The Mad Vendor’s Manifesto: From EDUCAUSE to OpenEd (Part 1)

I’m just back from two weeks of travel to two very different conferences — EDUCAUSE and OpenEd — and inspired in part by dread and in part by joy to resurrect my blog. Here’s to a preemptive new year’s resolution to actually write in my blog after setting it up last January in fulfillment of item one on last year’s list.

I. On the Exhibit Floor

Though I’d been thinking and talking about it for five years or so, I don’t think I really understood what “education technology” truly meant until I attended my first EDUCAUSE conference last month.

I was eager to attend EDUCAUSE, knowing it to be the biggest conference in higher education technology and me working for a technology company serving higher ed. I’d applied for a reduced rate in the “Start-Up Alley” section of the exhibition and was selected to participate in the “Under the Radar” pitch competition, so it seemed a great opportunity to bring more attention to the Hypothes.is Project. I had stickers, T-shirts, flyers, and a slick pitch deck. But what I was most proud of was my retractable banner. Just a week prior I didn’t know what a retractable banner was, but carrying my new marketing collateral through the TSA checkpoint, the guard mistook me for an “artist.”

A 33" by 80" retractable banner

My enthusiasm got knocked out of me, though, upon entrance into the EDUCAUSE exhibit hall upon arrival. I’d been to on exhibition floors before, but mostly at academic conferences like the Modern Language Association annual meeting where the exhibitors were mainly scholarly presses. Their stalls looked basically like fancier versions of what you see at a sidewalk book sale. EDUCAUSE was a different beast altogether.

As an exhibitor I got access to the floor before it opened and arrived during the set-up. To get to my designated space in the “alley,” I had to navigate forklifts and cherry pickers moving up and down the aisles. The biggest companies were hanging logoed banner-chandeliers from the rafters. Their plots were 30' by 40', greater than the square footage of my house with better furniture and entertainment systems. From what I could gather many of these two-day installations cost 100x my annual marketing budget at Hypothes.is — my retractable banner was a pretty big expense for me at $379. It’s apt that EDUCAUSE takes place across the street from Disney Land.

Me at EDUCAUSE 2016

I often joke with academic collaborators about my role as a “vendor.” It’s a term I hate, not liking to think of myself as salesman, but as a teacher-scholar. That is where my training is after all, though I’ve ended up working in the software industry for the past five years. But on the other side of education technology, not in a university that is, I’ve come to accept that I’m a little bit of a salesman: I want teachers and students to use Hypothes.is and I want the project to be sustainable in the long run. I’ve tried to accomplish those goals responsibly, remembering the critical theory I studied in grad school and above all my own commitment to education as a profession.

At times, though, I find myself taking on the odd role of apologist for the business of education technology against its critics — namely, with admiration, Audrey Watters. After falling in love with the Foucaultian concept of the panopticon like most advanced humanities students, I’ve come to wonder: is all surveillance by definition bad? Could knowledge of the granular reading habits of students, for example, be used to better teach literacy on an individual level? While I fully support critical thinking about technology and its applications, both in the classroom and beyond, I worry (only in part for my own well being) about critiques that imagine that battle too much like another chapter in The Terminator franchise.

So, yeah, I am a vendor. My pass at EDUCAUSE didn’t even allow access to the conference section of the event. I wasn’t part of that conversation. And for good reason: we wouldn’t want panel presentations turning into sales pitches. And yet, here I was equally out of place on the exhibition floor.

II. In the “Learning Theater”

It was the pitch contest that really brought my failed vendorhood into relief. I wish I had taken a photo of my point of view from the stage in the “Learning Theater” during my presentation (I managed to find a decent side view below): the “theater” was smack in the middle of the exhibition floor, surrounded by clear plastic walls, so you could see out onto the hustle of the EDUCAUSE exhibition, the chandelier banners and the salesman in their matching golf shirts. And my first slide was an image of an annotated medieval manuscript. I made a joke about books and marginalia as age-old education technologies, quickly realizing that this wasn’t the right audience.

The “Learning Theater” at EDUCAUSE 2016
The first slide of my deck invoking annotation as an ancient learning practice

As I stood up there reciting my pitch, I realized how different the Hypothes.is Project was compared to what I was seeing around the exhibit hall and what I’d heard from the other “Under the Radar” start ups in their pitches. For one, Hypothes.is is an open source, non-profit software company. The rest of these companies were looking for venture investment for their proprietary solution. Indeed, the investability of the companies was the main criteria for the judges. I’m not even sure how we got into the competition in the first place. I actually looked back on my application to make sure I’d answered all the questions correctly.

The majority of the start ups in the contest were focused on the administration of higher education, looking down on the university from the cloud. Few mentioned the idea of learning outside of being a another data point among many. On the other hand, I was talking about students, teachers, and books, the basic stuff of learning itself. And I felt silly doing it. What broader impact could Hypothes.is have on a university outside of a particular subset of students and classrooms? What was the total addressable market? I felt at best, quaint, at worst, naïve.

The company that seemed best positioned to win the competition was Pragya, which as far as I understand makes all the data siloed in various places across a university interoperable and mineable for “insights.” And that does seem valuable. But I was talking about the kind of insights that take place while reading a book closely or while engaged deeply in conversation, insights that are profoundly personal, not likely scalable, hard to achieve and even harder to perceive in any particularly quantifiable way. (I’m more than somewhat anticipating Gardner Campbell’s brilliant opening keynote at OpenEd16 at this point.)

Pragya: “Unlocking” Some Kind of Disembodied “Campus Intelligence”

After the contest was over, one of the judges pulled me aside on the exhibition floor telling me I did a fine job with my pitch but that basically the panel didn’t know what to do with me: there was no clear opportunity for investment and return, Hypothes.is wasn’t a business.

But Hypothes.is is a business. No, we don’t accept venture capital funding. We’re a 501(c)3 non-profit funded by philanthropic foundations and we’re planning to become commercially sustainable. But the economic model at EDUCAUSE doesn’t seem compatible with the fundamental mission and principles of our organization — not to mention my own personal beliefs.

So there I was, the vendor at most conferences, usually sitting on the outside of the intellectual conversation, now pushed once again to the margins in the vendor-centric EDUCAUSE: perhaps a bit too much of an educator in cliched corduroy, talking about the values of close reading.

I’m not sure what to do with this ambivalence, so I’ll just toss out a series of questions:

How do you build politically and pedagogically responsible education technology when EDUCAUSE is THE ed-tech marketplace? How do you work in education technology and stay focused on actual learning? How do you collaborate with colleges and universities rather than just pitch them? How do you build for if not with students and teachers themselves? How do you avoid quantifying the intimate, everyday activities and relationships of education? How else can you make money? And how do you scale? — I know it’s a bad word for my more academic colleagues, but it’s not just about monetization it’s about sustainability and accessibility too.

I’m lucky to be in the position I’m in at Hypothes.is. I work with an amazing group of people who struggle with a lot of the same questions writ large across the history of the Web — can it remain free and open at its core? And I’m fortunate enough to be able to genuinely collaborate with an amazing community of educators using the tool on its development and be in conversation with and inspired by some of the best thinkers and tinkerers in critical instructional design.

Maybe one of the takeaways from my experience is that there are actually ways that industry and academy can work together. That model just needs to be taken to the mainstream of ed-tech, both for the sustainability of projects like Hypothes.is and the scalability of digital pedagogy. Imagine if Instructure, Dropbox, and Google hired more rogue humanities scholars. Imagine if we trained students of digital media and culture not just to criticize but to intervene in the development of emergent technologies. I believe we could change the way ed-tech tools are designed and terms of service are written.

Never got as far as OpenEd16 here, except for an allusion to Gardner Campbell’s keynote, so expect another blog post soon.


Originally published at An Annotated Domain of My Own.