NMC Inspire Series: The Open Ed Jam

The NMC Inspire Series is a venue for sharing events, people, and projects that are inspiring progressive change in the realm of teaching and learning.

Not too long ago, I attended the Open Ed Jam, a small meeting that took place from July 25-27 in San Antonio, Texas at Rackspace headquarters and the San Antonio Central Library. It brought together a diverse group of teachers, community organizers, activists, and technologists to exchange experiences and information about open educational resources (OER).

Keynote: Walter Bender on One Laptop per Child
The meeting began with a keynote from Walter Bender, one of the lead software engineers for One Laptop per Child (OLPC), who talked about his journey working on one of the most innovative 1:1 computing programs in the world. Bender’s work with the government in Uruguay aims to provide every school age child in the country with a laptop. Their progress is astounding. According to Bender, Uruguay has become the only country in the world where household income is inversely proportional to the number of computers at home. Innovative programs such as Plan Ceibal have distinguished Uruguay as a nation intent on bringing educational technology to students and teachers in the most remote parts of the country. Bender is mainly concerned with developing the software and training teachers to use it… or was it teaching students to teach teachers?

It’s an open process; every owner is given a screwdriver with their laptop along with the newly christened freedom to explore its insides. The green XO laptops have become notorious for their fun, durable design and open software that was built on Python. It’s safe to say that Bender’s life revolves around SugarLabs, the operating system he has created and continues to build on, fueled by a steady stream of coffee. With the second version on its way to release, Bender added that many learners have already developed patches to fix bugs in the software, joking about whether a newer version would make a difference or not.

Bender’s emphasis on giving children ownership of their digital learning environment and seeing their ingenuity come to life struck a chord with many educators in the room. There was a surge of energy among the group, and I knew it wasn’t just the morning’s coffee.

Mozilla Foundation and OER
Have you ever created a meme? It’s easy — and educational. The activity requires basic html skills and the essentials of reading source code. It’s also a great trigger for discussions about intellectual property. Our ambassadors from the Mozilla Foundation dove right in with a “spectrogram,” or a projection of a two-way arrow so we could physically demonstrate the spectrum of perspectives by lining ourselves up. Should open educational resources be free and open all of the time for anyone to use? It seemed like a no brainer, but there were many shades of agreement and disagreement.

For me, the potential OER has to educate the world balances high on clouds of Bender-like aspirations, yet it’s anchored in the findings of the NMC Horizon Project. What’s clear is that learning environments where knowledge is constantly validated, recycled, and updated by subject matter experts has many benefits, both fiscal and educational. Moreover, the opportunities posed by OER to increase access to underresourced or undeveloped areas is an altogether separate universe of possibility.

Yet I considered another, more pragmatic perspective when someone in the group voiced his concerns about companies that were founded to support the use of OER, revealing the underside of the iceberg. Another participant offered the idea that Spanish has two words that can mean “free” – libre, which is the state of being free, or liberated, and then there is gratis, which means free as in “Hey! There’s free beer!” (his example, not mine). Sadly, while there was no free beer, we all had a nice round of philosophical murmurings as we prepared ourselves to take a shot at making memes.

The Maker Party
We are in the midst of Maker Party season, Mozilla's month-long, annual event to raise awareness about the organization’s global campaign to teach the web. Our ambassadors, hailing from Hive Toronto and Hive NYC, introduced us to Mozilla’s free suite of web-based tools to explore and teach the web, and there were quite a few. Want to get someone interested in html? Tell them they can change the cover photo of The New York Times online. This can be accomplished with X-Ray Goggles, a browser-based widget that reveals the source code of any page on the Internet using html and gives the user the tools to manipulate it.

Those who are interested in lesson plans about web literacy and digital citizenship will want to dive into Thimble, which seemed to generate the most excitement among the group. The platform makes building online teaching kits seem like the easiest thing in the world, especially with its abundance of remixable projects that other teachers have built and share freely.

As it turns out, making memes was probably the least interesting task we accomplished, but it was fun looking for free-licensed images of friendships between monkeys and dogs. In case you were wondering, there is plenty of photographic evidence to suggest that these two species make compatible companions.

Jamming with Open Ed Jam Organizer Mariah Villareal
After lunch, I sought out the meeting coordinator Mariah Villareal, a recent graduate from St. Mary’s University who has earned a degree in international relations with a focus on ethics and the protection of human rights. While Villareal’s passion for OER is not delineated formally, a series of events starting in 2012 culminated into the Open Ed Jam. She discovered her interest while abroad in South America in the cradle of educational innovation — Uruguay — where she learned about OLPC at a similar open education conference in Montevideo.

A year or so after returning to the States, Villareal decided to draw on her relationships and connections from the conference in Montevideo, and with support from her school and AmeriCorps network, she managed to coordinate an intimate group of teachers, hackers, community organizers, and everyone else in between to meet and share innovative uses of open resources for education. There was even a DJ on hand to play openly licensed music throughout the entire day. Now that’s impressive.

The Takeaway
The point of the meeting was not to be impressed, though, but to be inspired. I overheard one attendee call it a “gift,” and she was not exaggerating. The resources and ideas people came away with were burning holes in our hands; everyone wanted to play with tools right away at the hack-a-thon or to find a quiet corner and build an open online resource out of seemingly nothing.

While much of the Open Ed Jam was about exchanging best practices and information, equally important was that it was an opportunity to play. The Internet is this age’s greatest playground, and just like the playground, it can seem lawless. People of all ages are learning to survive and thrive on it, making rules along the way, or in too many cases, being unaware of the rules that exist. This knowledge gap is one of the biggest challenges to the integration of OER and streamlining processes for validation, dissemination, and teacher education on a wide scale (national, state, district).

The Internet is overflowing with materials to be curated, re-mixed, and shared. The sooner educators learn to take advantage of open resources, the sooner schools and learners reap the benefits. Events like the Open Ed Jam are advancing this mission by bringing together communities of practitioners, working on behalf of their institutions or on their own accord, to transform open education from ideal to practice. 

I’d ask Villareal to organize next year's meeting, but she’ll be busy in Boston building robots with kids for her second year with AmeriCorps. I’ve been told by more than one person though, that it’s bound to happen again.

> See photos of the 2014 Open Ed Jam on Flickr
> Visit the Open Ed Jam Facebook page

Victoria Estrada is a staff writer and researcher for the NMC Horizon Report and acts as the managing editor for the NMC Blog. She's mainly interested in stories, education, language, issues of social justice, cheesecake, and the bigger picture.

Feel free to contact her with reading recommendations or story ideas at victoria@nmc.org.

OER image CC BY-SA 2.0 via Breno Trautwein

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