The Indie EdTech Movement

I’m just returning from a deeply energizing trip to California. I spent the bulk of my time in Los Angeles, but also spent two days at Stanford University for the dLRN conference. This post was inspired by the presentation I did with Adam Croom at dLRN. But since starting this post I gave a follow-up presentation on Indie EdTech at Whittier College, and I’m currently preparing a third version to present at Librecon later today. So, what started as a reflection about my presentation with Adam has transformed into a far ranging exploration of this idea of Indie EdTech—so please forgive the inconsistencies and omissions.

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Palo Alto was an interesting spot for the presentation Adam Croom and I came up with for this conference because it’s ground zero for mainstream visions of tech culture more generally (Google anyone?). What’s more, the same can be said for edtech after the Fall 2011 AI course at Stanford taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig got called a MOOC. This was the course that launched 1000 MOOCs, effectively mainstreaming edtech (the year that edtech broke—in both senses of that word). The context was not lost on us, and we decided to use the occasion to introduce something Adam has coined “Indie EdTech” —which I love!

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Before the talk, Adam and I got the opportunity to warm up for our presentation a bit when we were invited by Maha Bali to do a Virtually Connecting chat a couple of hours before our talk. The session included Autumm CainesApostolos KPatrice Torcivia Prusko (onsite Buddy), resident punk expert GZ, Kelsey Schmitz, and Jack Norton, and Christian from Hamburg (didn’t get his last name). You can watch/listen to the session in the video below.

Our chat ran long at 30 minutes, but we found it an great way to try out our ideas, warm up the conversation, and connect with folks beyond the conference. The Virtually Connecting phenomenon is very cool, and after this experience I am sold on it—at least from the vantage point of a presenter. On the other side, major kudos to all those who both organized and participated in the session. Coordinating stuff like this is a ton of work, but provides an invaluable, interactive portal into a conference like dLRN. Not to mention an alternative archive of the event.

But back to the actual talk. The first part of our 30 minute talk (which was supposed to be 15) was delivered brilliantly by Adam, who discussed the history digital music to examine the impact of the web on the changing nature of that industry, its consumers, and the artist. It’s a really sharp, paleoconnectivist analysis of the real impacts behind the claims at the turn of the millennium that the web and file sharing was killing the music industry. Turns out it was transforming the distribution of wealth and access for artists, but the industry is alive and well. A powerful statement that flies in the face of claims like those of Metallica’s Lars Ulrich about digital music destroying an industry. I highly recommend you visit Adam’s site for his entire talk. [As a quick aside, is their anyone doing the level of work Adam is right now to galvanize an entire University community to take control of their online world? I have been blown away but what he has accomplished at Oklahoma over the last year. amazing.]

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The long history of music and culture that Adam explored in relationship to tech and music since the 1960s opened up a ton of possibilities for analyzing specific examples of artists’ challenging the established culture in order to try and fashion their own. I’ve been looking for every opportunity to incorporate Michael Azerrad’s fascinating book Our Band Could be Your Life (a chronicle of U.S. Independent punk bands during the 1980s) into a presentation—and thiswas my chance!

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My idea behind the presentation was pretty simple, and I think it worked out decently (though it still needs a lot of work). Take specific indie bands from the 80s that Azerrad talks about in his book and juxtapose them with the development of an independent movement in edtech over the last decade. I’ll acknowledge right away that the limits of this presentation were that I focused a bit too specifically on stuff I was a part of at UMW (UMW Blogs, EDUPUNK, ds106, Domains, etc.). I tried to rectify this issue when I presented a second version of this talk the following week at Whittier College, but need to build this out.

Below is an edited version of my slides, and I went through them fast with some cursory discussion about the bands and the correlating Punk scene (we only had 15 minutes total, which we stretched into 15 minutes each). So, my commentary below is not the presentation I gave as much as the presentation I would have loved to have given if I had the time and had prepared.I guess my blog posts aren’t the only anarchic works-in-progress I’m responsible for:)

Why 1980s indie punk?  First and foremost because I dig it. But secondly it provides an interesting parallel for what we might consider Indie Edtech. Indie punk represents a staunchly independent, iconoclastic, and DIY approach to music which encompasses many of the principles we aspired to when creating open, accessible networks for teaching and learning at UMW. Make it open source, cheap, and true alternatives to the pre-packaged learning management systems that had hijacked innovation. The rise of the venture capital xMOOCs only reinforced that value of such an ethos.

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Black Flag

Writing about the cultural conditions that gave birth to the hardcore movement, Azerrad focuses on Souther California and the L.A. band Black Flag which represents the beginning of a whole new generation of punk:

It’s not surprising that the indie movement largely started in Southern California—after all, it had the infrastructure: Slash and Flipside fanzines started in 1977, and indie labels like Frontier and Posh Boy and Dangerhouse started soon afterward. KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer played the region’s punk music on his show; listeners could buy what they heard thanks to various area distributors and record shops and see the bands at places like the Masque, the Starwood, the Whisky, the Fleetwood, and various impromptu venues. And there were great bands like the Germs, Fear, the Dickies, the Dils, X, and countless others. No other region in the country had quite as good a setup. But by 1979 the original punk scene had almost completely died out. Hipsters had moved on to arty post-punk bands like the Fall, Gang of Four, and Joy Division. They were replaced by a bunch of toughs coming in from outlying suburbs who were only beginning to discover punk’s speed, power, and aggression. They didn’t care that punk rock was already being dismissed as a spent force, kid bands playing at being the Ramones a few years too late.

And what was unique about Black Flag, according to Azerrad, is that: “Black Flag was among the first bands to suggest that if you didn’t like ‘the system,’ you should simply create one of your own.” And Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn did just that when he founded and ran SST Records.] The band itself was “required listening for anyone who was interested in underground music.” More from Azerrad:

By virtue of their [Black Flag’s] relentless touring, the band did more than any other to blaze a trail through America that all kinds of bands could follow. Not only did they establish punk rock beachheads in literally every corner of the country; they inspired countless other bands to form and start doing it for themselves. The band’s selfless work ethic was a model for the decade ahead, overcoming indifference, lack of venues, poverty, even police harassment.

I’m fascinated by the idea here that Black Flag could forge an independent punk movement on sheer will and hard work. Not sure if that’s the whole story, but I love the narrative regardless. And it provides a nice transition to what was UMW’s DTLT. Below is the image/slide I used that captures four core group members that are in many ways the Black Flag of Indie EdTech 😉  Early on DTLT decided that rather than existing within the confines of the learning management systems that defined main stream edtech, we would build a system of their own. And that is exactly what we did for the following decade. In fact, we built a few 🙂 We weren’t in metropolitan Los Angeles, however, but rather in Civilwarland, VA. A regional public liberal arts school few people had heard of outside of Virginia. All it took was punk rock denier Gardner Campbell to unleash the Bluehost experiment as well as hooking us up with various edtech punks around the country such as Bryan Alexander, Alan Levine, D’Arcy Norman, and the great Brian Lamb

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DTLT (Edtech’s Black Flag!)

The initial push for experimentation and exploration at DTLT in 2004 and 2005 pre-dates my time at UMW, and would prove foundational for everything that would follow. And, to be clear, and this is a point Azerrad makes repeatedly in his book, punk is not necessarily a pre-defined look, political stance, or reaction, but a fervent independence from the established approach to making music in the 80s that defined the industry. And this was certainly one of the things that drew me to this analogy.

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Mission of Burma

Case in point, rather than the aggressive, antisocial, and paranoid themes of Black Flag, Boston’s Mission of Burma took “elements of free jazz, psychedelia, and experimental music and injected them into often anthemic punk rock.”  It was avant-garde meets punk rock—a vision bands like Sonic Youth would build upon a few short years later. The were experimental all the way, so much so that one of their band members, Martin Swope, worked as the group’s tape-effects artist incorporating tape work to most of the group’s songs, and was regarded as an integral part of the group, appearing in group photographs and receiving equal credit on recordings although he was never on stage.

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The Blue Host Experiment

That kind of experimentation with various forms and technologies was what the Bluehost experiment was all about. Experiment with fledgling (at the time) open source tools like WordPress, MediaWiki, Drupal, etc. and try and create a new system all our own by building course environments for faculty and students that put them on the web, and asked them to take a hand in designing the experience.All at the low cost of $6 a month—the going rate for consumer-level commodity hosting in 2005.

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Minor Threat

Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat (taking inspiration from the great Bad Brains) came on the scene, and they gave birth to a movement within the movement: straight edge. Minor Threat repudiated the idea of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and promiscuous sex in reaction to the 70s punk rockers, as well as the burnt out threat that was the hippie movement. Founding band member Ian Mackaye also started Dischord Records which had a strong influence on the hardcore punk scene by reinforcing a “do it yourself” (DIY) ethic for music distribution and concert promotion. What’s more, there was more than just SST now. Different regions could have their own labels and build their own, unique culture for their local scene.

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UMW Blogs

In many ways building this idea of local culture for UMW was the spirit behind UMW Blogs. The first major result of consistent experimentation was a campus-wide publishing platform on top of the open source blogging software WordPress. This might be understood as a label of sorts for the great work coming out of UMW, and we weren’t alone. There were already blogging platforms at UBC and Penn State that were doing something similar, and this became a link for a broader community of indie edtech folks experimenting outside the blackbox that was the LMS.

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EDUPUNK: DIY EDTECH

As some of you may know, this isn’t the first time I’ve played with the idea of punk in relationship to edtech. And it’s not a coincidence I’m returning to it now. Much of the spirit of the work happening in UMW up and until 2008 seemed to be fairly radical for the field. Learning management Systems were the rule, and edtech was often framed in service to that system. EDUPUNK refused that paradigm, and UMW’s DTLT became an example of how to do it differently. In 2008 you could count the number of schools who were running and supporting WordPress for their campus community on two hands, in 2015 it would probably take 200 hands. Not only was WordPress open source, but it wasn’t even Moodle. It was blogging software! While EDUPUNK went underground as it became a rationale for gutting public spending for higher ed, and disrupting education more generally, it spirit lived on.

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The Minutemen

Much like that of D. Boone and the inimitable Minutemen, the spirit of The Minutemen was a staunchly left politic buttressed by an intense work ethic and a parsimonious rock and roll lifestyle captured brilliantly in their calling card: “we jam econo.” Their musical style was as bluesy as it was punk, and they represent yet another node in broad vision of what punk was in the 80s. They were their own roadies, toured tirelessly, and were considered my many the exemplars of the DIY ethos of the early indie punk scene, not to mention its moral compass—but without all the overt preaching and doctrine of the straight edge scene.

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ds106 #4life

So when ds106 (the Digital Storytelling course at UMW), went open and online in the Spring of 2011, a variety of folks came together to design a participatory, open, online course that would try and distill the ethos of indie edtech, while at the same time capturing its community. All the while doing just about everything on open, freely available (or at least dirt cheap) infrastructure. Grant Potter gave the course the tagline “we jam econo” —and it stuck. He also built a radio station for the course—truly exemplifying the best of open and ongoing experimentation in edtech. ds106 marks a kinda of distributed crystallization of the indie edtech scene post-EDUPUNK. A couple of letters followed by a few numbers that have become the calling card for ongoing, free-flowing creativity, experimentation, and fun.

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Sonic Youth

The free-flowing creativity and experimentation that characterized the independent punk scene in the 1980s took on new levels of musical sophistication with bands like NYC’s Sonic Youth During their early career members of Sonic Youth were associated with the no wave art and music scene in New York City. Lee Ranaldo a talented avante garde guitarist. Kim Gordon a fine artist-cum- bassist and vocalist. They were as much a noise band as a punk band, and they did a lot of work in terms of marrying the idea of avante-garde music to punk rock. They also combined the two traditions by championing the hardcore punk ethos and the DIY ethic as a genre rather than a specific sound. Why couldn’t punk also be avante-garde noise? Again, another instance of punk as a social category more than a musical one, providing creative freedom for bands like Sonic Youth to roam. What’s more, it enabled Sonic Youth to make the transition from indie to major labels with very little blowback from the community in terms of their commitment to the indy cause.

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UMW’s Domain of One’s Own

And much like Sonic Youth, Domain of One’s Own represented avante-garde design thinking (build the network around the individual not the course) with trailing-edge tech and a DIY ethic. This came together so brilliantly when Tim Owens (DTLT’s Lee Renaldo) and Martha Burtis (Kim Gordon) sat down in 2012 and 2013 and built out the basics that had already been prototyped with Hippie Hosting (I hated that name 🙂 ). The vision around the Bluehost experiment that started the whole thing was taken to a whole new level of elegance and usability. It was the culmination of all the explorations that fueled the Bluehost experiment, UMW Blogs, EDUPUNK, and ds106 rolled into user innovation toolkit known as Domain of One’s Own. The fruit of years of focused work towards a common goal of empowering a community created and controlled web at UMW. It’s punk rock to the core. And like Sonic Youth, it could abstract out its value to appeal more broadly to other schools who were keen on doing something similar for themselves.

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Emory Domains

For example, very early on in 2013 Emory was planning on on running a pilot for their writing classes. A vision where writing across the curriculum meets writing for the web. New idea of audience, literacy, and a broader vision of the writing portfolio. David Morgen has led this charge adroitly, and has been steadily building a culture of domains at Emory for more than two years.

From the Spring of 2013 through the  Summer of 2014 the broader Indie EdTech domains movement started to congeal. We became heavily influenced by the thinking of Audrey Watters and Kin Lane, and around this time (thanks to Audrey and Kin) became familiar with and inspired by the parallel work happening in the IndieWeb movement. Audrey and Kin in many ways helped shape the direction and momentum of domains, as well as our philosophy of the IndieWeb more generally (kinda like a John Doe and Exene Cervenka—a heavily dosed, duet of O.G. LA EdTech that never gets old).

The Summer of 2014 also saw the signing on of schools like University of Oklahoma, Davidson College, and Cal State University-Channel Islands. The idea of a Domain of One’s Own was spreading across the country. And each of these schools had their own idea of what it might look like, and just like punk music, the idea of domains was not an orthodox approach, but a DIY ethos and “we jam econo” vision of edtech. Like the various bands throughout the 1980s independent music scene, they would ultimately create their own sound based on their local scene. And the universities making this possible are akin to indie edtech labels across the country in the 1980s (SST Records, Dischord Records, Touch & Go,K Records, Twin/Tone, Sub Pop,  etc.) fostering a new approach to teaching and learning with technology that flies in the face of mainstream edtech—and all on the cheap.  

Initially you might not think of a band like The Flaming Lips as part the 1980s indie music scene, but they are very much part and parcel of that movement. Founded in Norman, Oklahoma in 1983, they recorded their first full-length album, Hear It Is,  in 1986 on Enigma Records. Far from what you think of us as punk, The Flaming Lips were a tripped out, psychedelic rock band. What’s interesting is they hailed from Oklahoma, and essentially forged a scene in Oklahoma City around their unique stye.

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The Flaming Lips

Much like The Flaming Lips, Mark Morvant and Adam Croom from University of Oklahoma immediately dug into the idea of domains, and quickly built a scene around this project at Oklahoma. The work they have done with their domains project, OU Create, is as lush and multi-layered as the Flaming Lips sounds. After a year of piloting their project, it has become something their IT department is not only supporting, but providing to anyone interested in lieu of the tilde spaces, which are soon-to-be retired. Within a year

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University of Oklahoma’s OU Create

Possibly my favorite chapter in Micahel Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life was the final one on the little know Olympia, Washington band Beat Happening. The chapter outlines how by the end of the 1980s and early 90s the idea of the independent music scene in the US had come a long way from Black Flag. Rather than a muscle-bound maniacs barking lyrics and insults at the crowd, you had a coy, 50s throwback group of lo-fi musicians focusing on teenage love. As Azerrad notes, “Beat Happening were a major force in widening the idea of a punk rocker from a mohawked guy in a motorcycle jacket to a nerdy girl in a cardigan sweater.” What’s more, Calvin Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Brent Lunsford, were the force behind the scene. Johnson started the label K Records which would be the inspiration for so many of the bands that would come out of Olympia, and the Northwest more generally: Bratmobile, Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Seaweed, Unwound, and Nirvana.

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Beat Happening

Kristen Eshleman and Mark Sample provide a quite interesting parallel here. They have been building a focused, wide-ranging community around domains from students to faculty and beyond. Davidson students like Andrew Rickard are openly challenging some of the rhetoric around domains, and making the work they do better as a result. They are also digging deep on what the contours of their community are, what are the bottlenecks, and how they build something real and meaningful for teaching and learning. Sample and Eshleman are like Johnson and Lewis building a sustainable vision of Domains for their community that is taking root as part of their liberal arts culture.

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Davidson Domains

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Cal State University, Channel Islands was the third school to follow suit, and I’ve already written about their questioning of the conformity curve, and they brought a unique dimension to domains early on: A Subdomain of One’s Own. The idea that a student or university doesn’t have to pay for a domain just yet to play with the affordances of web hosting. it makes the whole thing that much cheaper for an institution to do without the domain. While certain elements get lost with a subdomain, students and faculty still have the option to buy and map their own if they would like. This was a big moment for our ability to provide domains infrastructure to schools at prices so low they almost couldn’t say no 🙂

But this is all the beginning, the last year we have witnessed so real momentum in regards to various schools running their own domains initiative. Charles Sturt University in Australia was our very first international school, and thanks to the great Tim Klapdor, we were able to run it on Australian based servers through AWS, which was a first for us. What’s more, the platform is the playground for thinking about what could be possible at Charles Sturt University more broadly for the future. Blue sky meets R&D.

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Charles Sturt University’s uImagine

The work BYU has been doing with their domain project is truly cutting edge. They are working with Reclaim Hosting and Ben and Erin of Known fame to create personal APIs for their entire community. It may be the most ambitious project we have seen yet, and the thinking of folks like Kelly Flanagan, Phil Windley, and Troy Martin is IT punk through and through! We are close to showing off how Reclaim and Known will be the piece that feeds the personal API, and also starts connecting the broader API plumbing BYU has architecting on their campus for well over a year. This is crazy exciting work, and a whole new genre where indie edtech meets indie web apps and APIs!

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BYU Domains

And after all of this the Indie Edtech scene is just getting started. What are you doing about it on your campus? I have much, much more to write and many other campuses to feature, but this post has been two weeks in the making already, and represents a look at everything I wanted to say at dLRN15 and Whittier, but wasn’t yet fully baked. So take this as a more focused attempt at trying to frame what I think is a broader movement afoot in edtech. The underground innovation that I firmly believe will prove to be the ideas and architecture that influences and frames the shape of teaching and learning ecosystems in the not so distant future.

Hope springs eternal in the bava breast….

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8 Responses to The Indie EdTech Movement

  1. Mikhail says:

    Emerson is going to be The Cure or The Smiths: radically creative emo gravitas.

  2. Paul says:

    What? No Gibby?

  3. rowan_peter says:

    B…B…But…what about Big Black?

    • Reverend says:

      Drum machines are grounds for immediate disqualification 🙂 I probably could have done every bad in that book, and maybe that will be a longterm goal, to incorporate them all into a presentation at some point. Just waiting for the first Chicago-based school with an ethos made of steel.

  4. Steven Egan says:

    I love how I come back after a few years and you’re still doing this Jim. Long live Edupunk!

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