I am #IndieEdTech


I first saw #IndieEdTech on a Tom Woodward tweet, which may be why it caught my attention. I work with Tom at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Academic Learning Transformation Lab and have never known him to be a casual hashtagger. As I contemplated the hashtag, I remembered he was attending the Indie EdTech Data Learning Summit, a meeting on personal APIs hosted by Davidson College, a meeting so low key it had escaped my radar entirely until I was trying to track down Tom and Jon Becker, who were both there.  A couple more #IndieEdTech tweets from the likes of Jim Groom and Kristen Eshleman…yes #IndieEdTech was being used as a conference hashtag.

Most conference hashtags are limited in scope, meant to help conference participants find each other, pass on conference announcements, identify trends and climate, and contextualize tweets.  Furthermore, most conference/meeting hashtags are (literally) dated. #ELI15. #AACUGenEd16. #NLC2016.  Have you ever followed a TAGS Explorer of a conference hashtag? Their use drops off significantly once attendees get home and then typically disappear altogether once they have written their post-conference reflections.

But #IndieEdTech is more than a conference hashtag. I (we) need it to be something more.

pauls deli
Paul’s Deli , Williamsburg Virginia

I attended the College of William and Mary in the late 90s. At the time, there were no bars in Williamsburg because city ordinances required all alcohol-serving establishments to include full kitchens and table service. Instead, students hung out at the “delis,” a row of bars-serving-meat-subs-and-cheese-fries across from campus. While the delis served the same food in the same format, each one represented a different scene: College Deli was for the greeks and underage drinkers, Greenleaf for faculty and law students, Momma Mias for loners and shady dealers, and Paul’s Deli for students who tended to follow the rules. Your deli was your hangout, but it was also your calling card. To say that my crew and I closed Paul’s most nights of the week meant something to others as well as to ourselves.

Hashtags are virtual pinboards and meeting spaces, but they can be a demonstration of identity as well. Many academic tweeters list hashtags in our Twitter profiles to signal something about ourselves. In college I was Paul’s Deli. Now I am #connectedlearning, #opened, and #highered. My hashtags are my “scene” and my scene says a lot about who I am, who I hang out with, and what I believe.


We don’t know what #IndieEdTech is yet. In terms of the trending IndieEd Tech movement, Audrey Watters wrote a blog post on it last year. Adam Croom and Jim Groom have presented on it. The focus seems to be on personal APIs – taking back digital spaces from schools and learning management systems and the like and giving them to the students to craft, use, and own in their learning in any way that they like. Kristen Eshleman reflected that Indie EdTech is about the individual. Ok, that’s fine. It draws on underlying principles of academic freedom and student agency and we know I can get with that. However, I’m not sure it’s enough to think about #IndieEdTech through the lens of student agency.

Thingvellir hosted the ancient coming together of all of Iceland for lawmaking, socializing, and business. It also happens to be the site of shifting teutonic plates: visualizable continental drift.

I just returned home from #OLCInnovate (reflection coming shortly). One of the highlights for me was Rolin Moe’s museum installation, which challenged our perceptions of innovation right there from the center of the vendor hall.  We generally think of innovation as a good thing, but Rolin used his platform to present innovation as a more complex concept. When we reflect on what innovation means (which occurs infrequently anyway), we tend to think about what innovation means to us as individuals. We fail to consider what innovation means to us as a community of educational technologists. He suggested that we should be working towards a deeper, more collective understanding of why we create change so that we might make more of an impact.

The Indie EdTech Data Summit notwithstanding, I think it’s time for more of us as a group of educational technologists to think about, explore, and describe aspects of Indie EdTech –  collectively.  Furthermore, while I think it’s important to keep the student (or the individual, really) at the center of the discussion, there is absolutely nothing wrong with exploring it from a relational perspective, either.  In her keynote for the summit, Audrey Watters stated she didn’t want to talk about indie versus industry.  Ok, that makes sense too, because no one ever got anywhere by pitting two groups together (at least no one I ever cared to know).  However, I want to talk about indie in relation to the establishment – I’m not talking about business models here, I’m talking about people and how they relate. To do so might scaffold some mutual understanding, self-reflection, and strategies for moving through the educational world as we know it.

The Indie Connection

So what is #IndieEdTech? While Jim Groom and Adam Croom tend to talk about Indie EdTech in terms of the indie music scene, I prefer the film industry, in part because it offers a useful narrative around the relationship between independent and establishment filmmakers. Much of the summary provided below comes from a synthesis of this wikipedia article, this blog post, and this website.


In 1908, nine major American film companies joined the leading film distributor and film stock producer to create the New Jersey-based Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). The group, also known as the “Edison Trust,” ended foreign dominance over the domestic film industry by standardizing film distribution and production. However, MPPC patents made it difficult for other U.S. film companies to operate.

Many of these “independent” filmmakers moved west, settling in Hollywood, California, where local court systems had little interest in policing copyright policies for east-coast businesses. Out there on their own, these filmmakers built their own equipment, explored alternative business models, and experimented with a longer “feature film” format. In contrast, MPPC producers were reluctant to explore feature film despite positive public response to indie products. Instead, they used their resources to perfect the status quo: the shorter format film.

When World War I limited their foreign market and anti-trust laws disrupted their monopoly, MPPC had to shut down in 1918; among other things, they were being outperformed by the indie filmmakers. The independent filmmakers, who by this time had created the studio system, established their control over the mainstream market and ushered in the golden age of Hollywood film. They became the new establishment.

Even in the golden age, new independent filmmakers emerged supported by United Artists and similar groups. World War II triggered a new wave of trustbusting and tech, which included smaller, cheaper, more accessible cameras. Suddenly, filmmaking was an activity “of the people,” and many were able to take bigger creative risks with low budget features. Meanwhile, major studios perfected the “specatacle,” incredibly expensive, unabashedly big epics and musicals that spoke to the aesthetics and dreams of an aging audience. A new wave of trustbusting and disruptive tech (this time, television) threatened to topple the major studios, but they recovered (somewhat) by quickly appropriating indie talent and techniques. Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, and The Graduate evoke the indie aesthetic, but were all major studio films.

Hollywood had perfected the spectacle by the early 60s, but had lost touch with  younger audiences who prefered the aesthetic and content matter of independent films. When Cleopatra and similar spectacles flopped, the studios quickly hired independent talent to make their own “indie-style” films.


What can we learn from the story of indie films?  First, an intimate and cyclical relationship exists between the establishment and the indie. The former deals in a known narrative that many people find comfortable and easy to understand. The latter exists because they are either excluded and/or they need something different to be happy. The establishment tends to pour its resources into refining or improving what it already knows. MPPC focused on the short film format. The aging studios made spectacular flops. The ed tech establishment sells next generation learning management systems and publishes on learning analytics. The establishment’s obsessive quest for “best practice” assumes a uniform and frequently narrow context; this makes it vulnerable in the presence of social or institutional disruption. In these instances, the establishment either appropriates indie innovation or crumbles, leaving indies to fill the vacuum.


The cycle described above involves the departure of the indie from the main scene.  Some people use the punk scene to describe this process – as a scene, punk rock is openly angry, rebellious, and tends to position itself in direct opposition to the establishment.  Some indie films are the same – there’s an entire subgenre of dystopia out there. However , indie doesn’t have to be dystopic.  Indie can involve the practice of (in)appropriation, remixing and repurposing aspects of the established narrative to transform it into something entirely new. Not opposite…different. Not angry…curious.

I spent some quality time at #OLCInnovate talking about this with Adam Croom. He worries that people might conceptualize #IndieEdTech through a single lens, specifically, the opposite or the reflection of the establishment. We agreed that it’s important not to think of indie through a single platform, tool, or practice.

Let me be clear: my #IndieEdTech is not about personal APIs.  It’s about how students and faculty interact with the open web and how we can explore it together.  As Adam mentioned in his last post, he and I have a very honest relationship. He knows better than to throw a specific digital tool at me without brainstorming with me about how it can transform the learning experience.  My point is that you don’t have to be a GitHub or Wikity expert to be #IndieEdTech.  I mean, you could be, but you don’t have to be. #IndieEdTech is bigger scene than that.


By definition, indie is uncomfortable for many mainstream audiences because it tends to trigger a visceral response to things we usually ignore.  When indie artists seek scalability, they are often faced with demands to regress to the mean, soften the edges, compromise their creative integrity. For some, the tension between authenticity and scalability becomes too much and they exit the game. The Filmmakers Cooperative, for example, refused to work in or with Hollywood because it was “morally corrupt and aesthetically obsolete.” Some indies are separatists, punks, the avant garde of film who make beautiful things for niche audiences (often overseas).  Above all, they are true to their authentic selves but at the cost of scalability.

However, there are other independent filmmakers  who stay in the game and struggle constantly with conflict between authenticity and scale.  When indie director Kevin Smith made Jersey Girl (2004) within the studio system, he complained:

I had to actually listen to studio notes… So there were changes made to the movie… I never want to go through this shit again… It got me to a point where I was like, ‘I don’t want to fucking work with a lot of money, because that means that the studio is going to make you do whatever you can to make it more palatable to the masses.’


But what if scalability didn’t have to mean a single narrative, a regression to a singular mean? A learning management system? What if we can work within paradigms such as connected learning or universal design for learning, which foster educational inclusiveness and student engagement through the diversification of pathways to academic success?  Jon Becker and I are currently writing on how connected learning presents a compelling method for implementing UDL principles.  

As our #OLCInnovate keynote speaker, Angie McArthur argued, valuable collaboration does not occur when people automatically agree to a single narrative. Her keynote, essentialized:


Indie has been described as a “maddeningly elusive term.”  There is history to the term, indie and it goes something like this… Individuals who lack a voice in or whose needs are not met by the establishment will separate themselves from it. They begin to explore (or innovate) alternative approaches. Indie involves thinking differently, not necessarily better. Indie implies risk. It is inherently diverse. Indie is about organic upstarts, each with a do-it-yourself ethos and a dedication to trying something different. None are exactly the same.

Being indie is not necessarily a disruption, but can be a reflection, a transformation, an offering of alternatives.  It is about embracing the awkwardness of difference and accepting a multitude of approaches in terms of format, content, information positioning, and distribution.

Being indie means being yourself, but for me, it also means being in the presence of and in relation to others.  I look forward to a bigger, broader, inclusive discussion.

I am #IndieEdTech. So are you.







7 Comments Add yours

  1. CogDog says:

    Much deli to feast on here, but what an epic treatment! Adam invited me to the summit; I almost did not go because it was out of pocket expense, but was so worth it. While we have been batting around some idea of what Indie Ed-Tech (always hyphenated according to The Audrey) is, frankly a precise definition seems pointless. You know it when you see it. Feel it.

    I do wonder what happens to it, and its metaphors you describe, when they get self aware they are a thing. When they start thinking about growth, and changing a larger system, or can they go on just being interested in making good music / food/ movies? How much does self-Indie-awareness affect their own way?


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Hi Alan! Self awareness can be a problem for sure, but it’s also the root of self-reflection and regulation. Precise definitions are pointless, but a sense of ethics is essential. Student agency. Inclusiveness. Respect for diversity. Thinking differently but with purpose. Etc. Things like these (those are possibilities, not meant to be definitive or comprehensive) help us be strategic about next steps. Sometimes it’s so easy to go down a road of shiny new toys that we need to stop and check ourselves to make sure we know how the newest platform or tool fits into the big picture. I’m a fan of being explicit, self aware, and talking it out. Engineered (or designed -I like designed, personally) serendipity is just that …designed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. CogDog says:

    My use of “self-awareness” was not the best choice. Absolutely individual self-awareness is critical for looking inward and outward.

    I was aiming more for the awareness of musicians or restaurant owners first that this “thing” they were doing is liked by their local crowd, but at some point it gets a name. Punk, Grunge musicians did not start out with that name, it was applied. And I imagine them, or your deli operators set out with plans to “scale” or play stadium concerts or hope 100 chains. Their indie intent was on their interests and their local patrons.

    My friends here who started a micro-brewery tell stories that when they were starting, the other micro-breweries in the region did not seem them as a threat/competition, and in fact, offered advice, equipment, supplies. The people who do this stuff see it as a net gain for everyone if someone can help raise the regional interest in craft beer; if everyone grows more customers, everyone wins. It’s not a tech startup mentality.

    What happens when a little indie thing becomes a bigger one? That is the awareness I was trying to describe, that they are aware that their “thing” is popular to a much larger pool than they intended from the outset. And can they remain true to their craft when the interest grows?

    This focus on craft/locals is different from starting out with some tech idea hoping to scale it and IPO it.


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Well, I think there’s a couple of different ways to think about this. If you consider #IndieEdTech to be a “scene” (and not a business), then you can look at collective awareness (possibly better than self-awareness? I don’t know) as a way of providing a space where people can be at home. I realize that it is important to be careful to avoid an “us versus them” mentality, as James Gee laid out in his beautiful critique of learning communities versus affinity spaces. I think there’s something missing in today’s landscape – somewhere between digped, opened, connectedlearning, etc. These spaces aren’t competing for anything. They are giant, diversified but inclusive carpet for those of us who are bouncing around out here. That metaphor might be a stretch but the point is that I don’t want anyone (including myself) to fall through the cracks.
      Is it possible that you are more concerned about collective organization than collective awareness? When the independent filmmakers were banished from the east coast by the MPPC, they organized. They built Hollywood. They became the next establishment. Alan, this may be an opportunity to wear a suit everyday and work in an office with its own parking space! (just kidding). I’m not ready to go down that path and that’s not what I’m asking for. I’m not sure anyone with whom I’ve spoken is…but it’s there. It’s a possibility. But for right now, I’m tired of existing in the cracks. #IndieEdTech is a new possibility for people like me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. CogDog says:

        I’m wary of the weaknesses of metaphors, and frankly am not worried about any Animal Farming happening. I’ve spent my career in the cracks but it’s been with others, and it’s actually not a bad place. A thing I’ve had is good luck in positions that gave me room to make a livable income and the looseness to do this “other” stuff.


  3. The editorial here suggests that indie is a reaction to unmet needs from the establishment – thus, DIY. The context presumes a centralized power dimension that serves as a gateway to accessing the channels that reach broad audiences. The struggle is centered around how indies can have the same reach as traditional institutions. This is a reasonable conclusion given the historical record.

    However, I propose that this model is obsolete. The barriers to entry for anyone who wishes to reach a mass audience have been demolished. The most lavish productions in TV today are within the independent streaming media systems – not TV broadcasters. There is no voice in the world unheard today on any level of production. With no barriers to access, the concept of “indie” as a departure from mainstream is flattened by the reality that there is (becoming) no longer a mainstream to be separated from. Everyone is indie.

    Now let’s talk seriously about “indie”. Below is a list of rebellious ideas which I am certain mainstream education would reject because they are either non-traditional or outside of the accepted body of knowledge:

    1 – LMS course architecture should not reflect the traditions of Web design (which is based on print design) but instead on metaphors for learning. Thus, an online course should be designed to scroll horizontally to more closely represent the concept of a timeline (rather than the hierarchical structure of a newspaper). Given that there are multiple valid metaphors for learning (scaffolding, accretion, expansion, etc.), shouldn’t learners have a choice about how they want their online learning experience to be portrayed visually?

    2 – Dr. Brenda Dervin’s research into information needs and use tells us that everyone, when seeking to solve a problem, approaches a stopping point according to where their sense runs out. These are unique to individual realities, each with their own set of questions about how to continue to move forward. Each form of help from more experienced individuals has its own “help effect” on individuals according to the nature of their stopping point. How could we fold the experiences of prior students in a course to help current students who are struggling at the same or similar stopping points in their learning? The design of online learning – though perfectly capable of facilitating this information – fails to see the need for it, even though that is how we learn in real life. This idea opposes the notion that each student goes to school and is on his/her own to get through it, with no connection to those who have gone before.

    3 – Traditionally, institutional advancement (raising money) is driven by a sense of alma mater and the extension of one’s personal values through charitable giving. This is all fine except one’s impact can only be felt through one’s financial might, which marginalizes the impact of the values of the majority of people (artists, musicians, and writers/poets, perhaps) who do not dwell in the top 1%. This is an injustice. Rather, through courses/programs that utilize concepts of idea #2 above, ALL alumni would be able to impart their experience and sense of alma mater through INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN that enables them to be included in the support of young minds. Under these conditions, there would be virtually no barriers to alumni participation. But then this “flattening” of alumni giving might alienate big money donors, wouldn’t it?

    Will a hashtag facilitate the integration of these ideas? Doubtful. They are too big and too distant from the margins of conformity.

    Rather, I propose that #IndieEdTech focus its attention on ideas in which technologies are used in ways for which they were not intended. This notion is truly disruptive and more representative of independent thinking. Hip-hop is perhaps the best example — making original music by means of using two of the same record on two record players with a channel fader in between — borne out the limit resources at-hand and a drive to be expressive. Simply brilliant and disruptive, and no one could have foreseen it as a multi-billion dollar industry today.


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