This summer I was lucky enough to attend Open Apereo – the annual conference run by the Apereo Foundation, a non-profit organization which develops and sustains open source software for education. The University of Edinburgh’s web portal, MyEd, runs on uPortal, which is one of a number of open source solutions supported by Apereo. This blog post highlights a few of the aspects of the conference that I found most worthwhile.
One of the most important aspects of the conference is the opportunity for the Apereo community to meet and share experiences and ideas. As someone new to uPortal, being able to get to know some of the uPortal community, and meet many of the people who contribute to the project as well as other institutions who use it was incredibly valuable. Seeing how other institutions implement uPortal, and understanding something of the very different, and also very similar priorities and concerns that we have encourages you to challenge and test your ideas, as well as sparking new ideas and perspectives.
Students as developers
Employing students, and the advantages of doing this was a topic that came up many times during the conference. This is something that we do a lot in Information Services, and have had very positive experiences of, but it was interesting to see other institutions’ perspectives on this. Oakland University ran a great session on this, co-presented by Aaron Grant, Associate Director of Emerging Technology and Joshua Brudnak, one of their student developers. Their programme supports students working for them over longer periods, up to a number of years in some cases, and encourages students to specialise in areas of particular interest to them. Students working over a longer period are able to build up significant expertise in their areas. It also allows for a greater degree of peer to peer support and mentoring. It was evident from the presentation that the students are really engaged and committed, and being able to see their work contributing over the long-term only builds on this.
User experience challenges
User experience was another area that was mentioned in many sessions. When users have to interact with an ever increasing number of online systems and services, how do you deliver a consistent user experience? This particular challenge was raised in reference to the NGDLE, but is also very relevant to the work that we’re doing with MyEd, and the work that other institutions are doing with uPortal. Portals bring together data and services, and attempt to present this to users in a consistent and coherent way, but often they do this in an institution-centred way. That’s certainly been the case for MyEd, and we know from the user research we have done, that this often doesn’t make sense to students. It was interesting to hear how other institutions are trying to overcome their organisational structures, and some of the strategies they have employed to do this.
I also had the opportunity to participate in the uPortal collaboration days after the main conference was over. These allow the uPortal community to meet and discuss areas of interest, and the roadmap for the project. I’m not going to try and cover everything in this post, but will just touch on one discussion, which was considering some of the challenges that organisations face when adopting open source, and ways that these could be mitigated. One of the great strengths of open source solutions is the freedom to adapt and change them to meet your own particular needs. Local customisation often seems to be the quickest and easiest approach to adopting open source technologies, but brings its own problems, and the community encourages adopters to contribute their customisations back into the core code so that everyone can benefit. This is something that we want to try and do more at Edinburgh, so this discussion was very relevant for us.
Attending Open Apereo was a really positive experience. I’ve mentioned a few things above, but could have picked out many more – web components, accessibility, user research… overall it was one of the most useful conferences I have attended.