How Open edX 2016 left me with new ideas, deeper connections, and effective approaches to our online learning challenges

Mark Haseltine, edX CTO, and Anant Agarwal, edX CEO, outside at the Lathrop Library at Stanford for Open edX 2016, smiling

Mark Haseltine (edX CTO) and Anant Agarwal (edX CEO)

If you missed this year’s Open edX conference, you missed out. It was amazing, and I hope you’ll be able to attend the next one in Madrid (May 2017). If you’d like to catch up on what happened, photos are now available for viewing and download via Flickr. Every talk was also recorded by Stanford University and are available for viewing on the Open edX YouTube channel.

I am a video producer for edX.org, so I was excited and surprised to find out that I would travel to Stanford for this conference. In my day-to-day work at edX, I rarely spend time focusing on Open edX. For me, this conference helped shed light on the incredible Open edX community and the many elements of edX that interface with that community. Having now experienced it, I’m amazed that all of these moving parts work so well together.

Full Disclosure: I have no background in Computer Science. I am a video producer. When I think Django, I think Quentin Tarantino. Programming is on television. Python is a type of snake, and an OpenStack is an unsecured pile of SD cards. (FYI, SD cards are “Secure Digital” cards. We record video and audio media on these cards, and it’s not cool to write over media that hasn’t been backed up yet, so OpenStacks give me heart palpitations.) So yes, I’m obviously lacking in some basic understanding of edX’s underlying mechanics.

As a member of edX’s Education Services division, it was great for me to spend time with edX’s Engineering and Product divisions to find out how deeply the Rabbit Hole goes. (Answer: really deep. Just keep on going. You’re not really going to find an end point, maybe just a JIRA ticket.) There were many casual jokes thrown out at dinner that didn’t just go over my head, they dodged my planet by a light year or two. And that’s okay. That was my expectation going into this conference.

Stanford campus, showing a building and walkway with arches in the background and Rodin's The Burghers of Calais sculpture in the foreground

Many thanks to Stanford University and Stanford VPTL for hosting this event.

However, there was a significant and unexpected revelation. I now realize that we all have one major thing in common – passion – or, more specifically, passion for an exemplary online learning and teaching experience using edX and Open edX. My passion focuses on course content (as I facilitate the creation of course content), while Product/Engineering’s passion is on the platform and underlying architecture. It was cool to see that we’re all set on the same goal, just from two completely different directions. Overall, I found it fun yet humbling to be in the presence of so many like-minded and intelligent people. I definitely feel more intertwined with edX’s ethos than ever before.

However, that wasn’t the best part of my experience, not by a long shot. My greatest joy was in meeting some of the people who inhabit the Open edX universe. Open edX is like edX Unlimited. (Cue the IMAX music.) Edx.org has bounds in regards to its offered content, whereas Open edX does not. Imagine some course…any course on any topic…and someone somewhere is probably working on Open edX to create it. 

There are many different ecosystems which have already been created on the Open edX platform, and I’m just astounded as to the variety of offerings. FUN, Stanford Online, ESO…I could go on and on. I also learned there are many common needs between edX.org and the Open edX community, both in terms of content and in terms of platform changes/improvements. There is a lot of synergy too.

Being a video professional, I decided to give an Open edX tutorial on video production as well as conduct a “Birds of a Feather” session. Both sessions were well attended, even though they were completely different from one another, and I can happily say that there was 0% programming talk (phew). However, both sessions reinforced my belief that edX partners and Open edX partners have common needs when it comes to thinking about video. 

Since attending the Open edX conference, I’ve continued to be in touch with some of the people I met there. It’s great to see that communications between edX and the Open edX community are extremely fluid. Open edX its own Slack team which is constantly being used to debug issues, share information or engage the community to solve problems. (I now have a #video subchannel, and there have already been a few posts which are programming-related.)

So here’s my pledge. If I attend Open edX 2017 in Madrid, I promise to lead a Video Hackathon. I love the spirit of what a Hackathon represents, and I’d like to give a Video Hackathon a try. The Video Hackathon would be structured like a 24-hour film project with an end product to be shown at the Hackathon presentations.

In total, the Open edX conference was one of the best experiences I’ve had since joining edX almost four years ago. I can’t wait to see what the future of Open edX is going to be. I suspect it will be “everything.”

Group photo of Open edX 2016 Hackathon participants

Group photo of Open edX 2016 Hackathon participants.