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AcademiX 2010: Learning in an Open-Access World

The second conference of the week was AcademiX 2010, an event sponsored by Apple and (an Apple affiliate organization comprised of people interested in educational uses of Apple technology). The event’s complex structure made it a real learning experience for me. I had not previously participated in an event of this type. I was at Northwestern University, one of two primary sites for the conference. The other main site was at MIT. These two sites were connected with each other, with the Apple HQ in California, and with secondary sites at Duke University, San Diego State University, the University of Kansas, the University of Minnesota, and the University of New Mexico. Beyond these physical conference sites, there were a great many conference participants experiencing the conference online from their desktops. Video and audio linked all of these places and people together.

The focus of the event was “Learning in an Open-access World.” My mandate was to speak about academic open access in the scholarly communications sense relating to peer-reviewed scholarly literature, but the program was broader than this area. John Wilbanks (Creative Commons) spoke of “Commons-Based Licensing and Scholarship: The Next Layer of the Network.” Ben Hawkridge (Open University) presented “New Channels for Learning: Podcasting Opportunities for a Distance University.” Kurt Squire (University of Wisconsin-Madison) discussed the findings of his research on “Education for a Mobile Generation.” Nick Shockey (SPARC) presented “The Digital Natives Are Getting Restless: the Student Voice of the Open Access Movement.” In the final slot, Paul Hammond (Rutgers University and Richard Miller (Rutgers University) co-presented “This is How We Think: Learning in Public After the Paradigm Shift.”

I was too close to the event to weigh in on its success among participants (most of whom were online beyond the lecture hall where we gathered), but I think that the conference achieved the goals set out by its organizers. I took these to be: (1) Providing a series of brief overviews of a number of domains of relevance at the intersection of education (mainly higher ed., but including K-12) and free/open educational content/resources. (2) Signaling Apple’s seriousness about its educational market and its desire to dialogue with (and learn from, and co-create with) members of this community, particularly those who would like to use Apple tools in their educational work. (3) Fact finding about needs and opportunities in the educational domain at the dawn of the iPad era. (4) Getting people excited about participating the the organization.

While it was an Apple friendly gathering, it was not a direct sales pitch. There was one two part demo of Apple software tools for educational media construction (with an eye towards making rich but simple educational modules for the iPad), but this was handled very entertainingly and effectively. Twitter comments suggest that it was appreciated by the audience. The emergent Apple architecture (moble, app-driven, iPhone/iPad-centered) and iTunes University were present as themes in the (e-)room, but they were foregrounded only occasionally and the conference could have been very useful to an education with no Mac experience.

I did learn content/process knowledge, but the elaborateness of the event, together with its (new to me) corporate sponsorship, were the source of my most extensive learning.

We were asked to present in the style one sees in TED talks and related kinds of gatherings. This means (ideally) well-planned but unscripted speaking with slides. The idea is the kind of standing away from any podium on a stage in front a big beautiful projection screen talk that hip and confident executives must now get good at. (IUB’s CIO Brad Wheeler is excellent at this and it is known to many people because of Steve Jobs public performances at Apple announcements.) Watching TED talks online is both inspirational and (once one is called upon to do it) rather daunting. I cannot say that I succeeded, but it was exciting to have a chance to try it.

Thursday was spent in rehearsals, so I got to hear all the presentations that would happen on Friday. Rehearsal was about giving us a chance to practice on site with all the gear, but it was also a means of debugging the extremely complex technology that was going to make it all happen. Rehearsal saw quite a few problems, but Friday things went off beautifully.  The technical staff (which was a mix of Apple people contractors, and MIT/Northwestern folks, plus the local hosts at all the tier two campuses) worked very hard and well. This made matters easier for the presenters.

The talks will be available as video at some point in iTunes University. I was able to watch presentations from AcademiX 2009 in this way. The format last year was a sequential series of presentations at a number of campuses on different days. The talks in 2009 were longer in length, also.

In addition to our 20 minute talks and the Apple how-to demo, there was time for questions, with the presenters on stage together at MIT and Northwestern. Questions came from the local audiences, from the remote sites, and from online participants. Everyone had access to a conference online system that provided abstracts, participant contact information, biographies, schedule, links, and comment/discussion tools. It was accessible in both desktop and mobile device formats. While used extensively by participants (those online had to use it, of course), there was also much grass-roots Twitter use.

This was the first time I was speaking at a conference in which I knew I was going to be twittered about. Given recent press discussion about this, I was curious, enthusiastic, and a bit scared but this reality. In this case, it turned out well.  The Twitter discussions were excellent and there was no meanness.  There was no official hashtag, but #academix became the main one (#academix2010 and #AX2010 got used also). I was surprised at how additive the process of meeting-oriented Twittering can be. It really improved the experience for me and for others.

My talk mainly introduced the current OA landscape in academic journals and then described three domains of innovation relative to peer-reviewed content. I concluded with a reflection on the factors that are hindering progress toward OA in the journal literature. My basic point was that it is now human socio-cultural factors more than legal or technical ones that are the most difficult challenges in the current moment. Building new business and organizational models for scholarly societies is the clearest example of this broader set of issues.

The other presenters did excellent work. I think that they would all agree that the one not to miss was the final presentation by Professor’s Hammond and Miller. They were returning from last year’s AcademiX events (thus you can see their earlier presentation online) and they did an amazing amazing job discussing the wider implications of their work totally refashioning College writing courses in the context of both cloud computing and a wildly different set of student experiences and expectations relative to past moments in the history of the university and of technology. I cannot do their presentation this year justice but it was simply amazing, both in form and in substance. Remarkable. Watch it when you can.

My only regret about the event is that the tight/brief time frame and emphasis on very fluent introductory statements meant that there was no real opportunity to complexify some of the shorthand terms and conceptual binaries that animate (but also impoverish) discussions of open access in educational settings. The meaning and limits of concepts and phrases like open, property, and digital natives call out for critique and contextualization. Centered in an affluent corner of global higher education, the event would look very different from the perspective of most of humanity, including most centers of learning worldwide.

I’ll try to remember to update this post when the talks are available online. Thanks to the folks at Apple and for their work on this event and for including me in it. Thanks also to the other presenters and to the audiences. All were generous, engaged, and smart.

PS: Everyone wants to know if I got an iPad out of the deal. The short answer is no.

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