A Journey to discover what is Indie Ed-tech

What a weekend I’ve just had! What a week! What a fortnight! I met some amazing people at SXSW and on top of that I’ve just spent the last couple of days in the company of some of the most amazing and talented people in the world of technology, education and all the various ways they intersect. People often say “never meet your heroes” to soften the impact in case they might disappoint – but what’s the reverse? What if they blow you away? What if meeting them actually confirms that their humanity is actually far more engaging than their work that drew you in? That they are rich and complex people that extend beyond their work? What if their work is just a facade and behind that are people who are kind, funny, sweet and complex? I wasn’t really prepared for that and I’m still kind of in awe. In awe to spend time in their company, but to discuss and work with them – astounding!

Adam and Alan have put together a couple of excellent posts on what happened at the Indie EdTech Data Summit so I won’t rehash that. I do however just want to say thanks to Kristen Eshleman and the team at Davidson College who were amazing hosts and I was glad I got to spend a couple of extra days in their neck of the woods. Erin and Ben from Known ran an incredible design journey that everyone contributed to and resulted in something meaningful. Audrey and Kin who’s presentation kicked everything off and really got us thinking right away about why we were there and what we could do about it.

But what is Indie Ed-Tech, and what the hell is the Personal API?

The answer to that is why we were all gathered together. There was something about the unknown, the undefined and the mysterious that intrigued enough people to make it worth getting together. It’s a topic area that is very much in the realm of the Not-Yetness and the protean. Over the course of the weekend it was something that started to take shape and form, emerging from the mist and the clouds as something solid. I’ve been dwelling on this the last couple of days – trying to make sense of the experience and the ideas, emotions and themes that came out of working together. Students and teachers and technologists and creatives and designers and writers and thinkers. All coming together and sharing. So here’s some of my initial impressions – please take them and riff of them, or take them apart and redo them!

Indie Ed-tech is infrastructure that supports scholarly agency and autonomy.

If it came down to a one sentence description – that would be it. So let’s unpack it a bit:

  • Infrastructure – I think what we would all like is for technology to become less visible, and to do that we have to bury it. To make it infra – under the ground – doesn’t deny it exists, but it relegates it to being part of the process, but not the process itself.
  • Scholarly – One of the best things I heard over the weekend was the case that we need to remove the teacher/student divide. Embracing the concept that education is based on a community of scholars allows change to occur in the power dynamics. It also removes an Us vs Them binary that tends to limit the discussion and vision around learning.
  • Agency – What the students involved in the workshop made pretty clear is that they have very little agency in their education (and this is in the liberal arts!). In fact I’ve heard many teachers communicate the same problem. Agency is missing and the centralised systems that currently dominate the [Pop Edu[( market don’t address this, in fact they tend to make it worse.
  • Autonomy – Another failure of current technologies is that there is little autonomy. There is a singular way to do things, a single system and single prescription that all students and staff have to adhere too. Greater autonomy increases investment into learning and improves engagement.

The agreed on example of Indie Ed-tech is Domain Of Ones Own because its been replicated across multiple institutions with considerable success thanks to the work of Jim Groom and Tim Owens at Reclaim Hosting. It exemplifies the statement above but also qualifies it – that success is based on change, there is a need to adopt the Indie mindset.

I came out of the weekend feeling that Indie represents an alternative vision for how technology might operate in education. The Indie mindset challenges and changes the existing power distribution and dynamics that are often at the heart of the issues we face. It emphasises networked rather than centralised practices and the relationships built through collaboration and cooperation. It empower users by allowing for greater choice, diversity and individual representation and expression. Indie is truly a game changer.

The Personal API

I’m still getting my head around the concept of the Personal API but having got to hear Kin Lane speak on a couple of occasions I can report that he has certainly earns the title of API Evangelist. One thing that Kin raised was the idea of an API First approach to design and it’s radically changed the way I think about design and development. Having experienced the failure of the Waterfall approach to project management and Agile (in my mind) not being quite the solution, centralising the design process around the API might be a way of developing front and backend designs simultaneously and collaboratively.

But what is the Personal API?

My initial musing about the Personal API (P-API) are in this provocation and boil down to:

  • a way to claim sovereignty over our own identity online
  • a first step towards independence
  • a way to create distributed systems
  • it provides a system for choice
  • it could create an enhanced form filler
  • improves transactional behaviours online
  • allows users to assign a death to data
  • backend for creating of my own operating system
  • fix the problems of the web
  • mechanism for us to make decisions about the web
  • it will be foundational to the “next web”
  • it needs to be accessible

So do they hold up? In many ways yes – but I was wrong to focus on the P-API being the product or the solution. The strength of the P-API is in the process and what it allows when you go through the effort of setting it up. I also came to appreciate the fact that the P-API is not the same thing as a Domain of Ones Own. That you can have a P-API but utilise existing systems and services, that PAPI and DOOO are not synonyms – they are and can be distinct entities.

The web is often described as “small pieces loosely connected”, but the P-API changes that. What’s possible with the P-API is the creation of small pieces deeply connected. Small pieces that can be swapped and changed to suit the individual, the technology available and the required outcome. In that sense the P-API can be seen as a backbone to Indie Ed-tech because of it’s influence on agency and autonomy. While none of the projects the groups designed would require the P-API to function they would all be greatly enhanced by it’s use because its the medium for connections. I came away thinking that what APIs in general represent are the cement that the web needs, and it’s for that reason they are vitally important. APIs will be the cement through which we can build something new and better from the web.

I’m going to finish up here – mainly because the airport I’m in is not really conducive to writing at all, but also because there’s plenty more to think about and say. This is really a rough dump of ideas – the most coherent any way – so a work in progress.


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

14 replies on “A Journey to discover what is Indie Ed-tech”

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