Reflections on OpenCon 2017

This post was originally posted here on 15 November 2017.

This past weekend I had the privilege this of attending OpenCon 2017 in Berlin, as a first-timer, after three years of failed application attempts. If you are not familiar with OpenCon, it is an event started in 2014 put together by an organization called SPARC with the goal of using the event as a springboard to building a community of open advocates. The event is described as covering “Open Access, Open Educational, and Open Data”, here I collect these topics under the diminutive open. However, this description doesn’t really do OpenCon justice. OpenCon is so much more than a conference, workshop, colloquium, or whatever name for a gathering of people attracts funding these days. The event is truly one that is difficult to describe. I think this may be in part because the open community itself is such a unique collection of individuals. As I came to learn/reaffirm while attending OpenCon, the community is made up of committed, passionate, diverse (more on this later), intelligent, hard-working, reflective, passionate, supportive, critical (in a good way), caring, talented, and, —did I mention passionate?— individuals.

The Harnack-Haus

Exterior photograph of the Harnack-Haus located in Berlin, Germany

If you want to inspire creativity among talented individuals at an event, step one might be to host it at an inspiring venue. The Harnack-Haus, a site of the Max Planck Society, is just that. The building was constructed in 1929 according to the history of the facility to serve as a venue for scientists. Further, according to the site, it has hosted 35 Nobel Prize winners including Einstein, Planck, Krebs, and Lorenz among others. It was quite the opportunity for me to spend so much time in such a historic place.

Not afraid to experiment

One really cool aspect of OpenCon is that SPARC has purposefully designed it to be experimental in nature. Each year they incorporate new components derived from the community or the organizing committee. As with anything experimental, sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. Luckily the community is adept at self-assessment and is willing to take a critical look at how things turned out, even if it means admitting that they/we made a mistake. This year included a new project work day, called a do-a-thon, as well as a semi-organized social piece called dine-arounds. I thought that the do-a-thon worked really well and I want to talk about that a little more below, the dine-arounds didn’t quite work out as hoped. Turns out that organizing group dinners in largish groups and keeping those plans held together as people commute from one part of the city to another is rather challenging.

Doing the work

While I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of the structure and organization of OpenCon, I have to say that my favorite part by far was the do-a-thon. Briefly, the basic idea was that OpenCon attendees and people not attending in-person (the main event panels and talks are live-streamed so many people participate remotely) could submit project ideas in advance and then time would be dedicated on day three of the event to work on these projects and try to actually get some stuff done. Personally, I’ve attended so many conferences where you meet great people and make plans for cool collaborations only to lose that motivation once you get home and normal work/life commitments get in the way. The do-a-thon, in contrast, provided a dedicated working day during the time we already had set aside for the conference to start new projects or make progress on existing ones and maybe most importantly get help from some of those creative, talented people I’ve been mentioning.

In sum, there were ~70 projects submitted for the do-a-thon covering an extremely wide variety of subjects and modalities. This is a lot of options and possibilities to cover in just one day but that was OK. It was recognized and understood that participants may be interested in more than one project and want to bounce around trying a few before maybe finding one they wanted to dedicate a little more time to.

Personally, I submitted a project called “Engineering: The Book”, basically an idea to develop a open educational resource in the form of a textbook (of sorts) that could be used in an introductory engineering course. This is a project that I actually started about a year ago. By “started” I mean that I initiated a Github repo and then didn’t really get any further with it. For the purposes of the do-a-thon, I defined three main issues I wanted to try to tackle:

  1. Identify and evaluate possible authoring environments
  2. Develop a table of contents based on what we find in existing introductory engineering curriculum
  3. Identify possible sources for content that can be incorporated or adapted

So where did we end up on these three initiatives? During the do-a-thon I had significant help from two great individuals Hector D Orozco Perez and Rebecca Orozco, as well as some contributions from Charles Haas (remotely). Between the three of us, we got a start on fleshing out our ideas on item 1, nearly completed item 2, and got a start on item 3. Overall I’m quite happy with how this turned out. It gives me a bit of a baseline to work from and provides some motivation to continue working on it. Further, with luck, others from the OpenCon community will stay interested as well and check back in on the project and contribute further at a later date. Even if they don’t, these outcomes are already light years ahead of the average academic conference!

Diverse perspectives yield better outcomes

One of the commonalities that holds true in basically any type of work, community, project, etc. is that the best outcomes can be achieved by ensuring that the participants come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. In the open community, the challenges that the community is trying to tackle are so complicated that not having a diversity of perspectives would be a real detriment to the progress of the movement as a whole. In many circumstances, the open movement feels like activism and it often is. The work of scholarship and education have such profound implications and equally profound barriers that it is hard not to view this work as activism. In many cases, an individual’s open access to resources, materials, published works, etc. can mean the difference between gaining an education or not, providing for their family or not, or having equal opportunities to do their work alongside their more privileged peers.

This year, OpenCon featured 186 in-person participants from 66 countries, including representation from six continents. SPARC and the OpenCon organizing committee puts a real emphasis on bringing together a diverse community. Part of this is a critical evaluation of the applicants with an eye for diversity balance. They received more than 13,000 (!) applications this year and intentionally try to limit the size of the event to make it manageable and to keep the budget reasonable. In part, in order to build a diverse attendee population requires significant financial investment to ensure that nobody is left out purely due to financial limitations. In a world where financial limitations can so severely block participation for many groups of people, this is an admirable effort. Academic conferences are generally terrible at this.

What turned out to be one of the most inspiring sessions of OpenCon was the panel discussion on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion taking place at the end of day 2. With presentations and insights from several brave and empowering individuals, this session is well worth a watch.

So, what’s next?

I don’t know exactly. I think I still need a little more time to digest the breadth of information consumed and to allow for the excitement from the event to calm down, revealing the true personal connections that will remain and last. Step 1 might be deciding if I will apply to attend OpenCon again. I have mixed feelings on this in that one on hand, OpenCon was incredibly powerful and motivating and I think I still have more to offer. On the other hand, now that I have had the opportunity to attend, perhaps I should make way for others and allow them to become fellow OpenCon alumni. While I ruminate on that decision, a few clear opportunities exist for things I’d like to follow up on in the near term:

  1. Continue working on the open engineering textbook idea and make use of the great progress we made at the do-a-thon.
  2. Identify regional partners to discuss organizing an OpenCon satellite event in Minneapolis. I met two local partners while at OpenCon and I think we can identify others to begin working out some logistics for this to be possible.
  3. I will become eligible for a sabbatical shortly. I would like to be able to use this opportunity to advance some of my efforts in open engineering. For this to be possible, I need to solidify my plans and start exploring options for funding.

Want to be a part of it?

Visiting DIT and Coventry University

This post was originally posted here on 24 October 2017.

October 8th to the 13th (2017), I traveled to Ireland and England with my dean, Chuck Bomar, to pay visits to the Dublin Institute of Technology (note: DIT is now a part of a newly formed institution called TU Dublin) and Coventry University. The purpose of these visits was to pursue the establishment of new partnerships between UW-Stout and these two intuitions. Chuck has met representatives from each this past summer at the Polytechnic Summit which Stout co-hosted with Purdue and the Hochschule Darmstadt-University of Applied Science.

Notes on the Dublin Institute of Technology

The DIT campus is growing rapidly and is currently in the process of centralizing their various campus units to a large, unified campus space within the center of Dublin. Construction to support this unified campus is ongoing in several locations. They have many strong programs, and are very interested in Mechanical Engineering exchanges. Exchanges for Mechanical might include a semester on campus with an optional industry placement. Other programs of interest were Computer Science, Gaming design, Supply Chain, Construction and perhaps Plastics Engineering. They have strong local partnership with IBM, and would like to explore the possibility of a partnership between Stout, DIT, and IBM. Next steps include the creation of exchange agreements between the two universities so that we can ensure proper transfer of curriculum for students who would choose to do a study abroad. Also, need to explore issues around the industry placement idea to identify any possible road blocks.

Notes on Coventry

We first toured the main campus of Coventry University. Similar to DIT, Coventry is experiencing rapid growth as is evident by the construction occurring around campus. We met with several representatives from the various colleges and programs. All were interested in exchange opportunities, again with connections between several program areas. We quickly identified opportunities in shared capstone experiences and student exchanges. Coventry is actively involved in what they call Online International Learning (OIL) which aims to provide international experiences without needing to leave the home institution. This is likely an easy place to start the relationship. Coventry already has two years of experience conducting similar exchanges with Purdue and other partners. In addition to engineering, we identified collaborative opportunities in real estate/property management, industrial design, apparel, construction, and supply chain management.

The following day we toured Coventry’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME). The institute houses the Manufacturing Engineering program and is a relatively unique in that the students are embedded (physically) within a working manufacturing facility operated by Unipart. This relationship provides the opportunity for integration of real time problem solving with curriculum and close collaborations between the Unipart engineers and the students/faculty. The faculty who work in this environment reflected on the richness of the hands-on experience, while still being connected to the main campus. The AME facility is about 10 minutes away from the main campus and students typically spend three days per week at the AME facility doing integrated learning on real-time scaled manufacturing research problems identified in part by Unipart and the faculty, and two days per week taking classes on the main campus. We hope to identify ways to work together both on campus and AME.

To Summarize

In summary, both DIT and Coventry provide a lot of opportunity for collaboration. What will make the collaboration most successful will be doing student exchanges where students from particular programs are able to swap, and students are able to pay their home campus fees. While not required for the exchange to work, finding companies with facilities in both areas will make this a really special opportunity. Additionally, at both institutions we discussed plans for creating a “Polytechnic Consortium” which would act as a joint agreement between partner institutions to develop a streamlined process for curriculum agreements and student exchanges. This consortium would act as a clearinghouse for curriculum transfer agreements, industry placement opportunities, and other opportunities for students from any one partner institution to spend a semester at another partner institution. We have planned to explore this opportunity at each of our home institutions and reconvene at the next Polytechnic Summit to begin making arrangements.

Traffic on the camino

For the most part, walking either to town or back to the house on the caminos is calm and pleasant. Not too many cars or motos because they are basically foot paths, only the occasional dirt bike.

But every once in a while you run into this:

A bull walking down the path, coming around the corner of a pile of rocks.

Of course, the path isn’t quite wide enough to just pass each other so you have to find a place to jump out of the way.

Usually they are being moved between fields to on there way to a good drinking spot. In any case, you have to be on your toes when they come down the path.

Why write about travel

I read somewhere recently (can’t remember where) about the benefits of writing about travel in order to better remember the experiences. The idea was that by capturing the little things when they happen, you will be better able to remember the experiences and the things you did years down the road.

I tend to do a fair amount of travel for work, attending conferences, visiting partner universities, etc., though not nearly as much as some academics and much much less than those in other career fields. Still, I enjoy having the ability to travel some and experience other cultures and meet other people.

This year, I am on sabbatical from my university and my family is using it as an opportunity do a little traveling while I work on my research and broaden our exposure to other places. While I’m nearly half way through my sabbatical year by this point, I still thought it might be worthwhile to start writing a bit about the experiences we’ve had so far and those yet to come.

I think I’ll start by re-posting here some things I’ve written in the past in other places before diving in with some new stuff. In any case, this is more for me than for other readers, so I’m not too worried about what I write and collect on this site.

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