by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 24 December 2018
Kathi Fletcher’s OERPUB project was an important piece of work for the Shuttleworth Foundation. During her three-year Fellowship between 2011 and 2014, Kathi explored one of the biggest challenges with Open Educational Resources (OER) at the time:
How can real human beings - teachers, for example - author, remix and share material with others when the OER toolset was almost impenetrable for non-technical people?
In the early days of OER, anyone wanting to create and remix open textbooks needed reasonable knowledge of markup language, complicated models and coding. By making the process simple and natural to teachers and educators, OER could come closer to realising the wider benefits of open beyond sharing - collaboration and reuse.
OERPUB was also a modular project, and while the Shuttleworth Foundation funds work that often ends up as successful, public-facing initiatives, it isn’t a prerequisite. It’s ideas that inspire us, and the brilliant people behind them that have a particular itch to scratch.
“I had no plans to turn this into a business,” says Kathi. “I just needed to fix something. I wanted to contribute an idea to the world and leave it there for others to build on.”
Kathi’s educational background is in computer science and electrical engineering - an experience she remembers as being “entirely open source” - but her career has taken her into much broader fields.
After graduating, Kathi began working for a small company that developed ‘middleware’ software. “It’s pretty much the most boring thing a person can do,” she laughs. “I spent ten years building programs that allowed different softwares to talk to each other.
She then applied for and received a grant to build science software for an elementary school, cementing her interest in OER and introducing her to User Experience (UX), the field of designing software that real people can use. She then became a researcher at Rice University, after which she took on a role as Project Manager at Connexions - a Rice University-led nonprofit renowned for being one of the first major OER initiatives.
This mix of middleware perspective combined with her career skills and experience gives Kathi a unique understanding of the OER field. She can see over ‘both sides of the fence’. She knows the difference between what developers want to do, and what educators really need. And she has an ability to translate between the two, connect the dots, and turn her visions into workable projects.
“At Connexions, we started looking at the big issue with educational texts,” recalls Kathi. “There was no real, great way of authoring and remixing for real human beings …OER were very clunky, ugly and hard to use. I just had to solve that problem.”
“I was developing an appreciation for UX,” explains Kathi. “I felt it best to invest more in design and usability over the technical detail, and use my middleware background to create connections between different pieces of software.
“I wanted to build a really usable, beautiful editing experience for authors, similar to a Word document, but with the ability to share it with other authors and editors.”
This was the vision for OERPUB, but turning it into a reality proved difficult. “The work at Connexions was intense,” she says. “I ran everything that was going on, managed everyone and had to deal with a lot of competing needs. I really needed time and space to get working on this project.”
Kathi’s proposal to the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship was to work on some ‘technical plumbing’ to connect different softwares and create a usable, sharable editing experience for authors.
From the Foundation’s perspective, this was a timely and necessary idea. While OERs at the time granted legal rights, user access was locked in silos across different platforms and lacked the ecosystem needed for everyday communities, teachers and educators to benefit.
It was also clear that Kathi had the ability to get the project off the ground. She had already established relationships with many teacher connections, after meeting and working with Mark Horner of Siyavula. And as well as having a wealth of technical and project management, she shared the Foundation’s values on openness.
“I feel like I have been brought up with open,” Kathi says. “In grad school we were sharing all the time, and it seems entirely normal to me. I mean - what if someone had copyrighted the number system? Open is just part of who I am.”
The Foundation awarded Kathi Fletcher a Shuttleworth Fellowship in 2011 and funded the OERPUB project to get it off the ground. The money helped Kathi pay for developers to start work on technical tools to connect OER and designers to create a usable editing suite. It also gave her the chance to talk to the people that mattered most.
“I travelled all over to speak to lots of educators,” recalls Kathi. “It was important to find out how they worked. Expecting regular teachers to use markup language is difficult, so we built an editor that made things natural for them.
“It was very simple,” she continues. “There was no need to do anything else but write and ‘drag and drop’ - teachers didn’t have to learn a crazy model.
“We did a lot of testing and experimenting - always asking ‘are we doing something too complicated? Are we being too geeky? Is it more complicated than they need?’ It was a very successful and satisfying part of the Fellowship.”
Over the course of the three-year journey, Kathi created an API for publishing OER and editor, tested OERPUB with teachers, and finally released the editor on Github. The project is still there - available for anyone to use, remix, adapt and build on. But was it a success? Kathi is in two minds.
“OERPUB was fairly successful,” says Kathi. “When I left the Fellowship I went back to Connexions - it’s now called Openstax - and a lot of the interface work we did is still in use. However, for individual goals - I don’t know. I had big plans that didn’t all come true.
“There’s nothing wrong with that - I’m in it for the long game - but there was more to the Fellowship than OERPUB. The common projects where Fellows would get together and tackle a problem still happen. To this day I have good working relationships with Mark Horner, Philipp Schmidt, Dan Whaley - all of them. Everything I learned in the Fellowship…I’m still using today.”
“I loved meeting with the other Fellows,” recalls Kathi of her time with the Foundation. “Partly because it’s so unlike large organisations where there is a certain amount of conservatism and a narrowing of focus.
“But the Fellowship was also important in a psychological way. These are people working on problems that, if solved, will make the world a better place in 10-15 years. It’s really nice to be part of a group that has big goals.
“What’s absolutely unique about the Fellowship, Fellows and gatherings is that there is no sense of competition. You get to try different things and be radical, but there is a sense of safety in that space. It’s very nice and refreshing - just knowing it exists is helpful.
“Being in an organisation where everyone wants you to succeed and is comfortable questioning what you are doing - it’s honest criticism, nothing to worry about.
“You get to apply yourself, accomplish your goals, and help others accomplish theirs.”
Today, Kathi’s work for Openstax has helped it grow from a 12-person team to a 60-person company. The organisation pivoted towards making open and free professional textbooks, and is also creating tools like intelligent practice for students to learn from that content.
Openstax has 31 college textbooks covering the first two years of courses, and every semester the books are used by 2.5 million students. It means Kathi and the Openstax team are helping college kids save around $160 million per semester, and, perhaps, are partly responsible for the ludicrous price of textbooks dropping for the first time in 50 years. “Our practice software, OpenStax Tutor, is available for three college courses,” she explains. “It serves as our research platform into how students learn.”
Interestingly, Openstax has a new vision - one that harks back to the areas of work Kathi covered with OERPUB.
“The new vision is that by combining high quality complete textbooks, instrumenting intelligent practice software, and building a world-renowned research collaboration on student learning, we can create a virtuous cycle of learning and improvement.
“We shouldn’t have separate pieces of software in a separate library of textbooks, that benefit only a small subset of students. We want to unify it all.
“It brings my focus back to the puzzle of making a compelling platform for textbooks and learning that still allows people to own, change and adapt them themselves - but still use original practice tools we developed for the original textbook.
“In computer science, there’s a cycle,” she says. “You try something out, everyone says it’s interesting but it never takes off - yet ten years later it’s part of the norm. We spent three years on OERPUB and I’m convinced it will come around again. And I’m in a great position to help make it work when the stars align.”