My Open Story: Part 1

A Semester of Open

Posted by Billy Meinke on September 11, 2015   •   5 min read

Gosh, it's been a while since I blogged.

A number of interesting things have happened this year, namely that I transitioned out of working with Creative Commons. I could go on and on about the fascinating people I met, and the interesing projects I had a hand in carrying out, but I think it'd be more interesting (and fun for me) to do a recap of the journey that took me from grad student at the University of Hawaii* to being a member of Creative Commons' heavy-hitting education team for several years.

*I’m again working at UH with the Distance Course Design & Consulting group…details will be in future posts.

The majority of my professional network - on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. - are folks that I met while being part of the open community. This community is made up largely of non-profit orgs, academic groups, researchers and free & open source software developers. There are also a handful of businesses that are trying to leverage openness (open content, code, data) to support a for-profit business model. I love the open community, but I must admit that I originally wasn't part of it at all.

I fell into it somewhat by chance.

During the last semester of my educational technology master's degree program, I worked as a graduate assistant supporting higher education faculty in their use of technology tools. It was a sort of meta experience for me: During the day, I created tutorials and ran workshops for staff in the College of Education, and at night I studied instructional design processes and theory. But then a course was offered during my last semester that changed everything for me. I mean, everything.

The course was ETEC 647C, Open Source Software in Education. It was being led by the director of the technology and distance learning group I worked for, Paul Mckimmey. The course covered topics from Richard Stallman and the free software movement, to predatory patent trolls and software, to open source developer communities. For me, the kicker was that the final project required students to participate in an open source software community, and reflect on the experience with other learners in the course. As a non-programmer, I wasn't immediately sure how I could participate or work with software developers at all. But obviously, that's not the case for me now - I'm the Community Organizer for Code for Hawaii, among having many relationships with software developers.

But let's go back to being a grad student for a moment.

I literally had never had a full-time career position at that point, but had been bumped up to an uncommon (at least in my department) 40hr graduate assistantship. Me, work with a programmer community? Well shit, how was I supposed to do that? How could I find a community that would be welcoming enough that I would actually want to participate in it? Easier said than done, or so I thought.

Way back from Prezi Office, beautiful day

It was Spring semester, and in the beginning of March, I traveled to my first professional conference outside of Hawaii. I literally had pulled up a list of educational technology conferences on a random website, and browsed through until I found the Digital Media & Learning 2012 conference happening in San Francisco. Off I went with my close friend Jon Kevan, into the unknown. At that conference, a fledgling project called Mozilla's Open Badges was playing part host and encouraging the exploration of an open alternative to the standard credential - the open badge. Manning a booth during the conference's "science fair" were Carla Cassili, Erin Knight, and Chris McAvoy. And they wanted people to get interested in Open Badges. I was interested.

Off I went, with an energy that would be hard to describe.

Back to Hawaii I flew after the conference, and straight to my ETEC 647C instructor, Paul. I asked if it would be possible to be a part of the Open Badges community to satisfy the requirements of the final project of his course. "Sure" he said, "Not a problem, just make sure you contribute in some way."

My personal life was freshly open and more flexible than usual at that point, so making the 6:00am (Hawaii time) community calls for the Open Badges project wasn't a big deal. I mean, I got to talk to folks that work at Mozilla every week. Hell yeah! And I got to find out about interesting developments from folks all over the world who were working on improving the microcredential. Much of what I learned was not just about badges, but about how professionals work in the open community. They work openly, and that was just the start of my experience with it.

2014-05-26 11.12.20

Week after week, I listened in on the calls (using a conference telephone line and an Etherpad for notes), and sometimes had interesting things to share back to the group. I wrote blog post reflections about how the Open Badges technology worked, and with a little help from my college's systems administrator Stephan Fabel, I created a tutorial for people who wished to create their own Open Badges by hand. That tutorial ended up being the most popular post on my old blog, second only to the post sharing my iBook how-to guide to using Prezi presentation software.

The open bug had bit me, and I was diving head-first into it. Oh, Wikipedia isn't just a free website of information? It's open(ly)(licensed) content, too? And it runs on free software? And there are things called open licenses that make it all possible? You can see where I'm going with this.

So, the course came to a conclusion, and I wanted to know more about open things. I wanted to be involved with them - heck, I wanted to work on them for a living. But is that even possible? The last few years of my professional exploration have proven to me that it's possible. Is it lucrative? Not usually, at least not by typical technology industry standards. But it is rewarding - very much so.

My journey towards earning the master's degree had come to a close, and I was more certain than ever that I wanted a job working in the open community. This was June of 2012, and I had no idea where the next few years would take me. But I was confident that if I expected to find any success joining the leagues of those who work on open things day-to-day, I needed to put myself right smack dab in the middle of it. I left Hawaii for Mountain View, California, and there the real journey began.

More of that in Part 2.