A Little Bird Told Me

Little Bird logo

I’ve been working in educational technology for the last 14 years: first at OMSI, then at Portland State, and most recently at rSmart, focused on Sakai open source collaboration and learning technologies. As of February 2013, I have joined former data-journalist Marshall Kirkpatrick‘s startup, Little Bird, here in Portland, Oregon, as Doorman: leading marketing, sales, and support.

I’m profoundly excited by Little Bird. While it may seem like a dramatic departure from my edtech work, at its heart, Little Bird is ultimately a powerful tool for learning, bringing you directly to the leading people and most worthy content in any topic. Little Bird can help anyone do with purpose what I have done haphhazardly and organically: building my own understanding and relationships by connecting to people that matter, first online, but then also, almost always, offline as well. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be joining Little Bird if I hadn’t first learned from, and then met and developed a relationship with Marshall on Twitter. Now with Little Bird, we are working to enable everyone to learn and build relationships that can change their work and lives.

Little Bird’s team is an awsome collection of wildly unique individuals, who nevertheless share inspiring intelligence and worthy values. I’m honored to be able to work alongside Marshall, his Little Bird co-founders Mikalina Kirkpatrick and Tyler Gillies, and our growing team of folks including Danish AzizPeat BakkeDevin Gaffney, and Brennan Novak. As much as I have learned from and loved working with folks around the world in the Sakai community and at rSmart, it’s a like opening a present every day to spend time face-to-face with Little Bird’s team of smart, thoughtful people, deeply embedded in Portland’s welcoming, innovative tech and creative communities.

My connection to edtech remains: for as long as it makes sense (or until my term ends, which ever comes first), I still serve on the board of directors for the Apereo Foundation—the new organization formed in late 2012 by joining Sakai and Jasig. Maybe the new experience and viewpoints I gain from Little Bird can add some valuable perspective to Apereo. At the very least, I know I’ll be looking at education, and the technologies we hope to make serve it, with a new, avianette lens.

Looking back, I’d like to give my deepest thanks to the people that made my journey with Sakai and rSmart possible: first and foremost, Chris Coppola, who helped me start that journey and lead me forward with his thinking, drive, and values. Wende Garrison and Trish Harris, who put a lot of very smart wind and perspective in my sails and sailed along with me. Kim Thanos, who continues to advise and inspire me in so many wise ways large and small. The whole rSmart team, but most especially Brooke Biltimier, Brenda Chapman, Tom ChapmanDuffy Gillman, Paul HauserOrla MesterErik Mertz, and Lance Speelmon, who always seemed like close collaborators even though we were so often working at a distance. In the worldwide Sakai community there are too many to name who have been my brothers and sisters in the campaign to make education better: but I thank you all and hope to continue to serve you at Apereo and beyond.

Instructure’s Open Source Strategy

I have been watching Instructure and it’s move to offer part of its Canvas learning platform under an AGPLv3 open source license with great interest.

First, Canvas is a compelling product, with some great usabilty and features. I also welcome Instructure’s move to a (forked?) open source path, which I think helps evolve platform options and the marketplace in useful ways.

I am unconvinced, however, by a main thread Instructure CEO Josh Coates takes up in his recent blog post on Instructure’s open source strategy.

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Why I’m Running for the Sakai Board

Used by (cc) from http://www.flickr.com/photos/davidfarrant/2512424842/

Used by (cc) from davidfarrant.

Recently, I was honored to accept nomination to stand for the Board of Directors of the Sakai Foundation, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the larger collaboration of the Sakai community.

Some people are confused about the role of the Sakai Board, which stewards the Foundation itself, not Sakai the community or Sakai the product. Our community and product both have a variety of other leadership and governance mechanisms: all open, transparent, and drawing their membership from the community based on merit and contribution rather than election. In short: the Board does not “lead” Sakai, but rather ensures that the Foundation is healthy so it in turn can coordinate—not lead—the real engine of Sakai: our community.

So before running for the Board, I had to stop and ask what I would want to accomplish in joining this body whose work might be seen as once—or even twice—removed from direct engagement with Sakai. My answer revolves around Sakai’s characteristics as an open source project, and the role the Sakai Foundation and its Board play in maintaining Sakai’s health and progress.

My thinking goes back to my earlier answers to the question “why Sakai now?” where I wrote:

Unlike any other proprietary or open source learning platform, only Sakai provides structured, open and transparent community and governance, powered by a substantial and growing number of institutions of every shape and size from around the world, coordinated by a formal, nonprofit entity, and including a strong and varied commercial ecosystem. We call this combination “community source” and it is open source, only much more.

I still hold by that statement, but recognize that it describes a very organic situation, constantly changing, filled with different forces pulling not always in the same directions. All the ingredients in Sakai’s healthy mix are absolutely necessary for its continued success, but there is one crucial element that all the others depend on and can not do without—that central, shared entity that exists only to support everything else: the Sakai Foundation.

In addition to all the important work the Foundation does to coordinate community activity, perhaps its most important function is to serve as a conduit through which part of the community’s growing resources circle back to empower common needs and goals. It is precisely this “virtuous cycle” that I would seek to strengthen if I were elected to the Sakai Board.

You can read my full platform statement on the Sakai Project website, and if you have not yet cast your ballot in the Sakai Board elections, I welcome your support.

Sakai Meets Google

I’m excited to preview the integration we’ve been working on at rSmart between Sakai and Google Docs. We expect to release this integration in the upcoming 2.7.1 version of our rSmart Sakai CLE distribution, and once we see it in action, contribute the integration to the broader Sakai community. Embedded here is a 7.5 minute demo of the integration that covers the basic functionality. I’ve also attached an early case study rSmart produced in collaboration with Google on this functionality.

What makes this integration so cool is now Sakai users can harness the rich authoring and collaboration capabilities of Google Docs, and use Sakai to distribute their documents to other Sakai users, like students, classmates, or other collaborators. The integraton works with your personal Google user account, or if your institution uses Google Apps, your institutional Google identity.

This is a stellar example of all the new integrations we’re seeing with the Sakai platform. Look to try out the integration yourself soon on rSmart’s mySakai environment, where we’ll turn it on once our 2.7.1 version is released.

Taking the High Value Road: Innovation in Open Practices

Mountain road

Used by (cc) from nicmcphee.

I’ve long believed the open practices we follow in the Sakai community result in more, better, faster functionality, code, security, accessibility, standards-compliance, and innovation generally. But lately, evidence has been mounting to demonstrate the high value and wide acceptance of the open path more clearly than ever.

Today’s announcement of a new partnership between rSmart and SunGard Higher Education (SGHE) to deliver and support Sakai is the latest manifestation of the huge body of valuable work being generated by those of us following the open path: commercial vendors, educational institutions, nonprofit organizations, government entities, and individuals. Valuable work that is having real, positive effects on education.

A key part of rSmart and SGHE’s work together is to extend Sakai’s integration with SGHE’s Banner Student Information System (SIS) platform to follow the latest IMS Learning Information System (LIS) standard. On the face of it, this sounds like a typical outcome of two technology firms working together, but that integration rests on a far larger body of work, produced collaboratively in our open community.

Without even going in to the work of many that went into establishing the IMS LIS standard, rSmart and SGHE’s work with Sakai, Banner, and LIS extends the open-source work initiated by our fellow Sakai commercial affiliates Unicon and Oracle, under the leadership of my fellow Sakai Product councillors John Lewis and Michael Feldstein. This growing body of work promises to simplify and enrich Sakai’s SIS integration not just with SGHE’s Banner and Oracle’s Peoplesoft, but with every SIS platform that supports IMS LIS. Once we have this richer integration between our learning and administrative systems, we can start to explore all the ways shared information can have a real impact on our core mission of education.

Another example of open-source innovation centers around Sakai’s support for another worthy IMS standard: Basic Learning Tools Interoperability (BLTI), which makes it easy to tie different educational technology tools together. Sakai’s BLTI support was an early reference implementation and now ships in Sakai’s core codebase thanks in a large part to the work of long-time Sakai community member Chuck Severance. We are already seeing a wide variety of other open-source and proprietary tools support BLTI, making it easier for us to give users an integrated experience with a richer, varied toolset—and that exactly is the future of all learning platforms.

And while the Sakai community is working together on important standards support like IMS LIS and BLTI, we are also innovating actively on all sorts of other capabilities in both the mature Sakai 2 and the next-generation Sakai 3 platforms. Both Sakai platforms are under development by international, multi-institutional teams, coordinated by formal groups that conduct their business openly and transparently. Just this month we saw the Sakai 2.8 code freeze for the next release and the Sakai 3 0.7 release, both of which demonstrate rich innovation for technologies at very different points in their lifecycles.

What’s more: open innovation is not for code alone. Sakai’s Teaching and Learning working group recently released one of our most valuable artifacts: Sakai Learning Capabilities 1.0 (SLC 1.0).

Representing a full year of collaborative work, SLC 1.0 defines seven general areas of functionality that support teaching, learning, and collaboration. Of course we’ve seen functional checklists before—like Edutools or insert your own list here—and we continue to try to use such checklists to evaluate different learning platforms. That practice is akin to counting the spokes on buggy wheels while ignoring the changing paths we seek to travel, or the fact that not only are horse-drawn carriages obsolete, but even the internal combustion engine has evolved from solution to problem.

SLC 1.0 is an entirely different kind of list. Instead of a mere catalog of isolated tool functions, SLC 1.0 presents seven “lenses,” or perspectives through which a learning platform can and should be viewed. Each of these lenses is not exclusive, but rather views the platform as a whole, in light of a specific group of cross-cutting concerns. Going further, SLC 1.0 is not a vision of what we will settle for—limited by an interpretation of what incremental changes are possible in the technologies we already use—but is instead a vision built by actual practitioners, guided by what we really want to accomplish in real educational situations, with real people who have goals not organized by the buttons already on their toolbars.

I hope to see SLC 1.0 and its subsequent elaborations and extensions forever change the way we judge—and build—not just Sakai, but all educational technologies.

I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what’s brewing in the growing critical mass of the Sakai community, but one thing is clear: the open road ahead promises to be crowded with new collaborators, good ideas, and real results.

Sakai Fellow, Well Met

Black Ninja SakaigerI was deeply honored to be named a 2010 Sakai Fellow—mostly because fellowship bestows a coveted black “ninja” sakaiger (pictured)—but also because I read my fellowship as evidence that the Sakai community recognizes and values all forms of contribution to our collaborative work.

Three out of 2010’s six Sakai fellows have made their substantial contributions primarily in areas of actual technology development: Oxford‘s Matthew Buckett, Cape Town‘s David Horwitz, and Michigan‘s Gonzalo Silverio. I can’t stress enough the high value and significance of these three fellows’ work.

The other three 2010 Sakai fellows—Indiana‘s David Goodrum, Michigan‘s Steve Lonn, and myself—have made our primary contributions in what might seem “softer” areas of Sakai: coordination, communication, thought-work, and research. The very tangible outcomes of David’s leadership in the formulation of the Sakai Learning Capabilities and Steve’s continued focus on the invaluable research of Sakai’s Multi-Institutional Survey Initiative are far better evidence than any of my own contributions of the value of work outside the Sakai codebase.

Unlike others who suggest a strong difference between what might be called the “write” and “read” communities within Sakai, I see this year’s Sakai fellowships as testimony to my view that such a dichotomy is not so useful. Instead I see read/write activities in open communities as a continuum that generates a virtuous circle of outcomes: new reading generating new writing and vice versa, until the distinction between reading and writing becomes robustly fuzzy.

All of us in the Sakai community are readers and writers at different times, of different texts, inspiring and supporting our whole collaborative endeavor.

Thank you Sakai!