Indie Music and EdTech (or Indie EdTech)

Below is a full transcript of my talk with Jim Groom at the dLRN 2015 Conference held at Stanford University.

So Jim and I are going to do a joint talk that gives an examination of cultures through the lens of music. Particularly how these stories get weaved into the creation of a historical narrative. The narrative that I’m looking at is the music industry. I want to briefly talk about narratives that have been told of this story on how the internet has affected music. Additionally, I want to add some counter narratives in efforts to build a perspective from which we can view movements like Indie EdTech.

The first is the story told from the music industry itself. And granted, while there is a very real truth (the collapse of brick-and-mortar stores; dismal numbers of physical copies sold), it tends to be the largest narrative that we see in the mass media. Digitization, fueled by a single bad guy (in this story… Napster) disrupts an industry.

There’s a mass media story to the consumer as well and it tends to be within lock step with the collapse of the music industry through the development of the MP3 file format which came out in 1989, followed a decade later by the portable mp3 player, WINAMP, and the Apple iPod in 2001 (which was actually a surprisingly later comer to the mp3 player market).

But it’s been argued the Internet’s major contribution to music wasn’t wide distribution of music. In fact, Steve Jones argues this:

The real revolution in popular music in regard to the Internet is to be found in the availability of news, information, and discussion about it music and musician by Internet media.

You see, barriers to entry for radio and TV were so high that there was no alternative to mainstream — there was no indie — until the late 1960s brought FM radio, soon college radio, and the Internet. As the earliest online communities emerged in the 60s, music discussions thrived on systems like PLATO and the WELL, it led to the creation of many newsgroups on Usenet, and then the web.

In this sense, technology is not the industry disruptor, but rather the opportunity to facilitate the building of a community inconceivable prior to its existence.

And the third perspective in this story is the music artist. While the 1960s brought the opportunity to share in the discussion of music, the ability to create music; to create art, is also a core part of hacker history.

This is a picture of Dan Edwards on the left and Peter Sampson on the right. The famous original MIT hackers playing arguably the first computer video game, Spacewar!

The computer on which they are playing is called the PDP-1. And prior to building Spacewar!, Peter Sampson had coded it to play three-part Bach symphonies. These guy's first interactions with computers centered around how to create shareable art.

Sampson was so proud of the music compiler that he had written, that he proudly distributed it to anyone who wanted it. He desired that it be accessed, improved on, that pieces of the code could be leveraged in other projects, which is one of the earliest stories of open source code.

Arguably the biggest innovation in music was the MIDI controller. An independent device, most often seen in the form of a keyboard, that had 128 programmable and standardized switches. You could make these switches do anything. But it was enough structure, enough plumbing infrastructure, that you could mimic the dynamics of any sound. The point being that the artist now has the power to not only play instruments on a synthesizer, but the ability to create new sounds and distribute them amongst a community of other MIDI users.

And I realize that this artist perspective is different than what one might have heard during the Napster trials by Lars Ulrich, the drummer of Metallica, who said this to a Senate committee during the Napster trials:

We typically employ a record producer, recording engineers, programmers, assistants and, occasionally, other musicians. We rent time for months at recording studios, which are owned by small-businessmen who have risked their own capital to buy, maintain and constantly upgrade very expensive equipment and facilities. Our record releases are supported by hundreds of record companies’ employees and provide programming for numerous radio and television stations. … It’s clear, then, that if music is free for downloading, the music industry is not viable. All the jobs I just talked about will be lost, and the diverse voices of the artists will disappear.

The underlying message in what Lars was conveying was this. The recording process is large; cumbersome, and record labels are good as a means of control to these large and expensive modes of production. A loss of value in music is a loss in jobs.

But the data since then has simply not supported that argument. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

A New York Times Magazine feature, which ran in August, said this:

In the post-Napster era, there seems to have been a swing back in a more egalitarian direction. According to one source, the top 100 tours of 2000 captured 90 percent of all revenue, while today the top 100 capture only 43 percent.

All the sudden there are more artists getting larger slices of the pie. Further, from 2002 to 2012, those identified as ‘‘independent artists, writers and performers’’ grew by almost 40 percent, while the total revenue grew by 60 percent.

So as it turns out, the artists (if it’s even lucky enough to get the choice) has a choice. But rather than working in one system, the artist now has a workflow with various paths that are interchangeable.

And, to a degree, that’s the approach in which we are taking at the University of Oklahoma to Domains and web space in the 21st Century with OU Create. We want to give infrastructure that is commercial-grade, real world technology. We want them to not have solutions, but workflows.

CPanel, is in this sense, is our MIDI controller. And it gives us, at the institutional level, enough standards to have good plumbing. Inside there are nearly 100 open source applications which have been developed for these standards that students have access to and can use to shape their identity.

This is a snapshot of the collection of my student blogs a week into the semester last Spring. What you’ll notice is a great deal of individualization and personalization that’s already taken place.

We have students using it to showcase their artistic passions, collaborate on digital constructions of new knowledge, create digital exhibits of items we have in our library collections which have never seen the light of day, and use it as a space to share their voice towards real issues that are taking place on campus.

And it has led to us, a teaching and learning center, to think about how we sharing our own tools that we develop in some indie way.

As we develop Wordpress plugins, or documentation, you can build on top of those through tools like Github.

So I don’t come here to make the argument that Indie EdTech is the future. In fact, I come to argue, rather, that it part of our heritage and something we should embrace.

I think my frustrations with EdTech have risen somewhat from what ends up being fed to mainstream media about what revolutionary “EdTech” is, is an idea of a solution that treats a student like a consumer of information. A custom microwave to bring you the exact meal you would like based off of algorithms collected on your taste buds given to you at the perfect time of day!

We would be letting our students down if we decided to treat them only as mere consumers rather than artists of their own identity.

Indie EdTech is not new, nor revolutionary, in the same respect that Indie music scenes are not new. The ideas of openness, participatory cultures, remixing; they are certainly rooted in education, and there is a body of research to back that up, but it also deeply rooted in culture; in a lot of respects, counter culture, and we can look at the moments in time where culture (music) collided with computers and universities.

John Markoff wrote in What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counter-Culture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry:

It is impossible to explain the dazzling new technologies without understanding the lives and the times of the people who created them. The impact of the region’s heady mix of culture and technology can be seen clearly in the personal stories of many pioneers of the computer industry. Indeed, personal decisions frequently have historic consequences.

Indie EdTech is many times a personal; a philosophical, decision. It’s also many times a practical; an economical, decision. Open standards are about accessibility as much as anything else.

What is interesting about these Domain of One’s Own initiatives is it does give the institutions, the major labels, the opportunity to support those who have been doing Indie themselves and support a cultural movement. What I would argue for is a deeper understanding of how, where, and why these pockets of indie exist and how they are or are not being supported by their respective institutions.


Jones, Steve. “Music and the Internet.” Popular Music 19.02 (2000): 217–230.

Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. Vol. 4. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

Markoff, John. What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal ComputerIndustry. Penguin, 2005.

This post was originally posted on A domain space in which I proudly independently own and share on Github.