  • Are we just creating things that already exist (Quora, Reddit) and slapping an edu face on it?
  • Are we doing too much by focusing on a web app instead of a mobile app or texting service?

And these don’t even get into even foundational questions like how something like this would get off the ground or could even be sustainable. These, and several other questions, are certainly worth exploring further in the event that students even want to use it. Luckily, Kristen is going to be contributing by having a class at Davidson run a prototype user testing this fall, and hopefully we’ll be able to learn a lot there.

But before we go too far down the rabbit hole of how something like this becomes a real thing, I should say that I’m not quite sure that’s the most important topic. Currently, I am highly more interested in thought experiments than I am in startups. And, personally speaking, spending a week walking through this process has been highly valuable for me. It’s helped me build empathy to both the needs of users and to developers of technology. Putting clothes on a concept is awfully taxing work. Opening up your concept to potential users is also quite nerve racking.

Publicly publishing about one’s doodles (meaning writing this post) is even moreso nerve racking knowing that there’s a broader opportunity for criticism on which is mostly conceptual but appears real because one can see a physical manifiestions of that concept.

But nonetheless I’d encourage folks that may exist in team frameworks like mine to further explore these design thinking approaches if only to get yourself asking both the smallest details (UI) and broadest questions (For us: What would nurture a healthy community? Is technology even necessary?). You might even ask it on a HowToCollege platform someday. :-)

The Vinyl Subdomain

Let me just start by saying we live in a really cool time in history. :) I published a blog post on Saturday evening about how I noticed that had an API and how COOL it would be to have a site that pulled in all the data. I keep an online record of my vinyl collection there so it seemed like a half-decent idea to see if my data could be pulled into a site that I control. Well, I’m proud to say that not even 48 hours later and it exists (head over to if you would like to see it) thanks MOSTLY to Tom Woodward who shall be given any vinyl he’s ever wanted.

For the majority of the technical specs, I recommend that you read Tom’s blog where he brilliantly details how he parsed the API into a Google Spreadsheet and then turned it into a WordPress Custom Post Type. He’s shared both the script and the plugin.

What this means for poor little me who knows nothing about anything APIs is that I do what Tom tells me to do and then magically this happens in my WordPress instance:

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 3.07.41 PM.png

It also looks like Tom has added all the details that are attached to the record as Custom Fields within the Custom Post Type:

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 3.08.20 PM

So there you have it. I’ve officially reclaimed my vinyl data. Raise your glasses to Tom, everyone. Let’s have a party.


I had to do a couple of different quick edits to my template to get the posts to show up on the home page. By default, WordPress doesn’t have custom post types in “the loop” so I added them in by adding this bit of code to functions.php:

I also wanted to pull the Custom Fields into the post itself so that information was publicly exposed. Right under the_content();?  portion of my single.php file I dropped in this:

Simple enough.

Next, I wanted to build out a way to explore the collection based on the custom fields so you could not only look by purchase date but also by artist, release year, or record label. I came across a WordPress plugin called Filter Custom Fields & Taxonomies Light. I have to say I was quite impressed with how simple the UI was. I was able to quickly whip up a query page:


After adding some CSS style customizations to it, I went ahead and made a second version of the tool that could function as a widget on a single post so folks could surf around the site a bit quicker.

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Last, I went in and manually grabbed images of the records to put in place to get a nice store front look to the site:

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On another note, my colleague John Stewart and I were having some conversations this morning about what other APIs could be beneficial to the project. One idea was to see how we could link the collection to information from other sources. For instance, what if we pulled in the Spotify playlist for each record and embedded it directly within the post? Or what if we could pull the album images from the Amazon API? It’s a fun world once you started realizing how you can start to hook up the plumbing that’s been put out there for us on the web.

I can’t thank Tom enough for the help or Kin for the inspiration. Speaking of that API Evangelist, he gave a rather inspiring answer to his own question of how to move the needle on APIs. He notes that it won’t be e-commerce, the big companies of today, legacies of yesteryear, governments, or even (sadly) the evangelists. According to Kin:

It will be the API literate individual, who understands that they can get access to their own data, and information from any website, system, application, connected device, company, and institution, using APIs. It will be people who understand that they can make their education, career, and the web into what they want, using APIs. That the web is programmable. A digitally aware individual who assumes full control over their online self, taken it back from the tech giants, understanding that they own all the exhaust from their online (and increasingly offline) personal, and professional life.

And I think that sums up a lot of my currently feelings (in a much more articulate manner). And this is an area where I see a lot of opportunity for education. The value of our institutions is our ability to shape a literate and aware citizenry. But, first, music. :smile:

A Vinyl API of One’s Own

I’ve been on a vinyl kick as of late. It happens that a lot of the records I listened to when I was most emotionally vulnerable to trite love songs are hitting their ten or fifteen year anniversary and being released/re-released on vinyl.

For instance, I recently grabbed a copy of the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack Guestroom Records, Norman’s local independent record store. Guestroom holds a special place in my heart. When I got engaged to my wife, we were lucky enough to be allowed to photograph are engagement pictures inside of there:





Little Miss Sunshine is a really interesting case study. The first time I saw it in theaters was during the Austin City Limits 2006 Music Festival in this ran down (what I think was) independent movie theater located in a local strip mall in Austin, Texas. My friend and I had decided to skip the morning lineup and check out downtown Austin. The movie arguably lands on the list of one of the movies most propelled after Sundance as it was picked up by Fox Searchlight and ended up right north of $100mm at the box office despite having an $8mm budget (I’m learning all of this via the Wikipedia page). Even still, this movie was “too indie” for the Oklahoma theaters, so it was a real treat to actually in a theater.

Anyways, the vinyl was a great snag. I actually remember buying the record at Borders bookstore (RIP). Looking back, I totally forgot how much bookstores upcharged CDs. Whatever you could find your regular neighborhood shopping store for $12.99 was always $18.99 at a bookstore, so I apparently was really jonesing to have a copy of this bad boy.

When I picked up the record (in the used bin of all places), I noticed a printed metallic number in the lower left hand corner of the jacket.


flickr photo shared by adam.croom under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

It’s also a “clear with pink and yellow swirl” printing which looks absolutely gorgeous.

So I knew this was an absolute steal. When I was checking out, I chatted with the manager about the record as well as the upcoming Record Store Day releases. He gave me some interesting insight into why the record was a really good find. He said it had just came in and that it was originally released as a Black Friday special. This seemed like a really good deal of knowledge; the kind you would expect to get from your local record store.

As I slowly build up a modest collection, I have found myself on the hunt for more info online. I landed on, which is the largest wealth of album release information I’ve ever landed on. It is a must for anyone looking for the small, record store like, information about every release. And I really mean the smallest detail. Check out this description of a Motion City Soundtrack / Limbeck 7″ Split I’ve been trying to score for some time:

001-002 = Blue w/ White, Grey, Black; gold metallic number
003-100 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black; gold metallic number
101-200 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black; silver metallic number
201-248 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black; pink metallic number
249 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Orange; pink metallic number
250-299 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, pink metallic number
300 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, black number
301-310 = Blue w/ Blue, White, Orange, green number
311-323 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Orange, green number
324-330 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Orange, purple number
331-511 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Orange, black number
512-600 = Blue w/ Blue, White, Orange, black number
601-634 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, purple metallic number
635 = Blue w/ Blue, White, Black, purple metallic number
636-638 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, purple metallic number
639 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, black number
640-655 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, purple metallic number
656 = Blue w/ Blue, White, Black, purple metallic number
657-665 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, purple metallic number
666 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, black number
667-687 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, purple metallic number
688 = Blue w/ Blue, White, Black, purple metallic number
689-700 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, purple metallic marker
701-800 = Clear w/ Grey, White, Black, green metallic number
801-824 = Blue w/ Grey, White, Lavender, blue metallic number
825-900 = Blue w/ Blue, White, Lavender, blue metallic number
901-1000 = Blue w/ Blue, White, Lavender, pink metallic number

How fascinating is this? The split was only released in 1,000 copies and has 28 (!) variations. And they are incredibly random. Some runs are 99 copies, other 12, 11, two, one (#666 was a single press in clear with grey/white/black). The amount of work that went into 28 different silk screening variations is mind-numbing but also highly valuable to me as a collector/potential customer (Did I mention how its also a marketplace?). The album has only two songs but they mean something to me as 1.) they both were two of the most influencial bands in my formative years and 2.) I distinctly remember talking to Patrick Carrie of Limbeck before a show in Oklahoma City and asking him if they would be performing Perfect Teeth (the cut they did for this specific release). Ah, the way I used to try to find ways to let people know of my insider knowledge :wink:.

Discogs had good info on the Little Miss Sunshine Record as well. It doesn’t note the Black Friday release fact (though a user had indeed embedded a German video that reviews it), but I verified it via the labels Facebook page and the Record Store Day website and have added that to the Notes section of the article.

Record Store Day selected Little Miss Sunshine Movie Soundtrack Limited Edition Vinyl for its #BlackFriday event! To…

Posted by Lakeshore Records on Friday, December 5, 2014


Anyways, a lot of talk at the Indie EdTech Data Summit, thanks to Kin Lane, percolated around not only how we create APIs but leverage the APIs around us. Given that Discogs has so many data points around vinyl, I was interested in if there was an API that existed around the service, and, indeed, there’s a REST API built around the service.

One nice thing about the API is barcode integration. Discogs has a very slick iOS app (sorry Android users) that allows me to scan albums in the store and pull up info on it. This allowed me to quickly put my collection online by scanning in all of my vinyl barcodes and then adding them to my “Collection” (I’m still working on the albums that are pre and early 1980s which obviously don’t have barcodes).

I asked Kin if he had looked into the Discogs API and, as it turns out, he is aware of every API in existence (he had heard of it) but does not know enough to be thoroughly knowledgeable of ALL of them… API Evangel-what?! The humanity…

Anyways, I’ve been thinking about how I can leverage the Discog API to “reclaim” my record collection on my domain. I would love to utilize as a space to show off my recent grabs. I’m thinking of a WordPress instance with a card-based theme that allows you to surf my collection. It does look like someone has done some a really nice initial work at integrating the Discogs API with WordPress for something called RecordPress:

The API doesn’t pull images, but I assume that’s because most are user submitted and they maintain the copyright. That doesn’t bother me too much as it would give me a good excuse to take more photos.

Unfortunately, the work on RecordPress appears to have been abandoned for over a year, and even though they promised to put up their work on Github, I can’t seem to locate it. This is one reason I’m interested in promoting an open-source approach to development. It really helps to allow collaborators to pick up a project, particularly if you tend to get distracted (I never get distrac..)

So I look forward to seeing if this ever comes out, but if it doesn’t come soon, I’m going to start seeing how I can refine my chops enough to hook the two up (currently recruiting Tom Woodward :smile:)

In my attempt to tie my entire world around #IndieEdTech, I’ll leave with the thought that this kind of project is what gets me excited about learning more with APIs. There are arguably very few people that would be interested in a WordPress-powered, card-based theme that shows their collection (though there does seem to be interest around a WordPress widget). It’s quite niche. But that’s sort of the point. This type of work allows me to build out technology in ways that deeply reflect who I am. Technology to reflect the user instead of the other way around. This current distraction stint in vinyl is merely a vessel for me to reconnect with myself and an identity. Many tools, many needs. And that, to me, is always an endeavor worth pursuing.

Indie EdTech: Future and Funding

Note: This post is 3 of 3 in a recap of the Indie EdTech Data Summit: The Personal API held at Davidson College. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

This part of the series is probably most fluid and evolving part of my thoughts on Indie. Ben Werdmüller of Known was kind enough to give everyone a very detailed walkthrough of how Known got start through the Matter startup accelerator. Matter was initially funded by the Knight Foundation and KQED to help usher in the next generation of media-focused startups. Matter gives startups (all who are accepted have a working prototype) $50k and require them to complete a 5-month accelerator program (longer than the normal 12-week schedule of Y-Combinator).

Why is this compelling? Silicon Valley is what it is because the requirements of venture capitalism. VCs are looking for quick and large returns on their investments so startups are incentivized to find money quickly, most of which comes through high growth and advertisement dollars. Targeted advertisement is only possible when data is harvested and monetized, which is why we have the web we have. Free = scale, data = advertisements. These do not mesh with the values of the education industry, but you see quickly why Coursera and Udacity are what they are. Matter is made up of entities from media that are interested in changing media for good. As Clay Shirky put it in 2009 (cited by Matter):

If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for lots and lots of experiments.

It makes sense that a group higher education institutions would unite to support “lots and lots of experiments” around education technology that focus on the needs of teaching and learning rather than the needs of administration (where the bulk of IT money is funneled). But possibly rather than investing in one large behemoth solution (like edX), institutions can focus on more Indie solutions. These solutions are more niche and aren’t meant to broadly serve the needs of the entire institution (though let’s be honest–no tool is) like enterprise solutions. They are tools like SPLOT, Wikity, Reclaim Hosting, Known, Github, and to name a few.

Conversely, there are already plenty of good folks already in higher ed (see those listed above) who are building great tools that are adoptable by other schools and there may even be a greater need for that. Our community benefits most from a deep literacy embedded in our local institutions. We have to continue to educate our students, faculty, and staff to understand the complexities of both data and technology. One of the main ways to combat the notion that technology will usurp higher ed is to make sure everyone is knowledgeable about the affordances and freedom that technology can supply while also recognizing its real limitations. We can do this by creating (or supporting the creation of) tools that our communities can utilize to develop, manage, and better understand themselves and their identities. This is going to require a commitment towards education, development, and broad sharing of strategies and practices to the community.

The exact, right next step is fuzzy (more focused sessions designing along students is a must)–but the thought of what can be done if we can get some larger support behind the development of Indie EdTech feels promising at the moment, and I’m excited to see what lies ahead of this small but mighty movement.

Cover photo is by Didier Weemaels made available via the CC0 license on Unsplash.

Indie EdTech Design Sprint

Note: This post is 2 of 3 in a recap of the Indie EdTech Data Summit: The Personal API held at Davidson College. Here is Part 1 and Part 3.

Audrey and Kin’s framework led nicely into design sprint, facilitated by Erin Richey and Ben Werdmüller of Known, who utilized the design thinking methodology to accelerate a deep brainstorming session.

My design team consisted of myself, Audrey, Alan, Eddie Maloney (Georgetown), and two students: Gage Holloway (Davidson), and Erika Bullock (Georgetown). And these two students are (underscore, bold, and enlarge this next part) the reason we ended up with anything–partially by design but also because of how awesome they are.

We spent a lot of time asking them a ton of questions about who they were and what college was like. Who are you? How did you get here? What is a normal class like for you? How do you manage “life?” What are the most meaningful moments for you? What does assessment look like?

And a theme emerged about relationships. Office hours with faculty. Instructors who related classroom discussions to life lessons. Advisers who helped them decided on a major. Bosses who were also mentors. And the lack of relationships. Seniors who were just now understanding the system. “If only I had known that I had the option to put together an interdisciplinary degree.” These were conversations about people. And these questions aren’t able to be answered by Siri. You can’t build an algorithm and you can’t automate it. It requires human interaction Any technology that deals with these problems needs to be augmented by humans.

So this led us down a rabbit hole of trying to come up with some dating-like, scheduler app that matched mentors and mentees. Woof. This was difficult. Part of the issue was, being insiders of the system, we got stuck in the minutia about the complexities of HE, like getting faculty on board. How could be build mentorship into promotion and tenure? Should we require it? Are they matched via interests or pain points? How do you know what’s a good match? And there we were again. Algorithms. Automation. Data. Blah blah blah.

This sounds like it’s a knock on dating apps and it’s really not. I’ve been convinced by several happy couples that a lot of good comes from these services. The problem here isn’t necessarily the algorithm. At least on dating apps everyone can agree that everyone on the app has the same desired goal: a relationship. Here we are trying to figure out how to convince faculty that they want to mentors and educate students on the fact that they need a mentor. And then use our little cute service. Yeah, we are really out in left field on this one. I remember Alan eventually yelling, “We have a problem! We hate our idea!”

Luckily, we had smart people on our team, like Audrey, who eventually just asked what if we stopped thinking about the idea that people need to get together to have these kind of conversations? What if people could just come get answers to questions?

Ah, yes! There was another other piece to this conversation which we had ignore which was that this was also a conversation about distribution of power. How do you know what you don’t know? How do we cultivate a conversation of caring individuals answering each others questions? How do we get students who have figured out the institutional “secrets” (or education hacks… thanks Audrey for letting us borrow Hack Education ::smile::)? How do we redistribute this power through knowledge?

Our wonderful student Erica sketched out this idea of “wants” and “haves”:

So we conceptualized this idea of building something similar to Quora or Stackoverflow where you could ask questions, but that there was a negotiation to entering the space: you had to first tell us things you were willing to answer: your “haves.”

Yep, that’s indie. Indie EdTech nurtures these communities. It redistributes power. It promotes giving as much as receiving. It urges students to move towards being authorities. It removes intermediaries.

Everything about this project was a great experience. It seems simple but, man, there’s a lot to takeaway from simply interviewing students and understanding needs. Kudos to Ben and Erin for putting together such a powerful example of how we can work towards building tools that prioritize the student. What’s even more awesome is there has continued to be discussion on our IndieEdTech Slack channel about how to continue these projects with the students being the most excited bunch. Turns out this whole Silicon Valley-based approach to design isn’t all bad after all.

Cover image: A flickr photo shared by cogdogblog under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

Framing Indie EdTech

Note: This post is 1 of 3 in a recap of the Indie EdTech Data Summit: The Personal API held at Davidson College. Here is Part 2 and Part 3.

I’m back in Oklahoma after a jam packed weekend at Davidson College for the Indie EdTech Data Summit. The event came together after a joint presentation that Jim Groom and I gave at Stanford’s dLRN Conference on Indie EdTech and a conversation over coffee that Jim and I got to have with both Kristen Eshleman and student Andrew Rikard, both of whom are at Davidson College. Our conversation evolved into how we are starting to think more about how we can add technologies, like the personal API, to students arsenal to further empower them as the rightful owner of their data. Kristen had the great idea to bring together a larger group to discuss personal APIs and Indie EdTech. We brought together 26 people from a handful of institutions (BYU, Oklahoma, Davidson, Georgetown, Virginia Commonweath, and Charles Sturt University) several of which supported the attendance of students. We were also joined by Jim, Tim OwensAlan Levine, Audrey Watters, Kin LaneBen Werdmüllerand Erin Richey.

Alan has already done a great job giving a detailed account of the happenings of the event and I highly recommend folks read that as a primer to some of my thoughts. As I wrote this, I decided to break it up into three posts to make it slightly more digest-able. So consider this a small recap series. It’s hard for me to even attempt to put words to a lot of the thoughts currently swirling in my head, but I have vowed to myself to take a shot in my continually evolving reflection.

The recap will be loosely structured around the three goals Kristen and I set for the gathering:

  1. Continue to define Indie EdTech
  2. Participation in a Personal API Design Sprint to include students from our universities
  3. Build a conversation around the future as well as a funding mechanism for Indie EdTech.

Framing Indie EdTech

Much of the current thinking for Indie has revolved around Audrey Watters and Kin Lane’s who were deeply influencial in concepts like “reclaim your domain” and Reclaim Hosting via a 2013 MIT Conference nicknamed “Reclaim Open” (longer saga here) as well as Jim and my poor attempt to always relate life back to music (#4life). So we first convinced Audrey to come up with her own music analogies. ::grin:: Since Jim brought punk to the table and I took aims at the 2000 Napster narrative, Audrey filled in the gaps with 80s hair metal and Justin Bieber (if someone is willing to commit to talking through hip hop and grunge we should be able to piece together a fully loose historical narrative!).

Where Jim and I focused on how Indie as a somewhat step to freedom in the life cycle of music, Audrey took a critical approach to where technology has sought to perfect commercial music:

Researchers boast they’ve developed an algorithm to predict the probability of whether or not a song would be a top 10 hit – this algorithm did accurately predict the probability of the songs that eventually made the top 10 Billboard Hot Dance/Electronic Songs of 2015. This particular algorithm takes into account things like song length, tempo, key, and “danceability” – whatever the hell that means.

Audrey does an excellent job of tying these promises of predictions to the predictive modeling tools education technology is selling us now.

Pre-packaged sound. Pre-packaged courses. Pre-packaged students.

But there’s good news. There’s an alternative.

Indie means we don’t need millions of dollars, but it does mean we need community. We need a space to be unpredictable, for knowledge to be emergent not algorithmically fed to us. We need intellectual curiosity and serendipity – we need it from scholars and from students.

We moved into a working session with Kin Lane. My expectations here were that we were going to be working with APIs. Kin, has Kin nearly always does, one-upped my expectation by following up with a web resource all about APIs including an incredibly thorough look at APIs from Canvas, Slack, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Google, and more.

I love how Kin packaged and planned this. Rather than saying we are going to use this and that API, he basically said, (not a real quote) “You are your own person with a complex set of technology needs, desires, and use cases. Here’s a library that I’ve validated that they may be relevant to your day-to-day life.”

Yep, that’s indie. Once again, Audrey and Kin are framing Indie EdTech. One part ideological and one part practical. Let’s get started.

Cover photo: By Gemma Garner available via the CC0 license on Unsplash.

The web isn’t (just) a garden.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ephemeralness of the web and, more particularly, data in general. Just today, I got the same rather inconvenient message that I tend to get every few months: startup disk full. Hi, my name is Adam Croom, and I’m a bit of data pack rat. I don’t delete emails. I also like to keep files locally. BUT, this time, I finally gave in and moved one-third of my local data over to an external hard drive. To seemingly perpetually exist.

As I continue to evangelize across campus for openness of learning, I tend to lead conversations with the data issue because it does feel incredibly important to me. “Store your widgets in places in which you can keep it forever! Don’t you want to keep your widgets?!” Not surprisingly, I’m usually met with blank faces. I’m starting to get the sense students don’t exist in a world of time. Some seem to be–on one hand–convinced they are invincible and yet unmoved by the thought of what the consequences of such an existence would entail.

“Alright then,” I’ll spout back, “Consider this: you could put all your thoughts and work on a website which could then be viewed and assessed by a future employer! A real, linkable portfolio!” Blink blink, goes the class.

But this one hurts a little more. I really like the idea of the student as a gardener. It’s a bit romantic (and eco-friendly). You sitting in your own garden; tending to your space–your domain–living a sustainable, self-sufficient life. This garden then becomes a reflection of you, as a learner and thinker, and–in some respects–an extension of you. Sure, it’s possible. But this lifestyle isn’t necessarily practical. Or, at least, that’s what my wife says every time I tell her I’d be happiest if we just went on that Tiny House Hunters show and got some land in Maine.

I say it doesn’t feel practical is because we don’t live our lives in one space; much like we don’t only live our lives in our house. We are mobile, social creatures who tend to idolize change. It’s the hero’s journey for God’s sake. Not the hero’s inertia!

So what that means is that the web isn’t just a garden (or even a set of gardens–a metagarden). It isn’t a place where everybody comes to live sustainable lifestyles. Sure, some people garden, and they are very good at it and have spent a lot of time learning how to present their gardens as both beautiful works of art as well as spaces healthy enough for consumption. But there are also folks who wish to spend no time doing the act of gardening or becoming a gardener.

Where this thinking leads me is to the question of how do we show the value of the open web to those who just want to eat and who plan to stay for a very little time? It has me thinking about how to promote the value of openness without having one having to choose anarchy.

The first idea is the farmer’s market analogy. Indie web/indie edtech has to be approachable in a way that someone can see the fruit of open (I’m going to pun this analogy into the GROUND) without having to fully engage in an open lifestyle. We have to be continually advocating for the value of what it brings and allowing people to see, touch, and interact with it. And, to that end, that means alternative lifestyle needs to be, at minimum, respectable to the commercial alternative. This means that institutions need to support open web and not just with “tax incentive” models but with spaces for open to flourish as well (I’d argue Domain of One’s Own is a good starting point). It also means supporting those who make and build the indie web. Further, it means a shift away from technology procurement and a shift towards technology (and knowledge of technology) curation.

Second, we need to encourage ephemeral use cases of open technology. This means not grading technology only based on hard and fast metrics like “adoption” or “completion.” We need to be cognizant of the desire of some to fluidly move in and out of technologies.

For instance, I worked with a staff group this week who wanted a webspace where they could simply capture the conversation of a conference presentation by giving attendees writers prompts. They setup a WordPress instance and I worked with them to install BuddyPress to allow for user registration and custom profile fields to capture user data. And that’s all it was. It’s not meant to record their thoughts on everything in perpuitity. But does serve a very real purpose and that is a good thing.

We shouldn’t have to present a specific lifestyle in order to serve these needs. Small tech has its place. And, what’s more, is that we can win a lot more folks into a lifestyle over time if we only give them respect, choice, and time rather than just regulations, fixed options, and ambitious timelines.