Scaling ELMSLN to 120k+

This is the way to scale ELMS Learning Network to support the needs of institutions of any size. The method to do so, is to align deployment architecture with organizational structure. This simple change while radically different then how educational technology deployments happen, is how things happen every day in nature and other human hierarchies.

Drupal Doesn’t Scale

First, let’s dispel a FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) based notion: Drupal doesn’t scale. Let’s look at this statement. Thing doesn’t scale. This is simply false. In technology deployments, your desire to scale is aligned with the finances and team you are willing to put at it. Anything can be scaled, it’s if you know how. So please, don’t tell me what we’re doing doesn’t scale or can’t scale, your flatly, politely, wrong. I share your concern of scale and as a result I think you need to contact The Whitehouse, The Grammies,, PSU.EDU and others and tell them “Hey million hits per day website owner; did you know this doesn’t scale?”

Crushing the Committee Deployment Paradigm

Now let’s look at our approach to scale for when I tell you that we can easily scale to meet the needs of not just this university, but any organization of any size. We do this by attacking the empowerment paradigm of institutions. As we know (but have previously never spoken out of FUD), institutions purchase things incorrectly. So let’s reshape this notion of scale by crushing the committee paradigm.

You have 23 colleges represented in a room. They all say “We need a video management solution”. So you come out (historically) after many months, with a solution: “If we just buy vendor X product, it will do what most of you are talking about”. It takes a year or two to select this product, another 6 months to pilot, only to find it either doesn’t work or won’t meet the needs of all (but hey, 70% is better then 0).

An alternate reality: “Land Grant” 2020

Let’s rework this using the structure of the institution and aligning the deployment methodology against it shall we?

You have 23 colleges represented in a room. They agree upon 50% of what a video management solution needs to do. You create 3 options:

  • Central – No control over what it is, you take what you get
  • Decentralized – Local deployment, some influence but also lack of control of some areas
  • Developer – Total control, no outside update or influence

The groups that agree to pay X dollars into the pot, get their own localized, modifiable copy of the Video management solution. Jenkins (an open source automation robot) sets up their replicated copy of the original “product” that central helps manage. In the future, there is no central management, there is the person that manages Jenkins; central management has been largely automated. Central gets the control of security and quality required via the robot, but the local units that can afford adoption, have their own local copy to run.

Because of how this works, developers in a distributed manner can now contribute back to the Video platform by working completely disconnected from working production instances. These contributions at the local level, give the colleges control over the system (what they needed) while allowing for contributions to bubble back up from the college to the central level. Through iteration, actual on the ground use-cases and collaboration, you form consensus around the next 45% of the system. This leaves you with a decreasing percentage of centralized product that doesn’t meet needs, while allowing the entire university community to have engaged in the process. Don’t engage? Well then you get what’s made by those that do (Open Source is a do-ocrasy).

Effectively, the colleges of the university form distributed innovation nodes which allow them to run ahead of what a central authority could have done; while still benefiting it over time. This already happens places right now but is typically referred to as bad apples and chaos. Our empowerment and control structure built on automation forms Structured Anarchy — The distributed nature of everything with just enough structure to maintain order and prevent devolving into chaos.

Mirroring the form of the institution over time

Four years from now, trends shift. Two colleges merge, two others are formed to address new trends, two others collapse and are eliminated. These are different button pushes in an automation system. Use case one merges ELMSLN deployments (weird, I thought this was a video example; oh, we’ve got that too).Use case two is click a button to build out their new deployments, Use case three sees their course snowflakes merged back into the main central version while their localized copies are killed off.

In this model, we always have a central copy, but is naturally (because of diminishing variability as a supported base increases) is less flexible / feature robust then the innovation nodes found in our colleges, departments, and yes, individual faculty members running their own learning networks. How do we maintain consistency? Automation. How do we maintain “control” while democratizing deployment methodology? Automation.

This model will resolve conflicts, increase faculty / staff satisfaction with solutions which will in turn lead to better, more timely solutions across the organization which will increase student satisfaction with college experiences.

How do I know? Where’s my evidence? Come see us doing it daily where I work. It’s incredible working here, maybe you should think about joining us in the transformation of education. See you in 2020.

Get up and move, keep walking. Lift your head, it ain’t over yet!

To know where we’re going; and I can’t contain the excitement anymore. I keep hearing that I’m behaving differently.. situations where I would have normally been me. Well, there’s a new me; a more transparent and open me. And it will be exponentially more devastating to closed minds and closed methodologies. We (the many) aren’t just here to make some neat tools; we’re here to transform workflows and education in the process.

To see through my eyes, you have to know my history with educational technology and why I know we’re in a new phase of transformation. This is a silly history to get that out of the way so that I can lay out the vision of where we’re going and what we’ll enable (or who we’ll empower).

Fall 2002 – I experience my first Learning Management system, we’ll call it “Devil“. Devil is primitive, but what isn’t at this time. It goes down constantly, constantly. Everyone hates; does nothing better exist?

Winter 2003 – While taking a development class and accessing Devil and getting completely lost using the “groups” functionality, I start to envision that web development doesn’t need to be this way. I use folder structures every day, constantly organizing, why does the web have to be any different. I doodle my first conception of what I’d one day call the Outline Designer; a hierarchical content organization tool that’s visual. Content is just elements in a hierarchy and you’d drag and drop it around to alter the structure. Nothing special here, I hate edtech, I will never have need of this idea and pitch it.

2005 – On campus job working in a college after taking a project management class and asking if there was employment. I’m tasked with learning how to import hundreds of student accounts into Drupal 4.6. This is a small part of my job, the rest is building visual database management / relationship builders in Apache Derby, a hacky little java based DB engine.

2006 – I fiddle with drag and drop JS libraries in a basement of a dormitory while working in Arts & Architecture. It’s boring and I am largely accomplishing nothing of value. I notice that everyone around me is using Dreamweaver and editing HTML. This is appalling. I speak up and suggest we use something dynamic. I prototype the same thing everyone is working on but in this “new” thing called AJAX. It’s well received but the notion of moving from this to a CMS is terrifying. I do it one week, no one dies, we never turn back.

2007 – We start moving everything into the CMS (Drupal 5) after a successful Drupal 4.7 implementation used to accept student image submissions. This system was created to overcome the the limitations of Devil which imposed a file size limitation. Compression, on demand image submission and optimization are not standard things yet. This isn’t about sending a message, it’s not personal, it’s a job, a really really really fun job.

2008 – Our Drupal 5 tech starts spreading. It isn’t open, but people internally are buzzing about it. 3 groups take this tech back to their space, modify, remix, break it apart, learn how to use it, and start putting their courses in a CMS for the first time. I also automate the original reason I was hired and routinize creation of courses. We get approval to go GPL with it and gain access to d.o. (terribly written) contributions flow.

2009 -I migrate from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. The change brings improved UIs, accessibility and now the automation is put in the hands of the instructional designers. I up my game; this learning curve is steep. This is getting fun, making meaningful contributions (a few 100 installs of projects we make)

2010 – We win an award for our Open Studio concept. We attempt multiple large attempts at working with central authorities to create an instance of the technology for everyone. The effort goes no where and is ultimately axed.

2011 – We win an award for our Media management system which took 2 days to create. We’re automating everything, there’s no reason for any effort to occur on anyone’s part, anywhere. I create ELMS, my first distribution for Drupal. I spend the better part of a year pouring myself into something that I know is destined to fail. It does. While the system runs and is used by a few groups, it never takes off, there is no revolution, my own unit doesn’t adopt it. I hate life, why am I doing this; I have a family now, why do I stay here, having to justify the right to breathe at times. The culture is terrible; stagnation always is.

2012 – Chaos and learning Drupal 7; I up my game; this learning curve is steep. I formally abandon ELMS D6 as a platform / architecture. While at a total bottom from a work moral perspective, I have a vision in the shower one morning. A way out, the idea I told myself I’d hold onto and run away to one of the several VCs knocking. I told no one, I scribbled it incessantly in notebooks, rambled about it with myself. I am driving myself mad (well, I already was). This has to exist, why has no one thought of this, this must already be a thing. It was the thing I’d take with me then if no one else had thought of it. It was mine, it was unique, it was the key and the answer. I’d use this key to change everything, then they’d see; then they’d appriciate what we’re capable of.

One calls..multiple times, it doesn’t feel right;

I know why;

they’ll own everything…

I won’t change the world for my son, I’ll just be part of the problem; nothing matters beyond this goal.

I study history, social movements, anything substantial… I can’t hold onto this. It can’t be mine, I have to let it go;

All ideas that have changed the world were given away.

2013 – I start talking about ELMS Learning Network. I feel so strongly about this idea that I flip on my webcam and record myself giving an intro of what people will see (something that I didn’t do; not about radical stuff like this). The key is what I say at the end of this short clip of my history. “I think this has real potential to disrupt education“. This isn’t just a statement, I’ve found my passion. It is who I want to become and who I will have to become if we are to succeed in the mission (a better world for my, now, sons). It’s what I want to be with my life; part of the movement to change education.

What I show, is incredibly rough. LTI launches setting up Drupal sites. I don’t call it ELMSLN, I don’t really know what I’m building, I’m just building neat Drupal sites that talk to each other while trying to achieve what I’ve always tried to do: Automate everything. They follow the pattern I was scribbling, what I saw in my head as the way out.

2014I deemed this ELMS Learning Network and do my first recording describing what a learning network is and how this is going to be different this time. I doodle a few things about what this idea is and how it would work while making fun of the educational technology market’s enjoyment of shiny things (a common thread) as well as social engineering to get people to flesh out new innovative ideas. As I said to a coworker about this idea… this isn’t something we undo; there is no going back from this mindset, because it is the way we should have always been thinking (hyperconnected, distributed, ever changing, transformational).

I start drawing things, constantly… drawing… and refining the way I talk about the platform. Sandboxed, repeatability, REST, we’re working towards what it is we will do the rest of our lives. I close out the year discussing ELMSLN at Drupalcon and OpenEd. A friend’s comment on seeing me talk “SEE THE PASSION“. I am no longer snarky, full of himself, has all the answers, “that ass hole”; Bryan Ollendyke who I’ve been my whole life; I want to be someone more. Education needs heroes; I want to be one.

2015 – We get a distributed team (what!? yes, a team). We move to github. We automate setup. All of it. Drupal, ELMS, the server, the custom modules that need written (the system writes its own modules to talk to itself… trippy). We boil our existence down to a single command which makes it as if I had never needed to exist. I copy and paste something and let it run in the background for dramatic effect while giving  talk on automation and the future of development; what do we become when it all just happens?

I dissolve the notion of self, and allow others to join in the ownership of this idea. Quickly it’s no longer my idea, it’s our idea. Our team unifies, it expands, we all start to move into unique and important roles on the project. I never shut up about the project, it’s no longer a project, it is my life’s work. I take up my previously abandoned research and finish it with total, unapologetic, honesty. I stop hiding in the shadows and embrace the light. I no longer think we’ll change the world. I know we will.

Nothing exists, until we speak it into existence.

We expand further in who’s using the platform, who it supports, how many developers there are. We meet someone willing to take a chance on us, they add credence to the platform, they get the approach, they start promoting it at events. We speak at 10 events; I drive to all of them, covering most of the East coast. I’m no longer just doing development, I’m on a mission. We will liberate instructional designers, faculty and students through empowering automation.

In automating the boring, we will let their suppressed ideas shine.

2016 -Our Architecture now stands up on 4 different OSs and in several different hosting providers. We have a versioned code base with multiple contributors. We are winning hearts and minds under the banner of pedagogy first design. By letting pedagogy drive the creation of technology rather then the first 30 years of the reverse.

These are no longer my ideas, and it’s amazing. These are our growing community. We have people that have our backs, people in all levels. We have people excited; excited about what we’re doing, excited about what they can now accomplish with the platform, excited that they can dream and make and build once again; most important, we have people talking differently.

This isn’t just an alternative LMS; this is the thing after the LMS, the thing to improve the LMS, for now; the thing to bring control back into the hands of those that have never had it.

Next up: 2016 – 2020

Engage; The New, New Colossus

Instructional designers, we need your engagement.

  1. You were meant for more than clicking buttons.
  2. You were meant for more than copying and pasting syllabus files.
  3. You were meant for more than cleaning up word docs
  4. …editing HTML
  5. clicking
  6. clicking
  7. and more clicking comboboxes, input fields, emails and author-wares

You were meant to be more then just another cog in the machine. You went to school to help inform, create, and design instruction. You didn’t go to school for this shit; the shit that dominates too much of your job.

You are important, special, but, bound to the capabilities of the machines your bureaucracies bestowed upon the institution. You are bogged down in clicking.. so… much.. clicking; communication and workflows pegged to the inefficiencies of the machine.

Your hands have been bound by golden handcuffs; platforms, systems, and author-ware that promise so much but deliver so little. Your institution neglects to see the cost of your efforts in toiling with these applications; your instructs reject your advice and don’t value your output.


Engage with your process around you, manipulate it, control it, automate it. You can be so much more being the maker of technology then simply the passenger.

Engage with your peers. We are all struggling through these issues together; it is no longer time to meet at conferences and simply continue hemming and hawing about being disempowered by the gears of the machine; we must remake the machine.

Engage with technology; be a producer, not a consumer of technologies. Create your own innovations and bring your ideas to light.

The New Colossus

Follow the advice of the new colossus poem. Quit looking for experts and realize they are all around you. Form new types of teams, pedagogies, organizational structures; push the envelope; Ignore the convention of an industry rigged to a heading of cataclysmic collapse.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! (establishmentedtech)” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired (instructionaldesigners), your poor (developers),
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free (faculty),
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore (all us, who you ignore).
Send these, the homeless (innovators), tempest-tost (“rouge” faculty) to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Don’t become what you hate

The 1984 apple ad has always struck me as funny. It’s been replicated many times since the original ad, claiming to be breaking the paradigm of control. What is the commercial supposedly claiming:

  • We no longer all have to conform
  • We can think differently
  • We can be individuals

The problem with attacking existing paradigms is that often times “disruption” and investors merely want to replace the current golden calf (Blackboard) with a likeness more in their own image (Instructure in this case). Simply replacing one master for another doesn’t change the paradigm, it just pushes dollars in another location.

We need to “think different” to steal a different slogan from the same glorious fruit vendor. We need to change control structures, not simply rebuild them or put a different coat of paint on them. We need to radically transform our process in order to thrive, not just simply replicate them.

Let’s not downplay intuitiveness, usability, and stability, but let’s also not think that we’re transforming education, we’re merely making 90s instructional design patterns render on an iPad. Create again, stand up, be bold, change control structures, give up your power, lay down your source, and watch innovation flow. Don’t simply rush the stage against the establishment to become it.

Ex Uno Plures (From one, many)

never Multi requirunt unum (many require one).


Who else is doing this?

I had a very interesting conversation with someone that teaches LDT (Learning Design & Technology). While they seemed very well versed in theory, taught tomorrows IDs, and even built some very impressive technology with sound research capabilities… we were still an enigma to them.

So you know that course description that says “building courses in Course management systems”. We don’t do that; we’ve built a system, that allows for the building and remixing of course management systems.

The abstraction seemed to have them taken a back. What? But how and Why? Who else was doing this? Surely there must be others because I’ve never heard of this methodology before. Systems, disconnected in purpose but reconnected in experience?

It was a very interesting conversation, to see very different perspectives on the capabilities and deficiencies of instructional design (we are only as good as our systems allow us to be). But another thought immediately popped in my head: No industry transforms itself.

How odd it must be to work in a linear fashion only to have another industry come in and completely lay waste to what was previously possible. I saw flashes of intrigue with “who do you think you are”. The smile was even brighter when answering that lots of people work this way… now, all across the university with more soon to join. Multiple units, banding together through informal community with a singular goal: Push the envelop. We talked of the “mushrooming” of pockets of innovation that are unearthed when we all stop and talk to each other (of which I’ve intentionally accelerated through a common platform).

We’re tired. We’re tired of your outdated, inaccessible SCORM compliant objects. We’re tired of your endless LTI launches out to expensive, single purpose applications. We’re tired of a lack of control. We’re tired of exclusively linear, content paced instruction with too length of lectures that no one pays attention to anyway. We’re tired of a lack of tracking of useful data in exchange for number crunching that amounts to glorified “Attendance” systems.

We want experience. We want to bring Instructional design back to where it’s supposed to be: Experience / Interaction Design. We want our learning, teaching and engagement back, dammit. Let’s automate the boring so we can build new and engaging experiences on top infrastructure. Let’s not just move the ball down the field but play a new game entirely.

We are a social movement of instructors, students, learning designers, and developers. Join us, build the future.